French country life a century ago

I have often wondered how it must have been to live in our house a century ago. Nowadays, we take for granted running water, inside lavatories, central heating and double-glazing. The people then had none of those things.


Scratching a living from the poor soil around here must have been hard enough. But for the inhabitants of this house, getting enough water was one of the main preoccupations. We are told that, before they sank the wells here, the people were obliged to get water from the nearest stream. That involved a round trip of about 2½ kilometres and a steep uphill climb on the way back.

The éviers (stone sinks) in our house seem impossibly shallow, barely a couple of centimetres deep. How could anyone do the washing-up with such little water? But that was exactly the point. The éviers were made so shallow to avoid wasting water. What they transported back from the stream had to do for the animals, drinking, cooking, washing-up and bathing (although I bet they didn’t do much of that).

At some point, someone had enough of the corvée d’eau (the water-fetching chore) and decided to sink a well. On our property, there are two wells (one of them 12 metres deep) and a citerne (water tank). The citerne, which is a vast underground chamber to capture rainwater, has a capacity of about 14 cubic metres. The photo shows the deeper of our two wells (centre) and the citerne (with the sloping roof, right).

How did they know where to dig for the wells? Fourteen metres is a heck of a long way down without modern machinery if you’re not sure of finding water at the bottom. I suppose they must have engaged the services of a water-diviner who used a forked hazel twig or swung a watch on a chain to detect the underground watercourses.

Le Vin Bourru

Getting enough water was only one of their daily worries. I was reminded of all this recently, on re-reading the excellent memoirs of Jean-Claude Carrière, Le Vin Bourru (lit. the rough wine). Carrière was born in 1931 in the village of Colombières-sur-Orb in the Hérault. He became a historian and screenplay writer and worked with Luis Bunuel.

Carrière witnessed the end of a way of life that had lasted for more than a thousand years. Although further south, I’m sure they lived in much the same way as people did in this area. His father was a smallholder who also had a vineyard. Carrière describes the myriad tasks and trades his father had to master with skill and precision. His mother kept the house, cooked and brought up her only child, while rearing ducks, chickens, rabbits and goats. There was little time for relaxation and entertainment.

The family was largely self-sufficient, except for commodities such as soap, matches, salt and oil. Carrière says that the only time he saw his father cry was when he slipped on the steps up to the house and dropped a large demijohn of olive oil. Such a waste of money was heartbreaking. Carrière also describes the chestnut gathering that took place every autumn in the hills above the village. Chestnuts formed part of the villagers’ staple diet during the winter months – much as I imagine they did a few kilometres from here, where chestnut trees grow in abundance. 

The book stops at the end of the Second World War, when the family moves to Paris, owing to his father’s ill health. Already, the war had speeded up the process that catapulted the village from the medieval into the modern world. Carrière regrets the things done in the name of progress, which have killed the river where they once poached trout and replaced the railway with a major road.

If ever a book were worthy of translation into English it is this one. It’s a valuable record of a way of life that has vanished. However, I cannot find an English version on Amazon, so I have to conclude that there isn’t one. Only the Pocket paperback edition is available in French.      

Copyright © 2010 A writer’s lot in France (now Life on La Lune), all rights reserved


  1. How we long for the simple life of time’s past until we realize the hardships of living “without”. Those times are lost to us, but I feel we can create little snippets of it in our lives.



    • You are quite right. It is easy to romanticise times past but life was hard then and I think we would find it difficult now to live as our forebears did. We can try to simplify aspects of our lives today, but going back completely would be very difficult now.


  2. Thank you for the post – I’ve added his book to my cart, and I am eager to read this particular account of Le Temps Perdu – though I’m sure it will throw me into a wistful fit of melancholy, as modernity and I, at least in a romantic field of vision, are locked in bitter enmity.

    An American longing for France, I very much enjoy your blog – thank you and best wishes.


    • Thank you for your comment, Paul, and for your kind words about my blog. I can highly recommend Le Vin Bourru; I must have read it half a dozen times. It is full of fascinating details about everyday life in rural France during the 1930s. Carrière is nostalgic without being over-sentimental and shows the harsh as well as the rosy side of life at that time. I do hope you enjoy it.
      Best wishes,


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