I have just returned home after two hours in the pouring rain and bitter cold. We are now in our tenth week of training for ‘Conferencier de Rouen’ and have 20 centuries of French and Norman history under our belt, and eleven edifices at our fingertips. Or we would like to think so!
There is nothing more demoralising than feeling ‘au fait’ with an edifice, or an epoque of history, than hearing the lecturer rattle of the dates in French, and not being absolutely sure that it was the corresponding date in ones own memory – specifically because having translated the date into English, the lecturer has already passed onto another great moment of history, leaving you in the dark as to what he was referring to!
I had a bitter internal struggle this morning as to whether I should leave my umbrella at home in order to have my hands free for note-taking or whether to just listen and consequently remain dry. Our lecturers have so much information stored in their incredible brains, that leaving the note pad behind really wasn’t an option. In the end I huddled under two hoods and got soaked, the two hoods doing nothing to aid comprehension or ability to hear!
Rouen is incredibly lucky historically to have one of the only two ‘Aîtres’ in France. The other, the Aître de Brisgaret is found at Montivilliers near Le Havre. The Aître St Maclou is found in the Martainville area of Rouen.
One must first imagine the city in the medieval age, a city with several fine stone public buildings, the cathedral and the Palais de Justice, to name but two, surrounded by the sinuous and tortuous alleys and streets of timber-framed houses with compacted earth roads and overhanging ‘encorbellements’, vertically narrowing the street and preventing the movement of air and light. To this underbelly, one must add the Normandy climate and incessant rain (!), the mud and the effluent. The sector Martainville was initially the land immediately outside the city’s fortified walls. It was area trapped between two rivers, the Robec, which ran alongside the city ramparts, and the Aubette which ran at the base of the cliffs that surround the town. The area was marshland, frequently flooded by the Robec to north and west, the Aubette, to the east and the Seine to the south. Into this landscape came the industrialists, keen to tap the water to power their mills for the textile trade. And with the trades came the ever increasing number of workers, densifying the built environment with unregulated building, unchecked effluent and high mortality rate.
The increase in industry and the necessity to trade brought with it a route for the highly contageous ‘Black Death’ or ‘Peste’ as it is known in France. The first swathe in 1348 decimated the population and the cemeteries became full. The ‘Hundred years War’ which began in 1345 and continued as a battle over territory weakened resistance to the ‘Peste’. This, combined with the need for high taxation to pay for the war effort, the shortages of grain from famine and lack of cultivation of farmland created misery. Into this misery came the need to construct a new cemetery to cope with the soaring death rate.
The Aître St Maclou, so named after its resemblance to a Roman atrium, began initially in 1357 as a field, to which over the years to follow additional plots were added. In 1520 the gallery was built around three sides of the perimeter of the field, ostensibly to allow the richer residents of the quartier not to be interred in the ‘fosse commun’ or communal grave but at the edge where little chapels were available for visitors. The demand for space in the common grave became so high that it became necessary to interr the corpses with a caustic cement powder, (a bi-product from construction) to speed the decomposition. The Fosse or grave was worked with such a system that the skeletons could be exhumed without disturbing those still decomposing, and the bones laid to rest in an ‘ossuaire’, an open upper gallery of the building, thus leaving space for new buriels. Suffice to say, the job as grave digger was not only unpleasant but had a high turnover, as each in turn inevitably succumbed to the daily contact with the contagion!
The Aître has its own very particular atmosphere. It was built at a turning point in attitudes towards death and one senses a particular type of menace, reinforced by the incredible carving to both the timber structure, and the stone columns. The timber is heavily worked with representations of death. Skulls, bones, spades and coffins are carved on the horizontal beams, whilst the stone carvings carry grotesque scenes from the ‘Danse Macabre’. If all that does not adequately convey the ‘raison d’être’ of this remarkable building, perhaps the mummified cat built into the wall of the newer southern ‘wing’ will do the trick…
But i’ll leave that for you to find!
In the meantime, my exam is fast approaching; a twenty minute oral on one of the 16 edifices or sectors of Rouen, randomly chosen on the day by my examiners….
…and I’m getting cold feet!