Wroe, who studied medieval history at Oxford and is now the American editor of the Economist, uses a real-life 14th-century mystery as a ``springboard'' for an intimate, well-crafted profile of late medieval life in the town of Rodez in southwest France. In 1369 or 1370, a somewhat down-and-out man named Peyre Marques of Rodez calls in masons to investigate a blocked drain in his house. They soon get to the root of the problem: an impacted jug filled with gold coins, which is claimed by Marques's brother- in-law. To whom do the jug and the gold treasure really belong? Wroe doesn't solve the mystery, but she reveals much about life in Rodez. Actually, Rodez is comprised of two towns: the City, with its imposing cathedral and clerical domination, and the Burg, with its entrepreneurial hustle and bustle. One is allied with England, the other with France, and their officials compete fiercely in collecting taxes and fees on everything from meat to funerals. Basing her work on a trove of town documents in Latin and Occitan (a mixture of French and Catalan), Wroe uncovers aspects of daily life that seem astonishingly contemporary. Think the O.J. trial has dragged on? In Rodez, a trial over a case of suspected arson still was being litigated 50 years after the incident occurred. Think heartlessness towards the homeless is new? In 1375, the French town's council resolved that ``there should be a very strict watch day and night and . . . poor men who are already here should be thrown out.'' And for all the Middle Ages' reputation for religiosity, Wroe reveals the dark underside of the Church. She might have, however, provided more political and socioeconomic background on the world beyond Rodez and maps locating Rodez in France and depicting the town itself. These small flaws aside, this is an equally informative and entertaining work, one that will be a delight not only to medievalists, but to all who wish a respite from the pace, technology, and other perplexities of contemporary life.
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