La Guerre des Demoiselles – The War of the Maidens

This is one war that you are unlikely to find in the history books. It took place in the Ariege Department of France in the 19th century but was at its height in 1829-32.

ariege_pays

In 1827 the government brought out a new forestry code to be applied by 1829. This code prohibited what local people regarded as their long-established traditional rights in respect of how they accessed and used the forests around them.  They used wood for building, collected firewood, hunted, fished and gathered food and used parts of the forest for pasturage for their small herds and flocks.

3granges-cominac

The implementation of this code was a disaster for them and anyone caught breaking the new laws was subject to a heavy fine and/or imprisonment.

To make matters worse growing industrialisation also created a need for charcoal and deforestation started to take place on a grand scale. The charcoal burners, the forge masters and the forest wardens (known as ‘the salamanders’ because of their yellow and black uniforms) became the most hated classes of men amongst the mountain people.

Les Demoiselles (the Maidens) made their first appearance in Saint-Lary in May 1829. Twenty forest guards found six trespassing shepherds and their flocks and tried to seize them. They were quickly surrounded by around a hundred Demoiselles who hurled insults, threats and stones until the forest guards were forced to beat a hasty retreat. Other bands of Demoiselles began to form in many of the villages and from this point a type of guerrilla war broke out, confined at first to the Couserans and western parts of the Ariege but eventually spreading throughout the Department.

The name Demoiselles derived from the disguises the groups of men adopted – blackened or masked faces, a sheepskin or veil over their heads, long white shirts worn over their trousers like a dress. They commanded huge local support and the different village groups communicated either by horn toots or by smoke signals.

The king and his government marched in thirteen companies of infantry and eight brigades of gendarmes to quell the uprising but to little effect. The reason was simple. The Demoiselles knew the wild, mountainous terrain and the soldiers did not. Of those Demoiselles who were arrested most were quickly released as there were no witnesses to speak against them.

The ineffectiveness of these measures prompted the government to take more severe action. The fines for incursions in the forest were substantially increased and payable on the spot which for many was impossible. For good measure there was also a huge increase in taxes.

Nothing daunted the Demoiselles continued their resistance and from 1830 they marched and protested – these protests turning increasingly more violent. They targeted in particular the forge masters who took wood in great quantities to feed their forges and the ‘Salamanders’ who were supposed to protect them.

Finally a Commission was established to find a solution. In 1831 a ministerial decree restored the grazing rights to the people and a second decree cancelled the code of foresters which started the war in the first place. As an additional act of benevolence, the government gave a general amnesty to all imprisoned and called a halt to any further judicial proceedings.

Over the next thirty years the rebellion never quite died away; rather it smouldered sullenly, bursting into flames every now and again and the Demoiselles would rise again to harass charcoal burners and forge masters.  However the arrival of the railway and the discovery of iron ore in the area reduced the need for charcoal, put the brakes on deforestation and the Demoiselles disappeared quietly back into the forests.

37755219

Advertisements

Long Time Passing

Something a bit different for this week. A very powerful and thoughtful blog from one of my favourite bloggers. Made more poignant I think when you consider what is happening in the world at the moment.

Half Baked In Paradise

Some time ago, when we were fledgling lovers, existing in the protective bubble reserved for the newly amorous, Two Brains brought me to a place called Vassieux-en-Vercors. The drive up from Grenoble is littered with sombre reminders of a time, only decades ago when the spectacular landscape played backdrop for the most merciless realities of a world at war – we stopped at various places, never idly. Here it is impossible to forget how cruel and cold humanity can be. Here no bubble is sufficient to protect you from nauseating emotions wrought from the darkest, starkest of realites.

Vassieux sits on the Drôme side of le Vercors. The Vercors is nicknamed ‘the flat iron’ for a reason … it is a high plateau with higher peaks frilling it, thrilling visitors and chilling those that know the secrets that it keeps. Mountains tend to do that. They look, are

View original post 756 more words

Spinning and Weaving

In the valleys of the Olmes Mountains – a range of peaks in the Ariège region of southern France – cloth manufacture was one of the prime industries. The pastures and hillsides favoured sheep farming and so provided the raw material and an abundant supply of water was available for the process of turning it into yarn and cloth.

From the Middle Ages onwards this was very much a cottage industry and the whole family was involved, spinning the wool from their sheep and then, if they did not have their own loom, handing it over to a neighbour who possessed one to weave into cloth.

In the eighteenth century, this industry reached a new level when the weavers in the lower regions of Languedoc decided to give up spinning and weaving in favour of growing vines. Instead, the wool they had used came to the Ariège and Aude regions. There were five main processes used to produce the cloth:

  1. Sorting, classifying the wool by its quality and washing the grease from it.
  2. Dying the wool
  3. Combing it out so that all the strands of wool ran parallel and then spinning it into yarn
  4. Weaving the yarn into cloth
  5. Finishing the cloth prior to taking it to the market in Lavelanet.

The colours used to dye the wool were nearly all of vegetable origin.

Woad gave a pretty shade of blue – mid to dark depending on how much dye was used. This gave rise to a whole new industry around the Toulouse area where many a woad merchant made a fortune from the plant. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, it was replaced by indigo.

lhotel_dassezat-1

L’hôtel d’Assézat – Woad Merchant’s House in Toulouse

isatis_tinctoria_s-_str-_sl5

Woad Plant (Isatis Tinctoria)

The roots of the madder plant produced red and shades of pink and purple together with a non-vegetal dye that came from a little red beetle collected from the green or holm oak. This produced a brilliant scarlet.

512px-rubia_tinctorum_flowers

Madder Plant (Rubia Tinctorum)

For yellow a number of plants were used including sunflowers, saffron and dyer’s rocket or weld.

reseda_luteola_flowers

Dyer’s Rocket (Reseda Luteola)

Combing the wool was traditionally carried out by hand using slats of wood to which teasels were attached. Towards the end of the eighteenth century machines imported from Belgium and England took over the work. This sounded the death knell for this hand work and, just as with the Luddites in England in the early years of the nineteenth century, the introduction of the combing machines unleashed riots against the machines.

From then, whilst much the cottage industry still existed and work was done by hand, there also developed workshops and later factories where the cloth was produced.

spinning mill and masters house

Wool Merchant’s House and Factory, Ste Colombe sur L’Hers

Spinning was very much a family affair, done at home using a distaff and spindle and later the wheel. At this stage of the process the spinner could vary the tension of the yarn leaving it fairly loose for knitting wool and tighter for cloth.

592px-distaff_psf

The weavers worked not only for themselves but also for neighbours who had no loom and for masters in Lavelanet. These latter provided the yarn and paid the weavers by metre of cloth or by the piece.

Typically the weavers worked at their looms through winter until early spring. Then work on the land and with their sheep took over.  However they needed good light to work by and placed their looms by a window in full daylight. During the long winter nights they worked by the feeble light of an oil lamp, later replaced by a kerosene lamp with a reflector of polished glass. This they placed centrally on the loom, hopefully in a safe place.

The worst aspect for the weavers was the cold. Very often there was no fire or only a very small one in the room. They had to warm themselves through the work that they did. Sometimes it was so cold that the yarn stuck together, frozen. There was a common saying amongst the weavers:

“Les bobines gelaient, je devais les mettre dans ma poche”

(the bobbins froze, I had to put them in my pocket).

When the piece of cloth was finished it was taken usually by mule to Lavelanet to be sold. There still exist some of the ancient pathways that were used.

To become a weaver a boy of seventeen or eighteen years would take an apprenticeship in a village with a master. It was normally an informal agreement. The boy would work with the master for six months, earning nothing, not even his meals. After six months if the master considered him to be competent the boy could then set up on his own. If he was not adjudged competent he could continue to work for the master, on half-pay or look for another metier.

The cloth produced in the region was of different types. The cuir laine – a heavy fabric used for overcoats with high collars such as Napolean’s famous grey coat which was a mix of 90% white and 10% brown. Other versions of this cloth were made in different weights and widths.

640px-meissonier_-_1814_campagne_de_france

Napoléon’s famous greatcoat – Painting by John-Louis-Ernest Meissonier

Le bureil was a fabric of pure wool  either beige-brown or grey-blue in colour. Apart from weaving it into cloth, shepherds’ wives used it to knit the Neopolitan bonnet that they wore.

There are different accounts as to how the spinners and weavers of the Pays d’Olmes lived and worked. Some paint a picture of a hard life, working in difficult conditions for very little reward. In poorer households often the whole family lived, worked and slept in just one room.

Others accounts are not so charitable. I have translated the first lines of a song written about the weavers which aims to illustrate their weekly routine:

Weavers are worse than Bishops

Every Monday is a holiday for them

The Tuesday they have a hang-over

And Wednesday they can do nothing

Thursday they look at their work

Friday starts their week

Saturday the cloth is not finished

And yet Sunday, they say, ‘now you must pay us, Master’.