Yesterday afternoon was fascinating. We went to Belesta library for a talk by Paul Garrigues, a local historian who collects old wooden artifacts. He’s such a good speaker, and gave us an insight into a way of life which only finally drew to a close about 30 years ago. He’s pretty much my age, but his childhood was spent around ox-drawn farm machinery, distaffs and a host of things that formed no part of my rural infancy. Now that most Ariègeois farms look pretty much like anywhere else’s, with tractors, silos and irrigation systems, it’s rather hard to believe.
Paul’s childhood was spent in the next village to here, Aigues Vives. Later, he met and married a young woman from a tiny community in the Couserans, a part of the Département to the west of here. He was surprised to find how different the tools in his wife’s village often were. There too, the villagers spoke Gascon, rather than the Occitan traditional in our part of the area.
And so his interest began. He started to collect mainly wooden artifacts: agricultural items, kitchen tools, playthings. To him these things tell a story of rural life here as it was lived over many centuries. Yesterday he came to Belesta Library to talk and show part of his collection.
First of all, a simple wooden torch, looking something like a charred rounders bat. This interests him because items just like this were in use – almost daily – since man first populated the area in Stone Are times, right up until the First World War, and in a few cases, beyond.
Next, a distaff. This item too remained unchanged almost from those early days until the early years of last century. Any female over the age of about 8 living over the last 1000 years and more, whether rich or poor, would have recognised it. Spinning would have been a constant part of her daily routine, whether she was managing a fine estate, or supervising a few sheep on the mountainside. And do you know what? Constantly licking your finger and thumb as you handled the wool made your mouth dry, so beside you, you might have a little wooden box, filled with snuff, to help your saliva to flow: he showed us samples.
We saw long wooden balloon whisks and three-pronged forks used to stir the great vats of millas (a sort of porridge made from cornmeal) beloved of the Ariègeois, wooden spoons and forks, large wooden bowls. He showed us wooden clogs.
We saw wooden roof tiles. All these things are made from unplaned wood, so the implements can follow the natural grain of the wood and be strong and sturdy.
From the Couserans he had savage long thick knives, looking like swords in their wooden or leather scabbards. Their design was directly descended from the instruments of war the Gascons often saw in their battle-rich past, but in fact they were used to cut rough grass, crops, and the long straw required for thatching.
There were other differences between that part of the area and ours. Here, terracing was a feature of upland farms, and it was male beasts who worked the land. There, the farmers worked directly on the steep slopes: the cows who ploughed the land (it was female animals who did the work here) had to have specially designed wooden yokes so that they weren’t strangled as one worked at a higher level than her work-mate.
But it wasn’t all hard labour. Anyone who’s ever been to a bowling alley would recognize the bowls and skittles he showed us (made from wood, naturally). They were a big feature of life round Biert in the Couserans, but inter-village tournaments were rare. They all played to different rules, which tended to make contests rather difficult. But it was over here, in nearby Le Sautel, that a game was bought to a sudden end at the end of the 19thcentury.
One Sunday, the women went obediently to Mass, and as usual, the men played with their bowls outside, getting argumentative and noisy as the morning wore on. Eventually, the priest in church could take no more. He stormed out through the church porch, confiscated the bowls, and hid them in the sacristy. Evidently completely unchastened, the men simply produced other bowls when it came to their next match.
Paul’s keen that we should regard these tools and artifacts as living objects, part of a traditional way of life extending back hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. He doesn’t want them consigned to the cemetery of history. If you live round here in some old-style village or town house, you’re almost certain to find quite of few of the things he talked about in your outhouse or attic. Perhaps I should have another look.