‘Bountiful Borderlands’ Extract #3: Chapter Three ‘Glimpsed Through the Pines: Woodcutters and Charcoal Burners’

In comparison to the Ariège, the ‘Old Regime’[1] forest laws of the Pyrénées-Orientales were stricter, although the records tend to indicate that the Pyrenean disregard for laws detrimental to the peasantry held sway. This is may be due to a more forgiving landscape which allowed agriculture to play a far greater role in the lives of the locals, and thus local nobles felt less inclined to be lenient than for example in the lower Comté de Foix.[2] The municipal archives for St Laurent de Cerdans in 1604 state that:

Nobody may cut, or remove any tree or green wood or dead wood from the said territory of the forests of Folgons, nor may they make charcoal there, under the penalty of a fine of two hundred ducats, and if the guilty party is a miserable nobody who cannot pay, they will incur the penalty of one hundred crowns and two years of galley-work.[3]

Whilst infractions of these rules did not always lead to being forced aboard a ship, the legislation and heavy fines attest to the importance attributed by the royal owner of the forest to its preservation and exclusion. However, going by the records of various viguerie,[4] the wary peasantry decided to takes chances in this regard nonetheless, with one example from Conflent-Caspir in 1780 claiming that they had committed ‘very considerable crimes, [clearing or felling] an immense quantity of trees, pine wood, by the inhabitants of Caudiès’.[5] It also appears that the imposition of the threatened fines by the authorities upon the ‘criminals’ in these cases tended to be rather sporadic. One forest owner is recorded in a series of letters throughout 1790 as complaining bitterly that the commune of St Laurent de Cerdans was incapable of either restoring order or applying punishments regarding woodland infractions, in reference to the ‘devastation of my woods’ and ‘the impossibility in which this municipality finds itself to repress the cuts and devastation in the woods of Sieurs father and son Campdoras’.[6] In the same commune, prohibitions on grazing animals in woodlands reached back to at least the 17th century, being mentioned in the municipal records of 1604.[7]

These attempts to restrict access (as can be seen below through the 1827 ‘Forest Code’ in the Ariège) continued well into the 19th century, and an interesting source confirms that it was not only the theft or destruction of wood that was of concern to the owners of these forests. Beyond the Pyrenees, to the east, the département of Gard in 1872 listed grass removal, broom removal, mule grazing, pasturing twenty sheep, grazing twenty-five woollen animals, hunting outside of permitted times (seasons) and the removal of acorns as being ‘forest crimes’ punishable through fines, and it is probable that similar categories existed in and around the Pyrenees, given the centralised application of laws following the fall of more diverse feudal governance. The degree to which the locals lived by these laws however is debatable, or even doubtful, given their intimate knowledge of the local woodlands and paths which allowed unseen access.[8]

As we see above, there were certain laws and regulations under the Old Regime that prohibited certain species being felled, or certain forests being used at all, however in the higher areas of the Pyrenees the laws tended to be more lax as the peasantry relied on the forest for the majority of their survival. In terms of access restrictions to these higher areas of the forest which were traditionally ‘up for grabs’, one example (and its consequences) from the upper Ariège is of particular note. Prior to the 1827 ‘Forest Code’, the woodlands of Saint-Lary were free for the Ariégeois peasantry to gather as much wood as they felt they needed (while typically ignoring certain limitations implemented by the Old Regime).  However, the Code decreed this privilege should belong to forest owners and charcoal-burners, the latter being instrumental in the iron industry that enriched several local industrialists. This former freedom was vital for many to continue their pastoral and agricultural way of life, and unsurprisingly the local peasantry took umbrage at these restrictions, resulting in one of the most peculiar examples of French peasant revolts in the 19th century, and proof that the figure of the charcoal burner was not one that was universally popular throughout the period. This is a brief summary of the (oddly transvestite) ‘The War of the Demoiselles’, during which

[…] peasants in the French Pyrenees disguised themselves as women and attacked forest guards sent to enforce the 1827 Forest Code, which favored commercial charcoal burners and the iron industry by creating property rights in the forests where local people had previously exercised customary rights to gathering fuelwood and pasturing their animals.[9]

The imposition of the Forest Code, which was codified in 1827 and then strictly enforced in 1829, prohibited the local peasantry of the Ariège from gathering wood, cutting wood and pasturing, which given the fact that (as described earlier) this was a ‘wood civilisation’ severely impacted their traditional way of life. The purpose of the code was to favour charcoal burners, ironmasters and the owners of these forests, and in order to enforce this law forest guards and gendarmes were employed to guard both the trees and also the charcoal kilns. The rebellion lasted until 1872, however it was between 1829 and 1833 that a unified and concerted effort took place, after which smaller and sporadic skirmishes typified the movement. In the first year, up to four hundred individuals were involved in entering the forests, typically at night, and destroying the kilns and lodges of various charbonnières, whom the peasants accused of exploiting the forests. Forest guards and charbonnières were chased out of their homes, confronted in the forests and threatened with violence, and when shepherds were arrested by guards when allowing their flocks to graze in the forests, the ‘Maidens’ would rush out with scythes, batons and rifles demanding their freedom. One guard rather dryly related seeing ‘three women of a size much larger than is expected of this sex’ before they attacked.[10] According to reports they would often gather to the sound of a seashell.[11] The most curious facet of these ‘forest rebels’, and the reason behind the term ‘War of the Demoiselles’, was their garb. Whilst some would wear rag-tag uniforms, often styling themselves as ‘captains’ or similar military ranks, the vast majority disguised themselves as women, wearing scarves or wigs, long shirts, sheepskins. As one prefect reported:

The disguise consists only in darkening the face with red or black, wearing a white shirt outside the clothes instead of leaving it tucked in, tightening the waist with a coloured band, which gives the impression of a skirt, and finally placing on the head a handkerchief or a woman’s headpiece.[12]

Masks were also worn, variously painting their faces in symmetrical patterns of red and black, draping sheets of material over their faces, using handkerchiefs pierced with three holes for the eyes and mouth, sheets of paper, sieves tied with string, left-over carnival masks, woollen bonnets and even sheep or fox skins. They would refer to themselves as Demoiselles (‘Maidens’) in a self-ironic nod to their own sense of honour.[13]

During the French Revolution, all bets were off in terms of any existing feudal control of the forests, and subsequently a free-for-all had taken place by the peasantry across France, resulting in significant woodland devastation, and in order to combat this and implement a profitable scheme, post-Revolutionary France saw a series of laws come into play that would favour commercial exploitation and the construction of ironworks in these traditionally lax areas. Privately owned forests would begin to be culled at a frightening rate, and thus the implementation of the Forest Code sought to eliminate any non-profitable use of these woodlands by the local peasantry:

Collective opposition to royal and private forest guards was an ancient tradition in the villages which came to form the Ariège, as it was in the Pyrenees more generally. Under the Old Regime, as long as the royal forest administration remained a distant and relatively tolerant authority, villagers tended to subvert its formal regulations, while frequently disputing among themselves their pasturing and firewood rights to the forest. […] Yet it was only after the Revolution, with the stricter application of new forest legislation limiting pasturing rights and forcing village communities to take their wood in predesignated areas, that forest riots occurred with greater frequency.[14]

These attacks on property and production sites within the forests of the Ariège, beginning in Castillonnais and the Massat valley, intensified between 1830 and 1832, spreading to Cabannes and Ax, and even into the Haute-Garonne (Val d’Arbas), before becoming more sporadic until the last recorded incidence in 1877. What is also noteworthy, apart from their manner of dress, was the highly-organised nature of these attacks, being coordinated by smoke-signals and horns, and also the way in which the ‘Demoiselles’ made rather theatrical use of the local belief in fairies to elevate the dramatic nature of their attacks. As Sahlins puts it: ‘this dexterous relation to fairy beliefs was part of the drama which the Demoiselles enacted; the white-robed figures appearing in the forest at night were the actors, while the guards and charcoal-makers – peasants themselves – were the audience and victims.’[15] Sadly, it appears that whilst impactful on those that experienced them, these attacks and the revolt in general did little to alter the implementation of the Forest Code in general, however it is unlikely that this prevented the pugnacious Ariégeois from exercising their ancient rights when threatened. In this vein, it has been argued that this period of ‘forest rebellion’ should not be viewed as an isolated incident, but rather as part of a larger series of popular revolts across the Pyrenees beginning before the 19th century, against what was perceived as the ‘centralizing enterprise of the state’, in which ancient land rights were jettisoned in favour of profitable enclosure and privatisation.[16] Whilst referring to the Ariégeois, this sentiment could apply across the Pyrenees: ‘Affected in their most vital interests, the Ariège mountain dwellers had then proven their ability to defend rights of immemorial use.’[17]


[1] This is the typical epithet for pre-Revolutionary France.

[2] However, laws here were also becoming stricter.

[3] Criées of 15th July, 1604, Municipal Archives, St Laurent de Cerdans. From: Noël, Michel, L’Homme et la Forêt en Languedoc-Rousillon (Perpignan: Press Universitaires de Perpignan, 1996), pp, 91 – 140. Translated by Martin Locker. ‘Galley-work’, as in working on board a ship under hard conditions is an imperfect translation of galère, however it will have to suffice in this case. Chapter Four, from which this information is taken, is available here: https://books.openedition.org/pupvd/5799?lang=fr#ftn15

[4] A medieval administrative court typical of southern France.

[5] Noël, 1996, pp. 91 – 140.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Menzies, Nicholas, Our Forest, Your Ecosystem, Their Timber: Communities, Conservation, and the State in Community-Based Forest Management (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 90.

[10] Sahlins, Peter, Forest Rites: The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. ix.

[11]Ibid., p. 5.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., pp. 19 – 20.

[15]Ibid., p. 47.

[16] Soulet, Jean-François, Les Pyrénées au XIXe Siecle: L’Éveil d’une Société Civile (Luçon: Sud Ouest, 2004), p. 708.

[17] Translated from the entry of the ‘Ariège’ in the Encylopédie Régionale (Chamalières: Éditions Bonneton, 1996), p. 72.

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