Pont Noir

Live Life in Creuse

Creusois house detective - The salle commune
by Annik • Thu 23 Aug 2007 14:24
A social history of the most important room in a paysan's house, examined in the context of a remarkable 500-year-old example

Recently I was lucky enough to be taken round a cottage that has been in the same family for more than 500 years. It hasn't been lived in for a long time but its owners are deeply committed to their heritage and have kept it like a small time-machine. It has evolved a little since the 16th century, in that two windows have been enlarged, a rusting wood-burning stove stands in the cantou fireplace and a small lean-to has been added outside, but otherwise it is a classic, ageless example of a reasonably well-to-do Creusois paysan's home.

The wide, low front door leads straight into the salle commune - literally the 'communal room' where everything happened - which is about 5m x 6m square. The walls are nearly a metre thick and the floor is paved with flat stones. Between the door and the window (once a fenestron roughly 45cm x 65cm but enlarged a century or so ago), a flat stone sink juts through the wall, carved into the shape of a drain on the outside, which stops waste water running down the surface of the wall, and forming a shallow dish on the inside into which a small amount of precious water could be poured. It served as a kitchen sink, food preparation area and wash basin. You would expect there to be an oval stone opening called a donne-jour or oeil de boeuf above it, to give the user some light, but the wall has been plastered on the inside with lime and rendered on the outside and it is impossible to tell if an existing one has been blocked up.

Under the window there appears to be a brick potager, or primitive slow-cooking stove; we have one, too, in our kitchen and they are very hard to find nowadays. They enabled food to be cooked over glowing charcoal in a more controlled way than in a cauldron over a log fire. It was found by trial and error that they needed to be under a window - a number of cooks sweating away over potagers in chateaux kitchens died from carbon monoxide poisoning where there was no source of fresh air.
The picture on the left shows typical conditions in a salle commune; the other, taken in the old house itself on the hottest, sunniest day of the year, illustrates the gloom inside.

In the gable end is a cheminée, with a domed bread oven behind it lined with red firebricks, with a cendrier underneath to take the ashes of the faggots burned inside. These were kept and used to make primitive soap for doing the washing. The chimney is wide enough to stand up in, and a notched iron cremaillère hangs at the back, to hold a cauldron. On one side a niche has been created to contain a box of salt and keep it dry. There is a wooden mantelpiece and over that, hanging from the beam above, are two wooden hooks which were traditionally used to support an old gun.

In the angle between the gable wall and the interior wall adjoining it, there would have been a bed, either curtained or with wooden doors. Now the old kitchen table has been pushed against the wall in its place. Other furniture is sparse, simply a huche (or maie), a long wooden box on legs where bread was made and left to rise, and a coffre (trunk) for linen and clothes. There are odd niches for storage and incredibly crude wooden shelving to hold utensils, made by someone with no carpentry skills whatsoever. A door leads to the back of the house where to the left is a bedroom with an enlarged window, containing a lit bateau and the empty case of a cheap grandfather clock. To the right are the remains of a room, perhaps a dairy, whose floorboards have long gone. Now the cellar below - a gaping pit - is all that is left. Perhaps it was reached by a trapdoor and long-gone wooden ladder.

The beamed ceiling of the salle commune is black with smoke and age. The massive central beam, which runs crossways under the others and supports them all, has wide shelves attached to each side, to take a fortnight's supply of big round loaves baked in the bread oven, and other household objects. There is a also a rack to hold cheeses. Nails are hammered into the beams seemingly at random, from which to hang everything from an oil lamp and hams, to a hank of spun hemp and a dried pig's bladder full of grease or tallow. The ceiling was used for storage like this to keep everything away from the rats.

One nod in the direction of modernity is a pre-war metal lampshade fixed to a beam just beside the window. There is no bulb in it now but its few added units of candlepower must have transformed life in the salle where the overwhelming impression is of gloom. Although my visit was made on a bright sunny day, many of the room's features were only revealed in retrospect, thanks to my camera's flash, which illuminated all the blackest recesses.

Well, that's the architecture, now let's think about what went on inside this typical salle commune, that served as kitchen, dining room and bedroom. It would have been dark, unhygienic and smoky from the log fire which was kept burning throughout the year, providing heat and a means of cooking food. With its original tiny window - which didn't open - it would have been like living in a choking, claustrophobic cave. The front door would have been left open much of the time to provide some light and allow the chimney to 'draw'. Except in summer those by the fire would have been baked in front and chilly behind - maybe the source of the French fear of unhealthy courants d'air (draughts).

The salle commune was the domain of the women, who did their work surrounded by any dogs, cats, pigs, chickens or other animals from the farmyard who cared to wander in. They would have fought a constant, losing battle against dust and dirt, which for centuries probably took second place to the battle to put enough food in their families' mouths. Meals were taken on benches at the large wooden table in the centre and evenings were passed close to the fire, always doing some sort of chore like peeling chestnuts, which formed a major part of the diet and were eaten whole or in the form of flour.

This room was also where senior members of the family slept because it was warm. Others used the little back room, while some probably ended up in the barn with the animals. Privacy was almost impossible and 19th century social improvers worried about the peasants' overcrowded sleeping arrangements. The word they used was 'promiscuité', which conjured up all sorts of other connotations until I looked it up!

The experts say that in the days when a significant proportion of the peasant population lived in this sort of primitive discomfort, they were not particularly bothered about their houses or the aesthetics of their surroundings. They didn't 'keep up appearances' because doing so was not productive. What they were passionate about was land; all their energies went into husbanding, retaining and, if possible, extending, their meagre holdings.

"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. (Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.)" Groucho Marx
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Jun 2007
Re: Creusois house detective - The salle commune
by CaroleandClive • Tue 28 Aug 2007 19:36
Thanks. We are really enjoying reading your pieces. Our house in Creuse is 200ish yrs old, needs more research. Our cottage here in the Uk was old Essex Regiment officers' quarters built 1853. What tales they could tell...
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Dec 2006
Re: Creusois house detective - The salle commune
by Annik • Wed 29 Aug 2007 04:45
Hi, It's great to have your feedback because I'm writing about a subject I love and I never really know if anyone out there is enjoying it! Your house in England sounds fascinating, I envy you. We live in a 1940s semi in a Cheshire village for half the year but my mother's family had some wonderful old houses in Staffordshire and Lincolnshire that I never had the chance to step inside and when we found our lovely 200-yr-old house here I couldn't believe my luck. I feel as attached to it as if it were an arm or a leg! It has taught me so much and made me interested in French vernacular architecture, and the buildings of the Creuse in particular. There is a vast amount of information out there in French but nothing in English that I know of, so I am trying to boil it down for those who haven't got the time or opportunity to read the original sources. Please keep reading!
"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. (Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.)" Groucho Marx
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Jun 2007
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