History of the Vigneron: Languages Part 2: the war on patois, and linguistic changes in Burgundy

1789-1914: the war on patois

Tho bourgeoise
The bourgeoisie

The a war on patois began shortly after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1789. Some saw a national language as one of the great tools which could unify the country. In the spirit of The Enlightenment, some in the new government fervently believed that the installment of a national language would bring égalité* to all men. Further, it was felt that the inability of a majority of a country’s citizens to be unable to understand political debate was undemocratic.

It is somewhat ironic that the choice for a national language should be the king’s tongue; but it is not all that surprising. After all, the new power base would ultimately belong the to the français speaking Bourgeoisie who controlled both the merchant shipping, and France’s industrial capacity. Under the monarchy, these wealthy businessmen had always pursued equality their own with the nobility.** That they spoke français, was the result of one such failed effort at parity. But despite their superior education, their great social refinement, their powerful positions in business, and sometimes extravagant wealth, they would always be a lesser man than the titled noble. It would take bloodshed to tear down social structure of birthright.

France was hopelessly behind both England and Germany in terms of the industrial development and output, being so deeply invested, both economically and philosophically, in its feudal agricultural economy. But where France did lead was in thought. France was, far and above, the world’s intellectual giant. France’s post revolution urban elite, developed a culture of scholarship that was producing thinkers who were making groundbreaking strides in science, medicine, philosophy, as well as the arenas of political and economic theory. Education, which these men held dear, was seen as the tool which would simultaneously and seamlessly spread both égalité and français as France.

(*) Égalité was a new term and concept thought to be first used in 1774. (Britannica) Although the leader of the Jacobins Maximilien de Robespierre was known to have said this in December 1790: “On their uniforms engraved these words: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. The same words are inscribed on flags which bear the three colors of the nation.”  The notion of  judicial égalité was set into French law in Article 6 of the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen de 1789 (the rights of man). It pronounced that law “must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, shall be equally eligible to all high offices, public positions and employments, according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.“ (frenchmoments.eu/)  More on the French motto can be learned here.

(**) Like most men throughout history, equality is rarely sought for all men. The past has taught us that the definition of the term word ‘men’ can be endlessly manipulated, or complicated by exceptions. What they had sought was their own ability to stand as equals with the nobility and king. Taking this idea one step further, it would not be a stretch to assume that many of these very wealthy, proud, educated, refined men felt socially and morally superior. They likely did not common, and no doubt resented their ‘commoner’ moniker. In their new empire, they would not speak some lowly country patois. There was really only one choice for a national language. It would be français.


The stigmatization of patois

peasants and cart
A picking crew at the turn of the 20th century,

So, with great intention, the use of patois across France was stigmatized and societally degraded. In the south of France, those who spoke Occitan languages were acutely affected by the French governmental assault on its patois. There it was called Vergonha, or the “shame”. Linguists, Jean Léo Léonard & Gilles Barot wrote in 2012, wrote that “to be considered as a ‘patois’ is one of the worse curses that may happen to a language.”

The first and most famous leader in this fight was the cardinal Henri Grégoire, who wrote a report to the revolutionary government calling not only for the institution of français but the “annihilation” of regional patois. For those in Grégoire’s camp, patois was considered to be a force of obscurantism. Obscurantism was an interesting concept, that an obscurantist was an “enemy of intellectual enlightenment” and worked against the “diffusion of knowledge” (Wikipedia). The idea was the existence of patois was preventing information from being passed, and thus obscuring facts and details from being known.

Grégoire’s position was clearly extreme, as was many aspects of those revolutionary times, going as far to write that patois languages were “barbaric jargons and those coarse lingos that can only serve fanatics and counter-revolutionaries now!” However, among those who that sought to institute français, came to the task with varying viewpoints regarding these dialects. There were those who were overly passionate like Grégoire, that considered patois vulgar, with the “expression of ignorance, archaic prejudice, and obscenity”(Forrest 1991). But others described it as only capable of expressing simple emotion; be it “anger, hate, or love”. This was a significant slight by those men who cherished intellectual thought. Still, there were others viewed it with a bit more kindness,“believing it expressed a pastoral simplicity and closeness to nature” (Forrest 1991). To paraphrase Forrest, it was the language that the paysan spoke to his oxen and his dog.

The early 1800’s: turbulent politics and war makes a national language impossible

But the reality was that the First Republic’s national assembly was deeply divided and had limited time or attention to pursuing Grégoire’s linguistic passions. To this point, the events of the revolution had not disposed of Louis XVI. The king was now sharing power in a constitutional monarchy with the national assembly.

In what seems more of an urgent need a display of decisive revolutionary change, rather than having instituted a well-conceived plan, the fledgling government restructured the country into 83 new départements in 1791. These new departments were drawn to disrupt as many of the traditional, regional, and ethnic associations as possible, and this included patois.  The most highly cited example of separating a major city from its historical homeland is Toulouse. In 1793, Toulouse had a population of 52,612 and was one of France’s largest cities. It was decided break up the Languedoc, by splitting Toulouse off, in order to force new Haute-Garonne centric governmental and trade associations. While these did not sever the natural routes of trade from Toulouse to the Mediterranean coast, it would divide the old political interests that these regions had historically shared. As mentioned earlier, it was these Occitan speakers (langues d’Oc) who would feel the most victimized, by these kinds of actions by Paris. But there is little doubt that Paris did make special efforts to bring the sometimes defiant south, into the national fold.

Eugène Delecroix' famous painting of "Liberty leading the People" which depicts the July revolution of 1848
Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting of “Liberty leading the People” which depicts the July revolution of 1848

The attention of the reformers in Paris was intermittent at best, as upheaval was commonplace in the France the first half the 1800’s. France, from this time forward, would find itself at the center conflicts involving many nations. War, which many within the national assembly felt would unify a divided France, would now be entered into as a member of an alliance, but what unfolded was a new type of war with an unlimited battlefield. This kind of warfare had its battles spilling outside of Europe, across the open oceans, and in far-flung colonies, intended to disrupt and deprive the enemy of wealth and matériel needed to continue the conflict. The war between the major powers of Europe had taken on a new face, one that would define conflicts for the next 150 years. The term for this kind of battle was total war.

1830-1851: education as a political battlefield

Education, the sword with which Cardinal Grégoire’s war on patois was to have been waged, had already been badly neglected for several decades by the 1830’s. It is estimated that in 1835, only one person out of every four hundred thirty-five, attended any kind of school within France (Theis, guizot.com). Because of this, the use of patois went along unfettered. But beginning in 1830, with the reign of king Louis-Philippe, attention would be paid to restoring public education in France. Two men, working under two successive monarchies, would institute an expansive system of schools across France. François Guizot would begin the work in 1832, slowly breaking down many political barriers to the establishment of education. The second man, Frédéric-Alfred-Pierre, who is better known by his noble title comté de Falloux du Coudray, would finish re-instituting an educational system in 1849. Although at this juncture, there was no pointed assault on patois, the establishment of a robust system of schools meant that students all across France were now learning and spreading the langues français into their communities.

It was Guizot who did the heavy lifting in the redevelopment of schools in France. Guizot’s significant reputation as a great professor and statesman, eventually allowed him to negotiate the deep political divides between the conservative monarchist and the secular Republicans. Both groups were equally intransigent in their positions regarding the role of the church in education, and success of the implementation of any educational system was the result of years of mediation and compromise. In the end, a level of Church’s involvement in education was grudgingly agreed accepted by the Republicans in the assembly. Guizot’s accomplishment of instituting instruction for boys in communities with over 500 inhabitants, whether it was in the form of free secular or a private catholic institution, was a hard-fought victory (Theis, guizot.com).

The Black Stain, by Albert Bettanier (1887).


For the conservative right, who viewed secular education as nothing more than socialist indoctrination, the church’s limited presence in schools was not a settled issue. So in the wake of the Revolution of 1848, the newly formed, conservative-dominated assembly of the Second Republic quickly passed a new series education laws. Written by the comté de Falloux, who was the Minister of Public Instruction and Worship, these loi Falloux would greatly expand the role of the church in education. The laws also expanded education to include primary schooling for girls. Communities of over 800 inhabitants would now be required to build schools for girls as well, in addition to those that had been already been constructed under Guizot, for boys (in communities of over 500). The ease with which the loi Falloux had passed was made possible both because of the work was done by Guizot, as well as the anti-clerical Republicans were now had a minority representation in the Assembly.*

(*) This was the political backlash in the wake collapse of the financial systems across Europe, and the Revolution of 1848, allowing a conservative coalition of monarchists and Bonapartists to power. The short-lived Second Republic 1848-1852 was headed by president Louis-Napoléon.  Napoléon, the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, would lead a coup d’etat in 1852, when the assembly tried to block his re-election as president and would pronounce himself as Emperor Napoléon III.


1871: the political fallout of the Prussian’s defeat of Napoléon III

While francais was widely spoken in Burgundy by 1863, we know that clearly click to enlarge
The 1863 survey indicates that francais was in dual use with patois throughout most of Burgundy. It acknowledges that at the national level, the ministry of Instruction was at a minimum at least monitoring the spread Francais if not actively promoting it. click to enlarge

The defeat and capture of Emperor Napoléon III by the Prussians in 1870, and the ensuing siege and surrender of Paris in 1871 left the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate (appointed by Louis-Napoleon) and the National Assembly, with the duty of re-establishing a government. All had assumed that France would return to a constitutional monarchy, as aside from short twelve-year rule of the First Republic, and the four years under the Second Republic, France had only known a history filled with monarchs and emperors. Three factions sought their heir to take the throne: the Legitimists (supporters of a Bourbon king), the Orléanists (supporters of the Carpets – descendants of Louis-Philip), and the Bonapartists. The return of a Bourbon to the throne was accepted as the most “legitimate” claim to the throne. Charles X’s grandson, Henri d’Artois, Comté de Chambord had been poised to do so for many years. He had been the “pretender to the throne”, with every regime change, waiting, usually in exile, to be called to his duty. And in 1872 he had come so close to becoming the king of France. Yet his refusal to rule under the tri-colored flag would ultimately cost him the throne (Bicknell 1884). Because, while Henri de Chambord saw the tri-color as a bitter symbol of the fall of his family and of the revolution, to most Frenchmen the flag was a symbol of immense pride and a symbol of French military glory. They would not give up the tri-color, and Henri de Chambord would not be king.

With Chambord out of the picture, a panic set in amongst the Legitimists. In a masterful series of political maneuvers, Adolphe Thiers used the mutual fears of the Legitimists and Bonapartists regarding a successful Orléanists bid for the monarchy. Thiers positioned himself as a preferable pseudo-conservative alternative to an Orléanists usurping power. Despite Thiers longstanding Republican party affiliations, the Legitimists supported his bid for power as prime minister of the new Third Republic. Certainly, his brutal suppression of the socialists in the Paris Commune cemented his reputation as an authoritarian, and as a stalwart anti-communist, they allied their fears that they were not putting a staunch liberal into power.

The Third Republic proved successful at maintaining power for the next seventy years. Within the ensuing decade, the secular Republicans party would dominate in their legislative control of the Third Republic. Jules Ferry would come into party leadership, and ultimately as serve as prime minister for two short stints 1880-1881, and 1883-1885, yet he would play a pivotal role in the story of français overtaking the many patois as the primary language used in France.

Author’s commentary: Impressive, is despite all of the violent revolutions, and major traumas, both war and political, which have occurred in France, the constitutional government never fell regardless of some of the regime collapses which it was forced to deal with. The military too never forced a coup, and seemingly remained obedient to the National Assembly in times of transition. The country never fell into total chaos (depending on your judgment of the ‘Reign of Terror) which can occur with the fall of a primary ruler or a dominant government leader. The National Assembly was always there to maintain order as an “interim government” until it could be decided who would come to power next.

The 1880’s: renewed calls for national unity, and new attacks on patois

13th November 1936: A youth parade of Spanish schoolchildren makes its way along the road wearing the black shirts of the Fascists and carrying dummy rifles. Their home of Irun has been taken over by Rebel troops during the Spanish Civil War, and they have been converted to the Fascist cause. (Photo by Maeers/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
The Third Republic’s attempts to indoctrinate school children with nationalism and patriotic zeal during the 1880’s, were done with similar methods demonstration by Spanish fascists during the Spanish civil war. (Photo by Maeers/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

In addition to holding the position of the President of the Council of Ministers (prime minister), Ferry simultaneously held the position of Minister of Public Instruction and Fine Arts.  It is believed by most historians, that Ferry and others in France were so alarmed by France’s defeat at the hands of the Prussians, that it was considered imperative that every measure possible must be taken to strengthen and unify the country. A dramatic example of France’s fear of the future was that during this period, French school children were patriotically marched, made to carry wooden guns with fixed bayonets (Gaulupeau 2000).

So it was with this fear of again being conquered, that Ferry pushed through a series of strong educational laws in 1882. which along with making public instruction free and mandatory, divested France of the churches participation in public, primary education.

Republican leadership had always viewed the Church and its teachings as an organ of “superstition and regression” (Zantedeschi undated), but now their desire to rectify this perceived national weakness, gave them sufficient justification to pursue a stricter form of laïcité (the absence of religious involvement in the state). That it took ten years for the Republicans, to undo the Ferry laws of 1848, probably gives us a good idea of how long it took Republicans to gain majority control over the National Assembly.

Also important was the Ferry laws tightened requirements regarding the size of communities which were required to provide education for their children. From 1882 onward, any village with more than twenty children must provide a primary school education (Zantedeschi, undated). This dramatically spread the reach of education and the teaching of français, far more deeply into the sparsely populated rural regions, where patois still flourished.

As part of Ferry’s political objective of national unity, the education laws reportedly forbade the speaking patois on school grounds. According to Wikipedia: “Art. 30 of Loi d’éducation française: states that “It is strictly forbidden to speak patois during classes or breaks.”  I have not been able to locate any additional references to this, or any other the legal prohibition of patois on school grounds. However, Witold Tulasiewicz and Anthony Adams write in their 2005 book, ‘Teaching the Mother Tongue in a Multilingual Europe’, that Ferry published an open letter to primary school teachers in 1883, calling for the need to eradicate all “local forms of speech, whether languages, dialects or patois.” In Ferry’s words “…each school had to become a French-speaking colony in a conquered country” (Convey 2005).

"Speak Francais, Be Clean" painted on a school wall, photo wikipedia
“Speak Francais, Be Clean” painted on a school wall, photo Wikipedia

This was a letter that Ferry wrote on the eve of his leaving his first ministership in 1881, but the primary focus of the letter apparently was not on patois. Rather Ferry wrote of teaching both moral education and civic education in the enlightenment spirit of laïcité. Once again, among the scholarly writings of Ferry’s open letter of 1883, which there are plenty, I can find no other which mention his addressing patois. There is simply a stunning absence of information on this subject.

Shaming, may, or may not have been an “official” governmental policy, but it is more than evident that shaming existed on a systemic level, within the educational system, and elsewhere. There are hundreds of personal accounts of shaming and corporal punishment of students, by both teachers and other school officials. These many accounts readily contradict any lack of official record or scholarly study of the subject.

Wikipedia maintains two pages which cover the repression of patois. One is titled Vergonha and the other Language Policy in France.  Vergonha is the Occitan (Langue d’Oc) term referring to the “shaming” of the patois speaking population. It should be noted that the lack of scholarly work on the subject causes the Vergonha page to be noted for its need of citations. While a lack citation is not unusual in Wikipedia, since it is a relatively young resource, I suspect citations in this area will not be forthcoming.  After all, as the Vergonha page states, “shaming” is still largely a taboo subject in France.

How long shaming existed in schools, may significantly predate the Ferry laws.  Vergonha page on Wikipedia shows evidence of this. It cites a 2007 book written by professor and historian Georges Labouysse*, “Histoire de France, l’Imposture: The Lies and Manipulations of Official History“.  According to this text, in 1845, thirty-six years before the Ferry law, a Breton administrator charging his teachers to put a halt to patois in their schools.  “And remember, Gents” the administrator instructed, “you were given your position in order to kill the Breton language.” A second example given by Labouysse happened a year later in the Basque country. Here an administrator reportedly told his teachers: “Our schools in the Basque Country are particularly meant to substitute the Basque language with French…”

(*) Labouysse’s book title does raise a red flag to a partisan agenda. Although his name appears often in a google search, a Curriculum Vitae does not come up. But neither do I find any accusations of having a particular political leaning, an ax to grind, or having espoused any crazy conspiratorial theories.


Tying this all back to Burgundy: Bourguignon in atrophy

Modern day distribution of Languages of the Bourguignon. The Morvan is indicated by in green. The clumping of rural locations where the dialect is spoken at home, is often surrounded by locations where only the elderly speak patois. This suggests that the peasants are becoming "assimilated" into French language and culture, and the patois is being lost.
Modern day distribution of Languages of the Bourguignon. The Morvan is indicated by in green. The clumping of rural locations where the dialect is spoken at home is often surrounded by locations where only the elderly speak patois. This suggests that the peasants are becoming “assimilated” into French language and culture, and the patois is being lost.

So with the implementation of the Ferry laws of 1881, which in conjunction with the systemic use of the shaming and punishment of students by school officials, there was significant pressure across the country not to publically speak in the local patois. It would take less than two generations to cement français as the one language which was spoken almost universally across France. The final nail in patois coffin would be the four years that France’s men would spend hunkered down in trenches of World War I. To paraphrase Eugen Weber, they left for the war as peasants, and came back Frenchmen.

The penetration of français into the more isolated interiors of the country may have been a far slower where communities had fewer than 20 school aged children. However, there were other factors which were putting significant pressures on these regional languages.

The success of a language is all a numbers game, and small rural villages were quickly losing residents for various reasons. The first began around 1820 when birthrates everywhere across Europe began to decline.* This when coupled with a rural exodus which began around the same time meant that these communities were taking a big hit in population. This does not even factor in other rural economic hardships which occurred, only one of which was phylloxera. People were leaving these rural agricultural areas leaving fewer and fewer people to speak these languages. By 1988, out of a total population of the 1.6 million people who were spread across the four Burgundian departments, only 50,000 people (estimated) had some knowledge of Bourguignon (languesdoil.org).

In a 2010 survey done by Les Langues & Vous** revealed the information on the map to the right regarding the geographic locations where surveyors recorded patois to be spoken.  The darkest spots indicate patois spoken at home, and the red spots indicate that patois was only spoken by elders in that location. The open circles were areas where only français remained (map source: Léonard and Barot 2012)

Léonard and Barot write in their 2012 paper, ‘Language or Dialect Shift? Shifting, Fading and Revival of Burgundian Gallo-Romance Varieties’, that français had infiltrated the Côte more quickly than other provincial regions. This, they claim was for two reasons, the first of which was the region was covered by a dense network of monasteries. This is at odds with the history given by the University of Ottawa’s Site for Language Management’s position that the church’s teachings in Latin had actually hindered the spread of français.*** The contradictions in the analyses and interpretations of history are what make the study so consuming. The answers are rarely as they first appear.

Léonard and Barot cite a second factor, the abundance of closely spaced “mid-sized urban centers” from which français infiltrated the countryside between. This may have been a factor. If you look again at the map on the right and trace a line from Auxerre to Dijon, then down through Beaune, you will notice that there are very few remnants of patois.

(*) This is a complicated issue, especially when looking at small villages across Burgundy which saw population losses of 50% from 1793. This will be the subject of the next article. 

(**) I have found no Google reference to Les Langues & Vous, but this is apparently an educational NGO based out of Dijon.

(***) The Site for Language Management, however, did not give a time range for this position, and the period discussed may have been earlier, in the 16th and 17th centuries. Historians do know that one of the major reasons behind 1539, ordinance of Villers Cotterêts was to restrict the use of Latin, thus the influence of the Church. Thus, intendants and provincial administrators (the noblesse de robe) all spoke in French, and all official business of the state was performed in French. The development of French language (which I had originally planned to lead this article on patois, was moved to the end and will be discussed in an upcoming article. For better or worse, it keeps getting pushed back as I delve into new issues of how patois was affected by the national economic crisis, demographics, and how they both affected the people of Burgundy.


In Burgundy, français spread along the wine routes

A conclusion missed by Léonard and Barot is that this path between cities, is precisely the route first established by the old Roman Via Agrippa from Auxerre to Mâcon. Where Léonard and Barot’s idea falters is that along the road from Beaune, near Cluny, and again near Mâcon, there are still concentrations of patois speakersThis indicates, not so much that they are wrong, but that there are other factors involved. I believe the major contributor to the growth of français in this area, was the influx of money and people involved in the wine trade.

The economics of the region suggests that the transition to français along the escarpment of the Côte d’Or occurred as a natural developmentJust as I believe the wine trade had previously spread the patois of chalonnais along the same route, I believe it was the economics of wine which now hastened the spread of français. During the 18th century, with new roads open to the port cities, the wines of Burgundy had quickly gained great demand in Holland, Germany, England, and elsewhere.  With such demand, prices escalated quickly, many times higher than they had historically been. Wine was now big business in Burgundy. Trade now required communication and contract negotiations with both domestic and international partners, and these deals involved large sums of money. Fluency in français had become critical.

The wine industry was bringing considerable wealth into to the renown villages of the Côte, and it buoyed the fortunes of those who controlled plots in desirable locations, regardless of their social status. Their grapes were now worth more, and because of that, their land was worth more. For these plot holders, there was an incentive to learn to communicate with Francophones, particularly as more and more speakers of français were being drawn into the area, by both the money to be made, and the prestige that association with these vineyards brought. For those peasants who farmed the better plots of Gevrey, Vosne, Volnay, Meursault or Puligny, they would have suddenly found themselves with an economic incentive to learn this language that brought them financial success. A natural decline in of the use patois Bourguignon within these villages was inevitable.

But I believe there were other economic factors that were brewing, which when combined, would push patois out of the Côte. The old bourguignon dialect of chalonnais would virtually cease to exist with the exodus of the people who spoke it.

Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise by Camille Pissaro 1882
Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise by Camille Pissaro 1882


Coming up: The effects of the economic crises of 1840, Phylloxera 1850, rural exodus, and the declining birthrate on patois.




The Pretenders to the Throne of France, A. Bicknell, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine November 1883 to April 1884

Vernacular culture as a religious rampart: Roussillon clergy and the defense of Catalan language in the 1880s, Francesca Zantedeschi, http://spinnet.eu/

Le Monde de l’éducation, Yves Gaulupeau, 2000, cited in From the Schoolroom to the Trenches: Laïcité and its Critics, Ian Birchall, paper given to London Historical Materialism Conference November 2015

Teaching the Mother Tongue in a Multilingual Europe, by Witold Tulasiewicz, Anthony Adams, A&C Black,  2005

Economic, Social and Demographic Thought in the XIXth Century: The Population Debate from Malthus to Marx, Yves Charbit, Springer Science & Business Media, 2009

The European subsistence crisis of 1845-1850: a comparative perspective Eric VanHaute,  Richard Paping, Cormac Ó Gráda, IEHC Helsinki, 2006

The Ideological Polarization of Europe in 1792, professor William Patch, Washington and Lee University, http://home.wlu.edu/

Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914. Eugen Weber, Stanford Univ. Press. 1976.

Schooling in Western Europe: A Social History, Mary Jo Maynes, Suny Press 1985

Teaching the Mother Tongue in France, Francoise Convey, Teaching the Mother Tongue in a Multilingual Europe, edited by Witold Tulasiewicz, Anthony Adams, A&C Black,June 9, 2005

Regional Dynamics Burgundian Landscapes in Historical Perspectiveedited by Carole Crumle

Languages and the Military: Alliances, Occupation and Peace Building, edited by H. Footitt, M. Kelly, Springer, 2016

Collective Action in Winegrowing Regions: A Comparison of Burgundy and the Midi – David R. Weir July 1976

Language or Dialect Shift? Shifting, Fading and Revival of Burgundian Gallo-Romance Varieties, Jean Léo Léonard  & Gilles Barot, 2012

End or invention of Terroirs? Regionalism  in the marketing of French luxury goods: the example of Burgundy wines in the inter‐war years, working paper Gilles Laferté Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique

Negotiating Territoriality: Spatial Dialogues Between State and Tradition, Allan Charles Dawson, Laura Zanotti, Ismael Vaccaro, Routledge 2014

‘Insofar as the ruby wine seduces them’: Cultural Strategies for Selling Wines in Interwar Burgundy,” Philip Whalen, 2009

The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism, Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, University of California Press, 2005

From Savage to Citizen: The Invention of the Peasant in the French Enlightenment, Amy S. Wyngaard, University of Delaware Press, 2004

Reshaping France: Town, Country, and Region During the French Revolution, Alan I. Forrest, Manchester University Press, 1991

Le patois bourguignon, patrimoine en danger, Arnaud Racapé, France Bleu Bourgogne, 2015


Burgundy: the History of the Vignerons, Preface

by Dean Alexander

The research for the series Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy led me to some very unexpected places, and that path was far longer and much more circuitous than I ever could have imagined when I first began. My trek of discovery led me to write in a “knee bone is connected to the leg bone” kind of way, and I found that the subject matter began directing me onto a decidedly historically driven path. I realized that I had a completely new series of articles before me: to piece together how the families lived and farmed the Côte d’Or lived before the dawn of the twentieth century.

Vineyard workers with oxenI immediately realized that this history of Côte d’Or would prove to be difficult extract. There is little that is written directly about life in the Burgundian villages. Clive Coates’ work detailing various famous properties ownership, is well established, but beyond that, little seems to be written. If this history has been written, and it is out there, it may not have been digitized, it probably is only in French,(1) but in any case, it has been exceptionally difficult to locate.

There are a number of reasons for this lack of information.

The first is Burgundy (as we are interested in the region as it pertains to the wine), comes a small ribbon of hillside in rural France. And despite Burgundies production of one of the world’s great luxury products, it was something of a rural backwater. National politics did not originate from Burgundy; it was not a financial center, nor did great historical events take place there.

While we generically referred to the wine of the Côte d’Or as Burgundy, in reality, Burgundy a much larger area covering four departments of rural France. In fact, the Côte d’Or was fairly isolated, with most of its trade moving upon the most improved roads, which were to the north. The wines were traded to the Netherlands, and then across the Channel to England, or to a lesser extent northwest to Paris. Even then, these roads were extremely poor by today’s standards. This trade in a single direction indicates that the Cote d’Or was pretty much the end of the line in terms of travel. Yes, there were roads to Jura and of course the Maconnaise, but those roads were poor, and those trade routes meant the wines of Burgundy would need to compete with the inexpensive wines of Beaujolais and Macon that Paris consumed in large quantities. This meant that along with a direction of trade, came an equally limited flow of information out of Burgundy, something that recorded history requires. This would continue until wider networks of roads and rail lines were developed in the mid to late 1800’s increased travel and trade elsewhere in France and elsewhere in Europe. All of these factors makes finding and compiling information about this narrow strip of land in the countryside of France all the more difficult.

The history of the vignerons of Burgundy may not be important in the context of the larger issues of the times, but to those of us Burgundy lovers with the rare ‘historian’ gene within our makeup, are curious about this place where the great wine has been made for centuries. There may only be one or two of us out there who doesn’t say “who cares?” Yet I continue undaunted.

This new, yet to be written, series of articles really began as I wrote about erosion in Vosne-Romanee Les Damaudesin Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy.  I was struck by so many questions regarding this place and the people who farmed it.  Who were these small landholders, and what happened to them? What was their life like? Was their life in the Côte d’Or different from other peasants in the rest of France?  Was there economic security? How did the Revolution affect the Côte d’Or these people? How was life different for the people who farmed these vineyards before and after the revolution? What happened to the local nobility? What was their relationship to the peasants that worked for them? What were the real effects of phylloxera in Burgundy? How did phylloxera and the economy effect vineyard ownership and the peasants of Burgundy?

What we do know is that the families that farm Burgundy today, are, for the most part, the same families that farmed Burgundy in the 1700’s. Their history forms the basis of the wines that they produce today, and that makes their history important. Most of the people who farmed these famous vineyards were virtually invisible even as they lived and others would only gain even a footnote in history after they bought a parcel of a world-renown vineyard. All told, this is a scant bit of information.

But this is a period of time (I will cover 150 years between 1750 and 1900) that should be revealed, and not forgotten to history. As it is, it virtually only exists today as footnotes in scholarly texts, in support of some other broader historical exploration. I set out on with a goal to collect these widely spread granules of information and assemble them into something meaningful. I want to illuminate the story of these people, who as individuals, that from the moment they died, there was no trace of their existence.

Searching for Burgundy-related history via the internet is itself problematic.  The word Burgundy, in a web search, is first most closely associated with the color, especially in terms fashion, and then it is most closely associated with the Duchy (kingdom) of Burgundy which ruled much of the French interior before the middle ages until 1525. This was at least 200 years before the period that I considered would be relevant to the vignerons of Burgundy today. Gradually I learned how to tease out pieces of information using the internet, and one tidbit of information would lead to a keyword, with which I could find more.

HistorianWithout the internet, google search, and control+F, this research would not be possible, particularly in the short amount of time as I have compiled it. I must also credit amazon, which puts substantive previews of thousands of scholarly books, each which might only have one or two mentions of Burgundy within their pages. This feature this allowed me to search for information with a simple find command.  Without this resource, to write something like this would require access to a major university library, and possibly years of free time. But even if I had access to the physical books, without a search function, it may have been very difficult to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Even with the internet’s incredible search power at my fingertips, I never did find a history of the people of the of the Côte d’Or. At this point, I have 10,000 words of notes compiled (roughly 22 pages in 12 point font), and I think I have a well-rounded enough set of information to begin writing about Burgundy. My hope is that I can paint a picture of what it was like for the families that have lived there since at least the beginning of the 18th century, if not long before.

The story of the vignerons of the  Cote d’Or develops against the backdrop of France as an emerging superpower. This is a national history that is remarkably character rich, full of intrigue, drama, betrayal, and of course war, revolution, and for a couple of years, the heavy use of the guillotine. Comparably, the history of the rural Côte d’Or is somewhat sleepy, but it is these series of stormy, almost operatic, political events of the national stage, looms as an important Burgundian back story. The happenings in Paris, like a giant roulette wheel, changed the cast of moneyed, powerful characters who owned the great vineyards, and to various extents, dictated the quality lives of those who lived there. The one constant was that the peasants and most of the lower-cased Bourgeoisie continued on like they had for centuries.


(1) I have done many searches for untapped information in French, but it has not yielded much more information than English scholarly writings have since presumably those sources have already been mined.



Burgundy: l’Histoire des Vignerons, Part 1






Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy Part 4.5, Soil retention – the farming of Burgundy in the 1800s

Ancien Régime

A historical explanation for Les Damaudes’ retention of clay


Click to enlarge. Many thanks to Steen Ohman, of Winehog.org for supplying the Cadastre map of 1827
Click to enlarge. Many thanks to Steen Ohman, of Winehog.org for supplying me with the Cadastre Map of 1827

Changes in parcel division and parcel orientation

While there is no specific information regarding the history of Les Damaudes prior to 1952, the cadastre map of 1827* indicates that the vineyard was planted to vine at that time and that it’s division and orientation was very different in 1827 than it is today. This map indicates that at some point between 1927 and 1952, there was a total reorganization of both parcels and ownership. This reorganization also suggests that the owners of the parcels had abandoned this land. Had there been a continuity of ownership, there would be at least some continuity of plot divisions. Instead, the study plot cleaves through multiple plots shown in the 1927 cadastre.

The Ouvrée, the balk, and soil preservation

Many of the plots indicated by the map, were very small. The size itself is indicative of ownership by peasant farmers.  These small parcels were the remnants of the ancien régime; the open field system that created and dictated the agricultural fabric of France for over seven centuries. At the time of the revolution, a full third of Burgundian agricultural land was farmed under the manorial system and was converted to peasant ownership. (Loutchisky 1911)

Additionally, some of the larger parcels of Les Damaudes were oriented horizontally to the slope, so the rows followed the hillside.  These parcels were large enough and long enough to suggest they may have been plowed. These larger plots were traditionally sized by the amount land a man could work in a day with a pair of plow animals, were measured in ouvrées.(1) These larger plots, with their long, narrow horizontal orientation would not have allowed nearly the high rate of erosion as similarly sized vertical plantings of today do. Secondly, because these horizontal plots were relatively narrow, erosion was again curtailed, as storm water runoff would have been slowed by these closely spaced divisions.



All across Europe, serfs and villeins (freeman tenants) (2)  tended their plots, known as selions, just as they had for over seven centuries. Selions were traditionally divided by a raised, strip of fallow land called a balk indicating the end or beginning of one man’s plot and the beginning of another. The word balk (to pause or not proceed) originated from this practice of plot division.

Any break in vineyard planting, like plot divisions, roads, and walls, all have been shown to slow runoff by diminishing its velocity, thus easing the pressures of erosion.  So the small size of these parcels alone would have deterred erosion, but if these plots were additionally bordered by any kind of balk, these would obstacles would have minimized the velocity of the runoff. There is evidence that balks did exist in Burgundian vineyards, as Jim Busby Esquiredescribes walking along “grassy footpaths” while visiting the vineyard of Chambertin in 1840.  It is reasonable to conclude the small parcel divisions of Damodes, each likely separated by a balks or footpaths, were huge contributors to the fact that such a high percentage of clay was retained in this steep vineyard.

One foot in feudalism

At the time of the Revolution, feudalism, although waning, still existed in various forms. So on the heels of the French Revolution in 1789, when the National Assembly released all of the demesne (domaines) of King Louis XVI, the serfs and freemen tenants who farmed these lands were given the title of the plots they had farmed before the Revolution. This action would affect a quarter of the farmland in France, although in Burgundy this figure was higher. The royal demesne constituted 35% of the agricultural land in Burgundy at the time of the revolution, while it is estimated that church held the title of an additional 11% to 15% (Loutchisky 1911). This acts also released France’s 150,000 serfs, almost all of which had belonged to the Church. (Sée 1927)

Initially, the peasants were to pay for the release of seigneurial dues, but as the peasants could not pay with money they did not have, these release fees were withdrawn by the National Assembly in 1793. With a mere 38 years separating the revolution and the production of the 1827 cadastre map, it is likely that some of the owners of these plots had been former villien (freeman tenants) and were still working plots they had gained because of the revolution.(3)  

*For additional explanation of feudalism see Part 4: The history of erosion and man.

After the dissolution of traditional "demesne," or domaines of the Marquis and the church, peasants were given the rights to the land that they had always farmed as serfs. These parcels were called selions. After the phylloxera destroyed their vineyards, many of these peasant owners could not afford to replant their vineyards. A number of these lesser vineyards were not replanted for almost a century. Here an Image of a peasant girl resting, is from the Paris Salon circa 1893.
After the dissolution of traditional “demesne,” or domaines of the Marquis and the church, peasants were given the rights to the land that they had always farmed as serfs. These parcels were called selions. After the phylloxera destroyed their vineyards, many of these peasant owners could not afford to replant their vineyards. A number of these lesser vineyards were not replanted for almost a century. Here an Image of a peasant girl resting is from the Paris Salon circa 1893.

Although they were now landowners, rather than landholders, the peasant’s lot had not significantly changed. The wealthiest of them could earn a living off of the land as farmers, either on their own or in co-op with others as métayers. Many continued to struggle for sustenance, working also as day laborers, or worked a side trade (Henri Sée 1927).

In some ways, many of farmers were to be worse off for it for the dissolution of the feudal system, which through its evolution, had allowed significant freedom, and did not generally entail servitude. Additionally, the dues owed by the tenant farmers were far less burdensome than they had been in the middle ages, consisting of rent and a few days of compulsory labor on the nobles demesne (Sée 1927). Within this feudal framework, the Seigneur provided communally shared horses and plows, which all laborers used to make the work their fields.

With the removal of the feudal system, the peasant needed to provide his own tools, and that included the use of any plow animal.

A pair of oxen cost 300 to 400 francs at the time Busby visited France in 1840, and for all but the wealthiest peasants, this was an unfathomable price to pay for an animal.  Plows were also an expensive piece of equipment. Since a man with a pair of plow animals could work roughly six to eight times the area, than a man without one, the loss of access to a horse and plow predictably would have significant implications for the peasant farmer.  They now must attempt to use a shovel and hoe to try to farm the same area of land they had as a villein using the seigneur’s horse and plow. This loss of productivity (in terms of area) would require the peasants to either hire workers to help work their fields or sell (or lease) land they were not physically able to work by hand. If there was a positive side to this, having to hand-work these small plots was an additional factor in the preservation clay in the vineyard of Les Damaudes.

24,000 or more vines per hectare

It was either the small size of plots or the inability to buy plow animals (or both), that encouraged Burgundy’s farmers to literally fill every empty space of a vineyard with vines. It was common at the time, for Burgundian vineyards to achieve planting densities of 24,000 to 30,000 vines per hectare.

When visiting the great vineyard of Chambertin, James Busby recorded that in the half-hectare plots there,  a mere 15 inches of spacing existed between each vine. This was true not only between plants within a single row but between rows as well. Busby wrote that “The plants were literally crowded to such a degree, that it was almost impossible to set down the foot without treading upon some of them.” It would be seemingly impossible to plow a vineyard with such spacing, which meant all vineyard work would have to be accomplished with a hoe.

provignage illustrationThe peasant would achieve this enormous number of vines, essentially for free, by a technique called layering or provignage. This was the poor man’s answer to using cuttings, which were by then, being bred in nurseries from clones scientist had discovered to be resistant to various diseases. The cuttings were however very expensive and often used sparingly even by more wealthy land owners, only one cutting used for every three vines established. The other vines would be grown via provignage from the purchased cutting.

To perform layering or provignage, a trench was dug from a healthy plant to the location where the farmer wanted to establish a new plant.  He would then bury a cane or shoot of the vine into the furrow he had dug, with a layer of manure and then cover this with soil. Over the course of the next year, the buried cane (shoot) would develop roots of its own, and the vigneron would separate the two vines by cutting off the cane that started the new plant. Alternately, the two vines could be left adjoined, and in many places, there could be several of these Siamese vines connected to one another. The vineyardist would attempt to regulate the rows to be as straight as possible, but layering created such irregularity that Busby recalled that “it would have been very difficult to point out which way the alignment lay. For this purpose, the stocks and roots were twisted, and the different plants laid across each other in every possible direction.”

for a poor man, the game, or, as it was generally called, the large plant, was undoubtedly the best kind of vine, the quantity it yielded was so much greater than the other; and, to a poor man, the quality was not so much an object, for the large proprietors and merchants would never acknowledge his wine to be a fine one, and it was very difficult to sell it for a high price, however good.”
Journal of a Recent Visit to the Vineyards of Spain and France, James Busby Esq. 1840

According to Busby, a plant grown by provignage would produce grapes in its first year. However, the vines would become weak in 10 to 15 years time and would need to be replaced. This meant the 19th-century vineyard was in constant state tearing out and replanting.  In vineyards such as Chambertin, which produced exponentially more expensive wine, the vineyard owner could often afford lay fallow sections in which vines were removed. These fallow areas were then planted to sainfoin,  a cover crop that could be used to feeding horses, while simultaneously rejuvenating the soil with nitrogen that had been depleted by overcrowding the field (domaine in French) with vines. This alternate use would last for four years, and represented a significant cost, and could only be sustained by a vineyard that produced a wine that fetched high prices in the marketplace. This would not have been true of a vineyard such as Les Damaudes.

It is clear, that as of 1860, there were many vineyards in which the soils were still in relatively good shape, because of the farming methods of the time. There has been some historical record of vineyards, as early as the 1600’s, that required their soils to be replaced, (presumably due to rill and gully erosion) to cover exposed base rock. The tremendous expense of bringing in soils indicates that this erosion occurred in larger vineyards owned by a wealthy marquis or another nobleman, the church, or later, a member of the growing bourgeoisie, who would dominate the

sulpher treatmentsThis set the stage for the introduction of phylloxera to France and Burgundy. It would be too simple of a story to phylloxera wiped out the vineyards of France and eventually the vineyards were replanted with root-stock from American hybrids. While most accounts of the phylloxera blight in terms of total dollars lost and businesses going under; as in all economic downturns, there are those who lose everything, and those losses create opportunities for others. And that is the story of Les Damaudes. We know there was a wholesale change of plot ownership and re-organization parcel disbursement in the vineyard, that occurred sometime between 1827 and 1952. While precisely when and how remains a mystery, but there is no doubt that phylloxera played a large role in this story.

Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), Vineyard laborer resting, 1869
Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), Vineyard laborer resting, 1869

When phylloxera arrived on the doorstep of the Côte d’Or in 1775, it was clear that a peasant would not be able to withstand the loss of their vines. The peasant, who depended on every Franc for their day-to-day survival, could not afford the chemicals to treat the vines. They could in no way spend a year’s labor tearing our their vineyard. This was an impossibility. And they certainly could not afford the 3000 Francs per hectare it cost in 1880 to replant the vineyard. It almost seems silly at this point to mention they would not be able to afford to labor in the vineyards for the four years that the young vines would produce no fruit.  If they were lucky they would own other plots of land that produced produce or wheat that could sustain them. Otherwise, these peasants were likely many of the 1 million Frenchmen who would emigrate to Algeria or America in the 1870’s through 1900.

Ironically, as the grape growing peasantry was forced to leave their land in phylloxera affected areas, economically, in France, things were improving. For the unskilled worker, wages increased  2/3’s between 1850 and 1910. During the same period, GDP doubled, despite France’s involvement in the Crimean war and the disastrous Franco-Prussian war of 1870 which saw the fall of the Napoleon III and the second Republic. Likely, it was France’s continued imperial pursuits of colonizing parts of Africa and Asia artificially buoyed they French economy, but whatever the reason, the economic up-turn caused a growth in demand for wine and rising prices, and this promise of demand would justify replanting the most profitable of vineyards immediately.

Hopefully, this long, historical explanation of why the soils of Les Damaudes (and likely those in Cros Parantoux) retained their natural levels of clay, may seem reasonable. In my view, the retention of clay was two-fold.  Number one: the vineyard was farmed in small divided sections, and farmed by hand. Additionally, the larger parcels were oriented horizontally, limiting the distance between plots on the vertical axis. These larger plots or may not have been plowed in the 1800’s; but if they were, because of the plot shape, could only have been done across the slope, following the curve of the hillside. This would have limited erosion. Secondly, like Cros Parantoux, this vineyard likely lay abandoned for a lengthy enough period that ownership of the vineyard was reapportioned. The most obvious period for this to have happened was from the early 1880s when phylloxera struck to 1952 when this parcel was planted.



I defer to Steen Öhman author of winehog.org, who has carefully researched the available history – primarily ownership – of Cros Parantoux . Read his article here.



(1) The Burgundy Report has a breakdown of land that is significantly different than found in the book, Measures and Men Witold Kula  Princeton University Press (1986). Bill Nasson reports that an “Ouvrée is 4.285 ares; the area one man could work in one day” and a “Journal  equals 8 ouvrées, or 860 perches, or 81.900 ares and was the area one man could work in one day with a horse and plough.” This is very different than Kula’s writing that an ouvrée was a vineyard specific measurement that Burgundian used for the area that a man could work with a pair of plow animals, and a journeaux in Burgundy referred specifically to the size of a cornfield a man could work with a pair of plow animals. I was unable to find further supporting evidence for either account.

(2) Serfs of France had largely been “enfranchised” over the course of the middle ages. But this varied on where and when since control of France was spread over various Duchies. To give a general time frame when enfranchisement was occurring, Charles the Fair emancipated the serfs of Languedoc in two letters from 1298 and 1304. Upon gaining freeman status, serfs became villeins (this is where the word villain came from, meaning: scoundrel or criminal). They may have been enfranchised but in many ways, their situation had not changed all that significantly. As tenant farmers, they were still legally bound to the manor where they were tenants. They paid ‘rent’ either in the form of money or produce, and owed the noble of the manor a certain number of days of unfree labor each year, referred to as Corvée. This was simply a form of barter between the tenant and the nobleman. A similar arrangement is the sharecropping agreements referred to as métayage, meaning half.  This is another form of barter agreement, where the lease payment is in the form of a percentage of the product of the vineyard, in either grapes or wine.

(3) The life expectancy in France in 1828 was 37 years, thanks in part to the smallpox vaccinations that began in 1810. Earlier, in the 18th century half of all children died before the age of 10 years old, lowering the average life expectancy in the 1700’s to only 25 years. The period of the Napoleonic Wars, 1803 to 1815, saw a drop in average age to below 30 years. This happened again in 1870 following the disastrous (for France) Franco-Prussian, when the Napoleon III was captured, and Paris would later fall Germans January of 1871, in Bismark’s successful bid for German unification.


Additional reading

A History of French Public Law, Volume 9,  Jean Brissaud p. 317-318 Ulan Press (1923)

Economic and Social Conditions in France During the Eighteenth Century Henri Sée Professor at the University of Rennes 1927

http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9479.pdf     European Wine on the Eve of the Railways, James Simpson


Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy: Part 4 the history of erosion and man




Erosion and man

by Dean Alexander

Erosion has had a monumental impact on the character of the wines of Burgundy. It took several decades once the INAO began preventing exogenous soil additions (early 20th century), before growers slowly began to realize that they must change the way they work their fields. They could no longer hit reset, by bringing in new soil to fix what they had damaged through poor farming practices.  The vineyards have since responded positively; with increasingly healthier soils, and far better soil retention. The region is now producing the finest wines in its long history. But without a doubt, the erosional damage of the past has been so immense and irreparable, that we will never really know what the terroir of Burgundy might have been. 


How long ago this happened, will certainly surprise you.


The First Farmers

Plow were first widely used as agricultural neolithic man move into central France around 4,000 BC .
The plow: 4500 BC

With the recession of the Ice Age, the Neolithic hunter-gatherers of the region were now free to venture northward, allowing the arrival of agricultural Neolithic man in central France, 6,500 years ago. Around that time, the first plows were developed, and with the economy of effort it provided, more food could be produced. This in turn allowed the population to grow, greatly increasing the need for arable land.

As agriculture began to be adopted by Neolithic man, particularly after the development of the plow, erosion became a significant issue across Europe.To meet that demand, they burned to clear forests for pasture and fields. This was an expedient means of what would otherwise take years of work. The unintended consequences of burns to facilitate clearing, were often massive, fast-moving wildfires that swept though forested and grassland areas.

Without the protection of trees and grasses upon the hillsides, the erosion that ensued was monumental. There may have been more erosion in the 700 years Neolithic man farmed the land of central Europe, than in the preceding 35 million years since the Côte d’Or was formed, and perhaps more than all of the time since. Although through intervening centuries have seen the reforestation of the hillsides, the damage done by Neolithic man permanently changed the landscape of France.

What did Neolithic man look like? Click here.

The Middle Ages

William Shepard, Historical Atlas 1923
Tenant Farming example. William Shepard, Historical Atlas 1923

Since the Neolithic, two subsequent periods of deforestation occurred, each time followed by large-scale erosion. The least destructive of the two was the periods between the 12th and 15th century, which despite the black plague in the middle 1300s, saw a large population growth in France.

The king, or the Duke in Burgundy’s case (1), would grant large parcels of land from the royal demesne (domaine) to his nobility, who were considered the servants of the Duke. Known as seigneurs, the nobility, would then use the land to raise money to fund the Duchey. The seigneur granted strips of land to tenants (serfs) to farm in open fields. These fields where then were farmed communally by the inhabitants of the manor. Intermixed with the tenant parcels were the demesne of the seigneur, and the demesne of the church – all of the land which was worked by the surf communally as partial payment for their tenant rights.

The rights the tenants had to the land were very strong and generational. They could not be evicted from the land by the seigneur. Additionally, the tenants were able to accumulate rights to more than one strip of land, meant parcels could be scattered across the manor. A transfer of land rights typically happened when a tenant died and had no heirs. At that time another tenant would assume the right to work that parcel. This occurred on a massive scale in the wake of the black plague, which arrived in Lyon in 1348. Lyon, which was only 155 km, or 96 miles along the main highway, the Via Agrippa, from wine villages of the Cote d’Or. There is little doubt that the plague struck the Cote d’Or very hard.

Newcomers to the manor who had no land rights worked for tenants that had more land than they could work themselves. It is estimated that half the of the agricultural community consisted of landless serfs.

Farming with plow
From an early 15th century manuscript. The Granger Collection, New York

The manor model, with its communal farming, required everyone to adhere to the norms of the region, and this discouraged innovation and adoptions of new techniques, causing production per hectare to lag behind farms in England, Holland and elsewhere in the world. The farmer’s dependence on the communal sharing of prohibitively expensive horses and plows needed to farm the heavy clay soils of central Europe only reinforced the status quo.

The inefficiencies of farming under this system meant that as the population grew, it required that the economy remained primarily both rural and agrarian. The existing estates could not supply enough food if population grew mainly in urban centers, so population tended to grow in rural areas. More mouths to feed, and more able hands to employ, meant economic opportunity for the Duchy if new arable land could be developed from the forests.

Even though the open field system inherently discouraged innovation and suppressed productivity, the system proved to be so economically successful its existence eclipsed the time of feudalism. Right up to the revolution, the open field system to continue to fund well-heeled landowners in this very capitalist endeavor. But even then, to say the open field system was gone, might be an incomplete truth. The people may have then owned the land, but their situation had not greatly changed. In fact, until only recently, the wide-spread division of small parcels ensured the impoverishment of paysans across Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, with an obvious, strong parallel to the medieval tenant arrangement. Indeed, the old lord-tenant arrangement of métayage (sharecropping) would reemerge. post-1789 revolution, between those who owned the land, and laborers who would work it. In 1929 there were 200,000 Métayers in France, farming the same 11 percent of agricultural land. This was truly not so differently as had been the arrangement in 1729, or in 1529 for that matter.

As with a population that doubled in the 3 centuries after 1000 AD, the needs for timber and hardwood also increased. Wood was needed for construction, woodworking, iron smelting and metal working, not to mention fuel for heating.  All of these needs multiplied the pressures on deforestation. Although forest management had to various degrees been practiced, it tended to be exercised on forests on properties owned by the aristocracy and the church. Elsewhere, woods fell to the ax and saw.

erosion clear cutting
photo: http://ourplanet.infocentral.state.gov

18th century: The last major assault on terroir

A devastatingly cold 17th century followed, slowing the population growth and economies. The end of that century saw the failed harvest of 1693, when the death toll, according to David Huddart, and Tim Stott of Europeans is thought to have numbered in the millions. This period of economic lull set the stage for a final epoch of deforestation and erosion of France.

By the mid 18th century, the average temperature had risen enough to achieve food security. Once again, with food in their bellies, populations rebounded, and focus on innovation brought healthy economies. Industrial development ensued, bringing expansion and colonialism.  Massive fleets were built, from forests felled for the needed timber. As the population grew again, farming and pastureland expanded once again to support the needed food supplies. The open field system prevailed through this period, and given their inefficiencies, yet more land was needed to feed the population. To these pressure, the forests fell away, leading to erosion.

The protected hunting forests of the Aristocracy, and those belonging to the Church, alone stood untouched. While these forests were often noted as early forestry, it is somewhat disingenuous call this entitlement “forest husbandry”. Indeed, by the time of the French Revolution the royal forests had become a hated symbol of privilege.(2)

Unlike the medieval period that saw erosion primarily because of deforestation, this dawn of industrialization created many new erosional sources.  Iron works and foundries required mines and open pits to be dug to excavate ore, while limestone, prized for its hardness, was quarried across the country, including within the vineyard land of the Cote d’Or.



It was the wealth of the times that created a demand for Burgundy’s limestone. Thousands of large building projects: for the Church, wealthy private citizens, the aristocracy, for government buildings and public works, all of which required vast amounts of building materials. The high demand created such soar value for the “marble”. I had originally concluded when first writing this article, that the value of the limestone below, outsized the value of the grape production of that location, but I have since come to what I believe to be a more valid conclusion. I submit that the quarries dug in locations in which the limestone remained unfractured, examples of which can be seen in the climates of Meursault Perrières, Clos de Beze, Bonnes-Mares, and some submit, even Romanee-Conti, made those particular locations unsuitable for quality vine cultivation, unlike the superb plots which surrounded them.

It was used in its solid slab form for wall paneling and floors, but the rubble was also burned in special kilns to produce Quick lime (calcium oxide) which is the primary ingredient of both mortar and plaster. Softer limestones were often sought for the production of quicklime, as it was far easier to excavate the softer stone than the harder, unfractured stone which was required for floors and wall paneling.

The excavation of the limestone not only changed the substratum and topography of these vineyards, but greatly affected vineyard lands to either side of these projects, and with substantial impact to the vineyards below. This is where the overburden (the topsoil and useless rubble) was cast, in the most expeditious manner, downhill.

Meursault Perrieres quarry site175 years later, the disruption of such a quarry site to the terroir of the region is easily seen in the two vineyards of Les Perrières in Meursault, and Les Charmes, which lies just below. A large quarry was cut out of the hillside of MeursaultPerrières Dessous. The location of bulk of the excavation appears to now have been declassified from Les Perrières, as well as a wide strip above the exposed limestone wall.  The sub-plot of Clos des Perrières which is owned by Albert Grivault vineyard is just below the main area of excavation, but it was certainly was part of the quarry itself. The area directly behind the removal site would certainly have been utilized for temporary buildings, for staging or even storage of limestone before transport, a loading area for horse carts, and space for any other logistical needs a quarry would require.  The slope of this entire area was more or less leveled from it previous gradient. Clos des Perrières begins that the overburden would have been spread, although. The dirt roads of the regions were also impacted, by the transit of thousands of heavily loaded wagons, itself causing extensive erosion. And then it would rain.

The likely disposition of overburden and erosion from the quarry in Les Perrières, with finer sediment with higher suspension
The likely disposition of overburden and erosion from the quarry in Les Perrières, with finer sediment with higher turbidity / suspension velocity travels farther down-slope. The original map this diagram was taken from, and more information on Les Perrières can be found at clivecotes.com.  Click to enlarge

The sections of Les Charmes-Dessus, lying just below this quarry received the discharge of overburden, deepening the soil along this half mile of roadway. That this discharge and erosion onto Les Charmes Dessus, and no doubt Les Charmes Dessous, lying just below that, is without question. The soil depth was increased by the alluvial soils eroded from the quarry site, in addition to any normal erosional deposits that would have occurred, giving the vines more depth than they require, mimicking vineyards that are actually lower on the slope.  The wines from Meursault Charmes, are fairly commonly described as fat, without the vibrancy and minerality of Les Perrières, and often given the faint praise of being rather hedonistic.

Excavations by Thierry Matrot in 1990 in his parcel of MeursaultPerrières (parcel 15 in the map to the right) found roughly one foot of topsoil before striking the limestone base. Whereas, digging into his plot of Meursault-Charmes however proved to be far more work. Here a pit of 6 feet was dug before hitting the limestone substrata.(3) This indicates, a significant amount of limestone colluvium had developed in Charmes, that has mixed with transported clay to attain this six-foot depth of marl dominated soil.. I have not been able to determine the location of the Matrot’s plot (or plots) in Les Charmes. It is a large vineyard and without the dig location, this information doesn’t have nearly as much meaning as it would otherwise. It does illustrate the dramatic effect erosion has had on the vineyards of Burgundy and the character of the wines from each location.


Much more on the effect slope position and soil depth on the character of wine can be here for vineyards on the lower slopes, and here for vineyards on the upper slopes.


This diagram illustrates the changes in temperature in Northern Europe, as well as major historical in intellectual periods.
This diagram illustrates the changes in temperature in Northern Europe, as well as major historical in intellectual periods.

(1) The Burgundians were an Eastern Germanic tribe which likely crossed the Rhine in 406 AD, in a combined force with the Vandals, Alans and Suebi tribes. The Roman forces there had largely departed four years earlier to deal with Visigoth king, and sometimes Roman ally, Alaric, who would ultimately be an actor in the fall of Rome. But the crossing signaled the end of Roman rule Central Europe.

The Kingdom of the Burgundies, ruled the lands east of Paris, down to the Mediterranean with various boundaries. A series of smaller Duchy, including the Duchy of Burgundy, succeeded the Kingdom of Burgundies in 1032. The Duchy was relatively sovereign, but owed its allegiance to the French crown. The influence and power of the Duchy expanded greatly in 1384 with a union with the Hapsburgs. The house of Valois – Burgundy, the ruling family of the Duchy of Burgundy at the time, ultimately expanded its control of fiefs in Holland and the Netherlands, parts of northern France and Luxembourg.  In a bid to gain independence from France, 1477 Charles the Bold was killed in battle by a combined force of the Duke of Lorraine and a Swiss Confederacy. With no heir to Charles, and a weak hold on their power, the Valois were unable to prevent the Duchy from eventually being absorbed into France.

(2) Empire Forestry and the Origins of Environmentalism, Gregory Allen Barton (p.11) Cambridge University Press

Earth Environments: Past, Present, and Future, David Huddart, Tim Stott, John Wiley & Sons,, 2013

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