History of the Vigneron: Languages Part I: Patois de bourguignon

View of Paris by Pieter Casteels II (fl. 1673–1700)
View of Paris by Pieter Casteels II (fl. 1673–1700)

A thousand years of patois

by Dean Alexander

It is ironic that history speaks so little about language, because other than extreme weather, the issues of communication, miscommunication, and the lack of communication, have likely shaped history more any other single factor. Indeed, these issues of communication are often difficult to pinpoint and their consequences are often lost to history. However, this does not excuse histories which take slight note that on the eve of 1789’s French Revolution, eighty-eight percent of the population of France could not hold a conversation in French, nor did not know any French at all (slmc.uottawa.ca). Nor is it sufficiently impressed that there were dozens of different patois spoken across France.

Tower of BabelMany histories gloss over the issue of language with no more than an occasional reference to ‘terms’ which were “in the patois of the region. This leaves the impression that patois was no more than a colorful piece of slang, rather than itself being a distinct language or dialect. Such casual references do not convey any difficulty of communication within a population which had spoken an estimated six to seven hundred dialects (10th century), derived from three distinct mother tongues (slmc.uottawa.ca). Another (rather poor) estimate, was provided in a 1794 report by the revolutionary bishop of Blois, Henri Grégoire. He wrote that with “thirty different patois, we are still, as far as language goes, at the Tower of Babel“.  That the bishop underestimated the number of dialects so grievously, suggests how little he really knew about these languages and the people who spoke them. Some modern scholars estimate there were as many as fourteen patois in Burgundy alone.

Whatever the number of patois, it is staggering that percentage of the population which did not speak French, and it invites a number of questions when considering the history of the vigneron. What was the history of language within Burgundy, and why was the French language so slow to be adopted there (and across the country)? How did the monarchy effectively overcome linguist differences? When did the français language arrive in the Côte d’Or, and what was its societal impact? What do we know about the regional Burgundian language; and lastly, does the Burgundian patois survive today? 

Note: for the remainder of this article, I will refer to the language of French by its French name, français. The primary reason for this is français was simply just one of many languages spoken in France.  A secondary reason for this spelling is all of the other language names have no English equivalent, it seems natural that the French language should be represented in the same format. I reserve the right to use the word ‘French’ to represent the language, when refers to its current day usage, or it allows me to avoid an awkward sentence construction. Also challenging was the decision whether or not to capitalize all of the languages and titles. In English we capitalize everything, but not-so-much in French. I opted for the later if the term was in français, but I did capitalize if it was an English usage. I’m sure I did plenty wrong on this account. Editing is not a strength of mine.

Part three of this article will deal with the development and history of français – it is integral to the French story, but secondary to the story of Burgundy. 


Language and the Côte d’Or during the ancien régime and beyond

The patois of Burgundy has traditionally been referred to by French writers as“bourguignon-morvandiau”.  That bourguignon comes from the same mother tongue as français, the langue d’oïl, does not mean that communication was easy between those who were purely bourguignophones, and those who were purely Francophones.  How difficult was this communication? An indication may lie in the fact that someone who spoke both français and a patois was said to be bi-lingual.

Along with hundreds of words which were decidedly different from français, some of which can be viewed here, the pronunciation of the words common to both français and bourguignon-morvandiau could itself cause one to have to listen carefully. Speakers of bourguignon rolled their “r“s liberally when compared to that of the French speaker, and the “a”, “eu”, and “to” sounds are very marked, or exaggerated, in their pronunciation. The patios spoken from the Burgundy border north of Dijon, down through Nuits, and Beaune to the southernmost vineyard area of the Côte d’Or was a bourguignon dialect called chalonnaise (Léonard and Barot 2012).



The Morvan

Patois bourguignon-morvandiau

The name “bourguignon-morvandiau” suggests that the language originated in the hills Morvan Massif, lies roughly 40 kilometers west of the Côte d’Or. This implication can be quite misleading, but the Morvan is really not a such a bad place to begin this story.

It is a rugged region of wooded peaks and high valleys. With the quasi-isolation, the terrain presented in terms of accessibility, in both communication and trade in and out of the Morvan, has always suffered. This has meant that the population, in addition to being quite poor, has been correspondingly under-educated. These factors have made this one of the last places where the ancient patois of Burgundy is still being spoken.

The Dorsale boisée is in brown, with Chateau Chinon pop. in 1876 was 2668, today pop. 2086.
The Dorsale boisée is in brown, with Chateau Chinon pop. in 1876 was 2668, today pop. 2086.

The Morvan’s quaint villages and small farms dot the region’s meadows or were cut from its forests in an era of uneven logging regulation. As logging intensified to meet the nations demands for lumber, the population of various villages swelled by as much as forty percent between the years of 1840 and 1900.* The region’s resources, which included cheap, unskilled labor, were, as vividly described by Jean-Léo Léonard & Gilles Barot, absorbed “ruthlessly by the belly of Paris”.

It was from this poor and bloated population, which identified itself by its humble patois, that the daughters of the Morvan were sent to Paris to work as nannies and nursemaids. And over the decades, as thousands of young Morvan girls had worked in the capital’s wealthiest homes, awareness of the patois bourguignon-morvandiau grew outside of the region. It was only a matter of time before bourguignon-morvandiau would become synonymous with the patois of burgundy.

Over the centuries, it has been abundantly clear that the peasants of the Morvan have clung to their language as an integral part of their identity. And although morvandiau has been a long-established written language, only a minority of its speakers ever learned to read or write it. That français has finally supplanted the regional patois as the primary language was spoken is significant, but it is representative of the regression of patois all across France.

The biggest threat to morvandiau is the Morvan’s increasingly diminishing population. In some of its larger villages, the population is a third or less in number than its 19th-century levels. Because of this, it is impossible for “morvandiau” to retain the dynamic vibrancy which it displayed in the past.

(*) from levels established by the census of 1793

(**) 1793 was the first census by the new revolutionary government

(***) The population change shows the boom and bust economy during this period. Moux-en-Morvan in 1793 population was 1089, in 1872 the population swelled to 1688, and today (2013) Moux-en-Morvan has 564 people who live there.  Montreuillon lies along a feeder canal to the Canal du Niverais, allowed good transport for logging operations.  In 1793 had a population of 855, and it grew to a peak population of 1272 in 1976, while today it has shrunk to only 286 inhabitants in 2013.


ijon skyline, source planetware.com
The Dijon skyline. photo: planetware.com

Dijon and the wine villages of the Côte d’Or

Approximately 40 kilometers east of the Morvan, lies the Burgundian provincial capital of Dijon. As the provincial seat of government, and as a major ecclesiastical and intellectual center, it was necessary to speak français by anyone of social position during the ancien régime. This was also true for commoners who aspired to gain wealth, or rise to a position of prominence.* As such, by the early 18th century (if not before), the bourgeoisie of Gevrey, Vosne, Nuits, and Beaune, would have all spoken français. This was a nécessité in order to conduct business with the right people in Dijon, Paris, or to meet with merchants of the great trading cities along the Atlantic coast.

The arrival of the français along the route des grand cru indicated that a new stratification was occurring at a societal level. There had always been a class difference between the nobility and the common man, but now, the knowledge of français created a new and important social demarcation between members within the third estate (Forrest 1991). There were now two major classes of commoner, a group which includes peasants, laborers, and artisans on one side and the educated bourgeoisie on the other. One could easily tell them apart, if not by the clothes that they wore, but by the language they spoke.

 (*) This timing would coincide with the drive by Versailles to subdue the nobility and attain an absolute monarchy.


Across the Saône River: the Gallo-Romance language of Franco-Provençal 

Franco-Provençal or Arpitan. Difficult intelligibility among dialects was noted in the early 18th century. Wikpedia
Franco-Provençal or Arpitan. Difficult intelligibility among dialects was noted in the early 18th century. Wikipedia

For centuries, the Côte d’Or sat at a crossroads of two mother languages of patois: Langue d’oïl and Franco-Provençal (also known as Arpitan). In much of the three Burgundian departments of Yonne, Nièvre, and the Côte d’Or, patois in which the langue d’oïl was primarily dominant. But as one moved south and within Nièvre, and east within the Côte d’Or, the words and pronunciation typical of franco-provençaux became increasingly strong.  This was particularly true along the banks of the Saône River, which bordered the department of FrancheComté.

In the department of SaôneetLoire, which is home to the vineyards of Rully, Bouzeron, Mâcon, and Pouilly-Fuissé, the patois there are said to be transitional, conveying varying degrees of both the Langue d’oïl and Franco-Provençal. Nearby, just across the Saône River, in the Franche-Comté, Franco-Provençal was the primary tongue.   In 1807, one French linguist, Jean-Louis Grillet, wrote that communication between various Franco-Provençal dialects was “difficult” (Wikipedia). This comment instructs us on other linguistic challenges that at one time certainly existed within Burgundy, and across the realm.

Dissecting the ‘langues des bourguignons’

To study the dialects of a century ago requires that patois were literate, meaning there was a written version of them. As  James R. Lehning writes that the patois of the Loire had “apparently deteriorated in the course of the nineteenth century.” And in the arrondissement of Roanne,” patois existed in only an “attenuated” form (Lehning 1995). This is to be expected, as the use of français extended its reach into rural communities. But if this was already happening in the 1800’s, it is relatively impossible for us to know the extent of the changes which had already been made to patios by this period, and how much communication had already improved.

References to the patois of Burgundy is typically viewed as a single dialect. An example of this is found on the website of a group self-titled as Défense et promotion des langues d’oïl, – which interprets Burgundian patois as being bourguignon-borvandiau.

The English language pages of Wikipedia names the Burgundian patois bifurcates Burgundian patois into two dialects. The first is morvandiau which they define as a base of the “d’oïl of central France, but with stronger Germanic influences than standard français” and is peppered with hollandaise terms. These were no doubt picked up in trading wine with the Dutch. The second regional patois identified by the French language Wikipedia is a hybrid oïl-franco-provençaux language, which it terms charolais-brionnais. This is the patois the SaôneetLoire, which lies on the southern border of Chassagne-Montrachet. While this is a more complete explanation, the reality is yet more complicated.

However, the French language version of Wikipedia (fr.wikipedia.com) breaks down the languages of the Morvan Massif itself as four dialects.*  Dialect breaks between areas of the Morvan show in pronunciations such as “ç’ost” vs. “y’ost” to say “there is”.  Other differences: in the northern part of the Morvan water is pronounced as “gaujer,” while in the south it becomes “gauyer.”  For a speaker of français, who would say“prendre l’eau”, either pronunciation would be unintelligible.

This is not the only explanation, however, as linguists often do not necessarily agree. Some regional sociolinguists have replaced the overarching morvandiau designation with 13 distinct regional dialects, that stretch across the four departments of Burgundy (Léonard, Barot 2012). The northern and western patois are primarily oïl with varying amounts of franco-provençaux influences, but as one moves southward, particularly into the department of SaôneetLoire, the langue franco-provençaux becomes increasingly dominate.

A less obvious, due to its distance from Burgundy, are the influences of the Occitan languages, once called lenga d’òc (or langue d’oc in French). Occitan, along with the langues d’oïl and franco-provençaux, are France’s holy trinity of Gallo-Romance languages. This Gallic-Roman mother tongue forms the basis of many patois stretching from Spain’s Pyrenean Val d’Aran in the west, across the Languedoc, to Calabria Italy in the east. Although its area of use is separated from Burgundy by the Central Massif and the Limousin forest, there are numerous occitan words and inflections present in several of the southern bourguignon patois.

(*) No additional information is given regarding these divisions, however.

map adapted from: Jean Léo Léonard & Gilles Barot (Langues de Bourgogne)
map adapted from: Jean Léo Léonard & Gilles Barot (Langues de Bourgogne)

The following are the fourteen patois of Burgundy

  • Morvan-Autunois was the dialect spoken in north-western Morvan.
  • DB is the label given to long diagonal swath through the length of the province, running through the heart of the Morvan, and extending down into the department of Allier. This swath seems to run right through what is referred to as La Dorsale Boisée, the ‘Wooded Dorsal’ of the Morvan massif. This is a line of heavily wooded peaks (500m-900m) which makes up the spine of the mountain range (fr.wikipedia). To this day, there are very few roads through this region, and it is likely to be very sparsely populated. Léonard  & Barot give no other reference is given to DB in the text. Is DB an abbreviation for something, possibly “base de dispersion“? Basic dispersion, refers to is the measurement of the variability in the data. Or “base de données” meaning database? I can find no answer to this.
  • Bresse, BL and RV: Sitting along the banks of the Saône, these patois are primarily francoprovençal in nature. Each patois sits with very tight areas of use suggesting a rural, immobile peasant population, with little trade into or out of these regions. Like DB, there is no explanation for these apparently abbreviated BL and RV languages.  The nearby region of Savoy in the Franche-Comté has significantly influenced the coloring the Bressan character. These were patois which were retained longer than in other areas, probably due to an immobile peasantry. Despite the long history of these dialects, these patois have been strictly oral in use, with no written bresse language ever having been developed.  A phonetic version was sketched out in 2006 to attempt to record and retain the dialect. Bressian speakers today are accused to overemphasizing the uniqueness of their patois, in regards to others. Pronunciation shifts when moving from savoyard bresse in the north, to bresse louhannaise in the south, although the variance is not considered to be enough to “hinder mutual comprehension” (fr.wikipedia).
  • Bresse-chalonnaise was spoken east of Dijon. The name and regional position suggest this is a hybrid of Bresse patois and that of the chalonnaise.
  • Chalonnaise was spoken from the northern department of Haut Marnes, south through Dijon, and all through the Côte de Nuits into the Côte de Beaune. Perhaps somewhere near Chassagne,* the dialect was morphing to clunisois. 
  • Clunisois takes its name from the ancient Roman city, which lies on the southern-most portion of this patois‘ linguistic reach. The Patois is significantly francoprovençal in nature, the language which is spoken just across the Saône River. 
  • Mâconnais is the dialect that picks up south of Cluny, and to some extenis still being spoken within homes, in and around the city of Mâcon. Mâconnaise, like the Bressan areas which lie directly above it, is heavily influenced by the neighboring franco-provençaux. Mâcon, a city of 35,000, straddles both sides of the Saône River sits half in Saône-et-Loire, and half in Franche-Comté. Like chalonnaise, this is a patois with a long north-south area of use.  This is likely because a number good roads that ran parallel to the river, coupled with with river traffic, would have created continuity in the patois, over this elongated area. The shape of the area affected is determined by the direction of the movement of people and goods along these thoroughfares. 
  • Charolais dialect sits in a wide swath along south-eastern Burgundy east of the wine regions of the southern Côte Chalonnaise, and the dialects adjacent to the Mâconnais spoken there.  Charolais, according to charolais-brionnais.fr, is a language with a structure similar to the Oïl language yet laced with hints of Occitan (langue d’oc also lenga d’òc) and Latin. For example, the «a» sound replaces «e», while the «ts» is used instead of «ch». This region is noted for its massive coal mining operations in Montceau-les-Mines which pulled 2,000,000 tons from the ground per year, as well as its large iron, and steel industries based in the commune of Creusot. This industry was made possible by the opening of the Canal du Charollais (now known as Canal du Centre) in 1792.)
  • Brionnaise is typically associated with Charolais but is separated in the listing by Léonard and Barot.  The regional marketing efforts by charolais-brionnais.fr say that “efforts to promote the dialect are championed by local celebrities like Professor Mario Rossi, who in 2004 published an Etymological and Ethnological Dictionary of Brionnais dialects.” Note, that it is titled “Brionnais dialects“; plural.
  • Matour is named after a village which is in the hills south and a little west of Cluny. Termed as being in ‘Upper Cluny‘, Matour sits at crossroads between Charolais, Beaujolais, Cluny, and Macon. Like the other patois of nearby regions, this langue is transitional, part Oïl and part franco-provençaux.
  • Bourbonnaise: To the west and south of the Morvan, bourbonnaise was once spoken around the city of Nièvre (with a population today of 35,000). This area although technically part of Burgundy, it is separated from the Côte and Dijon by the Morvan. It a region which is influenced by nearby Allier, and patois of Langue d’oïl than the more Germanic franco-provençaux.
  • Roannais sit in the gap between the Morvan and the Central Massif, north of Lyon, along the southern Burgundian border with the departments of the Loire and the Rhone. Named for the department Roanne department of the Loire.
The roads across Burgundy in 1771. The map, which is labeled as "Carte itinéraire du duché de Bourgogne" is held by the National Library of France
The roads across Burgundy in 1771. The map, which is labeled as “Carte itinéraire du duché de Bourgogne” is held by the National Library of France

That there were multiple dialects, some of which were used within a very tight area, suggests that peasantry in these areas were relatively immobile. Intriguingly, a couple of patois had very long, vertical, north-south area of use, such as that of chalonnaise, which covered much of the department of the Côte d’Or. It is not a coincidence that this area of use should follow the path of the Burgundian wine trade, as it moves from Chassagne, up the path of the ancient the Via Agrippapast Dijon. The use of chalonnaise continued to the department’s northern border but is not clear if the dialect extended very far into the neighboring department of Haut Marnes.

MaconnaisThe economic situation of the chalonnaise speaking peasantry of the Côte d’Or, was not at all uniform. The very poor were likely to be immobile, while those with one or more holdings, particularly if one was in a renown cru, were likely wealthy enough to own a horse, and were able to travel to neighboring towns, perhaps to do business with their négociant, or their tonnelier (barrel maker), or to seek any other service or product that was not available in their own village. Those peasants who were able to travel, spread their sub-regional terms and pronunciations to other villages while bringing new ones back home. This process would have developed a uniform patois, that over time spread over a larger area of use.

The patois spoken within the SaôneetLoire are much more confined in their areas of use. The fact that patois of chalonnaise stops near the SaôneetLoire border, likely means that there was limited trade between these regions, both of which lay immediately south of Chassagne. Patois with such small regional footprint such as the industrial Charlolais and rural matour, suggests there was little trade done with the peasantry there. Again, any lack of trade suggests two things: that the region was quite poor, and that they lacked mobility. Despite the Canal du Centre (then known as the Canal du Charollais) having been built through these regions, the local paysans had little use for a commercial waterway. Even collectively, these small farmers had little or nothing to trade.  We also know that much of these areas south of the Côte d’Or was dominated by large farm properties, either capitalized, or private, which were controlled by less than one percent of the population, and this too created a population that was compartmentalized, as the small communities were separated from one another by very large farming estates.

(*) Unfortunately as is common with drawn maps, the two maps used are not of the same origin, and not accurate in configuration, lacking cities and other clearly identifiable markers. This makes precise identification of where these languages impossible. This imperfection of maps may be somewhat intentional since the authors of them might not want to be pinned down to a precise statement that ‘X’ language is spoken in ‘X’ location.


Up next: Part II, The war on Patois



References for  Français and patois Bourguignon, Parts I, II, & III


History of the French Language, https://slmc.uottawa.ca/?q=french_history

The Original Grand Crus of Burgundy, Charles Curtis, MW, Wine Alpha, 2014

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

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

Peasant and French: Cultural Contact in Rural France During the Nineteenth Century, James R. Lehning, Cambridge University Press, 1995



Addendum to The roads of Burgundy

Carte itinéraire du duché de Bourgogne

Route Map of the Duchy of Burgundy

Today I found a map of the roads of Burgundy that was produced by the order of the élus of the etats généraux of Burgundy in 1771. Presumably this was done once they felt their road construction had been finally completed. Considering that it commenced in 1715, this was a very long process. As roads were to be built through a region, the peasants of that area were ordered to report for corvée, and provide their labor freely. This as I wrote in the article which can be read here, this tremendous suffering among the peasantry, which included most of those who farmed plots of vines on the Côte-d’Or.

Most of the names of villages and cities are illegible. So I have labeled the ones the few that I could make out. By manipulating the contrast and brightness, the roads however are somewhat easier to see. You can click to enlarge this image.


The roads across Burgundy in 1771. The map, which is labeled as "Carte itinéraire du duché de Bourgogne" is held by the National Library of France
The roads across Burgundy in 1771. The map, which is labeled as “Carte itinéraire du duché de Bourgogne” is held by the National Library of France

Burgundy: The History of the Vigneron, Part 3: Roads and the opening of the Burgundy trade


1715: new roads open Burgundy trade  

In the early years of the 18th century, France would commence building a system of a national highway system, which when finished over a half a century later, would be the finest in Europe. The province of Burgundy had been at the vanguard of these road building efforts and quickly found reward for its efforts, in the vastly improved connectivity with other economies across northern Europe. It was not long before commissioned agents, known as “voyageurs”,  were canvassing Europe for willing markets for Burgundy’s finest product, wine. Then, with contracts in hand, caravans of wagons were dispatched on road from Dijon, heavily loaded with casks of wine from negotiants cellars.  Some of these caravans went westward to Paris, but many made their way north, either to trading ports along the Atlantic, or turning eastward toward the hungry German markets.  On their return trip to Burgundy, the wagons came back loaded with all manner of goods, notably “fabrics, canvas, and cash” (Bazin 2002).  As the reputation of Burgundian wine grew, so did both the wine’s value and almost overnight, fortunes were made.

paysanThere was a darker backdrop to this story, however. Despite the tremendous benefit these roads provided to the region, their construction had come at a heavy cost the peasantry. These farmers, both men, and women were pulled from their fields and vineyards, often during the critical times of planting and harvest, and forced build these roads without recompense. This duty, which was employed through much of the 18th century, was known as corvée royale; and it’s implementation caused tremendous hardship and widespread resentment within the peasantry. For some Burgundian peasantry, this resentment may have been short-lived, as the increased trade made the wine they produced far more valuable. This was especially true if their plot happened to in a famed vineyard or village. With such luck, their fortune, and future of their families may have changed completely. Others, however, were not so positively affected. If they did not farm grapes, or their plots were in lesser areas, their lives continued to be difficult. Most critically, with the coming revolution, it was these peasants whose future in Burgundy would become less secure. This begins the modern era of the Burgundian winemaker.

Nation-building 1715-1743

Once the nobles had finally submitted to the absolutist rule of the king, the stage was at long last set for the first major road building effort since the Romans had subjugated Gaul. But unlike the road constructed by the Romans, these roads would be designed for the connectivity of France, not to link a conquered province to the conqueror’s empire.  The development of this highway system was such a key step in the nation building of France, that historian Julian Swann would write that its completion was to be King Louis XV’s greatest achievement (Swann 2003). While Louis XV was certainly was on board in completing this project, by 1757 he was spending 7 million livres (7 million pounds of silver) on road and bridge construction (Sée 1927),  it could be argued that Swann may have mislaid credit for the highway system at the feet of young Louis.

The passing of the torch: the regency and the minority of Louis XV

Louis XIV in 1701by Hyacinthe Rigaud in the Louvre Museum
Louis XIV in 1701by Hyacinthe Rigaud in the Louvre Museum

Kingship had passed from the 77-year-old Louis XIV (who had outlived both his son, as well as his grandson), to his 5-year-old great-grandson. Having inherited the throne himself while a young child, Louis was keen to the challenges his great-grandson would face.

Nearing his death, Louis XIV would name his nephew, Philippe II, who was the duc d’Orléans, to be regent. The regency was a position with king-like powers, charged with the duty of administering and safeguarding the kingdom until the young monarch would be old enough to reign himself. This was slated to occur in seven years time, in February of 1723, when Louis would turn 13.

Around this same period, the aging king would also choose André-Hercule de Fleury, the 67-year-old the bishop of Fréjus, to be his great-grandson’s tutor. Although the word tutor today would seem to be beneath the position of a nobleman and bishop, this was a very important position. His job would be to mentor and prepare the young prince to rule a powerful European power, and this could only be done by someone who knew something about leadership, law, and the politics of the royal court.

These two men, both handpicked by Louis XVI, would in their turn, administer the French State for the next twenty-five years. During this quarter century, France would become an even greater power on the world stage.

Phillipe II duc d'Orleans
Philippe II, duc d’Orleans

Initially, the duc d’Orléans betrayed the trust that King Louis XIV had placed in naming him, by attempting to temper the absolutist state. Philippe II reversed several edicts such as noble’s the right of remonstrance which allowed the nobility to challenge and delay decrees of the crown. But more importantly, he replaced state ministers with councils made up of nobles, in a system referred to as Polysynody.  By 1718, however, it had become clear that the Polysynody was mired by the conflicting interests between the various powerful ducs and comtés on the council, not to mention clashes of their egos. It also became apparent that the noble’s deep-seated self-interest, often, if not typically, overrode the interests of the nation. And as a final coup de grace, rampant absenteeism by nobles on the council, stymied its ability to function. After three years, Philippe II had come to accept that the councils consisting of noblemen, had been a failure, and in 1718 he restored the ministerial system which he had inherited.

Cardinal André Hercule de Fleury
Cardinal André-Hercule de Fleury

In 1723, when Louis XV had gained his “legal majority” at age 13 and was now officially the reigning king, and unsurprisingly, he had little interest in politics. He desired that the duc to remain as regent, and although the duc did remain in the position, he would die that December, at the age of 49. With the position of first minister vacant, Louis would appoint Louis-Henri, duc de Bourbon-Condé to this role, but after three years he would replace him with his trusted tutor, André Hercule de Fleury, the bishop of Fréjus, to act essentially as his regent. Although a nobleman, and in a high position in the clergy, Hercule’s borne position was not equal to the others in the royal council. To balance this inequality, Louis XV, would make Hercule a cardinal 1726. Additionally, Louis appointed him as first minister, a title that Hercule would not use. Much like the strong hands of the cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, before him, Andre-Hercule provided stable, authoritarian rule over France until his death in 1743 at age 90. It would not be until 1743 that Louis XV would truly assume the role of king.

Forced labor of the peasantry and road building

The influential French political writer, Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (1805-1859), wrote at length about the corvée in his book L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution.*  He wrote that before the death of Louis XIV, the roads were either maintained by the state, or by the nobles whose estates the roads passed through. This meant, by any true measure, that the roads were virtually not maintained at all. “Around this time,” de Tocqueville penned, the roads “began to be repaired with the aid of the corvée alone, that is, at the sole expense of the peasantry.” De Tocqueville lays this application of the corvée, utilizing the forced labor of the peasantry, in order to build the roads, at the feet of Controller-General Philibert Orry. In 1737, claimed de Tocqueville, Orry applied the corvée “to all of France”.** To better frame this statement, however, it is well documented that it was  Jean-Baptiste Colbert who first enlisted the peasantry for the corvée royale in the mid-1600’s.

Les Jeune Roi, Louis XV
Les Jeune Roi, Louis XV

It must be assumed, however, that the plans to expand the road system had already been laid out Louis XIV ministers, since it was in 1715, the year that the king died, that the élus of Burgundy*** had already commenced their road construction in Burgundy (Swann 2003). The budget at that time was 60,000 livres per year, but these funds would prove to be enough since it would only need to cover the cost of the construction materials because by utilizing the corvée royale, labor would be essentially free. This construction apparently continued despite the ministerial shake-ups in Versailles, that occurred during the first years of Philippe II’s regency. The Burgundians must have been particularly motivated, as they appear to have led road building efforts in France by perhaps as much as two decades. Indeed, Voltaire wrote in 1751 before the construction, that “the high roads were almost impassable.” For the landlocked economy of Burgundy, it was realized that prosperity could only come to the region if far better roads could be built.

An increase in trade commenced almost immediately, if the establishment of the first wine trading firms in 1720 (M. Marey and Champy) were any indication. Encouraged by this success, the élus had continued to increase investments into provincial roads and bridge construction until it had reached 100,000 livres per year in 1757 (Swann 2003). Whether they had been pressured to make the road improvements by Versailles, as Swann writes, or they self-motivated, as I believe, the élus had thrown the weight of the provincial government into the project.

(*) It is important to note that de Tocqueville’s writings about the ancien régime were neatly colored by the intellectual thought and politics of his time, as well as by his own innovative thoughts and perceptions.  As indicated by his noble title, (de Tocqueville is his title, not his name) he was of an old Norman family of noblesse d’épée, which escaped the guillotine by escaping to England. The family returned to France with the reign of Napoléon and was restored to their nobility under the Bourbon restoration. That said, he despised the return of France to a monarchy, in which a Bourbon king was restored to the throne for 18 years, between 1830 and 1848.

(**) Jean-Baptiste Colbert, King Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance, was actually the first minister to institute the corvée royal in the mid-1600’s, although it was only implemented to build roads within central France and did not extend to any of the provinces.

(***) the élus were the full-time council which governed the province (pays d’état) of Burgundy, following guidance outlined by sessions of the états généraux. The états généraux was the convening of representatives of the three ‘estates’: the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners  (commoner representatives were most likely comprised of the bourgeoisie).

Subverting the intention of the corvée

This painting depicts Macadamized road construction which would not come until later in the early to mid 1800's.
This painting depicts macadamized road construction which would not come until later in the early to mid-1800’s.

The corvée had begun as part of the feudal seigneurial tenure agreement, which required the peasant to perform a certain number of hours of corvée per year. While many are quick to say this work was given without receiving pay, in actuality, it was a payment by the peasant, to the seigneur, for the ongoing possession of the plot that they farmed. The corvée was initiated to maintain the lord’s communal properties, however large. These included roads, bridges, churches, ditches for water runoff, all which might be wiped away by a storm or had simply been degraded by the passing of years.

In earlier times, security was a very important aspect of the seigneurial agreement and the through the corvée, the peasants maintained the stronghold (castles/chateau or other fortifications) while it was the lord, and his nobles, whose profession was soldiering, did the actual fighting.

In times of danger, be it from mercenaries or other invaders, the local population could retreat within the walls of the chateau, where the lord would protect them. There, a store of wheat would be kept, and the lord’s ovens would produce bread for those that he protected. As such, the seigneur held rights to possess ovens (often referred to as four banal ovens), and the lord charged banalités for their use.  The same held true for wine presses and grist mills, which only the lord had a right to own; there were banalités for their use as well. The lords often provided the horses, or oxen, as well as plows which made farming more efficient, for it was in the interest of both parties that production is as high as possible. Without the seigneur’s investment in these items, most peasants could never have afforded them.* There was a mutual dependence of noble and peasant, for one could not exist without the other, and as such, the ancient compact between noble and peasant continued for centuries. The peasants would farm the land with the materials provided by the seigneur, and it was the noble’s responsibility would protect and secure his realm, and his people. As such, the use of corvée in France was generally rare and light, when compared to corvées elsewhere in the world, such as Germany. (de Tocqueville 1851)

As the security of France was slowly assured by the end of the 1600’s,  it is easy to see how, slowly over time, the corvée morphed into more of a civic duty, as an obligation of the village had as a whole. Although in name these were the lord’s lands, they were in actuality became the village commons. At some point, the villages became what is termed as having “corporate” identities, owned communal lands, and could be sued in judicial courts.  There was a real sense that the villagers were “in it together”(Sée 1927).

(*) There is an indication in de Tocqueville’s writings in “The Old Régime and the Revolution”, that wealthier commoners, who did not fall into one of the many exemptions, may have been allowed to send their horses and oxen to work in their place. Exact details of this are not clear.

The birth of the corvée royale

Ancien Régime- the three estates. Political cartoon 1789
Ancient Regime- the three estates. Political cartoon 1789

So, when Jean-Baptiste Colbert, King Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance, initially confiscated the corvée for national projects in the mid-1600’s, it was a true perversion of seigneurial dues.  It is ironic, that by this time, the seigneurial corvée was now rarely exploited by the nobility in the 18th century (de Tocqueville 1851).  It wasn’t long into the 18th century that Controller-General Philibert Orry, whose position as bâtiments du roi (“the king’s buildings”) expanded the corvée from exclusively road building to a wide array of government projects. After 1737, it was used for many military and state constructions, as well as the most hated duty of providing the transport of military goods and supplies particularly in wartime (de Tocqueville 1851). This duty required the use of personal oxen and horses, no doubt many of which were maimed or died on the road. This work was paid for but at impossibly inadequate rates. (Carlyle 1902) 

The greatest resentment came from the timing of this backbreaking and often dangerous work, which was typically conducted in the spring and fall, avoiding the heavier summer rains, coinciding precisely with the times necessary to plant and harvest (Swann 2002).

The consequence of refusing to work the royal corvée was arrest. And, according to de Tocqueville, the peasantry was constantly being arrested for various reasons: “due to the corvée, the militia, begging, crime, a thousand other circumstances.” “Armed with the right to imprison recalcitrants at will, or send marshals to fetch them.” (de Tocqueville 1851 p.186) authorities implemented a harsh rule over the people. That said, the governmental infrastructure was limited in size, so controlling the populace was a bit like “whac-a-mole”, and insurrections and riots were rampant.

Note: It is important to understand when reading de Tocqueville however that he had a particular liberal ax to grind when writing about society. Regardless whether what he says is true or not, his bias can be seen in the following two sentences: De Tocqueville wrote that the ‘intendants’* found it “useful to refuse to employ peasants in repairing the roads of their own villages, in order that they be reserved for only the great highways…” and then de Tocqueville comments that was a “strange idea that it was suitable to have the poorest, and those who were least likely to travel, pay for the roads, this idea, even though novel, entrenched itself so naturally in the minds of those who benefited from it, that soon they could no longer be done any differently.” 

The economic impact of corvée, and the food riots 1693-1853

Food Riots 18th Century France
Food Riots 18th Century France

France, being an agricultural economy, must have acutely felt the burden of this demand upon its peasantry. There is some corollary evidence of this. It is written that the corvée left peasants unable to plant or harvest crops, which may have regionally affected the food supply, and the price of food. There is little doubt this affected the future ability of individual farmers to buy seed, pay the tithe, pay tailles (taxes), to buy wood for heating over the winter, and to feed their families. It is not clear that the corvée was widespread enough to impact the price of grain and other foods to rise, but all through this period there were widespread “food riots”.

The economic numbers do not support a correlation between the food riots and high food prices at a national level (Rotberg 2000), so we might also assume there was not a correlation between the corvée and high food prices.  However, there may well have been regional price fluctuations that were behind the riots, and there may have been a correlation between the regional application of the corvée and the food riots. While this is unknowable given the incomplete information available now, over 250 years later, we do know there was tremendous resentment surrounding the corvée, and there were riots relating to food scarcity during the same period.

These riots were short in duration, but they did involve large numbers of people (Rotberg 2000). Each event was unique, and not organized, or part of a collective conscience. Each riot, depending on the region, seems to have consisted of a homogeneous segment of France’s most impoverished societies, the agricultural peasantry in some riots, and urban poor, or the industrial workers, in others. One such instance occurred along the Saône and in Macon in 1709, when peasants forced grain shipments to be halted.** In Troyes in 1740, (in the Champagne region just north of the Burgundy border), 600-700 industrial workers protesting the bailli of the bailiff (a bailiff was essentially a sheriff) for the lack of bread. After protesting, the workers invaded houses suspected of containing grain (Bouton 1993). Roteberg lists that food riots occurred in the following years: 1693/94, 1698, 1709/10, 1725, 1739/40, 1749, 1752, 1768, 1770, 1775 (the year of the Flour War), 1788/89, 1793, 1799, and these continued on through half of the 19th century until the last occurred in 1853/54.  

Historian Daniel Roche wrote that the intendant of Dauphine remarked at the time, most disorders began with “the people’s misery” (Roche 1998). In earlier times, these riots were flamed by the nobility to attempt to shake the authority of the king. But after the death of Louis the XIV, the nobles were no longer involved in such subversion. Now the “diffuse, sporadic, and scattered protest movements erupted in the rural areas, less often, in the cites” (Roche 1998). You may notice this observation is slightly at odds with Bouton, who wrote of various segments of the poor participated in each individual riot, but it is clear that unlike the rebellions fermented by the nobility against the crown (usually about taxes – Roche 1998), uprisings would now comprise solely the poor, that as Roche notes, are best explained by social class distinctions.

This might be interpreted as that the feudal relationship between the noble and the peasant had broken down. Previously, the noble provided security, land and equipment for a peasantry who provided labor. As the nobles contribution lessened, because the security element had been eliminated, there was now an inequity within this relationship. The nobility was now living off of the peasantry, yet contributing virtually nothing to the peasantry in return.

(**) It is notable that the food riots of winter of 1709/10, was the year following “The Great Winter” of 1708/1709 where the average temperature rested at 9 degrees below zero for weeks, and there were tremendous crop failures across Europe. These food riots occurred after a more normal harvest.

Protecting the taille and addressing the burden of the corvée

Riots and unrest, as well as the constant application of the corvée, all diminished constant flow of tailles (taxes) into the king’s treasury. It is easy to see that there was a constant balancing act that the intendants must have had to address, as the application of the corvée directly lessened the amount of taxes that could be collected. From de Tocqueville: “In 1751 a receiver was apprehensive lest “the expense to which the peasantry was put for the repairs of the roads, would incapacitate them from paying the taille.” Throughout this time period, the intendants will be seen, repeatedly, standing against nobility for the rights of the commoner, referring cases to judicial courts (known as during the ancien régime as parlements) (Root 1992).

Political Cartoon, France Late 18th Century
Political Cartoon, France Late 18th Century

Behind the scenes, the motivation began with preserving the revenue stream to the king, but one senses that the intendants, truly felt an obligation of fairness and good governance. An example of this comes from intendant Monsieur Ducluzel, of Tours (240 km southwest of Paris). In defending his decade-long disregard of the Minister of Marine’s demands for peasant labor, Ducluzel wrote in December of 1775, that he defied the requests based on the abuses of the corvée, to both men and animals. The conditions of the work that such corvée involved can be garnered from this snippet of his letter: “the cattle are often lamed by drawing heavy logs over roads as bad as the weather in which this service is usually required of them.” (de Tocqueville 1851)

There were those in Burgundy’s provincial assembly (the États-Généraux) who were not unaware, or unsympathetic to the abuses of the corvée.  In 1739, after many years of heavy corvée implementation, there were finally calls in by assembly members to limit the number of days worked and exemptions during periods where planting and harvest were taking place (Swann 2002).  Swann writes that one alcade, (a mayor with judicial powers),  advanced the need to “lighten a yolk that the peoples…find extremely difficult to support.”  The weight of the alcade’s statement, was biblical, referring to Kings 12.4 “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now, therefore, lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you.” * Given the deeply devout culture of the French at that time, and that a third of the États-Généraux was made up of the clergy, there is no doubt that these words resonated with many members of the assembly.  What is not clear to what effect these efforts to reform the estates corvée requirements were successful. In either case, the need for the heavy use of forced labor subsided after the roadways had been completed (Swann 2003).

But despite these efforts by some to reform the corvée, it is notable that the corvée still was in place in Burgundy in 1769. This 54 year period represents two full generations of the peasantry who had been conscripted to labor upon the province’s roads. It is clear that there was a real division of opinions regarding the use of the corvée, with impassioned critics referring to it as “a real evil in itself.” Some suggested that a system of payment should be instituted, as it had been in other provinces such as Limoges,**  Swann writes that “the reaction was at best lukewarm”.

(*) here from the King James bible, although the French during that period were likely using the Port Royal bible)

(**) It is important to note that some regions never adopted the corvée, but used contractors to perform the labor.  Languedoc (where there was already a history of agrarian revolt) and Limoges are two such examples.

Attempted reforms to the corvée under Louis XVI 1774-1789 

There were those who fought to end the corvée system, such as the intendant of Limoges, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot. Turgot held the powerful position of contrôleur général under the newly crowned king, Louis XVI, from 1774 to 1776. Among his more innovative, even revolutionary programs, he had attempted to end the corvée, as well as suggesting the abolition of privilege. Needless to say, both of which were vehemently opposed by the majority of the nobility. The radical nature Turgot’s proposals are attested to by the brevity of his tenure. However, Turgot’s ideas would persist and flourish among the intelligentsia in this Age of Enlightenment and spread among the bourgeoisie. Toward the end of the decade, these ideas would be addressed again by the King and his ministers.

Antoine-François Callet - Louis XVI, roi de France et de Navarre (1754-1793), revêtu du grand costume royal en 1779: source Wikipedia
Antoine-François Callet – Louis XVI, roi de France et de Navarre (1754-1793), revêtu du grand costume royal en 1779: Source Wikipedia

In 1779, king Louis XVI would, in response to calls from the bourgeoisie “capitalists, merchants, manufacturers, and other businessmen or financiers” who were “…resolutely bent on reform” (de Tocqueville 1851), make a grand suggestion that he would lessen the load of the royal corvée on the peasantry. This was le Siècle des Lumières, and repression was to be scorned; thus Louis XVI, the final Bourbon to sit on the throne, would seemingly loosen the yoke of the peasantry. The king would make this speech announcing the end of the corvée.

“With the exception of a few provinces (pays d’états), nearly all the roads of the kingdom have been made gratuitously by the poorest portion of our subjects. The whole burden has fallen upon those who have no property but their labor, and whose interest in the roads is very slender; the landowners, who are really interested in the matter—for their property increases in value in proportion to the improvement in the roads—are privileged exempts. By compelling the poor to keep the roads in repair, to give their time and their labor for nothing, we have deprived them of their only safeguard against poverty and hunger, in order to make them toil for the benefit of the rich.”  King Louis XVI, 1779

This great pronouncement amounted to little more than lip service, however. A few months later, writes de Tocqueville, the corvée was resumed. The nobility and the monarchy had work that needed to be done, and they couldn’t imagine another way to achieve it (de Tocqueville 1851). As such, in most of the country, the corvée labored on until the revolution began in 1789.


using pruning knife, (à la serpette) for Guyot VinesFor some peasants who were fortunate enough to have tenant plots in top crus in Burgundy, the trade expansion that these new roads provided had brought an unforeseen prosperity. This money allowed them to take on plots from other peasants who were struggling, and to hire day laborers. In this way, the peasant could manage far more acreage than they could farm alone. As their wealth and position increased, these peasants were known as fermiers (farmers), which had a strong affinity to the traditional French gentleman’s position which had long been the sole position of the seigneur, the lord. This was an unheard of time of economic mobility in Burgundy, with this rudimentary capitalization occurring in the fields. Additionally, new faces were appearing on the Cote, as exceptionally wealthy bourgeoisie from Dijon and Paris were beginning to purchase valuable vineyard plots in the Côte-d’Or. These two groups, along with the nobility which would either survive the revolution or gain nobility after the revolution, would form the basis of the families who farm the vineyards of Burgundy today.

But for other peasants, whose backbreaking work built the “highways” of France, received little, if any benefit from the highways. They did not travel, and their Gamay, or wines from lesser known appellations, did not fetch the kind of money as those that farmed a plot of Chambertin, or Volnay, which was gaining in popularity and value as their fame spread across Europe. These peasants would find that neither their fortunes, nor their future would improve, and most would eventually lose their small holdings once the security of the seigneurial tenure was broken by the coming revolution.

(*) The états généraux was the provincial convention of representatives from the three estates, the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners (who were typically bourgeoisie) which every three years convened to debate the direction of Burgundy for the following three years. The élus was appointed council tasked to fulfill the administration of those goals. There were two other important positions to be cognoscente of, the Governor of the province who was always a great lord, and as well there was the intendant, who was a royal civil servant. Both of which were royally appointed. The governor lived at Versailles, always courting the favor of the king for personal and provincial business, while the intendant lived in the province, in this case, Dijon, and ensured the province was run in the interest of the king, reviewing court cases, tax collection, as well as regional and municipal issues.

References for this article

Evolution du métayage en France, L. Durousseau-Dugontier, Impr. Crauffon, 1905

Provincial Power and Absolute Monarchy: The Estates General of Burgundy 1661–1790 Julian Swann, Cambridge University Press  2003

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

Histoire du Vin de Bourgogne, Jean-François Bazin, Editions Jean-Paul Gisserot, 2002

The Old Regime and the Revolution, Volume I: Alexis de Tocqueville, François Furet, Francoise Melonio 1851, reprinted University of Chicago Press, 1998

The Old Regime and the Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville, trans John Bonner (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856) Modern Translator: George Gerald Reisman

The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XII (Age of Louis XIV) Voltaire, (1751)

Social Mobility and Modernization: A Journal of Interdisciplinary History Reader, Robert I. Rotberg MIT Press, 2000

The Flour War: Gender, Class, and Community in Late Ancien Régime French Society, Cynthia Bouton, Penn State Press, 1993

Peasants and King in Burgundy: Agrarian Foundations of French Absolutism, Hilton Root, University of California Press, 1992

The French Revolution: A History in Three Parts I. The Bastille; II. The Constitution; III. The Guillotine, Volume 1Thomas Carlyle G.P. Putnam, 1902

France in the Enlightenment Daniel Roche Harvard University Press, 1998

Burgundy: The History of the Vignerons: The Villages part I

The wine villages of the Côte d’Or in the 18th Century

By Dean Alexander

PommardReflecting on it, I find it amazing that the descendants of so many old Burgundian families still farm the vineyards, and live in the same tiny villages of the gold coast as their ancestors. Many of these families have lived there for more than two centuries. The Roty’s of Gevrey-Chambertin arrived there in 1710, and have now lived in Gevrey for more than three centuries, and the Mongeard family arrived in Vosne in 1620, just shy of four centuries.

Consider further, for many generations, all but the most wealthy, rarely traveled much farther than the fields that they worked, none of which were very far away. They often did not know the families from two or three villages distant, because to get there, many of them would have had to walk. They lived and died in the houses in which they were raised, and that was often the same house that their mother or father was raised.(1) For most urbanites, this is kind of stationary life is unfathomable. But this long history of a family being precisely in a single place, for so many generations, can only be explained by these people having developed exceptionally strong emotional ties to their village, their family, and to their land.

While to outsiders, the daily life of the farmer can only describe as repetitious and mundane, in the long view, the changes that have occurred on the Côte can be fascinating. Over the span of the past two to three hundred years, these fermier families have had, along with a certain amount of luck, the ability to adjust and adapt at crucial times.

First and foremost, they were lucky. To have had built up enough assets to handle disasters as they came can be a matter of luck. Any ship can sink in the perfect storm. But beyond that, they tenacious, yet flexible enough to endure nature’s worst. Examples of adversity the families of the Côte would face included: multiple, several near-total harvest failures, and more than a couple vineyard losses due to vine killing winters, hail, and flooding. Then there were the major diseases such as mildew (oidium in 1854 and downy in 1887) not to mention phylloxera.

The image of a peasant girl resting, is from the Paris Salon circa 1893.
The image of a peasant girl resting is from the Paris Salon circa 1893.

The political and economic challenges were relentless, included the lengthy French Revolution, multiple governmental changes, and economic and the catastrophes of wars and occupation. Had these families not been lucky, not had assets when they needed them, and not made the right decisions at the right time, they would have left been forced to leave, as many did. (Garnot 2008) Most importantly, they had the ability to make the jump from being simple paysans, meaning the peasant-farmers, who only just subsisted on small plots land, to fermiers who not only owned the land they worked, and more importantly, owned enough land they needed to hire people to help work the land they owned.

Gone from the Gold Coast now are those paysans.  Their small plots absorbed by larger landholders and their labor replaced in the fields professional vineyard managers and workers and supplemented day laborers.

Throughout the late 19th and most of the 20th century, it was an idealized version of these very peasants, who had been economically pushed out of the Gold Coast, by which the French viewed their own national identity.  The French viewed itself as the peasant: a stout, strong, determined, rural proletariat, who farmed the land, feed the nation and were called to war. (Lehning 1995) It was generally felt that the peasants were the backbone of the country. As such, it was with a certainly irony, that much later, during the 1920 and 1930’s, the fermiers of the Côte would begin to market Burgundy and themselves as synonymous with the already existent folklore of the ‘peasant farmer’. (Whalen 2009) This would be their guarantee of quality, their simple honesty, steadfastness, and hard work.


print of Gevrey Chambertin from Dr Jules Lavalle's 1855 Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d'Or
print of Gevrey-Chambertin from Dr. Jules Lavalle’s 1855 Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d’Or

The growth of a village

In an isolated locale, like the wine villages of the Côte d’Or, a census is a very good barometer of the health of its economy. As the economy heats up, as financial folks like to say, the population increases. Conversely, as the economy slows, populations tend to contract accordingly. In 1793, toward the end of the Revolutionary period, the first census of the new republic was taken.  At this time, the population of Gevrey was only 1,193. Over the next two decades, Gevrey’s population would grow only incrementally until 1831, when it would begin to expand over the next 50 years.

Phylloxera, in its steady march across France, would finally reach the vineyards of the Côte d’Or in 1880. However, rather than the loss of production forcing the population to contract, -as those “in the margins” were indeed displaced by a lack of field work, new inhabitants were arriving, largely replacing their numbers. A whole new industry had sprung up surrounding the fighting of phylloxera. As that battle was gradually lost, these jobs would eventually be replaced by those who would plant the vineyards again. These were people who had trained in the new skills of grafting vinifera Pinot and Chardonnay vines to the hybrid American rootstock. This carousel of workers kept the number of people living in the village fairly constant, but generally, the fermiers, the landholding farmers, many whose family names we recognize today, remained.

The census of 1881 revealed a population of 1,868. Shortly after the turn of the century, economic instability, and low wine prices, and falling vineyard values, would cause the lowest number of inhabitants since the census had begun, with a mere 1,543.  Gevrey’s population would fall even further during the interwar years, for in 1936 Gevrey had a population only 1,486, the lowest it had been after one hundred years of growth. These were grim times, and the fermiers and concerned politicians sought new ways to produce and market wine independent of the negociants that had controlled the industry since the 1750’s. These efforts, coupled with the Europe’s general economic recovery after the Second World War, has sent the population dramatically upward, with new industries which supported the now profitable wine growers and bringing with them hundreds of new jobs. The censuses of 1962 and 1975 marked how dynamic the recovery had been. (census figures: fr.wikipedia.org)

Population of GevreyThe population of the larger town of Nuits-St-Georges, a center for negociant trade in the mid-1700‘s, has been more stable than Gevrey. Nuits expanded through pre-phylloxera times but then remaining fairly steady for almost a century between 1866 and 1954. The town’s population saw minor fluctuations of alternately adding and losing 100 to 400 people, through the end of the Second World War, but these changes were a much smaller percentage of the population than the swings seen in Gevrey-Chambertin. This is likely that because of the town’s size, there was far more business operating in Nuits-St-Georges beyond the direct cultivation of the vines. As an overview: in 1793 Nuits had 2,541 inhabitants. It peaked just before phylloxera 1881 at 3,727 people. Today, after steady growth since the end World War II, (3,285 in 1946), the population now sits at 5,516 in 2008. (fr.wikipedia.org)

Stepping farther back in time

The old villages, tranquil wine smaller villages of the Côte d’Or, with their narrow streets and quaint houses, are quite easy to envision two hundred fifty years ago, during the time of King Louis the XVI, for these are remain small, sleepy, villages. Vosne even today has a population of a mere 427 people, and only 307 people live in the nearby village of Chambolle. Even with the tourists that mill around and support the restaurants and inns of the old, more touristy section of Gevrey-Chambertin, this section of town could not be described as bustling. It would seem as though place must be quite unchanged over hundreds of years. In your mind’s eye, just exchange the slow trod of oxen pulling a cart along the graveled highway for the cars that now ply the paved RN74.  Upon the once cobbled streets of the better sections of the village, add in horses and the staccato of their hooves. Wood-smoke, billowing from the chimneys of a few dozen open hearths; the day crisp, with fall in the air, and the vision should be complete.

But things have changed in these villages. Perhaps the biggest paradigm shift took place when the vines of Pinot Noir won out over Gamay.

(*) larger is relative, but considering the value of the land, and the wine made from it, these are not poor men. (**)The increase of population in the larger towns and villages is best explained by more wealth is created by both vignerons and by the tourist industry, the there are more jobs available to service their needs today. 


French peasants depicted in "Fin du Travail" by Jules Breton (1887)
French peasants depicted in “Fin du Travail” by Jules Breton (1887)

Economic battle between of Pinot Noir and Gamay

Winter 1709For many centuries, there was an economic and ideological battle going on between those who were planting the vines that produced the more consistently ripening Gamay grape, and those who would have all vines in Burgundy planted only to Pinot Noir.

For some, the battle was societal. While certainly it was recognized that Gamay could produce a high-tonnage of fruit, while still maintaining acceptable quality (for the masses), the noblesse d’épée (noble of the sword), the noblesse de robe (magistrates and parliamentarians of Dijon), clergy officials, and most acutely, the invested haut bourgeoisie, felt the Gamay wines were coarse and undeserving vineyards of the Côte d’Or. Most importantly, they rightly felt Gamay pulled down the reputation of the Côte in general. Gamay certainly did not add to the noble reputation that the upper strata of society believed the region should be allowed to attain.  Social standing and reputation in the 18th century was hugely important to those in a position to affect it, and cannot be underestimated in the context of where some Gamay should and should not be planted in Burgundy.

For centuries there was a vocal pressure to eliminate Gamay, and although it was banished by Philip the Bold in 1395, peasants continued to grow on the slopes through the end of the 19th century. In Morey“Of the 160 hectares under vine,” Auguste Luchet wrote in 1858, “90 are planted to Gamay.” Later in the text, he would write: “Gevrey has about four hundred hectares of vineyards, half in Gamay and one in Pinol (Noirien) mixed with a little white.”

According to Marion Fourcade, an associate professor at UC Berkeley, there were “periodic local ordinances” eradicate Gamay in vineyards of the Côte d’Or. In her paper,“The Vile and the Noble” (2012), Fourcade briefly mentions that those who pushed to expunge Gamay alleged its cultivation promoted various unspecified “health dangers”. As an economic problem, Gamay’s critics charged that its cultivation contributed to an increase in the fraudulent bottling of Gamay as Pinot Noir, or alternately, it was accused that Gamay was illegitimately blended with Pinot Noir. This no doubt occurred. But, as previously believe in the preceding centuries, Gamay was, in general, unworthy of the region.

LavalleDr Jules Lavalle, in his 1855 book, “Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d’Or, which was revered by many, calls Gamay “common,” and “ordinary,” claiming Gamay had “invaded hilltops and flatlands all around”. (Forcade 2012)   “God knows how awfully active the vulgar plant has been in driving away the fine plant, and what progress it makes every day! Our ancestors would have been appalled!” As translated by Fourcade.  In Charles Curtis’s translation of Lavalle (in which I did not find the aforementioned quote) in his book the “Original Grand Crus of Burgundy”, Lavalle writes “The vines planted in Gamay cover more than 23,000 hectares,(1) which one meets under the name of plante Mâlain,  plante d’Arcenant plant de Bévy” Additionally Lavalle condemns that “The yield can often extend to 50 and even 60 hectoliters per hectare.”

The choice to plant Gamay was surely decided, however, not by the ideological mindset, or by social consciousness, but rather by the wealth of the vigneron. The poor farmer could simply not afford the high-stakes gamble of Pinot Noir presented, with its pitifully small production of 18 hectoliters per hectare (Lavalle 1855), and its inability to consistently ripen its fruit completely  The peasant could not afford a single failed vintage, that the high-risk Pinot Noir grapes delivered this result on a fairly consistent basis.*

Moreover, Pinot, with its thin skin was particularly prone to rot and disease, it was far more difficult to make into a competent wine. In some years, Pinot vines would produce a completely unsalable crop. The wealthy landowning farmer (a fermier – as opposed to a vigneron) could take such a gamble with virtual impunity, because when it the Pinot crop paid off, the dividends of producing a great wine, far outstripped the losses incurred by poor to very poor vintages. The incredible demand (and payday) for wines from great vineyards, in these great years, continues to this day.

(*) It is not without note that the little ice-age, (which dates are contested) is generally thought to have begun in the 1300’s, and ended around 1850. Additional weather variations occurred, with extremely low temperatures materializing with disastrous effect in 1660 1709, 1740 and 1794/1795 and the last in the year 1850.

Grains are still a major crop in the Cote d'Or
Grains are still a major crop in the Côte d’Or. Here, adjacent to vineyards that produce Bourgogne Rouge on the outskirts of Gevrey, wheat, rye, corn and barley are regularly planted and harvested. photo googlemaps.com

The paysan of the Côte, a poly-cultiveur

While we think of only vines on the slopes of the Côte d’Or, the vineyards of the early to mid 18th century, were typically a polyculture. It was common for the vines to share the slopes with animals, fruit trees, and vegetable plots, depending on the site. (Swann 2003) However, as the 18th century progressed, economics would begin to crowd out polyculture off of the slopes.

Below the vines of the great vineyard slopes, upon low-lying fields, grew all manner of foods, particularly grains. Rye which grew well on the poor soils of northern France, corn, wheat and barley were widely grown; and in personal gardens next to their houses, the peasants often grew vegetables. It is well documented that the lower third of Clos St-Jacques was planted to alfalfa until 1954, but it is likely that it had been home to many different crops over the centuries.

Very few ‘vignerons’ during the 18th century actually worked solely with the vine, and those that did, according to historian Benoit Garnot, were in decline in the 18th century. He laments bleakly that “the tired qualification ‘winemaker’ seems to be socially rewarding.” (Garnot 2008)

Busby wrote, in 1840, that in vignerons in Chambertin would rip out dying provignage vines (which only survived ten years or so), and let the land fallow while being planted to sainfoin, a cover crop that flourishes on calcareous (limestone) soils. Planting sainfoin had dual benefits: it not only would the crop rejuvenated the topsoil with an infusion of nitrogen but it also the sainfoin was a good feed for their grazing animals. Those vignerons that had a cow or two, had them tended by a communal herder who took them to field for the day and returned them to the owner at night.

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

The fall harvest season was unrelenting and well-reported as being extreme in the exhaustion it created.  By the end of August, all of the rye, which was an important crop in the poor soils of north-eastern France, and the summer wheat, had already been harvested. Also already harvested were the other major crops, which included barley, colza, which is also known as rape, or rapeseed, was grown for lubricants, and hemp  (not to be confused with its relative cannabis), was also grown for seed, oil, wax, resin, rope, cloth, pulp, paper and, in this north-eastern region. (U.S.Gov. Printing Office 1888) This would give the paysan a month for the grape harvest, before the planting of winter wheat, which would begin straight away in October, after pressing and barreling of the new wine.

Centuries of stagnant agricultural practices

It is widely accepted that during the ancien regime, few improvement in farming had come to France. The tasks of the cultiveur were done in the least expensive manner; just as their fathers and grandfathers, and as well their great-great grandfathers had farmed the same land.

To the English agronomist Arthur Young, who visited Burgundy and elsewhere in France on the eve of the revolution, the inefficiencies of French agriculture was “quite contemptible’. He was so critical of French farming methods as to say that even the large capitalist farms were “villainous cultivated’. As far as investing in capitalization farming given the French methods, he declared “If I had a large tract of this country, I think I should not be long in making a fortune’.(Swan 2003)

Change was painfully slow, despite attempts by Dijon to push the people to adopt them. The problem really came down to money, and the peasants had none to invest in the changes necessary. A Burgundian representative to the National Constituent Assembly, during the first stages of the Revolution, explained the failure of previous attempts at agricultural reform:

“Oh you who complain of the intractability of the peasant when he refuses to adopt your new ploughs, your new seed drills…your deep furrows, your doses of fertilizer that are four times greater than what he can afford, before tripling his expenses in the uncertain hope of a tripled harvest, begin by putting him in a state of being able to buy clogs for his children.”


wheat fields Van Gough

 Up Next: The Villagers of the 18th Century


Additional Notes:

(1) Life was short and death rates of children under the age of ten were high. Because of this, and the general lack of excess money homes traditionally multi-generational. There will be much more about life and death on the Gold Coast in upcoming chapters.

(2) Charles Curtis, in his book “The Original Grand Crus of Burgundy”, takes these hectare figures, printed in Lavalle, at face value, and proceeds to discuss how they might be accurate. However, I feel, that they are as just as likely, a misprint,  so far off from the hectares, as they exist today, even taking into consideration the loss of so much vineyard land, post-phylloxera, that was never replanted around Dijon. One might also view these figures to be considered a fabrication, as a call to action against the Gamay scourge. Words are weapons. Because there appears to be no other at the ready figures of Gamay and Pinot Noir acreage planted in the Cote d’Or to compare Lavalle’s figures with, I choose to bypass the issue altogether. It isn’t all that germane enough to the already too wide of a scope of these writings, to deal with something I can’t bring to an adequate conclusion about. There are other fish to fry.




Reference Sources for Burgundy: History of the Vignerons: The Villages parts I – IV 

La Côte-d’Or à vol d’oiseau: lettres écrites à M.L. Havin, après la récolte, Auguste Luchet 1858

Gevrey-Chambertin: notice historique, topographique et statistique, suivie de promenade à Fixin, by Henri Vienne 1850

Journal of a Tour through some of the vineyards of Spain and France, James Busby, Sydney 1833

Peasant Proprietors and other selected essays,  Lady Frances Parthenope Verney Longmans, Green, 1885 –

L’état de la recherche sur la vigne, le vin et les vignerons en Bourgogne au XVIIIe siècle, Benoit Garnot,  2008

The Peasants and the King in Burgundy, Hilton Root, University of California Press, 1992

Evolution du Métayage en France, L. Durousseau-Dugontie, Impr. Crauffon, 1905

Centre d’Histoire de la Vigne et du Vin, Charlotte Glain-Fromont,  Bulletin de liaison Bulletin 30 janv-fev 2012.pdf

 LES Climats du vignoble de Bourgogne Dossier de candidature à L’INSCRIPTION SUR LA LISTE DU PATRIMOINE MONDIAL DE L’UNESCO Janvier 2012

Communities of Grain: Rural Rebellion in Comparative Perspective Victor V. Magagna Cornell University Press 1991

Infant and Child Mortality in Eighteenth Century France: A Function of Income? Hajime Hadeishi,  Bureau of Economics Federal Trade Commission, cliometrics.org 2010

Harvest Failures, Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson, 2015 Alphahistory.com

Cattle and Dairy Farming Part 1 United States. Bureau of Foreign Commerce  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1888 –

The Peasantry in the French Revolution P. M. Jones, Cambridge University Press, 1988

Peasant and French: Cultural Contact in Rural France During the Nineteenth CenturyJames R. Lehning Cambridge University Press, 1995

Insofar as the ruby wine seduces them’: Cultural Strategies for Selling Wines in Interwar Burgundy,” Contemporary European History 18.1 Philip Whalen (2009)

The Vile and the Noble: On the Relation between Natural and Social Classifications in the French Wine World, Marion Fourcade,  Sociological Quarterly 2012

Aristocracy, Antiquity, and History: An Essay on Classicism in Political ThoughtA. A. M. Kinneging Transaction Publishers, 1997

Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment By Michel Delon, Routledge 2013

Provincial Power and Absolute Monarchy: The Estates General of Burgundy 1661–1790 Julian Swann, Cambridge University Press  2003

History and Climate: Memories of the Future? Phil D. Jones, A.E.J. Ogilvie, T.D. Davies, K.R. Briffa Springer Science & Business Media, Apr 17, 2013

The Decline of Childhood Mortality Kenneth Hill. Department of Population Dynamics School of Hygiene and Public Health Johns Hopkins University 1990

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography Graham Robb W. W. Norton & Company2008

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