History the Pigeonniers of France in Perspective
Beautiful Bird Homes
Thousands of pigeonniers, or pigeon towers, dot the landscape of the south of France. If you look for them, you will quickly realise that they come in an astonishing variety of shapes, sizes and styles. Arguably, no creature has had more beautiful homes built for it than the pigeon. This raises an obvious question: why did so many people go to so much trouble to house a bird?
The pigeon’s secret is that it knew more than one way of earning its keep. Its home had two roles: the pigeonnier was a living larder providing fresh meat on demand and a fertiliser factory whose output was often reserved for vineyards and fields of hemp. Their popularity had unforeseen consequences too. The pigeonnier and its pigeons fuelled the discontent that led to social unrest and the Revolution of 1789.
Seeds of discontent
There can be no doubt that the number of pigeonniers has become a matter of great public concern, not only because the pigeons eat newly-sown seeds, but also because they consume large quantities of grain throughout the year, which can be costly.
These words were written in 1656 by Denis de Salvaing, a lawyer from Dauphiné who was an advisor to the king. He explained that in most parts of France, local laws limited the freedom to build pigeonniers, but confusingly, there were as many different sets of rules as there were provinces.
For example, in Provence, almost anyone was free to build a pigeonnier on his land, so long as it did not have crenellations or other symbols of nobility. But around Calais, only the king himself could grant permission, and even then, only to those with an estate of at least 60 hectares.
The first pigeonniers in France
It was almost certainly the Romans who introduced the concept of the pigeonnier to France, but traces of this activity are rare until we reach the 16th century. There are, however, a few exceptions in the form of magnificent pigeonniers, which were created by chiselling niches into rocky cliffs. This was an age-old practice, and the best example in southern France is at Les Baux de Provence, where pigeonholes were carved into the rock at the foot of the castle keep in the 11th century.
When it comes to the grand, free-standing pigeonniers that grace the French landscape, particularly in grain-growing areas, even the experts find it challenging to determine their age. One of the oldest was built at the Château d’Assier near Figeac in 1537. It was a cylindrical brick tower eleven metres high containing 2,300 nesting niches.
Meat and manure on an industrial scale
Assier marked the beginning of a century-long pigeonnier-building frenzy; at the end, France had around 42,000 of them. Exactly what prompted this widespread move towards larger and more solid homes for pigeons is not entirely clear, but raising pigeons on this scale must have been something of an agricultural revolution. These were factories capable of producing a reliable supply of meat and manure in industrial quantities.
In the mid-18th century, a wealthy shipowner from Marseille called Georges Roux founded a new town in the Var. He built a château and a chapel for himself and a manufacturing centre where his workers produced ceramics, silks, tiles and leather. If you visit Brue-Auriac today, the most striking reminder of Monsieur Roux’s industry is his pigeonnier. This monument historique is a monster, 22 metres high, 12 metres in diameter, and it contains 8,100 nests. Each nest was designed to house an adult pair and their two chicks so that this pigeonnier could have held 32,000 birds.
One crucial difference between a pigeonnier and a modern-day poultry farm was that the adult pigeons enjoyed the same freedom as wild birds. Although the owner would give them supplementary feed during the winter, for most of the year, they foraged for themselves on land which, even if it belonged to the owner of the pigeonnier, was often cultivated by his peasants.
This meant that the lordly landowner could feed his flock at the expense of his hard-working peasants while keeping all the meat and manure for himself. And because the lord’s birds were protected by law, and the lord was often the person who administered the law, one can easily imagine the fury of a peasant who was obliged to watch powerlessly while hundreds or thousands of pigeons gorged themselves on the grain that was supposed to feed his family through the winter.
All the poor peasant could do was curse and dream of revolution.
A Revolutionary solution
In the months before the French Revolution of 1789, each of the 60,000 parishes across France opened up a complaints book called a cahier des doléances. In this book, the people expressed their dissatisfaction with society. The pigeonnier was a frequent cause of complaint, as this extract from the cahier submitted by the parishioners of Saint-Pern in Britanny demonstrates.
In the area around our parish there are at least 22 pigeonniers, each home to at least 2,000 adult pigeons, which do all their foraging within our territory where the quantity of grain they devour during sowing and harvesting would be enough to feed a quarter of our population.
On 14 July 1789, a mob stormed the Bastille, and the French Revolution began. Three weeks later, an extraordinary session of the National Assembly took place at Versailles. Fired up by events on the streets of Paris, many of the deputies were determined to overthrow a whole raft of privileges enjoyed by the upper echelons of society. The fiery speeches were reduced to a more sober list of 19 articles a week later. First on the list was the abolition of the feudal system. The second was the hated pigeonnier.
The exclusive right to maintain small dovecotes and pigeon towers is abolished. The pigeons shall be confined at times to be determined by the communes and during such periods they shall be regarded as game, and everyone shall have the right to kill them upon their own land.
Death by deregulation
Pigeonniers for all! The new legislation had two effects, one on the nobility another on the peasants. For the nobles, the economics of ownership had deteriorated dramatically. The birds had always required supplementary feed during the winter. With the addition of two or three months of closure, a proud owner like Georges Roux would be feeding his pigeons entirely at his own expense for nearly half the year. On top of that, the pigeonnier had lost its social prestige. As a result, many of the larger pigeonniers were gradually abandoned, and the rich and noble stopped building new ones.
In contrast, the wealthier peasants took advantage of the new freedom to build pigeonniers on their farms. Still, even these more modest pigeonniers lost their attractiveness towards the end of the 19th century.
Phylloxera destroyed vineyards all over France, and in some areas, they were never replanted on the same scale. At around the same time, mineral and synthetic fertilisers became widely available. The demand for pigeon manure never recovered, and the bird’s meat alone did not justify the cost of running a pigeonnier. Pigeons disappeared from the menu, and their former homes fell into disrepair.
Image credits: all the photos provided by the author, Colin Duncan Taylor, except for (i) Denis de Salvaing portrait – image in the public domain (ii) Brue-Auriac © Rvalette, CC BY-SA 3.0.
About the author
Colin Taylor has been living in the south of France for 20 years. He shares his passion for the region’s culture, gastronomy, history, and language through his books. Pigeonniers are among the topics covered in his new book, Menu from the Midi: A gastronomic journey through the South of France.
Discover more about Colin and his books at www.colinduncantaylor.com.
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