Their cereal-based diet was heavy in carbohydrates and protein supplements were hunted or trapped... but man found a way to have fresh meat without needing to hunt it.
The solution was the pigeonnier or, as it was traditionally known, the colombier, in English, the dovecote.
Its origin goes back millennia to the ancient Egyptians and Persians but it is thought the Romans spread it across Europe – as far north as Caledonia. In Scotland today it is called a doocot.
In our age of freezers and online grocery deliveries, it is hard to appreciate just what a boon the pigeonnier must have represented for our ancestors. Indeed, miraculous – for it offered nothing less than the Biblical ‘manna from heaven’: food from the sky. Pigeons entered, nested, and not only laid eggs for the taking but provided fresh meat at the twist of a neck.
A pigeonnier was ‘a living larder’.
Such enthusiasm may surprise those who today identify pigeons with the scruffy, incontinent ‘avian vermin’ that desecrate our public places; but in former times pigeon flesh was regarded as a great delicacy.
Particularly prized were the month-old birds – pigeonneaux (in English, squabs). Their meat has been described as not just succulent but even ‘perfumed’.
As for the poop, that was a valuable resource. Before the introduction of chemical fertiliser, nitrogen-rich pigeon droppings offered one of the best means of soil improvement.
They had a market value and even featured in marriage contracts.
It is also why pigeonniers were often placed in the centre of fields: so the guano could be spread over the surrounding land. When you consider that a single pigeonnier could accommodate hundreds, even thousands, of birds and one pigeon produces three or four kilos of droppings a year… you can see the appeal.
So, the pigeonnier was a godsend that benefited all… Sadly not – and certainly not if you were a peasant living in pre-revolutionary France.
As often happens with the good things in life, the rich and powerful did their best to keep pigeons and pigeonniers for themselves.
Until the Revolution, the colombier à pied (the freestanding version that, like a tower, rises straight from the ground) was, by law, the preserve of royalty and nobility – typically the local seigneur, the lord of the manor – even if in some parts of France the law was only patchily applied.
As a result, the colombier became a hated symbol of privilege – not least because, to add insult to inequity, the rich man’s colombier attracted birds which would eat the poor man’s seeds as fast as he could sow them, and then repeat the havoc at harvest time.
Thus, in just one step, the poor ended up feeding the rich.
But, as 19th century architect and historian Eugène Viollet-le-Duc said, this was all part of a wider pattern of feudal control: “During the Middle Ages… the peasant could not even have his own oven. Instead, he had to take his bread to the communal oven belonging to the chateau or the abbey – and pay a fee to have it cooked.”
He added, so it was with everything else, including the beasts of the forest and, yes, the birds of the air. The seigneur ‘owned’ the lot.
No surprise then that, come the Revolution, one of the first laws to be abolished, less than a month after the storming of the Bastille, was le droit de colombier, the nobility’s exclusive right to possess pigeonniers and limit their construction.
Although many seigneurial colombiers were destroyed during the fervour that followed, some gems of the genre survived – examples of how a mere agricultural outbuilding can be a work of architectural excellence.
The construction of a colombier required as much thought as that of a modern apartment block. In some respects it was more complex in that it had to provide accommodation, nursery and – not to be sentimental – ‘death row’ in a single structure.
Particular consideration was given to orientation. Olivier de Serres, whose seminal farming guide, Le Théâtre d’Agriculture, appeared in 1600, was himself a seigneur and so knew a thing or two about pigeons. The colombier, he instructs, should be situated on dry, raised ground but sheltered from the prevailing winds. The access holes should face south or east to catch the first rays of the sun because “for pigeons the sun is life”.
Centuries before the EU, there was even a ‘European norm’ for the size of the holes: no wider than 10 centimetres, to allow pigeons in but keep crows, ravens, hawks and owls out.
In addition to the aerial predators, there were their terrestrial cousins: rats, martens and, not least, cats.
It is no accident many pigeonniers resemble fortresses. The magnificent 17th-century Tour de Rance in the Lot-et-Garonne is a classic of the type: raised on six stone columns with protruding rings and access only by ladder. Sad to say, it is now in urgent need of restoration despite being state-owned and registered as a monument historique.
Europe’s biggest pigeonnier is, it is claimed, the one at Brue-Auriac, Var. Built in the 1750s, it is 22.5m (about seven storeys) high and boasts some 8.000 wall niche roosts.
A particular advantage of the cylindrical shape is it enabled the installation of another common feature: an internal ladder that could be pivoted around a central pole to collect eggs and birds from their niches. This was pigeon-keeping on an industrial scale.
At the other extreme were the domestic pigeonniers. Once pigeons were free for all after 1789, a pigeon-loft could be readily created in an ordinary house by adapting the roof-space. It might be just a row of holes punched into the stonework below the tiles – or, to give a building ‘un petit air de château’, it could involve the addition of box-turrets.
Today, the pigeonnier has come full circle. It has lost its original usage (You’re unlikely to hear, ‘I’ll just go and strangle a bird for dinner, dear!’), but it is once again a status symbol for those with seigneurial pretentions.
If a residence with a crenelated tower is beyond your budget, one with a pigeonnier could be the next best.
Tastefully renovated, many have found a new role: as retreats for executive hermits, studies for aspiring authors and – a current vogue – novelty gîtes for those tired of windmills and water-towers.
Just one piece of advice if you are considering such a conversion and want to keep your TripAdvisor rating: remember to block up the access holes. Fail to do so and your guests could wake up beneath a layer of feathers… or worse.