The Story of the People at La Lune

Our house, almost at the point of no return in the 1960s.

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.

Date on barn
One of the other houses in our “village”, now a ruin.

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.

Page listing births from the archives

Possible scandal?

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

Les jeunes mariés – mannequins at the Espinas fête

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.

Fers à boeuf: cows and oxen were shod at one time. We have found several of these around our house.

Infant mortality

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?

The pigeonnier in the 1960s
Poor quality photo from the 1960s, but you can just see the wall of the old cow byre to the left of the pigeonnier.

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.

Different worlds

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.

Stone évier in our living room on the middle floor, where the M family lived and slept.

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.

You might also like:    

French Country Life a Century Ago

French Cultural Heritage on Our Doorstep

A French Country Upbringing       

Copyright © 2019 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

About nessafrance

We moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I'm fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs. I also write historical novels and short stories.
This entry was posted in History, Places and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The Story of the People at La Lune

  1. MELewis says:

    Unearthing those stories from the old records sounds like a real labour of love. We have only lived in new houses in France so this is quite a contrast to my own experience. Love the beautiful handwriting in that old record book!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It was certainly a labour of love. When I find the time, I intend to carry my researches further. The handwriting in all the documents I consulted is beautiful, but the curlicues and what-not make it difficult to read. A challenge I enjoyed, nonetheless.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kiki says:

    I read a ‚3‘ but as you say it‘s all depending on how the light falls on it and from which angle you look at it!
    We are in the process of hopefully selling our beautiful house of 1920, 30km SW of Paris. It‘s a wonderful but not very big house made from local stone and with many original gorgeous details, a very large garden and a RER train stop a few minutes on foot….. I was very interested in everything about this house and now, speaking to people, I‘m amazed that nobody seemed ever to take much interest in knowing the history, the what and why about all the stuff. The mosaic in the entry hall is an exact copy and laid by an artist as per order of the man who had it built. As an architect and painter from abroad he used to stay at the Hotel Excelsior in Nancy and he liked the floor tiles so much that he had the same done here. MANY intruiging and interesting details like that for the person to be fascinated by these signs of ‚other times‘…. We will never again live in such a beautiful house and only wish to find true ‚amateurs‘ of the ancient, well preserved, someone to appreciate my sometimes bothersome hunts for ‚the‘ missing (stolen, broken) pieces I had put in. We have even wall paintings in the one part of our living/dining rooms….
    When I look at your photos I cannot even imagine the work you had to do – it would be most interesting to follow the transformation. Did you write about it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Your house sounds lovely, and so interesting. A pity you can’t take the mosaic with you! But, of course, it was made for the house. I hope you find someone who will love and appreciate it as much as you obviously have.

      I should have made it clearer in the post that we didn’t actually restore our house. That was done by someone who bought it in the 1970s. We moved here in 1997 when all the major work had been done. We have done a lot to it, but didn’t have to do any structural work. I think such a project would have been beyond us, and I admire people who take on a ruin like that. We are so glad that our house was given another lease of life, from which we benefit.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Kiki says:

        As I’m new on your blog and won’t be able to go back ‘all the way’, I didn’t know – but it sure looked more like a ruin in the 60th…. I also would never be able to take on such a huge project and/but I admire greatly people who do. We have owned three old houses so far but this last one has been such a (financial) disaster that we only will be able to rent in the future…. Before we lived in a Victorian pile in Torquay (1884) and then, for a short 2+yrs in a tiny but bursting with stories ‘townhouse’ in a vintners’ village at the shore of Lac Léman. The village is called Lutry and will forever be my personal paradise.

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        Well, I’ve written 631 posts over the years, and I certainly wouldn’t expect you to read all of those! I should have been clearer in the post that another person restored the house.

        You have certainly lived in some lovely places. Some houses have a special place in one’s memory. Much as I love our present house – and I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I have here – my special place will always be a tiny house I had in Pangbourne, a village by the Thames. But I made the mistake of visiting it a few years ago. Both the village and the house had changed – and not for the better. I should have stayed away and remembered them as they were.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. katyjohnson1 says:

    Fascinating – I love houses with stories to tell!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      So do I! I was delighted at last to be able to find out something about our house. It might end up in a book one day, once I’ve got through my queue of planned titles.

      Like

  4. Fascinating post, Vanessa, with some really great photos, too. Very inspiring for my own research and surely you must now be thinking about making the previous occupants’ lives into another book, or at least a short story? Hope you get your application sorted soon and I apologise on behalf of all our useless politicians for the stress that Brexit must be causing you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks, Melissa. Yes, it is tempting to write about them, but I’ve just finished book 1 of a trilogy and have books 2 and 3 still to write! Plus there’s another Corsica novel in the queue. So they’ll have to wait a bit.

      No need for you to apologise for the idiocy of Brexit! I am a lot better off than many Brits who live here, in that I’ve been here 22 years and already have the residency permits etc. I’ve also had the opportunity to apply for Irish citizenship, which I hope to get. I could have done without all of that, of course.

      Like

  5. fatdormouse says:

    We have a photo of our house dating from around the late 1800s and believe that it was once a wheelwrights. There are the vestiges of the forge in our downstairs room. It would be good to know more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Lucky you! I wish we had a photo of our house, but the earliest ones we have are those in the post that someone took in the 1960s. Where did you get your photo? Perhaps the person who supplied it might know more. Or maybe there is a history of your village or area that might say more about the trades carried out there and mention your house. Perhaps your Mairie might have some information or point you in the right direction (some are more helpful than others, of course…).

      Like

  6. How fascinating that you were able to piece together this much already – well done!! And great that the house was saved in the 1970’s!
    P.S. I think that third number is a 5

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I had a bit of luck but it was hard work, too! We’ve never been quite sure if the number is a 5 or a 3. It depends on how the light strikes it and, although we’ve been up on a ladder to inspect it up close, it could be either. The numbers actually look a bit modern to me, so it’s possible (although odd) that someone added it well after that date. As I understand it, 5 was written more like an elongated S in past times. A mystery.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. How fascinating! I’d love to know more about the history of my house. Is there a general website for accessing records or are there several depending on location. The re-build/reno’s must have cost a fair bit but certainly worthwhile.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Your departmental archives would probably have records of births, marriages and deaths (just Google archives + your department name). If you’re lucky, you might find them online going back to 1792, when the civil authorities had to start recording them. You might even be able to see some of the previous parish records online. And you’ll be able to access the census records, which were carried out every 5 years from a certain date. However, rules about privacy and disclosure mean that they probably aren’t available online for the years after about 1931.

      The problem is that you need to have a name and a rough date for a birth, marriage or death, otherwise you’d have to trawl through all the records to find a mention of your house.

      The other line of inquiry is to look at the notarial records of property sales and inheritance. I haven’t (yet) done this, so I don’t know how easy it is.

      Your local mairie may also have records that they might let you consult.

      We didn’t actually restore our house. That was done in the 1970s. I expect it did cost a lot, especially as parts of it had to be rebuilt. We are the happy beneficiaries! We are so glad the house was given another chance.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I didn’t know about records online. When I stop fretting about brexshit I shall enjoy some sleuthing about our house next winter when the nights are long!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I was only dimly aware of these records and I was surprised to see how detailed they are. It helps enormously if you have some data to start with – name and approx birth date, for example. Otherwise, it’s a bit like looking for the needle in the proverbial haystack. Also, to find out who owned a house, one would have to consult notarial records of inheritance and sales transactions, which may not be so easy to access. Even so, I was surprised at how much I was able to find out.

      I am hoping my Irish nationality application will be decided soon. At least I will still be a citizen of an EU country. The whole thing is a complete disaster.

      Liked by 1 person

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