Tuesday, January 26, 2010

La Cohue

"Cohue" means commotion, bustling crowd, mayhem. Not what you're seeing here (but just wait until summer!) and yet in this very spot was the site of the medieval Cohue - what they called a most fascinating building. The building had two levels: the bottom level consisted of a covered hall that served as the marketplace (bustling, commotion, mayhem); the upper floor served as the justice hall (another kind of bustling, commotion, mayhem). Josselin's Cohue was not preserved, but that of Vannes was (and has become the museum of the town's history, in fact - for us to visit next time). However, Josselin kept the site of the Cohue intact - the same way that Vannes kept the site of its Lists intact (enshrining them as a parking lot). I love these ghost traces in towns (thank goodness for the work of the Monuments Historiques and its helpful signs everywhere!). It really doesn't take much to close your eyes and imagine the bustle - the town has kept the dimensions and the frame of the space; you just have to fill it in, and start wondering about this fascinating lay-out of space: commerce below, justice above.

Medieval urban planning seems so compact, derived from its logic of protection (think thick medieval city walls, the inevitable port-cullis, and heavy drawbridges) - but I must say that I stumble over the associations being made by this architecture: commerce and justice. Is this a grouping of secular endeavors? Both linked to the local feudal lord (who (or whose court) administered justice)? And let's keep in mind that in the Middle Ages (not necessarily especially in the Middle Ages, but nonetheless, noticeably in this culture) both commerce and justice were relative, not absolute values: they were at the discretion (some have said whim) of those in power (well, of course, many critics today will say that is still the case!). So there's something interesting here about the pragmatism of these two circumstantially determined culture values: commerce and justice - the pragmatism of their location, that is. In both Vannes and Josselin, the Cohue is in very close proximity to the Church - directly across the street in Vannes, and just behind where I was standing when I took that picture in Josselin. There are some great books out there on medieval urban design - time to read them!

Here is what the Cohue in Josselin used to look like - a nice cut-away lets you see the upstairs as well. It was taken down in the 18th century (sigh - the Enlightenment strikes again) because of its dilapidation - those wooden buildings don't wear very well. I can't help but think of Trajan's Forum here - that smooth, flowing layout: the open courtyard, the huge basilica (justice), the porticoes and libraries (one Greek, one Latin) framing his fantastic column, the temple, and the markets echoing the round exedrae of the courtyard. Oh, and the smart move of putting his Forum right next to that of Augustus. Actually, here's a wonderful plan from a university course. I think of urban design as a series of associations that create a kind of thesis about a city - it's very hard to do, since who gets to design a city from start to finish (Brasilia and, as Mac is reminding me, Chandigarh aside)? Cities grow organically, politically - it's the big powers that are able to create spaces for themselves. The churches remain in many towns - the cohues leave hazier traces. Good thing for the huge castle in Josselin, eh? :-)

We had our own cohue (as in bustling commotion, not quite mayhem) going tonight. There was this one wonderful moment (in that afterglow post-"pain et Nutella" and pre-dinner) when all of the following things were going on: Oliver was watching the opening scenes of his beloved Muppet Treasure Island; Iris was reading a book we discovered here called Ivy and Bean out loud; and Eleanor had heckled Mac into finding "We Will Rock You" (yes, by Queen - it's her favorite song of all time, no joke) on his computer. I looked at this little crew and just loved them so much: each with their passionate little project, each so telling of each kid's personality. Wonder what they would have been like in a medieval cohue market. :-)

Oh! There was one quick thing about Oliver and French that I forgot to note last night: his first kind of hybrid French-English joke: "What does a French cow say when it needs help?" "I don't know, Oliver, what does a French cow say when it needs help?" "Moo secours!" (instead of "Au secours" - very funny!).

A month ago, we were taking down our Christmas tree, sealing up our house, and packing our bags. Tonight, as Mac and I were doing the dishes, I noticed that each kid had settled into what has become their favorite spot.

Eleanor (inexplicably having taken off her turtleneck and thus only sporting her summer dress up top) loves the bucket chair by the window.

Iris, no surprise, has set up an elaborate space in the window seat using a blanket she couldn't resist at the Carrefour store, pillows, and various books and writing and drawing implements.

And Oliver in the club chair that Mac dreams of occupying, reading a book about monsters. By the time I took this picture, Eleanor had hopped up to find out what was going on - doesn't want to miss a thing.

The kids went to bed with no cohue - just lots of plans for tomorrow (Wednesdays = no school). For now, I'm going to read the dramatic conclusion to The Breton Wench...!

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