The first time we saw this gateway was on an etching in a brocante just outside of Sées. We bought it with two others by the same artist ‘M Mulot’ from a heap in an old basket. Amazingly, considering the brocante seemed to lack one wall, they were dry and unmarked.
They tell the story of 1944 in Normandy, with each image a shattered version of itself. In the corner they all have a tiny picture, a perfect memory of how the building had looked before the war.
Very happily each of these war damaged buildings stand tall again. The cathedral at Caen, the Horloge in Vire and the Porte des Cordeliers in Falaise. Each is again surrounded by a bustling town as life goes on in Normandy.
Falaise used to have six city gates but this is the only one to remain intact. It is a medieval masterpiece. Built in the thirteenth century by an architect who didn’t hold back with the stone it includes a handy viewing tower, room for a portcullis and is generally a nicely put together piece of defensive architecture.
If it looks like the perfect backdrop for Errol Flynn to vanquish less attractive outlaws that’s because Hollywood came to Normandy when it was looking for medieval architecture. Probably.
The gate had been standing for over 100 years when a particularly tragic procession passed beneath its arch.
Avenging a child’s death
It is 1386 and in Falaise the family of Jonnet le Macon mourns a beloved child. They wanted retribution, they wanted their pain to end. The law would help them.
The death had not been an accident. Their innocent child of just three months had been testing his lungs while lying in a cot in the farmhouse when the horror occurred. As the busy family toiled, the babe had squeaked and squealed attracting no attention, until a young sow snuffled her way indoors to see what all the fuss was about.
It was winter, nobody on this Normandy farm was getting enough to eat and the sow was no exception. The plumpness of the child and its irritating noises were too much of a temptation.
So the hungry hog did for her. She bit the child’s puny arm and crunched his pretty face until he was quiet. Then this sorry sow hid away as much as she could under some mud, but of course she was found out.
A trial was quickly called. The facts solemnly laid out before a judge and the sow found guilty, of murder! Her punishment was to be commensurate to the crime.
The next few paragraphs are not for the squeamish
First, as the beast had been tried in court as a man it was dressed as one. Incredibly the bewildered creature they marched through the city was wearing breaches, a jacket and had white gloves tied to her front feet.
A pig is a clever creature, she would have known the crowd in the spacious field they walked her to was not friendly. Her hopes of ever returning home were gone. Fortunately she had no idea of the torture to follow.
Regnaud Rigaut, Vicomte of Falaise was just one of a huge crowd to witnesses as each wound that had been inflicted upon the child was inflicted on the sow. A leg was mutilated. Her face destroyed. Then they hung the pig Falaise until she was dead. What they did next does not bear repeating.
All legal and above board
There is a receipt on file dated 9 January 1386 in which the hangman of Falaise acknowledges payment by the Viscount of Falaise for ‘ten sous and ten deniers toumois’ for the execution on that day of an ‘infanticidal sow’ plus ‘ten sous toumois’ for a new glove.
But the craziest fact in all of this? It took until the 18th century for Europe to scrap animal trials.
Detail of the trial can be found in this document