A walk with added history

North Yorkshire, Walking, Wensleydale, Yorkshire Dales

This was a fine day for a walk, and a fine day to have a few history lessons thrown in

This is what we did.  Here’s our starting point at East Witton, about 15 miles from home. It’s a lovely small village of about 250 people, where most of the houses were built in the early 19th century round the extensive village green.

East Witton

East Witton

We passed through fields with views across the Dales.  We walked along a green lane, through woods, and eventually reached a wooded gorge through which the River Cover runs, and where we crossed over the charming stone bridge known as the Hullo Bridge.  It was quite a climb up the hill on the other side, and we were hoping for glimpses of Braithwaite Hall.  Too many trees in full leaf. We hardly glimpsed it.

It’s built on the site of a grange belonging to Jervaulx Abbey.  After the Dissolution of the Monasteries it continued as a sheep farm, as it had been under the monks.  This is an area where the monks of both Jervaulx and Fountains Abbey extended their influence widely: enormous numbers of sheepall over the region were managed from local granges where the lay brothers who cared for them lived.

The ruins of Middleham Castle.

The ruins of Middleham Castle.

We were nearly in Middleham now.  This is above all a horsey town.  The monks of Jervaulx bred horses, and brought them to the Moor to exercise them.  When the monks eventually went, the horses remained, as did the training tradition .  Middleham these days is home to around 15 racehorse trainers and 500 horses, yet it’s a small town of hardly more than 820 people.  It was too late for us to see the horses out on the Gallops this morning, so instead the first thing we saw was the castle, which dates back to 1190 and was the stronghold of the powerful Neville family from the 14th century.  Richard Plantagenet, later Richard III was sent here as a young man to be trained in arms by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, his cousin.

The earliest known portrait of Richard III (Wikimedia Commons)

The earliest known portrait of Richard III (Wikimedia Commons)

Warwick had the bad habit of changing sides throughout the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) depending on whether the Yorkists or Lancastrians had the upper hand.  Eventually he came to a bad end when he was killed by the Yorkist King Edward IV and his younger brother Richard.  Edward gave Middleham Castle, and much else to Richard who lived there with his wife, virtually ruling the North of England, for 11 years.  When Edward died, Richard seized the throne and reigned for only 2 years before dying in August 1485 in the final battle of the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire.  And there his body remained for 517 years, before being exhumed from a car park in Leicester in 2012.

For us, Middleham was the site for a rather good picnic, followed by a visit to a teashop for an indifferent cup of tea, and even more indifferent cake.  But the calories were useful.  There were stiles to cross into fields deep in cut grass, waiting to dry off into hay:  a fine walled track Straight Lane – to walk along before reaching the River Cover, languidly passing over bleached white stones on its way to meet the River Ure.  We briefly touched the road once more as we passed Coverbridge Inn.  This dates from 1684, and was owned by the same family – the Towlers – till 1930.  Local legend has it that when the monks of Jervaulx were forced to disband in 1537 at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, they shared their secret recipe for Wensleydale cheese with the Towlers.  We shall never know.

A final walk along woodland paths, open farmland, fields enclosed by characterful drystone walling and we were back in East Witton.  A grand day.

The Whitby jet-set

Ariège, England, Laroque d'Olmes, Yorkshire

We’ve just had good friends from Laroque staying for the week.  We’ve been obliged to polish up our French, which turned out not to be as hard as we’d feared.  And we’ve been doing our best to show-case Yorkshire.  We didn’t expect that to be hard, and it wasn’t.  But we had fun exploring links between our two home areas, something I’ve talked about before here.  Easy enough when you’re walking in the hilly limestone scenery of the Dales, or discussing breeds of sheep, or our former textile and mining industries,  or bumbling along single-track roads in the country, with no villages in sight.

But it would be stretching a point to find a meeting point between the land-locked Ariège, and the East Yorkshire coast, surely?  Well, as it happens, no.  We had a day exploring the coast near Whitby: and I remembered that during the 1800s, Whitby and parts of the Ariège, Laroque d’Olmes included, had a thriving industry in common.  Jet.

19th century mourning jewellery.  Wikimedia Commons.

19th century mourning jewellery. Wikimedia Commons.

Back in the mid 19th century, the fashionable French and English alike couldn’t get enough of the gleaming, richly black fossilised wood that came out of local cliffs (Whitby) and river beds (Ariège) to be transformed by local workers into brooches, earrings and lockets.  In its hey-day, the industry employed thousands of people engaged in finding and extracting the mineral, carving and polishing it.  Queen Victoria ensured its continued popularity in England by wearing jet as mourning jewellery when her beloved Prince Albert died.

We found no jet.  So Wikimedia Commons had to help me out.

We found no jet. So Wikimedia Commons had to help me out.

Its decline  as a fashion item matched the decline of readily available sources of the material.  Somehow, by 1900, jet had lost its allure, and both areas lost an important source of employment.  Jet in the Ariège is consigned to history books and museums.  In Whitby, however, there’s something of a revival, and there  are once more a few shops selling costume jewellery and other items made of jet.

We never found a single piece, but not for want of trying. Instead, we had a more traditional day at the sea.  We ate large plates of fish and chips.  We seagull-watched.  We paddled on the beach and investigated rock pools.  And we ended the day at the higgledy-piggledy and charming settlement of Runswick Bay, clambering up and down the cobbled streets and admiring the quaint cottages with their views across the bay.

A solitary and ascetic life

Yorkshire, Yorkshire Dales
Mount Grace Priory viewed from the cloisters

Mount Grace Priory viewed from the cloisters

As you travel round North Yorkshire, you quickly become aware of its Christian heritage, and realise how many abbeys and monasteries there were, from a variety of religious foundations, for Henry VIII to get his teeth into once he’d laid his plans for the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s.

Fountains Abbey, as I mentioned in a recent post, is just down the road, and Jervaulx and Rievaulx aren’t far away: there are at least a dozen more.  And each of them is ruined, left waste after Henry VIII pensioned off or martyred the abbots, priors, monks and lay brothers, and all the equivalent females too.

Today we visited Mount Grace Priory near Osmotherly.  We’re accustomed to making a tour, when we visit these religious sites, of chapels, refectories, kitchens, cloisters – places where monks or nuns and lay brothers or sisters gathered together in spiritual or physical work for the benefit of their own and perhaps the wider community.

Not so at Mount Grace.  This community was a Carthusian foundation.  The Carthusians developed their order as a reaction to the lax conditions tolerated by many other religious orders at the time – the late 11th century.  Initially centred on Chartreuse near Grenoble, the order founded religious houses throughout Europe, reaching Mount Grace in the later 14th century.

The simple, unadorned architecture of the priory.

The simple, unadorned architecture of the priory.

Seven years is the time it took to become a full Carthusian monk.  Seven years in which to decide whether the full religious life of solitary prayer, contemplation and work was for you.  Seven years in which you would only ever see your fellow monks on a Sunday, at Chapter meeting.  For the rest of the time you lived completely alone in your own little house which gave onto the large Great Cloister.  Here you had a room in which to sleep and pray at the proper appointed times, a small living area with a large hearth, and upstairs, a room where you would work.  Perhaps you would weave, or write out or illustrate manuscripts.  Sometimes you would grow vegetables or fruit and herbs in your little patch of garden. You might walk or meditate in your very own mini-cloister.  Even mealtimes were solitary.  Your (vegetarian) food for your twice-daily meals would be pushed through a space in the wall by a lay brother whom you never saw. Bedtime was 6.00 p.m. and there were two extended times of prayer through the night. What you also had, though, extraordinary for medieval times, was a privy regularly flushed from springs in the area, and cold piped running water.

 

The monastery site includes a prison to confine brothers who became disobedient. At a time when mental illness was little understood, surely some must have reacted badly to this life of extreme solitude, and become ‘problems’?  Any yet there were always far more men wanting one of the 25 places at this austerely- run yet comfortable priory than could be accommodated.

The lay brothers who did much of the ‘housekeeping’ led similarly solitary lives, as far as their working day permitted.  They farmed, made domestic pottery ware, looked after working animals, and the fish ponds: fish were apparently sometimes served as part of a vegetarian diet.

One of the several fishponds.

One of the several fishponds.

Naturally women were never permitted on site.  Both male and female pilgrims would stay in what is now the Manor House from time to time, as monasteries have always had an obligation to offer shelter to travellers.

Since the Dissolution, the priory and its surroundings have been abandoned and fallen into ruin.  The surrounding farmland was sold off, and the Manor House was converted and adapted for family life at various times in both the 17th and 19th centuries.  The refitting of the house in the  popular Arts and Crafts style at the turn of the 20th century deserves a post of its own.

Mount Grace is a lovely site. Malcolm and I were happy to visit it together, to have the chance to talk to informative and enthusiastic staff, and to wander around at our leisure.  Living there for an entire adult life, under strict Carthusian rule?  Not a chance.

This is the Manor House as it appears today, viewed from the garden and fishpond.

This is the Manor House as it appears today, viewed from the garden and fishponds.

Our Bank Holiday excursion: Castle Howard

Patrimoine, Yorkshire

Stately homes.  Back in the day, they were home to the landed gentry, and were local employers par excellence, what with large households to cook, clean, furbish and refurbish for, ornamental and vegetable gardens and even farmland to nurture, children to rear and educate, hunting grounds to stock and maintain, guests to cater for.

Nowadays, they’re where the English like to go on a Bank Holiday.  They provide the chance to get a glimpse of other, very different lives, to learn a little history and to enjoy a stroll round gardens on such a different scale from that little patch you potter around back home. And because it’s a Bank Holiday, a little entertainment doesn’t go amiss either.  People arrive in their hundreds, expecting to spend the entire day exploring house and gardens, snacking rather well in one of several tea rooms, mooching round the gift shop and having a little bit of extra fun too.

Castle Howard

Castle Howard

Emily had come over from Barcelona to visit, with boyfriend Miquel in tow.  Castle Howard seemed a good place to spend a day. Thanks to its frequent starring role in TV costume dramas and films, there can be few Brits who aren’t familiar with Castle Howard, even those who haven’t ventured north of Watford Gap.  Me, I’m the ‘Brideshead Revisited’ generation, and back in 1981, Tuesday evenings (I think) were put on hold for weeks and weeks as we turned the television to ITV and followed the Evelyn Waugh saga, feeding our nostalgia for a very different  pre-Second World War Britain.  Castle Howard was pretty much star of the show.

And really, why not? You can read its history here, but just spend a little time strolling round with us, as we re-discovered the parkland; the woodland; the walled gardens; the splendid 19th century Atlas fountain;  The Great Hall – where columns & arches covered with carved decorations rise towards the splendidly painted dome; the chapel decorated by Burne-Jones… and so on.

 

But because we went on a Bank Holiday we had extra things to do.  There were sheep dog displays.  We admired the skill of those so-well-trained dogs as they expertly rounded up not only sheep, but a gaggle of geese and a fussy line of ducks.

Sheep dog rounding up geese for a change.

Sheep dog rounding up geese for a change.

There were falconry displays.  Here is the splendid and majestic Ferruginous Buzzard who made a break for it and got away: last seen in a distant field, regarding us all with thorough disdain.  I hope handler Ben found him again: he was a very handsome beast indeed, as were all the birds of prey we saw that afternoon.

Ferruginous buzzard, contemplating his get-out plan.

Ferruginous buzzard, contemplating his get-out plan.

A final wander round the grounds, the walled garden, then we too made our excuses and left, just before closing time and the mass-escape for the car park.  We’d had a fine day.

A final glance at the parkland surrounding the house.

A final glance at the parkland surrounding the house.

‘L’auberge espagnole de la Résistance’

Ariège, Laroque d'Olmes, Patrimoine, Pyrénées, Spain, Walking

…. which is, being very roughly translated, our pot-luck picnic on the Resistance trail.

Posh picnic?  I think not. But it's the taste  and the company - that counts.

Posh picnic? I think not. But it’s the taste and the company – that counts.

Jean-Charles has long wanted to get us up to Croquié, a village high above the road between Foix and Tarascon, for a walk with a 360 degree panorama of the Pyrenees, and a very moving monument to some of the Maquisards who died fighting in the French resistance in World War II.  This really was the last Sunday we could go, and the day was glorious: hot, with clear blue skies and views for miles and miles in every direction.

Neither Malcolm nor I is particularly on form at the moment, so while our Laroquais friends yomped up a semi-vertical path, deeply slicked in mud, we went part-way up the mountainside from the village of Croquié by car, and then walked on up by road (a road, however, closed to cars) to meet the rest of the group.

Our first destination was the Monument to the Resistance.  This site, with views across to the mountains dividing us from Spain, far-reaching from west to east, was chosen as a memorial site not because it was a war-time battle ground.  Instead it was a training school for resistance fighters from France, Spain and beyond.  There are no barracks, no lecture-halls, no buildings of any kind.  Instead the men led hidden existences among the forest trees and rocks.  And now there is a fine memorial to them.  Singled out were two men who died in nearby Vira (the area where we walked last week) a Maquis stronghold, one who died in our neighbouring town of Bélesta, and one who died following deportation.  There is a statue to these men, who are nevertheless depicted without facial features.  In this way they stand representative for all the men – and women – who died whether through fighting, by acting as liaison workers, or by offering essential support by giving shelter, clothing and food.  Individuals did not pass over to Spain from here: the border is too far away.  Instead they were driven to one of the freedom trails such as those near Oust and Seix.  Petrol?  It could be organised, albeit with difficulty.  A key man ran a garage.

The sculptor of this monument is Ted Carrasco.  A native of Bolivia, pre-Columbian art  is a clear influence on his work.  He seeks always for his pieces to be in harmony with the environment in which they are placed.  His monumental granite figures look over to the Pyrenees which were the scene of their fight against fascism and the Nazi occupation of France.

Time to move on, however.  Our path took us slowly upwards through forest, along a track which became increasingly snow-covered and tough going.  However, it was only 3 km. or so until we reached the top, where there’s a refuge dedicated to the memory of its original owner, Henri Tartie, known as ‘l ‘Aynat’ – the elder, in Occitan.  The original structure is tiny, but served as shelter to many a Maquisard .  Now it’s a wood store, because a newer concrete annexe has been added with cooking facilities so that hardy mountain walkers can rest, make a meal, and warm themselves up.

We commandeered a circular concrete table outside, with apparently unending views of those Pyrenees, and somehow squeezed all ten of us round.  We unpacked our food:  as ever there was wine to share, rhum baba à l’orange, galette charentaise, biscuits – all home-made, of course.  Malcolm and I knew it was our last walk with our friends.  The fine views, the fine company, the cheerful conversation had a predictable effect.  We became tearful.  But so grateful that this walk was a bit of a first.  Extra-special views, extra-special weather for March, the chance to get close to an important slice of Ariègeois history, and our extra-special friends.  We shan’t be with them next Sunday: there’ll be too much to do.  It doesn’t bear thinking about.

The two of us, just after lunch.

The two of us, just after lunch.

Two walks: the last walks?

Ariège, Aude, Pyrénées, Walking

This post is really just a chance  to post a few photos from a couple of recent walks, one in the Ariège, and one in the Aude.  Each walk brought out some of the contrasts and similarities between  the two Départements.

The more local walk, near Ventenac last Sunday, was near meadows where cattle grazed, through fields being prepared for sowing feed crops such as maize, and through oak and beech forest.  Though there are villages dotted about, the area is still thinly populated, densely forested.  During the Second World War it provided cover for the Spanish Maquis , scourge of the German army.  With the support of many, but not all locals,  the Maquis came to regard the area as a centre of gravity, from which they emerged to pass soldiers and refugees across the mountains, and to organise acts of resistance to German occupation . You’ll find monuments to their activities, their battles, their acts of martyrdom all over the area.  It’s easy to see how, in this large territory, with under-developed links of communication, the Germans had such difficulties keeping tabs on the Maquis’ whereabouts.

Over in the Aude on Thursday, near Esperaza, we saw no farm animals, but our path took us past vineyards where the vines were being hard-pruned ready for 6 months of vigorous growth and grape production.  Martine, from a wine-producing family, explained some of the different methods of pruning  – and there are dozens.  Older varieties of vine, unsupported by wires, may be pruned with an open centre, so the core looks almost like a bowl.  Other kinds of grape usually require training along wires: all sorts of schools of thought here.  These days, much harvesting is mechanical.  Martine’s family send their grapes to a wine co-operative for processing.  This co-operative sends an oenologist every year to analyse their grapes and those of all the other members of the cooperative.  Then he will book everybody a two-day spot with the mechanical harvester at what he believes to be the optimum moment for their particular harvest.  Few grapes cannot be harvested in this way, but the local Blanquette de Limoux is one.  Its low-growing grapes are unsuited to mechanical methods.  With wine-production the main agricultural industry, the villages here have a properous air to them.

Both walks shared a fair bit up uphill (and therefore downhill) marching.  And in both cases, the rewards were in the views of the distant Pyrenees, still covered in snow.  In the Ariège, you’ll be looking to recognise the peaks of Saint Barthélemy and  Soularac, whereas in the Aude, you’ll have no difficulty in recognising Bugarach looming above the surrounding peaks.

These last walks are bitter-sweet.  We’re enjoying them, but not enjoying the fact that, for the time being, there are (almost) no more to come.

A hoarder vindicated

England

The downsizing continues.  We’ve become accustomed to discarding ancient birthday cards, messages sent to us to our last day at work, and even our school reports from the 1950s and ’60s.  We’ve come to expect gales of laughter from friends who don’t share our hoarding instincts and who observe our inner struggles with astonishment (yes, that’s you, Kalba).

So what happened this week?  I thought it was time to get rid of my sewing box.  I thread a needle maybe twice a year when a button falls off or a hem comes adrift.  So why do I need about three dozen reels of cotton in every colour you can think of, miscellaneous hooks and eyes, multi-coloured embroidery thread, a clutch of thimbles, a box of rusting pins and two darning mushrooms, all inherited from my mother?

All the same….  those reels of genuine cotton from the 1950s – no polyester mixes here ,  those cards of thread in various shades of tan , all the better to darn your stockings with, and even those hooks and eyes are all pieces of history.  I thought the friends I keep up with on Facebook might like to see them.  I posted these photos:

And within minutes I had an urgent request from that militant non-hoarder, Kalba, that I should give them to her, swiftly followed by a similar request from another friend.  Daughter Number 1 weighed in, as I knew she would, swiftly followed by Daughter Number 2.  Son has been strangely silent, but daughters have agreed to share custody of the cotton reels.  Three more people joined the conversation,  and started waxing nostalgic about darning mushrooms.  Then someone else pointed out that the factory producing the hooks and eyes had been part of her childhood neighbourhood, but had been closed for decades, and more people joined in to celebrate the almost-forgotten skill of darning.  A further request for the contents of my sewing box came from America, and a school friend whom I’ve not been in touch with for years made contact.

One way or another, my battered old sewing box has awakened memories, provoked recollections and conversations, and generally livened things up.  Just as well I didn’t dispose of it years ago.  There’s no chance of its being discarded now.  Apart from anything else, you just look some of these items up on eBay.  I’m sitting on a small fortune here.

 

Down among the dusty archives

Ariège, Laroque d'Olmes, Patrimoine
Laroque d'Olmes' town insignia

Laroque d’Olmes’ town insignia

Like every commune in France – apart from those who’ve lost everything in flood, fire or time of war – Laroque has shelves, yards and yards of them, of municipal archives.   In the main these are bound volumes of directives from central government relating to the Ariège.  There are also endless files of copies of forms relating to hatches, matches and despatches, licenses for liquor, permission to drive carriages, horseless or otherwise, toll roads, road improvements, land sales, local disasters such as landslip and flooding, records of meetings, residency requests, paperwork relating to shops, artisans, workmen an apprentices, immigrants….  all human life is here.  That’s before you realise there are bundles of engravings, daguerreotypes, photographs…..

They aren’t indexed.

Laroque’s Commission du Patrimoine, of which I am an enthusiastic but fairly useless member (I have no Tales of the Oldest Inhabitant, no competence to research French documents, no skills in artefact restoration or in industrial archaeology) has realised this situation must change.

An early job is to trawl through the central government volumes, which date from the early 18th century, and extract any information relating to Laroque.  I can help here.  It’s a question of skimming these volumes for relevant entries.

A bobbin worker immortalised in Laroque's Council Chamber

A bobbin worker immortalised in Laroque’s Council Chamber

Three of us sat down on Friday morning in the old Council Chamber of the Mairie, with its wall decorations showing noted politicians and industrialists, as well as allusions to the all-important textile industry.  We had dusty piles of leather-bound volumes on the table in front of us.  We turned to. It was fairly dry repetitive work, so we kept each other amused by reading out things that caught our eye.  There were tales of Mayors drummed out of office (not from Laroque, no of course not) for inappropriate drunkenness.  There were the lists of clothes to be supplied to those children raised in institutions, and the money made available for the care of each child.

An infant from 1 day to 9 months old needs:3 blouses, 2 vests, 6 (6 only?) nappies, 3 swaddling blankets, 2 baby's bonnets, a woollen dress and 2 bootees.

An infant from 1 day to 9 months old needs:3 blouses, 2 vests, 6 (6 only?) nappies, 3 swaddling blankets, 2 baby’s bonnets, a woollen dress and 2 bootees.

11-12 year old girl: 3 cloth blouses, woollen coat, cotton coat, cotton apron, cap, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 lined caps, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair shoes. 11-12 year old boy: 3 cloth shirts, 1 pair trousers, 1 vest, 1 waistcoat, 2 ties, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair lined shoes.  After 12, they made their own way in the world

11-12 year old girl: 3 cloth blouses, woollen coat, cotton coat, cotton apron, cap, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 lined caps, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair shoes. 11-12 year old boy: 3 cloth shirts, 1 pair trousers, 1 vest, 1 waistcoat, 2 ties, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair lined shoes. After 12, they made their own way in the world

I was intrigued to learn that there was in the 19th century, a single training school  in the Pas-de-Calais in the north of France for would-be shepherds.  Why would you spare your 16-year-old son to go to the other end of France, at some expense, to acquire his training (though there were no fees), when he could be back at home learning on the job?  There was a similar mining school in the east of France.

A demanding clothing list for the shepherds' school: 8 new shirts, 8 pairs of stockings or socks, 2 cravats, 8 handkerchiefs, 5 blouses, 2 pairs winter trousers, 3 pairs summer trousers, 2 waistcoats, 3 woollen jumpers, 2 new pairs shoes, 2 pairs clogs and liners.  The shcool did the laundry though.

A demanding clothing list for the shepherds’ school: 8 new shirts, 8 pairs of stockings or socks, 2 cravats, 8 handkerchiefs, 5 blouses, 2 pairs winter trousers, 3 pairs summer trousers, 2 waistcoats, 3 woollen jumpers, 2 new pairs shoes, 2 pairs clogs and liners. The school did the laundry though.

We were good though.  We completed our self-appointed tasks.  We found Laroque mentioned throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, as all other communes, in connection with, for example:

  • understanding its precise obligations to maintain communal roads and paths.
  • submitting to standardised checks to ensure fair weights and measures were being applied locally.
  • submitting returns showing who had joined the army, and in what capacity.
  • We learned where the nearest doctors, midwives (‘sage-femmes‘) and pharmacists to Laroque were.

Despite moments of tedium, this was a fascinating morning.  I was privileged to inspect these old records, and to gain a little more understanding of life during this period, and an appreciation of just how far the long arm of the state, whether imperial or republican, extended.

Directives from the Empire in 1870 about fishing, recruitment to the national guard, ...er...mayflies, and billhooks

Directives from the Empire in 1870 about fishing, recruitment to the national guard, …er…mayflies, and billhooks

Imperial constitution and rights of succession

Imperial constitution and rights of succession

A Renaissance feast

Ariège, Patrimoine
Mirepoix: Wikipedia Commons

Mirepoix: Wikipedia Commons

Along the road from us is Mirepoix: the pretty town, the one with the half-timbered houses set  round a central square, where it’s good to sit outside with a nice cool beer of a summer evening surveying several centuries of history.  A bit of a contrast with shabby old Laroque.  It’s something of a Mecca for both locals and tourists, as it has a busy programme of festivals throughout the year, celebrating everything from Jazz and Swing to the apple harvest.

There was new one the other week, La Fête de la Gastronomie.  We missed most of the talks, walks, demonstrations and foodie events, what with being in Bilbao.  But we did get back just in time to catch the visit to a tiny church in the tiny nearby hamlet of Mazerettes.  This was no church guided tour however.  We’d come to hear Martine Rouche talk about the fresco there, depicting the feast of Herod during which the head of John the Baptist was dished up.  No, it wasn’t an art history lecture either, nor a biblical exposition. Martine Rouche has researched this fresco – one of several recently restored in the church –  to help us understand dining and feasting in this part of 16th century France.

P1080352

The fresco is dated 1533, so Herod’s feast reflects the customs in use at that date.  At that time, there was no special room designated for dining.  The host had the table arranged wherever it suited him best, whether it was the main hall or a bed-chamber.  In contrast with the fine elaborate costumes worn by the guests, the table itself is quite simply and starkly dressed.  Not so many years before, food had been served on ‘tranchoirs‘, thick solid slices of bread.  Now, simple round plates were provided.

There weren’t many glasses on the table either.  P1080371These were expensive rare items still, so guests expected to share .  Servants would hover, ready to refill glasses as required, and everyone would drink from the glass nearest them.  Glasses didn’t come as a matching set: there were as many designs as there were drinking vessels.

Besides these, there were drageoires of crystal, designed to hold sugar and spices, which guests would nibble at throughout the meal.  This fashion for having these expensive and elegant tit-bits spread from Italy through southern France and Lyon , eventually reaching this area.

A drageoire

A drageoire

There were knives.  These were personal property.  You’d take your own with you and use it both to cut food, and as a means of conveying it to your mouth: no forks yet.  Then you’d take it home with you again.

And this curved implement is a furgeoir.  You may not want to have one at table yourself.  The pointed end is a toothpick, but you’d have used the spoon-like end to scoop out earwax when the fancy took you.

A furgeoir and a couple of plates

A furgeoir and a couple of plates

Under the table is a nef.  Though this one isn’t, such containers were often in the shape of a nautilus shell.  P1080367The principal guest at a banquet might have one as a sort of superior picnic hamper.  He’d use it to keep his knife, his napkin, maybe some spices, and some anti-poison specifics.  Later, the nef was replaced by the cadena, which might have several different compartments.

As to the food served, there are few clues here.  Apart from the head of John the Baptist, which was not intended to be eaten,  there were some sides of ham and other fairly unidentifiable items.  More information comes from contemporary receipt books.  Local  grandee Phillippe de Lévis, who was responsible for commissioning the frescos in the church, also hired patissiers, who of course submitted detailed bills .  These confirm what we already know: that the church calendar ruled.  Periods of plenty (‘régimes gras’) were interspersed with simpler and restricted ‘régimes maigres‘. Every Friday, Lent and Advent among others were ‘maigres‘ .  Meat and dairy products were  avoided in favour of simpler, less rich foods.  Fish was generally allowed, but for the wealthy, this was scarcely a privation.  The River Hers was rich in salmon, and would be prepared with fine and not-at-all-simple spices: cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cloves – and sugar.  Even certain water fowl, such as the moorhen –  ‘poule d’eau’ – were considered honorary fish.

But outside those periods of abstinence, what feasting took place!  A meal might begin with individual tarts, and go on to several courses of salads, fruits, boiled meats, roast meats, sauced meats.  From our point of view, the courses differed little from one another.  Our clear expectations of the kind of things that might appear as an entrée, a main course and a desert did not hold good back in the 16th century.

It all sounded pretty unappetising.  What with sharing glasses, enduring course after course of rich and highly spiced food, it would probably have been a relief to go home .  The men at least had opportunities with hunting and other manly pusuits to burn off a few calories.  Not quite so easy for the women, I think.

And thank you, Martine Rouche, for a fascinating and entertaining afternoon.

Laroque: a town tour

Ariège, Laroque d'Olmes
Laroque: a roofscape.

Laroque: a roofscape.

Here you are reading my blog: and the chances are that you’ve never visited Laroque.

Let’s go for a stroll then, and get to know the place a bit.  You may think, when you’ve seen the photos, that the town is quite shabby-chic.  It’s not.  For the most part, Laroque is just plain shabby.  It’s going through tough times, and it shows.  Underneath it all, though, are characterful buildings, streets with a story, and even places that are enjoying a prosperous renaissance.  Let’s set off from our house at the edge of the old town, and walk up Rue de la Joie……