One of the things that distinguish French houses from English ones is the use of shutters. This is not to say that no English houses have them; rather, that a lot of French buildings do, especially in the south of France. They are part of the charm of French architecture. As ever, when a subject interests me, I find that there is more to it than meets the eye.
Naturally, their purpose is primarily functional. Whether it’s to keep the heat in during the winter or out in the summer or to exclude prying eyes, they are there to be used.
When you drive through French villages they invariably seem to be empty of people. This is partly the illusion created by the fact that the shutters are nearly always closed. But if you stop and listen, you’ll hear a radio or a TV chattering away, or the clattering of dishes, or the low hum of conversation. So the inhabitants are there.
We are not used to closing the shutters. In fact, we have only done so when the temperatures have plummeted to minus 15. Even during the canicule (heatwave) of 2003, we preferred to leave them open, while our French neighbours resolutely kept them closed. I don’t like sitting in the dark when it’s sunny outside. Also, it is a task of some magnitude closing our shutters, so you lose the will to live.
As you might expect if you read my blog, I hunted down some of the history. What I didn’t know was that shutters were originally hung inside the windows, not on the exterior. In the Middle Ages, the windows were much smaller and the interior shutters were pierced with holes that were then covered with oiled parchment or translucent material. It let in a bit of light and kept out the draughts to a certain extent.
As building techniques and materials developed, windows became larger and more elaborate and glass was used from about the 13th century. By the 18th century, glass producing technology was superior, larger panes of glass could be used, and the interior shutters could be slid into apertures built into the woodwork beside the windows.
Exterior shutters appeared only around 1750, usually painted white, although I presume this was on the homes of the wealthy. They were called contrevents or persiennes. This, apparently, spelled the decline of the hanging balcony, presumably because you couldn’t open the shutters.
Shutters come in various different styles. We still have the plain shutters on the upper windows that were hung when the house was restored in the early 1970s. They were made of oak and almost indestructible. This type of plain boarded shutter was the most common on the farmhouses and buildings of this area.
We had new ones custom made for the lower windows, since each window is a different size. But they were in pine, which rots quickly. So the SF has become quite adept at making new ones.
A more sophisticated style is the slatted shutter, in evidence on the quincaillerie at Villefranche or at Monet’s house in Giverny, painted a rather startling shade of green.
And then there are those with a hinged opening in the lower half to let in more air without having to open the whole shutter. I’ve never seen any like that around here, but they are common in Provence and in Corsica, where I took these pictures.
Pick a Colour
If you own a listed building in France, you will have to contend with Bâtiments de France, who safeguard historic houses and monuments. They can prescribe what type of shutters you can have and what colour they should be painted. Some people I know in a plus beaux village said they could choose only between three regulation colours.
I understand that the local maire also has the power to prescribe shutter colours in some cases. Some other friends had to apply for permission when they wanted to paint theirs a different colour.
Finally, on a practical note, your insurer is likely to specify that you must close the shutters if you are away for longer than 2 hours. Otherwise your insurance might be invalidated. However, it’s a dead give-away that you’re not there.
Given that it’s such a trial closing all our shutters, we consulted our broker. He said we needed to close only those that could be accessed without a ladder. Don’t take this as gospel, though. Your small print might be different. If in doubt, consult the expert.
You might also like:
French country life a century ago
A House with a Difference
Buying a House in France: Ten Top Tips
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I live in the high desert of southern Californiia where stuccoed houses are common. Ours is a pale peach-light gold color and we plan to add shutters in the blue-grey color shown as a regulation color in one of your photos. They will be strictly decorative though. Our climate is similar to Provence; we even have hard winds like the mistral.
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That sounds like a lovely colour combination. I don’t know California at all, having only ever been to the East Coast, but the idea of stuccoed houses is really appealing. Where we live is on the other side of southern France from Provence, but we have our own version of the mistral: le vent d’autan, which comes from the south, blows for days and drives you mad!
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I think the shutters were part of the reason I wanted to move here … I’m not sure quite why but they feel very romantic to me whether freshly painted and cared for or left shabbily chic or even decaying … there is a romance. In fact my house in Streatley-on-Thames – Georgian and beautifully unscathed had internal shutters which may have ignited this feeling on reflection. It was my favourit home. Anyhow – I am rambling … thank you – I enjoyed this spotlight on something I rather love very much indeed 🙂
Yes, I love them too, in whatever condition. The house I was brought up in also had internal shutters and I always felt unaccountably attached to them.
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I love my shutters! I close and open mine daily in the winter. They close when it gets dark and open when I get up. They make that distinctive wooden ‘clack’ when I open them and they bang against the house. It’s a sound that will always evoke French village to me! In the summer I leave the upstairs shutters closed because that window gets direct morning sun and it can get very hot in the bedroom. Downstairs they stay open all night with the windows cracked to let in some cool air.
Ours bang when it’s windy, although we have them secured so they can’t swing back and forth. The sound of shutters creaking open always reminds me of the film Jean de Florette.
Hated the bother of opening and closing those shutters when we first arrived. Our apartment in Lyon had metal shutters, then our first house had wooden ones. But it became a ritual. I also got used to the cool they provided in the summer canicule, and to sleeping in a fully darkened room. Now we have a modern house with no shutters. Apparently it is no longer an insurance requirement, at least not with this type of house. But how I miss them!
Yes, the bother of doing it is why we don’t shut ours! They are mostly decorative. I’ve never liked sleeping in a darkened room and like to see the light as dawn breaks. It probably depends on the house and the type of windows you have as to whether it’s an insurance requirement. It certainly is for us, but I would guess that modern houses are intrinsically more secure than the ramshackle old variety.
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I’m enjoying your blog – next best thing to being able to move to rural France:0)). I ordered Le Vin Bourru and got a great price via Amazon from a place in London, so will look forward to (slowly) reading that later next month when it arrives. Your place is lovely!
Thank you! I hope you enjoy Le Vin Bourru. It’s one of my favourite books. While it’s not perfect, it’s still very redolent of the end of an era. Aspects of it hang on but Jean-Claude Carrière experienced a childhood that no child will ever see again.
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Shutters are so characterful, at least the old-fashoned ones. When I holidayed in Brittanny the house had shutters, but they had been warped by the heat and really difficult to close!
Ours have also been warped, which is why it’s such a trial closing them. But there is something quintessentially French about shutters, which is why I felt moved to write about them.