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Chapter two The French Colombier

It does not appear that any restrictions governed the possession of a Roman columbarium; but, leaving Italy for France, we come to legislation on the subject -legislation which was at once intricate and oppressive in its nature, but upon which we, whose withers are unwrung, can look back with interest. Varro remarks that the feeding of pigeons was not a matter of great cost, the birds enjoying freedom and "fending" for themselves during some ten months out of twelve. That was, and still is, perfectly true, so far as the birds' owners were concerned; but it is to be remembered that the pigeons picked up their living largely at the cost of others, feeding in the cultivated fields, and doing great damage to the crops. This was the case in medieval France, as it had been in the vicinity of Rome; and the depredations of a great man's pigeons may be well included in that list of wrongs from which the peasantry of France had suffered through the centuries and as an item by no means negligible among the many causes of the Revolution.

For in France the right to erect and maintain a colombier was rigidly restricted; as in England it was a privilege long confined to the lord of a manor, so across the Channel it was the exclusive right of three classes of landed proprietors-grandsjusticiers, seigneurs de fief, and seigneurs de censive. This is hardly the place in which to explain at length the distinctions between these three classes, but it is of interest to note that, excepting in Brittany, there was no distinction with regard to birth; the right belonged to any member of one of the above named classes, whether he were of the noblesse or a mere roturier. But it is doubtful whether this would be any great consolation to the peasant, who, viewing the havoc wrought among his crops by the lord's birds, would probably fail to observe any serious difference between the appetites of pigeons kept by a gentleman of ancient lineage, and of those whose owner came of humble stock.

The privilege in question applied merely to a colombier a pied - that is, to a substantial building with foundations firmly planted in the ground, and with its nests, called boulins, covering the interior of the walls from floor to roof The law did not concern itself with the mere fuie or voliere, both of which were of the nature of the wooden structures often seen attached to English stable-walls and gable-ends.

Standing apparently on a somewhat debatable ground between these two extremes was the colombier surpiliers, built upon stone pillars, or sometimes on wooden posts Generally such a structure was held to be exempt from restrictions, but in Brittany, as also in Touraine, it ranked as a colombier à pied.

Too numerous to be mentioned are the many local variations of this general law. In some districts a member of the privileged orders could, were he of the noblesse, erect his dovecote with no questions asked, as a roturier he must first obtain permission from authority. The evil of numerous dovecotes was not long in being felt; and from time to time various measures were taken to minimize the wrong. In some parts of France a dovecote could not be maintained, even by those qualified as above, unless its owner possessed at least fifty arpents of land. Other steps in the same direction regulated the number of nest-holes permitted, proportioning them to the size of the domain; called for proofs of immemorial possession, or for the production of good title-deeds; or insisted that the dovecote should stand in the centre of its owner's land, in order that his crops should be the first to feel the pinch. But even these ameliorations of an undoubted wrong failed to cure the evil, and in 1789 all France's dovecotes shared - figuratively speaking - in the general fall. But happily their fabric, in some cases, still survives, and a few specially beautiful or interesting examples call for notice. It is hardly necessary to say that, during the days in which the dovecote flourished undisturbed in France, it was often the property of some ecclesiastical establishment-abbey, or priory, or a dependency of such; and this in the neighbourhood of these that we shall look, not unsuccessfully, for some of the choicest surviving examples.

The French dovecote was frequently whitewashed externally, with a view to making it conspicuous to its inmates on their homeward flight. Charles Waterton, who usually knew what he was talking about, says that this practice was forbidden in England in his father's time, as being likely to attract a neighbour's birds.

The argument seems hardly sound; but certainly a whitewashed English dovecote is not often seen. It is in France that we first hear of, and may often find, an important adjunct of the dovecote which seems not to have been generally in use in Rome. This was the potence, a piece of mechanism used for gaining easy access to the upper tiers of nests. The vital portion was a-massive beam or arbre, secured in an upright position in the centre of the dovecote by being pivoted into socket-holes placed in the floor and roof respectively. In these socket-holes the beam revolved freely at a touch. Jutting horizontally from the beam were several arms technically known as the, "Potences" or gallows," though the term gradually came to mean the mechanism as a whole. These arms were not in the same vertical plane, but placed in such a position with regard to each other that the ladder they supported had a gentle slope. This ladder, being at the ends farthest from the central beam, allowed a person standing on it to search the upper nests for the young birds. Without descending he could, by gripping the tiers of nests, cause the beam and ladder to revolve, and so move round the house.

Sometimes one ladder only was employed; but not infrequently the arms projected on either side of the beam, each end carrying a ladder. This seems a questionable advantage; it allowed two persons to work together, but unless their rate of progress coincided the time saved must have been small.

It is easily understood that a potence was most useful in a circular or octagonal dovecote, where the ladder would, as it revolved, be equidistant from the walls at every point. In a square dovecote it would be of much less service, giving access indeed to nests in the middle of each wall, but leaving those placed in and near the corners out of reach. Yet, in some cases in England, and quite frequently in Scotland, we may find a potence placed in a square pigeon-house.

Sometimes, especially in Auvergne, the dovecote was constructed in the dwelling-house to which it was attached. An example occurs at Montpazier, in the department of Dordogne, where a gable is pierced by a series of entrance holes for the birds. A similar arrangement is found in many English houses, more especially in Yorkshire.

Some of the earliest of French dovecotes, massive circular buildings resembling the Roman columbarium in their general form, had very little actual roof, a large part of the dome being open to the sky. This practice does not seem to have been followed later than the fourteenth century. Subsequent erections, many built about the sixteenth century, were either round, octagonal or square. The dovecote at St. Ouen, Rouen, was cruciform; a very unusual shape, of which a fine example was formerly extant in England. In cases where the whole of the building was not devoted to pigeons the lower story was put to various uses; it might form an open shed, a fowl-house, stable, cellar, entrance-gate - a frequent case in Auvergne. In one instance at least the pigeon-house surmounted a well.

French pigeon-keepers, like their Roman brethren, found their flocks extremely subject to attacks from vermin, and took various precautions to defeat the pest. Hence probably the form of dovecote known as the colombier à pied, already alluded to; raised on four, or sometimes eight pillars, there being nothing but an open shed or hangar underneath. Each pillar capital had a larmier or coping over it, which it was almost impossible for rats or similar invaders to surmount. Another method was to insert in the external surface of the walls a course or two of highly polished bricks or tiles, which formed all round the house a band too slippery for feet and claws to grip. This method, not without value as an ornament, was frequently employed in Languedoc. Still more common was the application of a broad string-course to the wall.

The circular dovecote was long popular, having among other advantages that of adapting itself to the introduction of the potence, so convenient as a means of easy access to the nests. Of such circular pigeon-houses a very fine example will be found in the courtyard of the Manoir d'Ango, at Varengeville, near Dieppe, not Varangéville, as it is sometimes incorrectly spelled, owing to confusion with a place so named in Meurthe-et-Moselle. The manoir, now a farm, is, like its former owner, worthy of a passing word.

Jean Ango, or Angot, who flourished exceedingly in the first half of the sixteenth century, came of a wealthy Dieppe family; they were ship owners of enterprise, and their flag flew in many quarters of the world. Jean was a man of means. During a progress made through Normandy by Francois I., he entertained that joyous monarch with a lavish hospitality; the reward was his appointment as the governor of Dieppe.

In his new office he was very zealous for the town. A Dieppe vessel having been attacked and pillaged by the Portuguese in time of peace, the warlike governor fitted out a fleet, sailed to and up the Targus, and then spread such fear in Lisbon that the King of Portugal was glad to compromise the matter by the payment of a large indemnity to the French town. Ango paid dearly for the favour of the King of France, advancing heavy loans to his royal patron, and dying poor at last. His manor of Varengeville is now a farm; but-perhaps all we care about to-day - his dovecote stands. It is a large circular building constructed entirely of black and red bricks, arranged in striking geometrical designs. The domed roof, terminating at the apex in a pointed pinnacle, is broken just above the eaves by three dormer windows.

Of smaller size, but even more ornate, is the dovecote at Boos, a village lying a few miles east of Rouen, on the Paris road. It is an octagonal building, surmounted by a pointed roof with a circular cornice. The material is mainly brick, stone being used for the cornice, the base, and the angles of the walls, as for the string-course half-way up. Below this string-course each of the eight sides presents a surface of plain brick; above there is elaborate ornament. This is effected by the use of bricks of several colours; they include red, in two distinct shades; with yellow, green and purple, the three last being glazed. These are arranged in great variety of pattern. Further, there is a row of glazed tiles, on the white ground of each being a profile head or other ornament. This dovecote probably dates from the early portion of the sixteenth century, the house to which it is attached being older still. In southern France it was necessary for the pigeon-keeper to take careful thought for his birds, particularly with regard to the icy blast of the mistral. They needed air and sun, but must be sheltered from the wind.

Consequently, in the neighbourhood of such places as Toulouse and Montauban, we find high dovecotes of square form, having a lean-to roof the slope of which was towards the south. The highest wall and the two side walls rise above this roof for several feet, and it thus forms a sheltered place on which the birds can sun themselves at ease. Small pinnacles may frequently be placed at each of the four corners, sometimes with projecting perches for the birds. The entrance-holes are placed beneath the well projecting eaves.
It is impossible to study a French dovecote of this shape, and note the similarity exhibited by many Scottish "doo-cots," without recalling the long and close intimacy which existed between France and Scotland - an intimacy from which England was altogether excluded. It is easy to believe that, at a time when Scots were constantly in France, and Frenchmen occasionally in Scotland, observation or suggestion would bring about the adoption in the northern kingdom of forms and methods current with its southern friend.

Also to be seen in southern France are dovecotes of a different plan. They are of brick and circular, with a domed roof, and two string-courses placed high up the walls. Such roof, if left unmodified, would give the pigeons no protection from the wind. To obviate this defect, upon the side from which the mistral blows, the wall has been continued well above the roof and carries three small turrets, which are not merely ornamental but afford additional shelter.

Such then are some, though a few only, of the very interesting dovecotes once existing or still found in France. It is now time to give attention to those nearer home. Click here to have a peek at some other French Colombiers.


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