Our socially mobile terraced house: or ’génoises’ – a history

You might have thought we were pretty ordinary types living in an ordinary old terrace house – an ex-butcher’s shop for heaven’s sake – in a run-down ordinary little town.

Well, you’d be wrong.  This house, and the neighbouring ones, was built for minor nobility.  We haven’t scoured the archives or talked to the Oldest Inhabitant to find this out.  We just know.

And this is how we know.  Under the eaves of our houses are three rows of génoises, resembling a child’s drawing of ocean waves, but turned upside down.

Three rows of our génoises, underneath carefully picked out in terracotta paint to show them to full advantage

Back when our house was built, some time in the 18th century, the number of rows you were able to have denoted your social status. Artisans were permitted one row, shopkeepers two.  Minor nobility – ahem – three.  And if you were directly in the service of the king, then you could claim four rows.

You’ll see houses with génoises south of a line that runs pretty much from Bordeaux to Lyon.  It’s thought that the technique, which is Italian, was introduced firstly to Provence and then more widely, by artisans from Genoa round about the mid 17thcentury.

Here at Villar Saint Anselme in the Aude is a rare building with 4 rows of génoises. Look carefully: the swallows – no respecters of status – have built their nests on the undersides

By the nineteenth century, the social implication of the number of rows of génoiserie had pretty much disappeared: people contented themselves with one or two rows for decorative purposes.  We’ve seen our house on a late eighteenth century plan of Laroque, so we know the house, complete with génoises, must have been built by then.

And a family with pretensions to nobility lived in a tall, narrow terraced house?  Admittedly with some nice features, but still nothing fancy at all.  Well, inheritance laws in pre-Revolutionary France had estates divided up between all the heirs, so land and property became shared into decreasingly smaller parcels.  Families graced with extensive land and properties were few and far between.  This helps explain too why the agricultural revolution taking place in England from the 18th century took no hold in France.  Tiny farms resulted in small-scale farming and a near-impoverished peasantry.

And at some point, the house passed into the hands of the previous owners’ family and became a butcher’s shop.  Now it belongs to (almost) the only English in town.  Its noble origins are long forgotten.

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