I’d love to know who lived in our house long ago. Elderly neighbours have always been hazy about this, perhaps because it doesn’t really interest them. This week, at last, I discovered a story about previous occupants.
Trawling the records
Our house may date from the 17th century. 1734 (or possibly 54) is engraved on the keystone of the barn, but a document dated 1642 refers to “le village de La Lune”. This has never been more than a hamlet, but the place was clearly inhabited.
Recently, we visited Monsieur F, a neighbour of nearly 91. In a sudden burst of inspiration, the SF asked, “Do you know who the last person was to be born in our house?”
“Oh, it was a man a bit older than my father, born in the 1880s. I remember him. His surname was M.” [I’ve anonymised him to protect the privacy of any living family members.] Fortunately, it was an unusual name for our commune (village), which made searching the records much easier.
Next stroke of luck: documents relating to “Etat civil” (births, marriages and deaths – BMD) and census records are available online in the departmental archives. We might rail against French bureaucracy, but the centralising forces of the Revolution and Napoleon meant that records were kept more or less systematically. Until 1792, parish priests kept the BMD records. After that date, it became the responsibility of the Mairies.
In possession of a name and an approximate birth date, I called up the records, year by year, and trawled through the elaborate but almost indecipherable handwriting. A story began to piece together.
It starts in April 1849, when one of the main characters, Jean M., was born about six km from here. His father, also named Jean, aged 49, was a cultivateur (farmer). His mother, Cécile, aged 33, was a couturière (seamstress).
Two years later, in April 1851, Rosalie was born to Rose L., aged 40, and to a père inconnu (unknown father). Rose was described as sans profession (without occupation) and lived in a small hamlet near here, much of which has since disappeared.
I traced Rose back to her birth in 1811 and also found her death record in 1875. She was listed as célibataire (spinster), so she never married, and apparently had no other children. Without occupation, how did she make ends meet? Was Rosalie’s father a local man – perhaps already married – or was he a passing tinker? A huge stigma attached to women who had children outside wedlock. We’ve heard stories about women who were hidden away to avoid the disgrace they brought on the family.
Les jeunes mariés
In July 1877, Rosalie and Jean married. He was 28 and a baker in a nearby village, having previously been a soldier. Perhaps he was one of a large family and had to leave home, although under the Code Napoléon his siblings would have had to compensate him for the inheritance. His father was dead, so his mother gave her consent to the marriage, although Jean was of age.
Rosalie was 26 and listed as marrying of her own free will, since Rose, her only known parent, had died two years previously.
Rosalie and Jean settled down to married life. It’s not clear if they were already living in this house, but the census shows that they were by 1891.
Here the story takes a tragic turn. Four of their six children did not survive infancy. Their firstborn, Edouard (1879) died three weeks after his birth. Marie (1882) died aged one month. Sara (1883) died at six months. Their last born, Josephine (1892), was 11 months old when she died.
Each death record is signed by their father and witnesses who were neighbours. He had a firm hand, but other handwriting is wavering and uncertain: men who had little schooling. The time of death is recorded, but not the cause. What did they die from: cot death; some unspecified hereditary weakness; accidents; fatal diseases? The pages are silent, but we can imagine the parents’ anguish every time. I picture Jean-Guillaume making the mournful trip to the Mairie, some seven km distant, to carry out the sad duty of recording the death of yet another child.
Happily, two boys survived: Charles, born in 1886, and Ernest, born in 1889. They bucked the family trend. Charles died aged 79. Ernest was 92 when he died in 1981. They would have been of an age to fight in World War I, but if they did, they clearly survived. Both men eventually moved away from here. The communes where they died had a duty to inform their birth commune, which made a marginal note in the birth records. I can find no evidence that either of them married.
Perhaps worn out by childbirth and grief, maybe not very strong in the first place, Rosalie herself died in 1900, aged only 49. The census records list her as sans profession, while Jean is described as a cultivateur.
Life goes on
In the 19th century, someone added a pigeonnier and a covered balcony to this house. The pigeonnier fell down in the mid-20th century and was rebuilt in the 1970s. Did Jean have the work done in an access of folies de grandeur? Did he build the former cow byre that no longer exists opposite the house?
Jean and his sons remained to work the land. And in May 1910, aged 61, Jean married again. His second wife was a widow, Marie Anaïs P., aged 44, who lived a couple of kilometres away. Did they marry for love, for companionship, or was it a business arrangement (they had a marriage contract, whereas there was none for Jean’s first marriage)? At all events, they stayed together. Jean died in 1924, but the 1926 census shows Marie Anaïs still living here with her elder stepson, Charles.
After that, the records are not available online and I must go in person to Montauban to consult them. I may also be able to find out more about the earlier occupants of our house.
What would Jean and Rosalie say if they could see the house now? We sleep in the grenier (attic) where they stored things to keep them dry. Our kitchen is downstairs in what was their cave, where Rosalie prepared and stored preserves and did the washing. They lived on the middle floor. Our central heating, hot water and electric light would have been unimaginable luxuries to them; our cars and computers beyond their ken.
I’m sure their story reflects that of so many French country people, representatives of a way of life that ended not so very long ago. A chance question and a partial answer enabled me to throw some light on their lives, even if I have to speculate about the details.
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