SOLVING A COUNTLESS PROBLEM
by Anton Wills-Eve
the prompt was a blog on the word ‘countless’
SOLVING A COUNTLESS PROBLEM
In Mediaeval central France, around the time King Saint Louis IX died in 1270 while on crusade, a small territory in the centre of the Loire valley found itself in a most unfortunate situation. Its countless peasants, merchants, burghers and noblemen found themselves literally Countless. Le Comte Pierre le Pauvre had died in penury, and being a bald bachelor had left neither hair nor heir.
It was by no means a huge Comté, indeed more like one of the small English counties which abounded at that time, still do. The size of Wiltshire? Yes, maybe so. But, although of little significance politically or strategically, it had one asset which every inhabitant knew could make them very rich if properly managed. The wine grown on those few banks of the Loire was of a magnificent quality. Indeed the seven vineyards which claimed to produce the finest wine all insisted that the Knight, Nobleman, merchant or Esquire who owned them should be crowned and consecrated the new Comte. The king was, dead they had heard, so if they arranged things fast enough their new ruler would be in place before any royal command could name another claimant to the title. But two serious problems faced them, one legal, one regal.
The legal one was simple. A scroll in the local cathedral, with copies in the largest chateau and modest castle, dated back four hundred years to 873 laying down the rules for a Comte to obey from the day of succession to the title. It said, en bref, that if the incumbent died childless and with no spouse, then whoever was appointed in his place, should both be married reasonably young and be expected to have children to succeed him in abundance. In short it was intended by king Charles II that the title should be hereditary. By an odd coincidence he was also bald, at least history has always given him the nickname ‘Charles the bald’, but the coincidence ended there for he was succeeded by his son.
But the regal problem was much more in line with typical French concern for the taste of the grape than the defence of the realm. Or at least that part of it which produced fine wines. The Comte had to provide the monarch with a cask of the region’s finest vintage, voted by the seven vine growers, every three months. So how did the inhabitants of this typically sleepy Comté resolve the appointment and choice of a new Comte? Well first let us meet the seven owners of the vineyards. To start with by far the wealthiest and, under normal circumstances, the likeliest man to lead the countless people was Sire Robert Bonchance, who lived in the castle. His vineyard produced a really excellent dry, crisp white with a nose of strawberries and wild peaches mixed with gooseberry flavours, which had the added aroma of a South Australian eucalyptus. You know the sort of wine. Goes well with poached white fish and creamed potatoes. It would have been an absolute certain choice except for the unfortunate fact that neither South Australia nor potatoes had at that time been made known to Western Europe. And Robert had another problem. His wife Mathilde was a positive shrew. She may have had four sturdy sons in five years but the locals all recoiled at the idea of her being given any higher social status than she had.
The two knights of the king’s bodyguard, honorary, who dwelt on that part of the Loire were twins. They each owned a vineyard and loved playfully trying to outdo each other every year when the grapes were trodden. Pierre and Jean-Claude Jumelles were aged twenty nine, good soldiers, vintners and pals. But there the similarity ended. Much as they loved each other they also loved the same young lady, pretty nineteen year old Hélène Damnaçion daughter of a Basque merchant and his wife who had moved there when she was small.
“Eh alors?” sighed Pierre.
“Quoi, donc!” replied his sibling.”Nous allons ….”
No, look they both spoke perfect Oxford English …”I say old chap we’d better decide who has the hand of the fair belle Hélène by a feat of arms.” He meant literally by feet and arms. “You game?” His brother was and so they raced each other for a few milia passuum down the Loire in rowing boats. Hélène stood on the bank cheering them on and shouting such loving remarks as,
“Drown the bastard, Pierre, I never could stand him!”
Her prayers of pious devotion were heard and her knight errant won by a league as their two premierships skimmed the water. However, Jean-Claude took it well and made this proclamation to the crowds on the tow path. “Whatever fair maid shall cross my palm with two groats and a flagon of mead shall have me for a night!” On hearing this Lucette Geaux whispered to Virginie Cémois,
“Je tink ‘e means knight.” But she was too slow, Charolotte Isine had rushed forward, mead and groats at the ready, and told him she was already his. One might say she was ready maid and his luck was in. Unfortunately three of the older wine growers, while rich in money and with superior fruit, were all at least forty years old. Albert Orl, Pascale Planche and Guy de la Musée all had good wives too and fine young boys, but their only hope of conquering the countless inhabitants was by somehow rigging the vote, for none had the bearing or brains of a Comte. And then they all stared at the owner of the seventh vineyard. They had forgotten the rules or else, in the excitement of the chase for ça qui Comte, had not realised their dilemma.
The seventh contestant was Blanche Neige, the most beautiful girl in the kingdom, let alone the Comté. What on earth were the countless countless to do. They could make her a Comptesse too, but did she have to be married to a noble? The scroll said nothing about gender, it had been hand copied by a scribe called N.Carolina. So the six wine growers decided to ask her if she would be prepared to pick any handsome man of her choice, give him her grapes and then they would agree her wine would be the best and they would all withdraw in favour of her suitor. Blanche was staggered at their effrontery. “But, mes amis, ‘ow you say? I would win for my wine’s best anyway. I’ll be LA COMTE et mon mari” (French for hubby bur she forgot, it was an English speaking plot) will be LE COMTESSE, what’s wrong with that?
Well of course nowadays nothing at all. But in France, some seven hundred and fifty years ago, transgendering the aristocracy was almost as bad as publicly admitting the nobles already had. So the vintners put it to two votes. First which was the superior wine because if a man won everything would be fine. And secondly, in case it was Blanche, they decided to create the first female Comte. In truth the countless countless could not wait to see what the new king’s reaction would be. But Blanche still had to find a hubby and suddenly had a super plan, hastening to the king’s coronation up North. He took one look at her and cried, “Ma Cherie!” which basically meant would she be queen? She agreed and told him she was also Le Comtesse, de somewhere on the Loire. He could not conte less. He just took down her title and added it to his own and added her possessions to the crown.
So that left the countless countless countless still. But at least they did not have to cross dress every time they wished to relieve themselves in a public place.