Pigeonniers, or dovecots, mark the landscape here in SW France. Our walk this week took us past several fine examples and whetted my appetite to find out more about them and their history.
You see pigeonniers everywhere in our region. Sometimes they are isolated in the middle of a field, sometimes next to a house, sometimes integrated into the building itself. The range of different architectural styles is broad: round towers, square towers, perched on stone columns, with arches underneath or with a pied de mulet roof (dog-leg we’d call it in English). Around here they are constructed of stone; on the plain around Toulouse and Montauban they are of brick.
Keeping pigeons for their flesh and their nutrient-rich guano goes back to ancient times. The Romans appear to have introduced the practice to France and the Crusades assisted its spread. Before the early 14th century, any landowner had the right to construct a pigeonnier. They were also known as colombiers (from the Roman columbarium), although that name later came to designate a dovecot in the form of a tower, separate from a main building. The inside of the pigeonnier was filled with boulins, or nesting boxes, each large enough for two adult pigeons. A few pigeonniers were large enough to house several thousand pigeons.
In northern France, a series of edicts restricted the right to construct pigeonniers largely to the nobility and clergy. A complicated hierarchy determined who was allowed which type of pigeonnier, where they could build them and how many they could have. In southern France, which was effectively independent from the French crown until the late 13th century, the rules were less restrictive. You could have one as long as you owned enough land surrounding the pigeonnier to conform to regulations and didn’t exceed a certain number of boulins.
The rules were often abused and pigeons were a terrible nuisance around sowing time. They descended on the surrounding fields in voracious flocks and gobbled up the seed. In the run-up to the French Revolution, the cahiers de doléances (catalogues of complaints from the provinces) frequently requested the abolition of the right to have pigeonniers.
On 4th August 1789, l’Assemblée nationale abolished all feudal rights, including those relating to pigeonniers. It allowed everyone to have one if they wanted. But the pigeons had to be kept and fed inside it at certain times of year to avoid them damaging the crops. Although this was in itself a nuisance, the abolition of feudal rights still led to a spate of pigeonnier building in certain regions.
Our house, which was probably built in the early 18th century (although it might be older) has an integral pigeonnier. For various reasons, I am convinced that it was a later addition. Perhaps it dates from the Revolution? An attack of folies de grandeur on the part of a prosperous farmer? Nonetheless, it wasn’t very well built and had fallen down by the mid-1960s. Half of the present structure was rebuilt in the 1970s and shored up with reinforced concrete.
There are a couple of good websites about pigeonniers (in French only). This one has excellent photos of different types of pigeonnier to be seen in the Midi-Pyrénées region. This one describes their history and architecture in more detail.
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Yes, I remember seeing lots of lovely pigeonniers when I lived up in T & G and the Lot. You rarely see them down here in Hautes-Pyrénées, not that we don’t have pigeons. In fact, we have a couple that come back every year to nest under our hangar. I have to watch where I hang the washing!
They are a particular feature of the landscape around here. Fortunately, the pigeons can’t nest in ours since it’s integrated into the house and there are no nesting boxes anymore. They nest somewhere around here but I don’t know where. However, they do use our sheets on the line for target practice!
There is a super underground pigeonnier in Tourtenay in the Deux Sevres…well worth a visit if you’re in the area….
We rarely go to that area, I’m afraid, but I’ll certainly look it up if we do. Thanks for the suggestion.
Hi, Vanessa, I enjoyed this post, as I have a strong interest in the pigeonniers of the region and have also raised pigeons, both fancy breeds and racing pigeons, nearly my whole life, as did my father before me. I’m giving a link to a site for a very good book on the pigeonniers of the region, which is available in your area (my friend Stewart purchased it for me in Cordes, I believe). There are other sites too, can send the links if you’re interested.
Scott Perrizo email@example.com, my ancestor was born in or near Parisot in 1648.
Here’s the link: http://www.pigeonniers-en-midipyrenees.fr/galerie.html
We had some correspondence a while ago and I remember your saying that your ancestors came from Parisot.
Thanks for the link – in fact I had already come across that one and it’s one of those that I give at the end of the post (although I disguise them to discourage spammers). It has a good and very comprehensive gallery of photos. I Googled when researching for this post and came up with quite a lot of links – I’m still going through them! I’ve been intending to buy that book for some time and must get around to it.
Love the loggia on your house too! Must be a lovely place to sit.
We don’t get much chance to sit there in summer since the redstarts always nest in one corner – despite our attempts to prevent them! We can’t bear to disturb them.
Those dovecotes are just beautiful! So nice to find out what something is that you see a lot of, and never knew its purpose.
For such functional buildings, there are beautiful. And some have particularly interesting architectural features – often a sign of someone who wanted to display his prosperity.
Who knew pigeons were such a problem during harvest! And that there were regulations about them and a hierarchy to their construction? You always provide such interesting information, Vanessa! I’m off to read the websites…
They were a real pest, apparently, to peasant farmers who could do nothing about it and weren’t allowed to kill the pigeons. The websites have some good photos.
That was really interesting, thanks Vanessa. There aren’t many pigeonniers around here, which is a shame as I think they’re fascinating. In fact, I can’t think where the nearest one is. I shall have to keep my eyes peeled during our cycle rides.
Interesting that there aren’t many around you – they are really part of the landscape here. It probably relates to the fact that the law governing who could have one was much less restrictive down here.