Peasant Farm Structures In The Bocage Virois (Normandy, France)

An Informal Study of the Architecture and Farming Practices Apparent in Small Farm Buildings

By Christopher Long

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The design, construction and arrangement of agricultural buildings in poorer peasant communities have always evolved to satisfy the practical daily and seasonal needs of farmers, their families and their livestock.

Almost any region in Europe could point to examples of a characteristic local model which probably evolved during the C17th, C18th and C19th and which may still have been in practical use during the C20th.

These styles vary according to local social arrangements, the working and natural environment, the climate and whatever livestock and crops are involved.

This article is an informal study of a form of agricultural 'architecture' which is apparently specific to south-west Calvados and south-east Manche in the Bocage Virois, Normandy. It is based on observation and the memories of our elderly neighbours who used the principles involved until the arrival of the first tractors in about 1959.

A few small farms were still using some of the functions involved as late as 2003.

It may seem strange that in Normandy it was still possible, in 2005, to find thousands of intact examples of a system of farm management that had generally become obsolete 50 years earlier. The reason was that, by the end of the C20th, large areas of rural Normandy (particularly in south-west Calvados and south-east Manche) had become so de-populated (in some areas by more than 50%) that the landscape was characterised by vast numbers of abandoned houses and farm structures, often in ruins, usually covered by a corrugated iron roof in place of the original thatch, but not infrequently intact.

One consequence of this was that, by the early years of the C21st, in the view of many foreigners, property prices in the region appeared to be artificially low and therefore extremely attractive to those seeking rural seclusion – predominantly the English. In their thousands the English bought decaying or ruined stone-built farm houses – usually dating from the C17th, C18th and C19th which they then proceeded to 'restore'.

Typically the new settlers were of modest means in Britain, even if they thought themselves cash-rich in Normandy. And not surprisingly this social invasion caused dissent in Normandy where land had always been greatly valued while buildings were of little interest.

So it was that a Norman farmer, with a ruined barn to sell to an English buyer, had few complaints, while those with nothing to sell thought the English had pushed up property prices and made them too expensive for their children to buy. The simple truth was that it took the English, and other foreign settlers, to show the Normans the true value of their buildings.

This article was written in 2005 in the hope that foreign buyers of Norman agricultural buildings will take into account the heritage they have acquired before they inadvertently convert – and perhaps destroy – too much of the evidence of a fundamental Norman peasant heritage.

Very broadly speaking we can divide these structures in three general phases:

  • C12th to C15th mediæval manor houses and farm buildings – relatively rare and usually much adapted in later centuries, though many small communes have one or two surviving examples
  • Buildings of the C16th to C18th – frequently seen and usually adapted in later centuries, these were originally designed for farms growing arable crops and breeding sheep before the arrival of the 'dairy' revolution of the mid-C19th.
    Those built in the mid-C16th and early C17th often incorporate simplified rural forms of a Renaissance style with characteristic bow-shaped decoration over doors and windows. Another variant involves the twin round-topped door system known locally as portes aux anglais (e.g. often seen around Courson and Morigny and sometimes in a twin square-topped version, see picture above right).
    The larger of the twin doors led into a barn or agricultural area while the smaller door led into the domestic living space. It is not clear why the doors should be considered 'English' though it is quite possible that these lavish and very expensive granite doorways were favoured by rich families whose wealth derived from feudal Norman lands in England or from forebears with Anglo-Norman links.
  • Buildings of the C19th and early C20th – very commonly seen everywhere, their design reflects the demands of the agricultural revolution that followed the arrival of cows in around 1850 and the predominance of butter and cheese production in the Bocage Virois. The production and distribution of highly perishable dairy products was made feasible by the simultaneous arrival of canals and railways. In the picture below, the long range of farm buildings – a longère – is typical of structures seen in the area until the end of the C20th, even if the thatch had by then been replaced by corrugated iron sheeting.
    It is hard to exaggerate the significance of the mid-C19th agricultural revolution. This saw cows replacing arable crops on any workable land and even sheep on steeper hillsides. A key element in this revolution was the development of the well-known brown-and-white Vache Normande. Many experts believe that this breed was achieved in about 1850 by crossing the beefy characteristics of a Durham bull with a prolific milk-producing cow from the Channel Islands (i.e. Jersey, Guernsey or Alderney), to which was added a naturally hardy local breed from the Cotentin.
    This change in agricultural emphasis entirely changed agricultural practices. It led today's familiar bocage landscape – small fields surrounded by high earth banks – though these too were fast disappearing by the end of the C20th. But equally dramatic was the wholesale change in the layout and architecture of farm buildings.

  • This article is chiefly concerned with the last of these – the classic Norman farmhouse consisting of 'une Piece, une Grange, des Baies et une Étable'...

    But beware! A few farm-houses with a C19th appearance may still have chimneys, roof structures and stonework that date from the late mediæval period and many have architectural elements dating from the C15th to C18th...

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    Peasant farms in the Norman Bocage in the C19th and early C20th were generally very small indeed by today's standards – seldom more than three or four hectares (9-12 acres) and seldom capable of providing more than a subsistence living.

    Such farms might have lived off three or four cows, a pig, poultry, caged rabbits, grain from the farm, a well-stocked vegetable garden and whatever game could be shot or trapped. Every farm produced large quantities of cider which matured in several huge barrels in a cool storeroom (with an extra-wide doorway) known as la cave. Much of the cider was then distilled to produce the apple brandy known as calvados.

    Occasionally cash might be raised by selling grain for flour at the local mill, selling livestock at the market and by trafficking calvados, usually illegally. But though most farming families lived from hand to mouth until the mid-C20th, some nevertheless were very careful to hide considerable savings and surprising wealth.

    Almost without exception our elderly neighbours remember growing up in the one kitchen/living-room (la maison). While their parents slept in a curtained lit coin in one corner of the room, girls slept on the floor and boys in the hay-loft above.

    The one room, seldom more than six metres square, consisted of a fireplace for heating and cooking, a table, two benches, a sink, a store cupboard (set into the wall beside the chimney), an elaborate wardrobe (l'armoire) and a large box for logs. Water came from the well. Though electricity arrived in ca.1936, only a few houses were connected before WWll. Few places had mains water until the 1950s and then only in the town centres.

    Our neighbours had no books in their childhood – indeed very few had any books in their houses in 2006. The local newspaper was usually the only reading matter. But they say that every family had an annual almanac as well as a chart for calculating market prices per litre or per kilo and, while a drawer of the buffet, contained a pen, a pot of ink and a block of blank writing paper. Valuable documents such as leases and identity cards were kept safely in a drawer in the armoir.

    Next to the kitchen/living-room – accessible via a communicating internal door – was la grange – a raised area about two metres wide running the width of the house. Here tools and equipment were stored, grain was threshed in summer, and hay was spread in winter so that cows in the adjoining stable (l'étable) could feed through the baies – timber-framed slots through which the cows heads could pass.

    Women or children milked the cows in the stable in winter and in the fields in summer, carrying it back in buckets on a yoke over their shoulders to a small separate dairy building (la laiterie) where a hand-turned machine separated the cream from the whey. From this cheese and butter was made for sale in the local weekly markets.

    Until well after the mid-C20th life for the majority of peasant farming families in Basse-Normandie was extremely hard and under these circumstances it's not surprising that an extended family, or group of neighbours, often pooled resources and co-operated in order to reduce their costs. Such co-operative activity continued in the C21st where a group of farmers would work together on each other's farms to bring in and make silage from maize or grass.

    Other co-operative arrangements had long been codified in French law to assure certain rights and obligations – notably concerning access to shared wells (puits), shared washing places (lavoirs) and shared bread-ovens (boulangeries) – giving neighbours rights of way over each other's land to use 'communal' facilities.

    This naturally led to the formation of 'villages' which are characteristically small groups of houses (seldom more than four or five) which might share these facilities and whose identities are formally recognised to this day – e.g. the village or lieu-dit of Le Boquet near Pont-Farcy, which in total consists of about 5 hectares (13 acres).

    [Village names: In this case the name Boquet and Bosquet have become interchangeable though Boquet may have been the name of an early owner as it appears thus in the carte de Cassini in the late C18th. The origins of names of villages are sometimes ancient and often obscure but names ending with ...ère or ...ière usually refer to the name of a family: the Renard family in La Renardière, the La Salle family in La Sallière, or the Champion family in La Championnière, etc. Many other names, such as La Fosse, Le Ménage, Le Côtil, etc., refer to topography or are descriptive of the land, its uses or its tenure.]

    This peasant farm-house, between Ste Marie-Outre-l'Eau and Pont Bellanger in Calvados, is typical of tens of thousands throughout the region. Sadly many are now in ruins and most of those built of clay ('argile') have already vanished.

    In the C18th and C19th (and well into C20th), a building like this was home to a whole family as well as three or four cows – all living off 3 or 4 hectares of land.

    The family would have cooked, eaten and slept in the one downstairs room: an earth floor measuring about 5 x 5 metres beneath an oak-beamed ceiling. A large raised fireplace beneath a massive chimney (supported on timber or granite trans-mural 'corbeaux') provided the only means of cooking and heating.

    Above this room was a large hay-loft, accessible through the door in the roof. This often provided a place for boys to sleep, while a similar loft (usually used to store straw, as bedding for cows) occupied the roof-space on the other side of the hay-loft door.

    For reasons which are not yet clear the original roof-line was nearly always split at two levels – higher over the living room than the remaining part of the building which was devoted to livestock and farm activities.

    Indeed, the roof-line of these houses made a clear visual distinction between the domestic part (with chimney and a higher roof) and the agricultural part (the left-hand half in the picture above).

    Careful observation of the stonework and door heights in this particular house suggests that the wall above the two left-hand doorways has been raised and that the roof was indeed pitched more steeply (and therefore finished much lower) before it was recovered with slates.

    This sort of alteration usually occurred just after the Second World War when nearly all previously thatched properties were re-covered in cheap, light-weight corrugated iron sheeting. Corrugated iron ('tôle') was adopted for the overwhelming majority of poorer agricultural buildings – to such an extent that, by the end of the C20th, the Basse-Normandie landscape was characterised by rust-red roofs.

    However, prior to 1945, almost all peasant farm-houses and out-buildings were thatched with straw or reeds (note the thatching bars on the chimney). Slate roofs were then only seen on the most prestigious town-houses and buildings such as manor houses, abbeys, churches, etc.

    In the picture above, the doorway at the far left is the entrance to the 'stable' ('étable') where three of four cows would have been housed and milked during the winter.

    The door at the centre gave access to the barn ('grange') which was invariably at a raised level relative to the stable. Indeed, the external door often had a stone step or two leading up to it. This raised 'grange' was used for threshing grain in summer and as a storage area for tools, horse harnesses and other valuable equipment. In winter it also served as a sort of manger for the cows in the 'étable' below: each cow putting its head through a pop-hole ('baie') in a timber-framed partition between the 'étable' and the 'grange'. It should be noted that the stables ('étables') invariably had at least one recess in the wall (about 30 x 30 cms) which served as a storage cupboard for medicines and veterinary kit.

    Another clever aspect of this arrangement was that a small internal door often linked the family's living-room with the central 'grange' so that it was possible to go to work in the 'grange' or to feed the cows without having to go outside – a great advantage given the often bitterly cold Norman winters.

    But the real purpose of the scheme was ergonomic. Summer hay and autumn straw for bedding was lifted just once into the hay-loft, but thereafter it could be simply thrown down into the 'grange' to feed the cows standing in the 'étable'. And once eaten by the cows the resulting manure could be pushed through the low stable door into a heap outside.

    In other words, summer hay-making kept the cows fed and insulated the roof-space above the living-room in winter; the cows helped to keep the family warm; and the farmer, without needing to go out of doors, could rely on gravity to do nearly all the work from hay-loft to manure heap.

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    © (2005) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
    The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

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