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Secret history of French villages - May 2019

The carpenter’s tales that laid open village’s secrets - or what a 19th-century artisan’s diaries, hidden under the floor of a Hautes-Alpes château, said about rural life

The discovery of the writings of a carpenter on offcuts of wood beneath the parquet floor he was making at the Château de Picomtal, in the village of Crots where he lived, gives a unique view of 19th-century life.

Joachim Martin was 38 and married with four children, when he used his carpenter’s pencil to recount his life and that of his village from 1880 to 1881.

He wrote what he thought as he knew they would not be discovered until after his death. He often refers to his future reader: “Heureux mortel. Quand tu me liras, je ne serai plus.”

The 72 texts were rediscovered in 2000. Later Jacques-Olivier Boudon, a Sorbonne historian and President of the Institut Napoléon, stayed in the Château which is now a Maison d’hôtes.

As an expert on the 19th century he was immediately interested and researched the background of the people and the events the carpenter relates, resulting in a book: Le Plancher de Joachim, L’histoire retrouvée d’un village français.

He said that it is rare to be able to read the thoughts of a working man living at that time.

Joachim Martin lived in the village, by the River Durance with the mountains behind. He was one of a handful of artisans in an area where the majority of people were farmers.

Joachim complained about low wages and rising prices, especially wine, due to the phylloxera epidemic.

He described what he ate during his 13-hour days at the château: “I’m happy even though I am working without a drop of wine, reduced to drinking sugar water and a few sticks of chocolate.”

By this time Menier chocolate was available in rural areas. It was often eaten in bread – the origin of pain au chocolat.

He spoke of village scandals. From the château he saw neighbours committing adultery and counted the months until the resulting child was born. He criticised the local priest and inferred he made advances to his wife. 

One episode marked him more than any other, when he heard cries from the stable opposite his home and realised his neighbour had killed his newborn child. 

Joachim wrote that four of the man’s six children were victims of infanticide.  He called the man a criminal, but did not tell the police, as he was an “ami d’enfance” (childhood friend) and there were family links, showing that village communities kept many secrets to themselves.

It was the early years of the French Republic. Monarchists were still around, but Joachim was not one of them, being neither a fan of the church or the crown: “The Republic has done good things in 1881.

“January and February saw the closure of 200 convents, and the reduction of the number of priests and bishops by a third.

“Nuns have been taken out of schools … 4 billion has been spent on schools in France.”

When he finished his work at the château, he wrote: “I’ll tell you nothing more,” except to say that when he eventually died, he would be happy to leave this life, “however, there are many who are unhappier than me. So why complain?”

The writings are on show at the Château de Picomtal

www.picomtal.fr  

Le Plancher de Joachim, L’histoire retrouvée d’un village français by Jacques-Olivier Boudon, published by Belin €24

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