I’ve always loved the “living history” sites we’ve found in different places around the world. In the U.S., Colonial Williamsburg is perhaps the most famous, but my personal favorite is the Plimoth Plantation [sic], operating since 1947 near Plymouth, Massachusetts.
It’s populated by people who have taken on the names and identities of the 17th-century colonists who came to this place on the Mayflower, and they’re happy to talk to you and answer questions, intelligently and at great length, about how they grow food, the hardships of their lives, their aspirations in coming to America, and their relationships with the Native American Wampanoags.
(Just don’t ask them about anything that happened in the world after about 1622 CE. The actors will look back at you with a blank stare or comically misinterpret your question in the context of their historical reality. Talking to them about TV or the Internet might just make you sound guilty of witchcraft!)
A living medieval farm town in the Deep Heart of France
I was especially happy, then, to come upon the little medieval “reconstruction” of a 15th-century village at Xaintrie. It’s near the little village of St. Julien aux Bois in the Corrèze, “snuggled” (as the local signs say) “between the Dordogne Valley and the mountains of the Auvergne”.
It’s not exactly a “living history” site in the same way Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation are – there aren’t character actors to talk to. It is, though, a working farm – or rather a collection of small working farms, with cows and donkeys grazing quietly in fields behind rough wooden fences, pigs rooting in the mud, chickens roaming freely, and ducks swimming in the pond around the old mill.
It’s also a collection of medieval homes and farm buildings, painstakingly recreated by Pierre Gire, a man with a remarkable vision. He says he spent 25 years researching and planning the project before he and his father started construction and opened the site in 2006. As Gire told France Bleu:
“These were just woods. There wasn’t even a stone here. I worked with my father and we built all this ourselves. The same thing done by craftsmen would have cost hundreds of thousands of Euros.”
The construction project continues. There’s a pile of limestone blocks on the site, ready to be used in other buildings. Mr. Gire has even taken apart a 15th-century house in a nearby village, stone by stone, with the intention of rebuilding it here at Xaintrie.
Step back in time to 1478
You’re invited to imagine life in a place like this 500 years ago. The visit starts with a multimedia presentation about a stranger’s arrival in town (and here you do get a sense of how people might have looked and dressed in the Middle Ages as the actors “introduce” you to their village). After the show, you’re on your own to walk the dirt paths winding through the different pastures, animal enclosures, houses, and public buildings that make up Xaintrie.
There’s a rudimentary mill house, with all the mechanical parts required to grind grain on a heavy stone wheel. Signs say the place was leased to a Mr. Champeil for a period of 8 years at a cost of 6 bushels of rye per year; the notary who owned the mill also provided a donkey at a cost of 23 livres to service the operation. There’s a bed set up next to the millstone; these were people who didn’t have the luxury of having a place to work and a separate place to live.
In fact, that’s evident in other buildings on the trail. A barn stuffed with hay is also the bunkhouse for the farmer; in the dark recesses of another house under a heavy thatched roof, the renters spent their nights in a single room with 2 beds (“of poor-quality wood”) and a table.
The signs for these different buildings point to one great concentration of wealth in the little village: the Notary. In 1478, this office was held by one Jean Puydarrel, and he owned almost all the land that make up the collective farms of Xaintrie.
His official job was that of a scribe, drafting all kinds of civil agreements and legal documents and setting his seal to them as proof of their authenticity. His house tells the story of his importance in the village; it’s still one big room, but with wooden floors instead of dirt, a massive canopied bed for privacy, and heavy wood furniture.
Louis XI was King of France, but it’s hard to imagine what influence he could have had in a place so isolated, so quiet, so far from Paris. In fact, though, the country’s administrative structures were organized well enough to reach into the pockets of even these remote farmers. Common people were allowed to hunt only small animals like rabbits and songbirds; bigger game was reserved for nobility.
And there was a complex system of taxation. The common farmer paid for his house and garden in real money, but the tax on the land he rented was taken out in goods like grain and chickens and hauled off to the warehouses of the local Lord. A special annual “tribute” was collected and paid to the great Vicomtes at Turenne. A table posted at Xaintrie explains how it all worked:
- Rye, wheat and oats – due at the end of August
- Chickens – due at Christmas
- Eggs – handed over at Easter
- Beets – due on November 1st
- Hemp – paid in September
- Wool and wax – due in June
- Silver – on Saint Andrew’s day at the end of November
How the people of Xaintrie lived
All that means that productive farming was the only possible way to eke out an existence in this rural world. From the signs posted around the different animal enclosures, it’s easy to guess that the cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens roaming these farms today are much bigger and fatter than their medieval counterparts would have been.
(The archeological evidence suggests, for example, that most adult sheep would have weighed only about 20 pounds and yielded maybe two pounds of wool each year. Cows might have been only 3 or 4 feet tall and were expected to work in front of a plow for 12 – 15 years before finally being slaughtered for their meat.)
It makes sense, then, that people on these farms would have become master gardeners to fill out their diets (and pay the taxes required of them). The set-up at Xaintrie pays homage to their knowledge and skills; there’s a garden area with over 350 plant varieties (many of them genuinely antique), and all over the farms there are signs showing all the uses people found for the things that grew there.
Which nuts could be ground up and added to hot water to cure a stomach-ache? Which flowers had toxic properties that made them good natural insecticides? Which plants could be transformed into dyes for coloring wool, and which made food taste better? The level of practical, applied science in the everyday of the working medieval farmer could be mind-boggling!
And of course, even in a village this tiny, there’s a church. It’s only one room, dark and cramped like all the buildings around it. There wouldn’t have been any place to sit (except for a bench along the walls for the infirm), so parishioners stood up for mass and knelt on the bare floor for prayers.
A rough wooden beam with a statue of Christ on the cross is the only visual cue separating the altar area from the rest of the room. Still, it’s a building with enough dignified decoration and light to give that medieval farmer the sense he or she was in a place removed from the working world just outside its walls.
And it’s just one clue to how communal life would have been in a village like this. Individual farmhouses are clustered around on open “commons”, a shared pasture where everyone’s animals would have grazed together. The mill-house is part of a shared infrastructure, but there’s also a community water well and a shared bread oven for everyone in the village. It would have been impossible to have much real privacy in a place like this; every person’s business would also have been the business of all the neighbors.
A drive into the past at Xaintrie
As with many of the places I cover on this blog, you have to work to get to St Julien aux Bois and the farms of Xaintrie. It’s and hour-and-a-half drive from Brive-la-Gaillard, on twisting one-lane départemental roads; on the day I went, the village just before St Julien had thrown a little carnival up on the town’s main intersection, and the resulting detour threw my car’s SatNav system into a spiral.
The drive was worth it, though. This is a particularly old and wild part of France, settled since humans first appeared in Europe. It’s also rich in French history; the incredible “gated community for aristocrats” at Les Tours de Merle are not far from the medieval farms, and the ancient market town of Salers is just over the border with the Auvergne.
But come if you can, even if it’s only for a day-trip to these farms. This is a remarkable example of how one man’s vision – you might even call it an obsession – can be executed in wood and stone. They claim about 20,000 visitors come here every year now, and I have to believe most of them think Pierre Gire accomplished his goal:
“This puts the visitor in an atmosphere in which, during the course of the tour, he can get the 21st century out of his head.”
It’s well-known that I’m a city boy to the core; although I did grow up on a 100-year-old farm in southern Oklahoma, I’ll always prefer the bright lights and rush of the bigger population centers. Still, I found something deeply satisfying, even calming, about walking through the cluster of farms at Xaintrie. The quiet is profound – that kind of “quiet” that only exists in the country, with insects buzzing and the occasional rustle of wind in the grass.
And it gave me all the elements I needed to go off in my imagination to picture the lives of Xaintrie’s inhabitants in the 15th century – lives with specific purpose, predictable daily rhythms of chores, the cycles of planting and harvesting… Viewed from our comfortable modern lives, this medieval world looks hard and forbidding, and most of us wouldn’t like to trade places with these ancestors. I wonder, though -- would they have considered their lives “hard”? Or would they have just thought of them as…well, “just life”?
Have you found a “living history” site that speaks to you in a special way? Are there places in your travels around France that somehow transport you back to a different time? Tell us about your experiences in the comments section below.
And while you’re here – please take a second to share this post with someone else who’s interested in the people, places, culture, and history of France.