Thursday 31 January 2013


Even though it is wet, gloomy and extremely boggy underfoot I went out to see what signs there are of spring roundabout the house.

A little while ago we'd already spotted the snowdrops beginning to show; then before I could take a photo a blanket of snow was dumped on their heads. Since then the weather has turned milder but stayed wet and gloomy --not the kind of light in which to take nice photographs.
As luck would have it I've been waiting in vain for sun. When the odd ray did appear mundania meant I wasn't here. So this morning, on the last day of January, flat light or not, I took some photos of the snowdrops well and truly out. 
I then spotted the earliest of our narcissi in bud and a couple of brave cowslips just beginning to push out a flower stem.

All we need now for February is some sun and we can sit outside on the southside of the house --in a woolly jumper-- to have our coffee. Hurrah!

Sunday 27 January 2013

A bittersweet treat: La Chapelle de tous les Saints

A little while back, friends Susan and Simon who write the blog Days on the Claise ran into Marc Dimanche, an acquitance of theirs. A devoted member of the Preuilly archaeological society, he offered them the opportunity to visit the Chapelle de tous les Saints [All Saints' Chapel] which is located on the left as one drives into Preuilly-sur-Claise from the direction of Le Grand Pressigny. They had written a post about the chapel before here, but had never had the opportunity to see inside.
La chapelle de tous les Saints, from the jardin public
The chapel is kept locked and if you want to see inside the best you can manage is to get down on your knees and peer under the old wooden doors. There is a very good reason for anyone interested in medieval history/art history wanting to make the effort. The chapel contains a danse macabre, or dance of the dead. Therefore, you can imagine that when Susan asked if we were interested in joining her and Simon on a visit, we replied with a resounding 'yes please!'
Chapel from the side: showing the door which would have led to the cemetery
The chapel looks -and is- in good condition on the outside. The roof tiles and stonework are in good order and although the windows lack any glazing the whole gives no cause for concern. That is until you step inside.
Chapel interior showing support bracing
The interior of the poor building is in a woeful state. Painted boards which make up its barrel vaulted roof dangle on the point of tumbling down. To one side, near the altar steps there's a stack of those which have already lost their fight with gravity. Bits and pieces of beautifully carved stonework also lie jumbled along the wall. There's wooden bracing to help keep the whole ediface from tumbling down. Marc Dimanche explained that there are plans to instigate a public subscription [pledges of financial support, large or small] which is the pre-requisite to gaining subsidies for restoration/conservation funding. Sadly, according to Marc Dimanche there is, seemingly, a lack of interest among the locals for restoring their 'patrimoine'. This is a huge pity as the chapel is pretty special. However, on the positive side is the fact that so much of the mural still survives despite the lack of the TLC it so desperately needs.
    Musicians: the bagpiper, organetto player and the harpist

On both sides runs a wide band depicting the dance of the dead. The dance of the dead in the chapelle de tous les Saints is unusual as the murals depict both a male and a female dance. To the left is a men's dance, to the right is a dance of women. Both are accompanied by texts. On the far wall, to the left of where the altar stood, is an orchestra of the dead. There are four musicians: one chap is playing the bagpipes, the second an organetto, the third a harp and the last a pipe & tabor.

Marc's beautiful drawing showing the orchestra of the dead on the right
The dance of the dead or danse macabre appears in art in the 15th century. Surviving representations [about 80 all told in Europe] date from after about 1425. The earliest seems to have been a mural in the cemetery of the Innocents, in Paris which according to a chronicle was executed in 1424-5.  The north cloister of St Paul's Cathedral in London [the pre-1666 fire of London building] had a series of painted panels from around 1430 with texts by the poet John Lydgate. Lydgate knew the dance at the cemetery of the Innocents.
Dance of the women: The wife on left, maiden on the right, shrouded corpse between them
By the middle of the 15th century dances of the dead had become more common. In 1485-6 a publisher in Paris, Guyot Marchant produced a series of woodcut prints of the dance of dead. Accounts indicate they were closely based on the murals at the cemetery of the Innocents, but not identical. Guyot's figures are wearing the dress of his day, not that of an earlier time. The publication proved to be extremely popular and by 1490 it was in its third edition. A late medieval equivalent of a best seller.

Dance of the women: the shepardess, the lover, the nun and the widow
The theme of the dance is simple: the living, irrespective of their station in life, whether spiritual [pope, cardinal, priest or bishop] or temporal [king, prince, lord, peasant or child] are made to dance with cadavers as a "memento mori" [remember you must die].
Marc's drawing: the child at far left under the window
The dead--shrouded, partly corrupted or latterly more skeletal usually caper with enthusisam whereas the living are much more static. They aren't keen on joining the dance for obvious reasons, it confronted them with the frailty of life and the vanity of earthly things. It also reflected a medieval style of social equality: in death everyone is the same:- a cadaver. The dead they dance with are representations of themselves. They are not dancing with a personification of 'Death'.
Illustration of the section of dance of the women mural closest to the altar
To the medieval individual the afterlife was of huge importance as you either were saved at the Last Judgement or were forever condemmed to hell depending on what you had done with your life during your stay on earth. The worst thing that could overcome a medieval individual was to die unexpectedly without being able to prepare; hence the dance of the dead shows individuals of all ages.
You can just see faint traces of writing above the queen and the cadaver grabbing the abess' staff
Just as we suffer barrages of advertising exhorting us to plan our pensions & old age provision from the minute we start working, medieval individuals were continuously confronted by visual representations exhorting them to repent while there was still time. The dance of the dead is only one example of this.
Illustration of part of the dance of the men mural
We really hope that soon various wheels will slowly grind into motion and that action will be taken. We are no experts, but we suspect that the danse macabre in the chapelle de tous les Saintes  is a really rather special surviving example.
Dance of the men: the bailiff
In the Middle Ages the chapel in Preuilly could have been a busy place of the living as well.  What is now the adjoing jardin public was the original burial ground. Records show that the cemetery of the Innocents in Paris was a bustling place: betrothals, meetings and judicial processes all took place there and it faced one of the largest medieval markets in Paris.

It would be lovely to see the danse macabre conserved and the chapelle de tous les Saints open to the public so that people could enjoy seeing it and so catch a glimpse of medieval life; to have a bit of bustle once again.

With grateful thanks to Marc Dimanche for permission to use images of his beautiful drawings which re-create the chapel's murals.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Dinner for two

Just after 5:30 pm I was head down in study urgently trying to finish some work which had to e-mailed out when Niall, in a loud stage whisper, said "deer" from the livingroom. Very slowly I turned round to get the camera which I hadn't yet put in its case from earlier in the day --we had spent a fabulous morning being very medievally-anoraky [if indeed there is such a word, which I doubt!] on which more soon...

 Two ladies had come for dinner....

First arrival

Are you coming then?!


The light was poor and it was quite misty as you can see--no hint of the other side of the valley. However, I took these photos as they slowly moved from west to east nibbling away, occasionally throwing their heads up to listen for danger--as when Shadow pushed his way noisily out through the cat flap-- before going back to din-dins.
Hopefully they do convey a bit of the magic of living here and having the chevreuil passing through, grazing at dusk.

It's only the cat!

The starter was good....

nice mains!

Shall we move on to dessert then?
I wish the quality was better and know I need to learn more about using my camera properly.  I took them on a low light setting and have an 18 - 135mm lens which was at max. I've tweaked them as best I can--the light was disappearing terribily quickly and even on a low light setting they are grainy. As always, just click on them if you want to enlarge.

Sunday 20 January 2013

La neige

This week has been very uneventful which is why we haven't posted. Although very busy, mundania ruled. The weather turned cold as it did in most of western Europe, but we didn't get any of the snow many other places were experiencing. On UK TV we watched the usual chaos a few centimetres of snow can cause various transport systems. On French TV too the snow issue cropped up during the week with, sadly, on Friday night, the report of a very serious accident in our dept. as a result of rain which iced up the A10 autoroute.
Sunday morning: view out the front door looking east
Last night it started to snow properly here and today we've woken up to about 10cm of snow. In fact flurries are still coming down and I can't see the other side of the valley from my study as I write.
Landing gear out ready for 'atterrissage'
All day yesterday we had very low temperatures with mizzling rain which was a horrible combination, especially as we were having an additional tranche of 5 stere of wood delivered just before noon. We decided not to stack it, but to tarp it where it was offloaded and it is safely tucked up--we may need it wth this cold snap. Thankfully, the ground wasn't so cold that the rain froze as it fell, or we would have been slipping and sliding all over the place. It was just freezing wet and miserable!
And we're off again!
We've experienced that icing rain several times in the Netherlands, and it is lethal. Once the freezing rain came down long and heavily enough that it coated the frozen earth in such a thick layer of clear ice that people were skating on the roads. It all looked gorgeous but the additional weight caused quite a bit of damage especially to trees as their branches broke under the strain.
Queueing up!
Though the light is very flat here are a few photos taken earlier this morning of the usual wee thugs at the bird table and feeder. The snowdrops, which I spotted on Friday just about ready to open are now buried, so no photo of them as was planned. But they are out there!

just click on the photos if you want to enlarge them

Thursday 10 January 2013

Tithe Barn

Every year the mairie, as everywhere else in France, sends out an invite to all the inhabitants to the Bonne Année Réception. This year the reception was held last Sunday, on Epiphany and there was a huge turnout. There were even local big-wigs seen pressing the flesh.

Entrance; some landscaping yet to be done
The reason? Our Salle des Spectacles has been completed. Well, as Claude, our maire pointed out in his speech, all barring some landscaping and the final fitting out of the kitchens. Our commune is home to just over 500 people and we estimated that about 300 turned up to inspect the new facility. We don't think they were disappointed. We weren't, it has been very tastefully done.
Great view over the Aigronne valley
The new salle des spectacles has been formed out of part of the range of outbuildings which are all that is left of the original feudal castle. We've written about the complex before, here and here. Sadly, the main building of the feudal castle is now, after many mutations,  a semi-derelict ferme fort.

Beginning to fill up with people

Laid out on the tables next to the glasses all ready for the vin d'honneur were copies of a really interesting little leaflet about the history of the building which now forms the heart of the complex.
Local big-wigs getting in on the act
We knew it was a barn, one of a series of buildings which were orginally within the feudal castle's bailey; but it seems that it was a little bit more important than that. Research by  our village historical society has found that it was a "grange aux dîmes " or tithe barn owned by the seigneur [lord of the manor] of Charnizay. Although there are no 'proper' archives for the Charnizay tithe barn they have found some mentions of it in 17th, 18th and 19th century documents.
La salle: getting crowed
It seems that though owned by the seigneur of Charnizay, the barn was probably given over in use to the Prieuré [priory] of Charnizay for storing the tithes.  A mention in the records of the Prieuré de Charnizay from 24 June 1634 records that one brother Georges Boisdron, Prior of both Charnizay and of La Sainte Trinité de Fourgere in Britanny, levied the rights of "dixieme", "terrage" and other taxes due to the lord of the manor in right of tenancy.  The "dîmes" was a tax of a tenth of the harvest levied on crops such as cereals or on produce such as wine. The "droit de terrage" were feudal dues paid in kind--labour.  The number of taxes and tithes due to the lords of the manor, whether secular or religious, were many!
A glass of kir and a slice of brioche for Bonne Année & the opening
All this came to an end with the fall of the Ancien Régime and the French Revolution. In the inventory of goods and property made in 1802 on the death of Charlotte de Menou [member of a leading local family] there is a mention of 'La grange de Reserve au bourg' formerly the 'grange aux dîmes'.

So thanks to the renovation and transformation the 'grange aux dîmes' has been given a new lease of life as our salle des spectacles; and worth raising a glass to!

Friday 4 January 2013

A day of blue skies

So far the weather has been mostly grey. Thankfully we've had no heavy downpours, although yesterday we had a mizzling rain and it stayed very misty and murky all day; 'driech' as they say in Scotland. It is all down to a high pressure system sitting above us, which means it is mild. With no wind, the murky grey blanket stays put. It's called 'grisaille' here and we get it a lot during the winter. The ground remains very soggy and squelchy underfoot.
Sunshine on one of the lakes in the Brenne
However, on Wednesday we were given a brief respite with a day of beautiful clear blue skies. As we hadn't been over to the Parc naturel régional de la Brenne for a while we grabbed the camera and drove over. A lovely way to start the new year.

The parc régional covers quite a large area, but at it's heart lies a flat wetland landscape of about 3,000 lakes and ponds. All were artificially created to serve as stew ponds: to farm fish, mostly carp.
Large white egret frog hunting in a field
Since 2006 there's been an ongoing project to find out more about the age of the ponds. Using historical records, recovered artifacts and dendrochronology at least 750 'historical' ponds have been identified and as well as some which have silted up over time as they are no longer in use.

Tree lined dike at the edge of a pond
Ongoing maintainance of their water management systems has, from time to time, revealed ancient oak heartwood planking lining the small runnels or channels which helped regulate the water levels and flow of these 'historical' ponds. As this wood remained completely encased in mud it did not rot and thus did not need to be replaced as did other wooden parts of the sluice systems. Dendrochronology showed the specimens they found to range in date from 1407 to 1940, with a quarter dating from the Middle Ages and half being pre-17th century.
A lone crested grebe
All these ponds mean the area is an oasis for wetland birds and according to the literature 267 species can be seen in the Brenne, 150 of whom nest. On Wednesday we only saw a couple of crested grebes, some great white egrets and shed load of mallards.

If you want to read more about the widlife of the Brenne, Susan & Simon of Days on the Claise wrote one of several excellent posts about the flora and fauna here.

Tuesday 1 January 2013

Happy New Year!

Sadly not our gingerbread, but it does look good!

 All Good Things for 2013!

Thanks to all those who have dropped by and visited our blog and for the wonderful comments many of you have left. It has been lovely to share 2012 with you. 
Wishing you and yours a peaceful, healthy and happy new year.