Throughout latter-Medieval times it was a place where merchants and students mingled with St James’ Way pilgrims; the square was one of the last sights in the city before the pilgrims departed through the nearby Porte Saint-Éloi. In the 15th century, one of the market's traders in saltwater fish, Ramon Eyquem, became so wealthy that he became part of the city's bourgeoisie, undoubtedly giving a helping hand up the social ladder to his great-grandson, Charles-Louis de Secondat, better-known as the emblematic political thinker, writer and philosopher Montesquieu.
Merchandise arrived over land but also by boat: as difficult as it is to imagine these days, the square was on the right bank of the river Peugue, which flows from the western limits of Pessac to the Garonne. In this part of Bordeaux, it probably wasn't the most pleasant of sights, used by butchers and tanners to dispose of their liquid refuse. The river is still there - it has just been driven underground and, since the 19th century, has run below Cours d'Alsace Lorraine through a channel that is five metres wide and three metres high.
Back to our Medieval marketplace, which was a veritable hive of activity what with the crowds, the animals, the public criers… oh, and the public pillory! This was the place where offenders were paraded and humiliated in front of all-comers as penalty for the acts they had committed. The public executioner carried out his work near the Aquitaine duchy's Ombrière palace (which was located near to Porte Cailhau but is long gone), but resided in the neighbouring Rue des Ayres. Lou Mercat was therefore conveniently positioned to offer a foretaste of punishments such as blasphemers’ tongues being pierced by red-hot pokers, money forgers being boiled alive, or heretics being burnt at the stake.
More recently, the square fell on bad times, becoming a dreary, dirty and neglected part of the city. It was totally overhauled and modernised from 2004 to 2008 though and the revamped square now boasts some of the city’s trendiest night-spots, such as l’Apollo, le Moshi-Moshi and le Santosha. All very appealing but those who live in apartments on the square have not welcomed the sudden influx of late-night revellers with open arms, and are tiring of the sound of bongos being played at 5am… Media coverage of the square in recent months has tended to focus on the divergent interests of the residents and the bars.
There has also been talk of the square coming full circle and of an open-air market being regularly held there once again, but if foodstuffs are to be on offer it would mean making further structural changes in order to meet European regulations with regard to water and hygiene… and Mayor Alain Juppé recently stated that “breaking up the square all over again” was evidently not on the agenda (“Nous n’allons pas recasser la Place Fernand-Lafargue”).
Something for everyone then on Place Fernand-Lafargue… just take care what time you head there!