Before the Enlightenment and the Restoration, the helpless masses suffered at the hands of the Inquisition, the Catholic Church immolating heretics and unbelievers, myth and witchcraft as familiar as fervently whispered prayers. This is the world of 1357 France, where a small village is overwhelmed on every front, long under siege by the English, threatened by the Black Death that is decimating cities and subject to the fickle judgment of an angry God. The city is riddled with poverty, people existing by their wits, exchanging services for goods, coin a precious commodity.
Shrouded in superstition cloaked in religion, Bonne Tardieu, daughter of Blanche Mirabilis (Blanche the Astonishing), ekes out a meager existence as a wet nurse, knowing that a patroness would drastically change her life. The illegitimate Bonne is used to her role as an outcast, her once-sainted mother having been immolated in a church fire.
Surprisingly, fate glances kindly toward Bonne in the person of Radegonde Putemonnie, the town's wealthiest woman, who commissions Bonne as the wet nurse for her unborn child. Radegonde opens her opulent home to the wet nurse, providing for the vessel that will sustain the infant. The wealthy woman must carry the baby to term and give birth in order to inherit her deceased husband's fortune.
All of the villagers are starving, and the young woman is an object of intense scrutiny, plied with food to enrich her milk. The bountiful Bonne, in an effort to assuage the people's envy, allows them to nourish their starving bellies on her milk. Bonne develops an attachment to Radegonde, who offers her an island of security, but gossip prevails. Eventually Bonne is hailed as a saint when a Madonna appears bearing Bonne's likeness. Unfortunately, the town turns against Radegonde, proclaiming her for a witch.
This is a fascinating tale of class differences and the rampant superstition of fourteenth-century France. Both sensual and spiritual, the images are lush, filled with the contrasts of poverty and wealth as scandal spreads like wildfire in a village fueled by fear, where tales of witchcraft pass from tongue to tongue.
Susann Cokal captures the iconic spirit of a Medieval French village; its population decimated by lack, village turns brutal, driven by primal needs more urgent than religion: an unstoppable mob mentality. One not born to nobility, Bonne Tardieu, is the essence of fertility in this tapestry of primal needs, where salvation requires more than a willing back bent to hard work. This world requires good fortune for survival.