Medieval Genocide in the South

France is a country with a deep spiritual heritage. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of Languedoc. This was the home of the Cathars. A gentle, spiritual people ruthlessly exterminated in an act of pure genocide by the Roman Catholic Church and its ‘crusading’ supporters.

From the fortress cathedral of Albi in the north, through the spectacular walled city of Çarcasonne, to Montsegur in the south, the Cathar footprint has impressed itself on the area. Nearly seven hundred years after they were destroyed by the Dominican Inquisition, that footprint is still visible.
Cathars were ‘dualists’.
That is, they believed in the opposing principles of Good and Evil, Light and Darkness and God and Matter.These are  Manichaean principles that are co-eternal and equal, locked in eternal, never ending combat and viewing the material world as intrinsically evil.
The very word ‘Manichaean’ was interchangeable, to the Roman Catholic faith, with the word  ‘heretic’.

They fervently believed that there was no reason why ordinary people could not communicate with God directly, without an artificial intercessor. That power of priest as intercessor, was vital to the Catholic Church’s retention of their hold over lives of the superstitious and fearful.

So the Cathars believed that a soul journeyed through time, until achieving the ‘Perfect’ status, moving from one body to another. There was no Judgement Day, no final trumpet. The war against evil would never end. This logically led to the Cathar beliefs that eating meat was wrong, as the animal may contain the soul of a Believer ‘in transit’.

Similarly, there was a belief in sexual equality; that the soul could easily, and equally, be  reincarnated into a female body. Women in the Cathar faith were men’s equals in every respect. In the thirteenth century, for example, Esclarmonde of Foix and Blanche of Laurac both  became notable ‘Perfects’. There  was an obvious attraction to Catharism for women, an attraction not offered by the Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Church saw Catharism as a dangerous heresy, ‘the Church of Satan’, not just an anti-clerical movement. This was not just another social uprising against the lavish life style of a wealthy clergy or idolatry. There was a genuine desire for a more rigorous morality, a simple faith.
The Cathars were organised and articulate. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in the twelfth century,  attacked the Cathars as heretics but as a tolerant and humane man, did not advise more than expulsion from the Roman Catholic Church, and for the Cathars to endure ‘ a great deal of preaching’.
Hardly a precursor of the holocaust to follow. Hildegard of Bingen had a more apocalyptic vision. She saw the Cathars as a sign that Satan had been released from Hell bringing damnation with him. This was deserving of more rigorous penalties. Religious tolerance is not a significant facet of Catholicism.

By the thirteenth century,  Catharism had progressed from the recruitment of the mostly illiterate poor. They were attracting the nobility, society’s executive branch. Now this did become an active threat to the power of the established Church. A social system based on fealty, and the ownership of not just land but people, meant that the conversion of nobles, meant the loss of that noble’s vassals, and their unthinking, blind obedience as well as the noble’s wealth.

The Cathars saw a social hierarchy as the work of Satan, certainly not the will of God. God did not create social distinction based purely on birth, that was a satanic illusion.  The power to judge the fate of others, the bedrock of a feudalistic society,  was based purely on an accident of birth, and that was anathema.

A logical extension of this was that the Cathars abhorred a system based on oaths. They believed that Cathars did not lie because of their basic morality. Thus there was no need to invoke the name of God.

So the collision course was set. The Cathars believed that God was perfect and so could not have created a world full of pain, misfortune, misery and sin. This was the work of Lucifer, a fallen angel. God would not have sent Christ to partake in this reality. They believed that Man was in Hell now, the judgement had already taken place, and, that he had to find his own way back to Heaven through a ‘perfect” life.
People were the masters of their own salvation.
Catharism thrived in what today are the Départements of Ariège, Aude,Tarn, Hérault and Haute-Garonne. In the Middle Ages these were the lands of the Counts of Toulouse, Foix, Comminges, Béziers and Çarcasonne. These were lands with a flourishing cultural and economic scenario. They were tolerant of religious difference, the equals of any contemporary European culture.

The original ‘attacks’ on the ‘heretics’ were carried out by Cistercian monks, at the end of the twelfth century, involving argument and disputation. But they found a vigorous religion, confident and comfortable  in its own beliefs.

The Cistercians were also a challenge to the established clergy who selfishly feared for their own life style and fortunes. To the nobility, the Cistercians were foreigners trying to impose unwanted alien traditions. In Rome little progress could be gleaned by the Pope, Innocent III.

The arrival of Dominic Guzman in Languedoc heralded a fresh phase. He wanted to take the Cathars on where they were strongest. He sent his friars, the Black Friars, out into the countryside, on foot, to preach. Near Fanjeaux, a Cathar stronghold, he created a convent for reformed heretic women, with a life style based on a life of simplicity and poverty, similar to a Cathar one, but with an income!

Dominic Guzman, St.Dominic, had founded the Dominican Order. An Order which was to wage intellectual war on Catharism.

As the result of the murder of a Papal Legate in 1208, Pope Innocent III called for a crusade, which we know as the Albigensian Crusade. The ‘crusaders’ fought in return for forgiveness of all their sins, cancellation of all their debts, the promise of plunder from Cathar sympathisers, a further promise that they would only have to serve for forty days.

Languedoc was a lot easier than the Holy Land to get to!  A major difference was that the ‘crusaders’, this band of mercenaries and chancers, would be fighting their own countrymen . . . and women!

The slaughter began in Béziers, in 1209. There were 222 Cathars in the city.The city elders refused to give them up. A group of defenders decided to give the northerners a sharp lesson and sallied out. The crusaders rushed through the opened gates and between 15,000 and 20,000 were slaughtered.

When asked how they would know the difference between a Cathar and a Catholic, Arnold Amaury, a Papal Legate leading the ‘Crusade’ said, “Kill them all. God will recognize his own”.

Seven thousand were killed INSIDE the Church of St.Mary Magdalene alone, and then it was destroyed!

The Cathars were to be proved right, they were living in Hell. Judgement had been passed, but not by God, by the Catholic Church! The scene was set for a bloodbath endorsed by the Church, where Catholics would suffer alongside their Cathar neighbours.

Simon de Montfort was offered Béziers and Carcasonne, when it fell. He burned 140 men and women after the siege of Minerve. In 1211, 400 Perfects were burned at Lavaur. The leader of the town’s defenders was hanged alongside 80 of his knights, and his sister bound and thrown down a well. At the same time, 100 Perfects were burned at Les Cassee.

The ‘crusade’ degenerated into feudal  warfare, laying waste to Languedoc!

But the Cathars were still active, in the countryside. The Inquisition began its work to ‘ferret’ out individual ‘heretics’ in 1233, and hundreds of innocent people, Catholics as well as Cathars, were burned at the stake.

Catharism thrived in what today are the Départements of Ariège, Aude, Tarn, Hérault and Haute-Garonne. In the Middle Ages these were the lands of the Counts of Toulouse, Foix, Comminges, Béziers and Çarcasonne. These were lands with a flourishing cultural and economic scenario. They were tolerant of religious difference, the equals of any contemporary European culture. Hundreds of people, some Cathar sympathisers, some not, were summarily burned. Even the dead  were not safe. Bodies were exhumed, to be burned as heretics.The Inquisition, with, mainly Dominican Inquisitors was to spread its terror for another 100 years.

By 1243 the only stronghold remaining was Montsegur, the ‘Synagogue of Satan’. It was defended by 98 knights and protected 200 Perfects. They were given two weeks to recant or be burned. They refused. Twenty one other defenders received the Consolamentum. They all burned and the Cathar Church was driven underground.

The mass arrests, in Montaillou, in 1308 mark the end of Catharism in  Languedoc. Roman Catholicism had, bloodily, triumphed.

The historian Le Roy Ladurie concluded, ” In my view, there is no doubt that in Montaillou, Catharism was seen by those who had embraced the faith, as an extreme and heroic variation of Christianity and not as a non-Christian religion. A Perfect saves those who venerate him, and his personal virtues are sufficient to ensure this salvation. A Perfect does not lie, does not eat meat or cheese, does not sleep with women, and does not take gold or silver from others. A Perfect is a holy person who acts as an intercessor, the leader of a small secret society within the village.”

There are books , from which I have drawn, which are a must for anyone interested in learning more about the Cathar experience.
The Cathars – Sean Martin, Pocket Essentials.
Montaillou – Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Penguin
The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade – Michael Costen, Manchester University Press.
The Yellow Cross – René Weis, Penguin.
Cycling in search of the Cathars – Chris Ratcliffe/Elaine Connell, Pennine Pens.
Discovering the Cathars – Lucien Bely. Éditions sud ouest.
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Fougeres. A City Built on Fire.

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Wandering through the ancient town of   on a quiet Sunday afternoon, revealed a town brim-full of character. It is a town forged by war and conflict, whether it be Breton v Norman, English v Breton, Breton v French, Breton v Breton or Allied v Axis. It’s all contained in this vibrant town.

The château and impressive ramparts testify to its military history. Industrial strife, in the footwear industry, affected the social politics of the whole of modern France at the beginning of the 20th century. The industry, long gone, has left a powerful footprint.

The industrial sites demonstrate a ‘fin de siecle’ —  self-confidence with stunning examples of Art Deco design. The surrounding forest whispers its spiritual secrets through subterranean chambers and Druidic processional ways.

And it’s all still here. This meander among the ‘ruins’ was a joy and an object lesson in why Ille et Vilaine is so strongly Breton. English historical towns and cities preserve and market their age for the purposes of tourism. The French towns just seem to evolve, and people live surrounded by that history. It isn’t really history; it’s where they and the generations before, live and work! Even where towns have been ravaged by conflict or fire, the reconstruction doesn’t seem to impinge.

An unexpected jewel of a day. Armistice Day in Fougeres. The Town was deserted, almost the set for a sixties film noir by Jean Renoir,  but shot in glorious colour. I put myself in the unlikely rôle of Alain Delon, without the upturned collar of a light coloured raincoat, but with the echoing footsteps on the quiet city street. The sketch pad and camera strap, lazily hanging out of my donkey jacket pocket, did rather destroy the self-delusion illusion, as did my nonchalant descent from an un-Delonlike Ford Ka!

But there was a serious purpose which had been sometime in the planning. Fougères is a beautiful town, but like many northern French towns, is a very coy lady. Her personality hides behind a veil of ‘une mille ans d’histoire’. Would she raise her skirts to this casual observer of life? Would she allow those net curtains to twitch and reveal Simone Signoret in élégant yet bewitching profile ? Dark-eyed and searching, at the first floor salon window.

First impressions on starting the walk along the road hugging the moat were almost of a medieval theme park. Deep ditch surrounding high, forbidding granite walls, actually only re-excavated at the turn of the last century. Towers designed for distressed maidens, but no flaxen tresses to be seen, just a noisy family doing what noisy families do. Determined to find the highest vantage point and look out from it , look down from it.

“This is my castle. I am looking down on you. You are beneath me.” The international disengaged family? Basic human nature at its most basic. A tableau of family chaos, with no idea of context, just altitude. And beneath, sitting in quiet contemplation, was the family idyll, dad showing son how to fish. An invisible idyll? An almost silent idyll. The family connection without the carapace of sound. No need for protection here . No need for defence mechanisms . Disappointment was not an issue. Paternal status was quietly asserted, with a rod and line. The bond was palpable.

The imposing fortress was built by Raoul 11, Count of Fougeres, to replace a wooden structure destroyed by invading English marauders or marauding English invaders. Interchangeable acts of violence. Fire had taken its predecessor, a fire set by the land and booty, hungry thugs of the Plantaganet, Henry 11 of England who was, after all, descended from a long line of home-grown thugs from the neighbouring Duchy to the east. The houses in the crescent that is the Rue Bouteiller, bearing date-stones — at least the Bar des Sport does — 1791. Revolutionary buildings.

At the mid – point of the terrace stands the church of St. Sulpice. This is the spiritual heart of old Fougères. Here it began. One thousand years of spiritual control, in the shadow of the military. Velvet Glove and mailed fist together, Holy and unholy family. And lo! A convenient miracle. After the destruction of the wooden castle a Madonna was found in the marshes beside the River Nancon. Surely a sign from God? Surely? So a new STONE church was founded adjacent to the STONE castle . Building continued, thanks to the generosity of the town and private donors well into the 15th century. Then there was a hitch for several centuries, and God allowed pestilence and religious wars to hold work up. Was he the shop steward of some medieval trades union, a practice run for a teamster? The action of a thoughtless God! Or was it a God forecasting things to come?

It seems there has been little change in the price of a ticket to heaven over the centuries. Presumably the foot-worn burial slabs  in the main aisle of St. Sulpice were the prize for benificience. Centuries of modern, ungrateful, trodden anonymity. A worn-out face without a name or an epitaph. The church is dark and sombrely Baroque, uninvitingly dominated by the presence of a darkness of panelling. In only one place is their a blaze of colour and colour is gold in the Chancel, the domain of the priest.

The statuary is strangely not dominated by saints, but by Mary. Hasn’t there been some mistake, isn’t it Jesus who’s supposed to be ‘Numero Uno’? The building is silent and uninhabited by either people or the presence of a divine spirit. It is an empty and dead space solely for the dead. The only sound is the distant bell of St. Leonards, it isn’t even their own bell that tolls the lunchtime tocsin. It was an easy place to leave.

But then, a real spiritual experience in an unexpected place. In the corner of the churchyard stands, of all things, a public toilet by the side of which stands a utility box, attached to which is a piece of beautiful art and a poem :-
‘ Lichen insaissable. ‘Elusive lichen
Ayez une pensée. Have a thought
Pour l’algue et le champignon.’. For the seaweed and the mushroom.’
I tried to translate ‘pensée’ and found it could mean either ‘thought’ or ‘pansy’. This gem was almost hidden. It wasn’t obviously signposted or inordinately bold. In fact it stood almost ashamed, it’s utilitarian exterior masked by a modesty protecting shrub. Victorian skirts. But, once found, it provided inspiration. Hidden gems. Strangely, there was more thought provocation on the toilet wall than in the ‘House of God’! Perhaps , in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
There is only one way to enter a medieval town, and that is over its green-slimed moat, through the forbidding gatehouse tower, and beneath the portcullis. Out of the darkness of centuries, and into the light. To enter the city of York, from whatever direction, is a joy. Under the Bar. So with Fougères. But before the gloom of the St. Sulpice Gate there are the roadworks on this setted version of the M6. The ‘déviation ‘ was directing me to the right, away from the gate. With the confidence of past successes, this particular ‘foreign invader’ chose to ignore the warning. Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight that sign should have been erected in 1166  to protect the stronghold from its fiery end, on that salient centennial? Onward and upward and the Rue de la Pinterie is a significant upward. A lung busting upward.
Through the handmaidens of the château, the bars and pizzerias, and passing the now closed Indian retaurant and onto a rebuilt section. It too had succumbed to English fire and sword but more recently, on the night of the 8th and 9th June 1944, from the air.

Perhaps Fougères really is a town which accepts the cleansing qualities of the flame as part of life’s inevitabilities? One of its claims to fame is as a centre of the shoe trade, particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century. On pictures, the Pacory Shoe Factory clings tenaciously to the precipice from the Rue de la Pinterie down to the Nancon. Five storeys of solid brick building , reminiscent of the Potala Palace in Llasa , enveloping but not obliterating  the Tour Desnos on the town’s ramparts.

In fact , the tower housed Eugene Pacory’s office and leather store. It employed, at its height, 1100 workers, of whom 400 were women. In 1949 there were only 60 workers and it closed in 1955. It had been stitched into the médiéval infrastructure of Fougères. Evolved not added. No town planning necessary. Life lived cheek-by-jowl with history and the homes of its employees. Welcomed. Of this behomoth nothing remains. No street name to commemorate it. Blown away by the cold wind of History. The street bears little sign of life today. An old tattered shop front hints at the past . But it talks of neglect. It could be the setting for an episode of ‘Maigret’ . But  in Fougeres with past history of fire, Rupert Davies’ match-striking introduction may portend another disaster!

Over the road, a more modern, empty shop has emblazoned its window with a piece of pictorial art. Dying loudly, but with style! The street has a real sadness and feeling of decay. The town has grown out of this particular area. It is neither in the hinterland of the château or the shopping on the Rue National. It is a steep and difficult demiworld.

The Place du Theatre opens out dramatically, as a Place du Théâtre should, just as the lungs begin to give out. The space had been the centre of the salt trade. But, in May 1710, fire destroyed much of old, wooden ‘haute ‘ Fougères, and there was rebuilding, in stone.

But, fire struck again in 1734. Fire.Fire.Fire.The Phoenix rises regularly here. Granite replaces wood. The modern fountain would have had some practical uses in the eighteenth century. At the end of the Rue National is the natural home of the Department Store. Bon Marche. Nouvelles Galleries. Maison Alexandre Langlois. It is easy to visualise the world painted by Émile Zola in the Rougon Macquart novels. ‘Au Bonheur des Dames ‘, ‘The Ladies’ Paradise’.The past has left a faded footprint,which becomes apparent, as everyday people take on the persona of yesterday’s ghosts. But, today, it is a holiday, and the shops are lifeless. Fougères is a still photograph by Cartier-Bresson. It becomes a film, by Jean Renoir, again’ tomorrow. The theatre, built in 1886, doesn’t seem at ease in her surroundings. Too rococco. Isolated on the end. Too light. Too powdered. It can’t have been a ‘Palace of Varieties’, its neckline is too high, its jewellry too ornate and its hat, far too haut couture.

Moliere I can see. Feydeau I can see. But Mistinguette. No. Maurice Chevalier. No. Jacques Brel and Johnny Halliday? NON !

The short claustophobic lane, Rue Porte Roger, medieval in its tight shouldered passage, opens out onto the principal square in the upper town, Place Aristide Briand. With Gallic fickleness the name changed from the republican Place d’Armes, to the present socio-political one, but its original name seems to be far more appropriate. It is a testament to the pain of war.

The centre of the square is dominated by the memorial to the fallen. Not the usual clarion call from the dead to the living, sounded by a charging poilu. Here it is two women. So Breton. So feminine. So unusual in its feminism, for 1920. It’s a granite menhir with, standing proudly on one side a woman, a wife or mother, and on the other the face of a young girl wearing a cobbler’s apron writing ‘ to my elders who fought for me’. No mention of ‘Fougères’,  ‘glorious dead’ or those who died ‘pour la France’.

No mention of ‘dulce et decorum est’. Just the simple sentiments of a child. It seems so in keeping with the independent spirit of Fougères. Names have been, most unusually, added for the wars in Indo-China; thirteen men, and seven men killed in Algeria. The dead updated continually . But where would I find the names of those killed in recent conflicts? Iraq. Afghanistan . From the 11th century to the present day Fougères has embraced or been drawn into conflict.

In a corner of the Place Aristide Briand is the Place des Fusillés. Windswept. Strangely isolated. Stark. Barely noticeable. A single stone. Memorial to those who were shot. The executed. Sudden loud death. One wreath laid today. Dedicated to the Résistance. A low – key memorial to extreme and wonderful courage.

In the other corner of the Place des Fusilees stands a far grander affair outside his own back door to Armand Tuffin, Marquis de la Rouerie; Le ‘Colonel Armand’ born in the adjoining house. He was a companion of the legendary warrior de la Fayette, friend of George Washington, first President of the United States, founder of the Breton Association and a local hero. 1751 – 1793.

Such a lot to get through in 42 years, particularly for an aristocrat in Revolutionary times. He was an eminent Chouan, a royalist. Fought in the American colonies? A revolutionary royalist? Perhaps he just wanted to fight the British. Perhaps he just wanted to fight. In this corner war is glorious. War is romantic, with swirling cloaks and the drawing of sabres. He is out of kilter with the rest of the Place. He is a celebration rather than a commemoration.

Crossing the Place Gambetta , onto the Rue de Forêt , I enter another Fougères. A street of tightly packed shops interspersed with houses . This is the town of ordinary folk, where they ‘pop’ next door for the bread , or for an apéro. But war again pushes itself to the fore. At the junction of the Rue de Forêts and the Rue de la Caserne stands the Bar le Pacific where in 1944, Guy Bellis, a lieutenant in the local Résistance, was arrested to be subsequently shot in Rennes.

More intimations of mortality . Perhaps a reminder of the bravely held principles of a lost generation . A signpost for today. The hill rises steeply in front of me. The Rue de la Caserne. Barracks Street. Ladysmith Barracks. Bowerham Barracks. All on a hill. Echoes of home. At the crest of the rise, there before me, is a …. convent.

I’m disoriented. Couvent des Urbanistes. Caserne des Urbanistes. St.Sulpice and Château in one building? The Revolutionaries transformed the place from the home of the soldiers of Christ, to one for the soldiers of the Republic. One uniform exchanged for another. Strangely the convent seems to have been built ready for its transformation into a barracks. Is that a cloister or a parade ground? Is that a large barn or the stables for a cavalry regiment?

From here I can look out of Fougères towards the town’s secret places. The forest. The Rue de Forêt stretches straight and unbending towards Louvigne du Désert through the forêt domaniale. Not built straight by those inveterate straight-minded Romans, but by the Revolution as a protection from ambush by the Breton Chouans, the Royalist.
The Forest. New or Black. Mystery. Darkness. Here, outside civilisation, the Druids erected their standing stones deep in the sky – reaching God – touching beeches. Hermits lived their secluded lives here.
Bernard de Tyron lived in the forest before moving on to found the abbey at Savigny – le -Vieux. Secret places were built to hide riches from greedy Plantaganet, English eyes.
Castle-burnt Raoul 11 dug his treasure-bearing cellar deep in the dark, black earth .
Safe depository pits. In splendid isolation, sabotiers built their primitive wooden huts away from society on site. Shoes of wood. Shoes. The life blood of Fougères. The forest has lived, is living. But memory here is like a spider’s web.
There is more tree-filled space than substance. The sabotiers’ huts have gone. The cordon des Druides stands alone, forgotten. The cellars of Landean are almost a lost tomb. The road rushes through from hidden treasure to religious rites, to wooden shoes.
Fougeres’ story. The past is a fiction that generally absorbs us, but not here . Walkers are everywhere, but not to engage that past. There is freedom of movement here. There is room for escape. The place is now, not then. There are no prohibitions; merely reminders.
This is a good place to be — not recall. Freedom lifts the heart.
But the forest lies over my horizon. The area round the Rue de General Chanzy awaits. Built , behind the station to house the growing workforce and provide more employment at the end of the nineteenth century, lies the area of Bonabry. It sounds like the name of a modern development for the Home Counties ‘suits ‘, the Developers strap-line , Bonabry, ‘safe haven’. It was, in fact, named after the farm which stood on the site. Industry meets agriculture and domesticity. Boomtown, Fougères.
Two remnants of Fougères’ more recent shoe- making past sit closely together. Two factories cradled by the neighbourhood. ‘ E. Morel and Gâté ‘ and ‘ Usine Barbier’. The former a jewel of art deco, now a Maison de Retraite. The latter converted into more appartments. Both have a beauty which contrasted sharply with the artisan utility of Usine Pacory. They were built with style, with panache, with confidence.

I am staring down onto the sheds of Morel’s. A place where  contrary to appearances, shoes were not made by sorcery, or elves, but by workers’ toil.

Now it is bright, white and shrubbed — almost Spanish. A village in a town. A  far below street-level  oasis of tranquility, not a clatter of machine noise .The soundtrack is silent, shot in black and white. History scrubbed clean  Muted. Silenced. A woman nonchalantly ambles to her neighbour’s villa, totally unaware of my presence in her sky. The ambiance of toil has gone. Nobody has to struggle in those workshops to feed themselves and a family. Long hard hours. Memories. These sheds are haciendas. Work replaced by leisure.

The art deco facia of the apartments could have been designed for their new purpose, not for a shoe factory, a sweat shop. The buildings seem to produce their own vivid radiance rather than be a reflector of light. They’re almost part of a painting by Tamara de Lempicka in her Twenties heyday. Their destiny has been achieved. No more the camouflage designed by entrepreneurs to hide their money-making secrets. New aura . New purpose. New camouflage. A camouflage for the unwanted old. Best-behaved urban environment.

The factory opened in 1886 but the offices, designed and built by Louis Gauvain were added in 1927. The sumptuous mosaics were installed by Isadore Odorico, the designer of the mosaics on the wonderful St. Georges Swimming Pool  in Rennes .

The factory was hit hard by the strikes of 1906, and social unrest in the Thirties. It ‘turned its hand’  to sports shoes after the war, and was taken over by the wonderfully named ‘Harrys Mode Confort ‘ in 1976, and eventually closed completely in 1985.

Barbier’s is so much smaller and taller. It rises rather than spreads. It’s above you rather than below. Delivery on the Ground Floor. Skin preparation on the top floor. Machinists between. Goods outward. A vertical circle of production. Art deco facade. Mosaics by Signor Odorico. A fair face to the world. Look how prosperous I am! Look at my golden mosaic name! Oh my fur coat — but look — no cami-knickers!

A prosperity that did not last. The shoe trade now lives elsewhere. Ravaged not by the English  but by Asia and competition.

Then, across the road, a derelict enigma . Standing at number 22 Rue General Chanzy. In it’s own grounds, a Tuscan townhouse. A building that didn’t seem to know where it was. It didn’t particularly want to be there. Barbier = Barbieri? I wonder. The mansion actually thought it was in Firenze.
Flanked by square italianate towers. “Where am I ?” A Florentine palazzo on a bourgeois Parisien street in Fougères? Or am I in a Victorian asylum, a closed down hospital, waiting to be visited by Lain Sinclair? Those towers demand investigation not introversion.

From the moderne to the mundane. The Rue des Près. There is no movement. There are no people. This could be the set of ‘The Third Man’. The byzantine monstrosity of Notre Dame de Bonabry is locked. It ‘s huge. A decorated barn. It was built in 1928. Destroyed by fire in the air raids of June 1944 . Purged by fire but rebuilt by 1967. Who says the Catholic Church has no money? It seems to serve nobody. It merely looms large. The church of a vengeful god.

As I stare at it there is a single, muted sound from a café in the corner of the Place . Suddenly, I’m Harry Lime. Pop music. Playing to nobody. It should have been atmospherically in a groove, stuck on one, monotonous note but was, in fact, entertaining the solitary barman. The sole shop was barred and shuttered and in need of a coat of paint. Then, a dark blue Renault with an unerring sense of cinema roared briefly through the square and was gone, without a shot being fired. The echo of the music was restored. I walked on.

Railways don’t go away. They always leave a footprint. ‘I have been here.’ The railway had come to Fougères in 1867, joining the town to Paris via Vitre. But in 1869 an extension was driven through a deep cutting to the village of Moidrey, and then on to finish at Mont St. Michel. “We can go to the seaside now!” So two tunnels were driven under the Rue des Près, and the newly developed Bonabry was joined to the town by an iron bridge on the Rue de Feuterie.

The Fougerais’ life was being opened up with housing, work and leisure opportunities. The Rue de Feuteries is a shopping street. An old shopping street. Where there is work, there is money. Where there is money there are comfortable houses. Where there are all these, there are shops. No ‘out-of-town’ horror show this. Individual shops. A wide range of shops. Real shops for real people. The old ‘gare ‘ has gone, to be replaced by a leisure complex and multi-stores. History repeating itself. The railway’s ghost has been laid here in the Forum de la Gare.

My road leads up the Rue Pasteur. Usine Feuvrier lies closed and silent. But there over its door is the mosaic,’Chaussures Avenir’. Shoes for the future past. Onward and upward. Past the modern mural on the gable end, at the bottom of the Rue de Tribunal, shades of the ‘Kershaw ‘ murals all over Manchester in the Eighties. The Rue Cordier leads to the ‘équestrian statue ‘.
A modest street, named for the founder of much of Fougères wealth. Hyacinthe Cordier was born in Fougères in 1805, moved to Paris in 1817, fled the 1848 Revolution to the United States, and made his fortune in jewelry. Just like McArthur, he returned. 70 000 francs given to his nephews. Money soon reclaimed by the disillusioned entrepreneur. Sooner rather than later. It was his money!
In the Place de la Lariboisiere, then called the Place de Halles aux Blés, he built a magnificent shoe factory with colonnades and huge glass windows, the 1867 version of art deco self -confidence. He used the latest techniques and imported machinery which he hired to make shoes for women and children. Men didn’t change their shoes often enough, obviously, for this entrepreneur. The business prospered.
Then the town ‘s nemesis, fire, struck, in 1890. Confidence was so high that the rebuilding was done in a year. Cordier died in 1894, but success continued. By 1914 there were 11,000 people working in 40 firms in the town. Allied to that were the sub-contracted trades. The toolmakers, the transportation, the leatherworkers, the heelmakers and the box makers who all shared in the prosperity.
But French investment fell. All the machinery was hired from Boston. They were ‘in  hock ‘ to the Americans. A familiar story. By 1920 only 500 people worked at Cordiers’. In June 1944 the factory was bombed and never reopened.
Fougères does have a significant place in French labour history. In November 1906, the owners of the shoe factories refused to honour workers’ demands for an improved rate, for operating new American machinery. On the 12th. November the workers were locked out. A General Strike was called which was unanimously supported. There followed a period of great hardship, as people struggled to survive. Soup kitchens were opened. Wood was gleaned from the fores . The ‘lock-out’ lasted 103 days. 5 500 workers were unemployed. The whole town was affected. Modest resources dwindled. In the January, the owners offered to open the doors, without any agreement reached. Only a handful returned to a volley of abuse.
The Gendarmes were unable to offer adaquate protection to the 200 who went back. A referendum was held to try to arbitrate. 3:1 voted to stick it out. A decision was reached to send the children of the worst hit families to supportive families in Brittany, and also in Paris. 7,000 people accompanied 160 children to the station. 12,000 people watched in silence . 4,000 people welcomed the children in Rennes.
In Paris, it was decided to send a commission to investigate. Meetings were held with all parties and thé commission effected an end to the dispute. In February 1907 the shoe workers achieved all their objectives. There had been a bleeding of Fougères economy. Small business had suffered badly. There had been general depression. But they won their pay demands. Unions were officially recognised as negotiators.
This was a national issue. Jean Jaurès, the éminent socialist editor of ‘L’Humanite’, spoke to a huge crowd in the Market Hall. The President of the Republic, Raymond Poincare visited Fougères. A mark had been made.
The Usine Cordier, at the centre of the 1906 Strike, stood directly in the eye line of Général de Lariboisiere or his statue, at least. Now he commands a roundabout, unfortunately, rather than the Emperor’s artillery . His horse is trying to get the General to turn his stony flanks towards the Place des Armes where he belongs  but he steadfastly stares towards Cordier’s. He didn’t watch the destructive fire in 1944 as the Germans had taken the statue down in 1942 . He had , after all, given the Prussians a bloody nose several times on the Emperor’s behalf. The Germans didn’t need reminding of that! But here, in a prosperous town of a republic, a statue of a wealthy aristocrat, albeit born in Fougères, takes precedence over the creator of a town’s wealth.
The ‘Squirearchy’ still rules, as the destroyed statue was replaced by a facsimile in 1999. There is an undistinguished building standing where ‘Cordier’s’ had stood.
Just around the corner a man of the people is honored with a statue. He’s a priest as well. Abbé Bridel. He fought for the emancipation of workers at the turn of the nineteenth century. He took a rôle in the Great Strike in the shoe industry in 1906. His statue stands in a small garden, and the flowers around it were fresh. He is still cared for, though he died in 1933.
He looks at the church of St. Leonard. I wonder if he recognises his church today? It stands behind the remains of the Porte St. Leonard and a pretty tulip covered roundabout. Doesn’t France just love it’s roundabouts! The church is solid granite and it’s development can be followed through the different hues of granite. It has Benedictine associations from the eleventh century, until it’s enlargement in the nineteenth century.
As with St. Sulpice the interior is sombre, with the exception of the chancel, where gold, light and modern furnishings are the salient feature. There is an attempt to connect with its congregation, but dark gothic does not lend itself to closeness.
Over the road on the Rue Lesueur, stands the imposing former convent of St. Nicholas which became a Gendarmerie, then a Fire Station. More homeless nuns! The town of Fougeres bears testimony to the fragility of the religious orders, oddly, usually, female.
The churchyard of St. Leonard’s has become the impressive panorama of the Jardin Publique, atop the city wall, overlooking the valley of the Nancon, the château and the old town. And there, hidden behind the shrubs, on another public utility box, is more public art.
Au jardin. In the garden
Du premier amour, Of first love
Il y avait. There was
La page blanche et la primevère The blank page and the primrose
Wonderful. Poetry for the people. Simple. Direct. Waiting to be discovered.
From the panoramic perch of the Jardin Publique, you plunge down the wall-hugging, vertigo-inducing, Rue des Vallees. Down into the old town without a city wall. Down. The town rises sheer to the right. The cliffs of the Nancon to the left. Before me protecting (or is it threatening?) the old town stands the curtain wall of the citadel. Down. Housing clings to every plateau oblivious to the danger they are in. Beautiful gardens. A tidy laverie, now a tourist destination, on the banks of the river. I wonder if our public amenities will become tourist attractions of the future? Will futureman “Ooooo” and “Aaagh” over public toilets? Probably. The house opposite has a mural to entertain the children . . . and me.
The rustic hush belies the history of the raucous sounds of hides being washed and scrubbed or the gossip of the weekly laundry.
A pretty stone bridge. The Rue des Tanneurs. The Maison de Savigny presents its ‘warts and all’ facerot the street, but she has ‘tarted’ her backside up with a brand new ‘old’ wooden gallery. That that was, is again.
The Place Marchix places you firmly in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Narrow, deep houses. Ground floors built of stone quarried literally over the road. Wood-beamed upper floors. Steep roof. Attic for the ‘mad wife’ to be secreted and locked away. Football on the television in the Bar. History hasn’t been ‘made-to-measure’,  it’s just here, allowed to be. People live in it.
A coffee. L’Equipe. In two hundred metres I will be back in the twenty-first century. But there are still secret places in the snickets off the square, the ginnels and side streets. Houses where the lime wash has faded and the paint on the beams less black. Where the stonework has not been ‘touristed up’. Refreshing.
Back past ‘The Corral’ Bar and it’s echoes of rock, this time music not granite! The boy and his Dad stil fish the moat. Time-honoured solitude. Patience personified. They were there a hundred years ago and they will be there in a hundred years time. I move on.

In a Jam.

The black currant bushes are absolutely groaning with fruit. The weather might be inconsistent but it suits fruits!

It’s been wet, warm and sunny  by turns, perfect for fruit. The bushes were planted in the hedge by a previous owner. They aren’t tended or looked after in any way whatsoever. The variety is unknown.

The bushes in the fruit patch just 18 months old, planted last, back end, ‘Ben Lomond’, bare-rooted, in ground well manured in March  and tenderly nurtured, haven’t cropped very well at all.

Bushes that are going particularly well are the gooseberries. We planted two varieties, ‘Invicta’ and ‘Careless’ two years ago, bought from a Garden Centre near Lancaster.

Both are heavy with fruit  promising a really rich harvest  within a couple of weeks. I think a liberal dose of good French manure in February did the business there.

It’s odd how the ‘wild cards ‘ flourish. In the vegetable garden we have ‘guerilla’ Horse radish and ‘rogue’ Jerusalem artichokes. They were not planted this year but are thriving nonetheless when left to their own devices. Good old nature!

So the plan is this year, to harvest and then throw pieces ‘back in’ for next year’s soups and sauces

But there in the freezer  is much of last year’s black currant crop. It has to be used. The household brooks no waste! So it’s jam. Linda picked up a brilliant recipe from an old French friend. It’s so easy .

1 kilo of fruit. 1 kilo of jam sugar. Just equal quantities, really. Into the pan. No liquid added. Bring to the boil. Boil for 15 minutes.  After 15 minutes it will pass the cold saucer test. Put a splodge on the cold saucer, wait a second, then draw a spoon across it and it will leave a groove. Whilst it’s still warm  put it in clean jars with a greaseproof ring ( we use the inner bag of a Cornflakes packet cut into circles) and seal it. Shazam! Jam! And it works, so experiments with other fruits are on the cards.

Put in less sugar and it could be a fruity mixer with yoghurt or a mixer with bland old vanilla ice cream from the supermarket and re-frozen, to return as ‘home made black currant delight’!

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