A medieval jester pounds the streets of Monflanquin to recount the history of a bastide village that still retains a strong community spirit
Walking towards me up a steep and narrow backstreet is a medieval jester; dressed in red and white, he wears pointed shoes with curled-up toes and is leaning on a twisted staff. He is surrounded by children, laughing and listening as he stops to explain the history of his Aquitaine village, Monflanquin. He is Janouille la Fripouille (the Scoundrel Janouille), bastard son of Henry of Navarre – who became Henri IV of France in 1589 – and the alter ego of street performer Jean Rocher.
He begins his story: “One day in 1252, Alphonse de Poitiers came riding out from his castle home near what became Villeneuve-sur-Lot with his wife, Jeanne, daughter of Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse. She brought with her the dowry of the lands of Rouerque, Quercy and Agenais. Inspired by a hill known as Mons flanquinus, he decided to build a new town right on the top of it on the edge of P�rigord in Haut Agenais.”
It was to be a fortified town (bastide), with each inhabitant given a plot of land within the walls and another outside for growing food and collecting materials for building and to warm their homes. Together they built arcades around a central square to offer shelter from sun and rain.
The town’s charter in 1256 freed inhabitants from paying taxes or tithes. Instead money would be raised through paying for privileges and fines for bad behaviour. These fines were imposed by the Bailiff, the king’s representative, and six Catholic councillors. “We are in Cathar country,” Janouille says, referring to the medieval heretics. “The first Cathar bonfire was lit at Casseneuil [about 15 kilometres away] in 1209. Many more were to follow.”
Alphonse and Jean died without heirs and their lands were surrendered to the English. In 1286, Edward I, King of England, fortified Monflanquin with 3,000 feet of ramparts, 11 towers and five gates (dismantled in 1628). Over the next 300 years the town changed hands often between the English and French, the Protestants and Catholics. “I remember,” muses Janouille, “that by the end of the 16th century, the well on the edge of town contained a layer of Protestants, a layer of Catholics, and a layer of Protestants.” With Janouille, history is fun; as he recounts the tale he pulls out clothes from his bag and the children dress up as characters in the story.
We are now on the Place des Arcades under the vaulted arcades, and beneath the house that was once the quarters of Edward, the Black Prince, “an English knight, scourge of the French, who captured King John of France in Poitiers in 1356,” according to Janouille.
In 2000, a copy of the town charter was found in a house on the square and Janouille gets one of the fathers, who is dressed as the Bailiff, to read from it: “There will be a market every Thursday. Fairs are to be held on the first Thursday of the month.” (“We still do it the same way today,” interjects Janouille.) “Whosoever uses bad language or is involved in a fight will be fined. Whosoever throws rubbish in the streets may be punished by the Bailiff or his representatives in whatever way they see fit.” “So be careful how you treat our village!’ Janouille warns, wagging a finger.
Jean Rocher’s medieval tours of Monflanquin are both informative and irreverent. He first discovered the village in 1984 and chose to settle here, not just because of its charm and stunning views over the valley of the River L�de across the Dordogne, Lot and Lot-et-Garonne d�partements – but because it’s a living village with a strong community spirit.
Since 1995 he has been extolling its virtues in his guise as Janouille la Fripouille, sometimes accompanied by Sergent Serge Faval, a keen artist who illustrates the village magazine Sous les Arcades as well as a series of books produced with Jean entitled Les Aventures de Janouille au Pays des Bastides.
Monflanquin’s medieval past is central to life in what is one of France’s Plus Beaux Villages. Along the Rue Sainte-Marie women are sewing costumes for the summer festivities: games, concerts, banquets and street fairs that keep the whole community busy during August. In the 1990s the village entered a competition for EU funding to restore the bastides of south-west France. Of the ten chosen, Monflanquin was the first to have the work completed. The hilltop �glise Saint-Andr�, with its striking three-arched tower, received particular attention and the carrerots (back alleys) were opened up.
In the houses around the Place des Arcades the front of the ground floor faced the square for trade purposes. The back was used to keep livestock and had access to the carrerot behind. There is a gap of about one foot between the houses, down which sewage and waste ran, gathering in the steep carrerots and then flowing to the river. Naturally they are no longer put to this use and have become an atmospheric and charming part of the village.
Fruit in abundance
Many of the older generation had sold up as their children moved away, but now young life has come back with an influx of people from elsewhere in France and overseas. The population of 400 includes many English families; they are a welcome addition to village life because it is felt they join in.
The wine-making tradition around Monflanquin goes back 750 years. The vin noir of the uplands is mixed with honey and spices to make hypocras, a beverage which flows freely at the medieval festivities in August. Cherries, plums and figs grow in abundance, so villagers do a lot of jam-making and preserving. At the Thursday morning market you will find Olivier Buisine, bouilleur ambulant (mobile distiller), who takes his still from village to village offering locals the opportunity to turn their fruit into aqua vitae.
A river runs under the hill on which Monflanquin is built, feeding the well at the top of the village and the fountain and laundry on the Place des Cannelles at the foot of the Rue Sainte-Marie. Monsieur Louv�sie, one of Monflanquin’s oldest native inhabitants, is loading cans of water into the back of his van, which seems to date from World War II although it still looks in good shape. He chats to me in Occitan, the ancient local dialect. Although I speak French, he is hard to understand, but the gist of what he says is clear. He has seen many changes in the village but life here has seldom been better.
Words and pictures by Jane Gifford
By ferry: Jane went on Brittany Ferries’ overnight crossing from Portsmouth to Saint-Malo. It is around an eight-hour drive to Monflanquin.
Tel: 0871 244 0744
WHERE TO STAY
Le Nid � Nane
Le Tour de Ville
Tel: (Fr) 9 66 82 95 76
Chambre d’h�te built in to the ramparts. Dinner on request. Doubles from €59.
Les Fleurs des �les
11 Rue Saint-Nicolas
Tel: (Fr) 5 53 40 22 38
Accommodation in a medieval terraced house. Doubles with breakfast from €82.
La Bastide des Oliviers
1 Tour de Ville
Tel: (Fr) 5 53 36 40 01
Charming small hotel with a restaurant where the locals dine. Doubles from €65.
WHERE TO EAT
Le Bistrot du Prince Noir
45 Place des Arcades
Tel: (Fr) 5 53 36 63 00
Restaurant and wine bar.
La Grappe de Raisin
3 Place des Arcades
Tel: (Fr) 5 53 36 31 52
Restaurant, pizzeria and ice cream parlour.
Les Terrasses de Marsal
13 Place des Arcades
Tel: (Fr) 5 53 71 33 57
Hot and cold drinks, ice creams and pastries.
Bar des Arcades
Tel: (Fr) 5 53 36 32 18
Lively bar with food served on a terrace.
WHAT TO DO
Janouille la Fripouille tour
Make reservations at the tourist office.
Le Mus�e des Bastides
Place des Arcades
This museum on the bastide villages is in the tourist office building.
Monflanquin tourist office
Place des Arcades
Tel. (Fr) 5 53 36 40 19