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

The Versailles of Languedoc

One of my favourite vide-greniers (car boot sales) of the season took place last weekend in the grounds of Chateau Lagarde not far from Mirepoix on the Aude/Ariege borders. As it happened I came away empty handed but not before soaking up the atmosphere. With all the stalls set out, colourful, gay; people and dogs milling around, chatting, buying, selling (the people no the dogs that is…then again?) I wondered if this was the modern equivalent of the medieval fair and market.

20160724_102549

In the 17th century, the chateau was known as the Versailles of Languedoc but it has its roots deeply in the Middle Ages and warfare. It perches, unmissable for miles around on the top of a hill just outside the village of Lagarde, on the left bank of the River Hers – a strategic placement since the river was the means of access to the Pyrenees and the plains below. The occupants could always see who and what was coming and going.

The Albigensian crusade against the so-called heretic Cathars brought a pack of land and booty hungry Northern French nobles into the area and after the defeat of the Cathars, Simon de Montfort, leader of this mob, confiscated the chateau and its lands and gave it over to Guy de Levis, a lesser lord keen to reap the rewards of his faithful service to Montfort.

At the beginning of the 14th century the castle underwent a complete makeover – an inscription found reads “Monsieur Francois de Levis, Seigneur of Montsegur and Madame Elix de Lautrec, his woman, built this castle in CCCXX.” Mmm, not sure about the ‘his woman’ bit, sounds a tad derogatory.

Francois had the choice of two castles, that of Montsegur and Lagarde. Since Montsegur is open to all the winds and snow that blow for most of the year and almost inaccessible to boot, the Seigneur (or perhaps ‘his woman’) decided to live at Lagarde.

The most eye-opening transformation of the castle took place in the 15th century when, discarding its defensive fortress role its owner and his heirs began another extensive makeover to take upgrade the old fortress to the level of a luxurious Renaissance castle. Three stories high; twenty bedrooms; any number of reception rooms including a drawing room, the Great Hall, a gallery, the Knights Hall and a games room; décor and furnishings of the most sumptuous.  Later still a terrace and formal gardens were added. It must have been a gorgeous bit of glam.

lagarde

By the end of the Ancien Regime (just before the French revolution) the castle was said to rival those of the Loire and indeed, Versailles itself. When taken to task by King Louis XVI for his poor attendance at court, the owner, Gaston de Levis-Leran replied “Sire, it is obvious that your Majesty has never been to Lagarde.” Risky thing to say to a King whose pride and joy was Versailles, oh and Marie-Antoinette of course.

During The French Revolution the castle was sold as a state possession and since it had once been a fortress it was doomed to demolition.  The new owner demolished all the residential buildings so that he could sell off the stone. The demolition ceased part way and some of the castle was reduced to serving as grain and fodder storage; one part became a forge and those parts that still remained became accommodation for the locals in need of a des. res. Over the years the stone continued to be robbed out. Eventually Lagarde was completely abandoned and classified as an historic monument. Today, the current owners are trying at least to stabilise the ruins and restore or preserve whatever is possible.

Chateau_Lagarde_0