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STORIES BY ALASTAIR WALLACE
Official Writing Portfolio
For lovers of historical fiction set in the real world, with all its trials and tribulations.
FESTIVAL OF THE OPPRESSED
The following is the Prologue to my novel, 'Festival of the Oppressed'.
They were only boys; it was only stones.
Their elders said they should have known better, should not have ripped up cobbles and thrown them at the Englishmen. Their elders sanctimoniously said the boys should have listened to them. Had they done so they would not have gotten into this trouble.
It was listening to their elders which led to the trouble.
For months, people had been complaining about the English, calling them thieves, liars, cheats and worse. Edicts from the court of Countess Margaret of Flanders decried the perfidy of the English in the on-going trade negotiations. Even the pulpit became involved—priests delivering sermons calling on the English to respect God’s laws and negotiate in good faith.
Day in, day out, the boys heard their elders calling for measures to be taken to bring the English into line: for laws restricting their rights and privileges, even for banishing them from Flanders altogether. For months now, their elders had been saying that if the authorities did not do something then they would be forced to take matters into their own hands.
All the boys did was to take their elders at their word, to put into action what they heard their elders saying so volubly.
That their action helped precipitate a riot was not the boys’ intent. But do so it did. In the tense atmosphere that hung over the town of Douai, all that was needed was a single spark to ignite a conflagration.
The boys picked up some cobbles and flung them at an English ship trying to unload its cargo of wool. The English sailors sought to defend themselves, using boat-hooks to subdue the boys. That having been achieved, they should have handed the boys over to the authorities for punishment. Such would have been the sensible thing to do. Perhaps what did happen was understandable given the animosity between English and Fleming.
Unfortunately, the English on the dock decided to mete out some summary justice. They beat the boys.
No sooner did word spread of such high handed action than crowds poured into the streets, baying for English blood.
For three days the riots raged. The English in Douai cowered behind locked doors while their windows were smashed, warehouses ransacked and goods stolen or despoiled.
There was no escape. For three days the city gates were locked to all but those very few with sufficient funds to bribe their way out. The guards drove an extortionate bargain.
Outside, the queues waiting for access to the city grew ever more impatient and ever angrier. Market day had been and gone. Produce destined for sale in the city went off in the heat of an unrelenting sun. Frustrated peasants turned for home, leaving their unsold goods to rot. Flies swarmed everywhere. In such unhygienic surroundings, if nothing was resolved soon there was a very real danger of disease breaking out. If so, it would only be a matter of time before it spread to Douai itself.
The City Watch proved to be singularly incapable of quelling the riot. Many of its number were sympathetic to the rioters. They took action only reluctantly and with little enthusiasm at that. It was only with the fortuitous advent of Count Thibaut of Champagne that decisive action could be taken. His household guard showed no compunction about using force to restore order.
Only then did Douai return to some semblance of normality. Only then could the gates be reopened to allow entry to the long queues of people waiting in the hot, dusty conditions outside. Only then could the English emerge to survey the wreckage of their livelihoods.
It was an uneasy peace. Douai was a city divided against itself. The riot had demonstrated that the Watch was unreliable; the authorities appealed to Countess Margaret who sent troops to be garrisoned in the city. That just antagonised artisans and workers who had looked to the authorities as their allies against the English. Now they saw themselves standing alone, fighting on two fronts. Many were they who swore this fight was not done yet; many were they who looked for better weapons, better means of fighting.
The city waited; tense, expectant. nobody believed that anything had truly been resolved. It was only a question of time before the flames burst out anew. How, where, or when that would happen, nobody could say but none had any illusions that it would happen sooner rather than later.
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