The daily life of our ancestors

The daily life of our ancestors


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Those that Victor Hugo called the little ones, the '' without ranks '' formed the vast majority of men and women who in their own way and in the shadows, forged history. However, unlike the greats of this world, they have left few traces in school books, disappearing just as quickly from our memories. Genealogists and historians have brought the lives of these ancestors out of oblivion. Throughout their research, we see them working, loving, suffering, in a word: living.

The interior of the house

The floor of the house, most often beaten earth (the parquet introduced in the 14th century is reserved for the rich) is sometimes made of coarse paving or tiling. Whitewashed walls in farmhouses or kinds of domino tapestries (printed by dominoes) in more affluent homes replace overly expensive hangings. The room, poorly lit by narrow openings, and smoky, is dark (see the article `` Let's enter our ancestors '')

The pieces of furniture are few: The table, when there is one, is only a simple wooden plank that is set up on trestles, hence the expression "setting the table" and disappears as soon as the meal is over. because the use of the rooms is undifferentiated (the fixed table appears around the 16th century).

This varies according to the regions and the times: long and heavy in Savoy, with two drawers in Flanders, table and chest in Brittany (it was called a `` pulling or '' current '' table or even a `` belly '' table. ) whose sliding cover revealed racks containing food, crockery, bread and tablecloths.

The dishes are most often stored in the drawers without being washed, sometimes an ingenious system of cavities dug into the table top connected by small channels to facilitate cleaning acted as bowls. The sink, when it exists, is dug in a block of sandstone with a '' drip pan '' where one or two buckets of water taken from the well or the fountain are placed. Around the table we sit on benches, the chairs not appearing until the 18th century.

The fireplace, the beds, the chests

Often monumental, the fireplace contains bellows shovel, rack pokers, cauldrons and cast iron pots with some basic crockery of wood or pewter, earthenware and earthenware above, sometimes a roasting pan for the better-off. Hams and sausages are hung there for smoking.

The bed or beds placed near the hearth are surrounded by curtains or drapes to protect themselves from the cold. In Brittany, the famous closed beds inserted in cupboards are short and do not allow you to lie down (the lying position reminiscent of recumbent figures and the dead) you sleep there almost seated on straw mattresses or rather uncomfortable straw, covered with many blankets and eiderdowns. The family is divided into two, three or four people after having warmed it in winter using a basin or heater. We share warmth but also vermin!

On the other side of the hearth are the bread oven, kneader or maie (used in summer to protect babies from flies!). All around the room are stored chests for linen and clothes replaced from the 17th and 18th century by wardrobes (including the famous wedding wardrobe, offered by the parents of the bride where she will stack the pieces of her clothing). The rich can enjoy a clock, a dresser or a chest. All these pieces of furniture in fruit wood (cherry, pear, walnut) are made by the local carpenter and decorated with patterns.

Of animals and men

In the past there was no question of privacy: everything happened in the cohabitation and on this subject don't you smell unusual odors in a house? They come from the hens, goats and pigs who also come to take their turn at all times. The domestic animal is then very close to the man who takes care of his oxen and has them blessed once or several times a year. Bees are a precious commodity for their honey, but we will also inform them of the death of their master so that they refrain from foraging the following days!

For a long time, animals have been so associated with man that we do not hesitate to sue them when they destroy crops (this is mentioned in the dictionary of stupidity, examples of which abound from the 12th to the 16th century. !) thus are excommunicated field mice, weevils, grasshoppers, caterpillars! We can no longer count the sows or the bulls taken to the gallows for having injured some human. The same is done with bears and wolves responsible for damage (several localities in France testify to this fact: “Loupendu”, “le Penlou”).

From cradle to grave: the rites of passage

Our ancestors lived according to steadfast patterns steeped in the teachings of the church.

Their life, devoted to work, is marked out by stages that they cross together, governed by social group, gender and age group, according to rites called “rites of passage”. Birth marks entry into the world of the living, baptism into that of believers, weaning into that of children. First Communion and conscription publicly sanction the arrival of girls and boys to sexual maturity. Marriage brings them into the adult world.

Then several parallel, professional, social conjugal lives unfold until illness and old age remind us "that there is nothing more certain than death nor more uncertain than the hour of this time". Faced with this evidence and the calamities that await them (celibacy, infamous sterility) everyone relies at all times on divinatory procedures. Everything is codified, everything is symbol, sign, guarantee (adages and proverbs confirm it!) These rules and these habits are essential. Today our values ​​prevent us from grasping the meaning of certain customs (such as `` sleeping in all honor '' (to verify the fertility of the chosen one) or the exhibition of wedding cloths stained with virginal blood, but it is we must be careful not to refer to our customs to judge those of our ancestors.

In reality, many scenes from the life of yesteryear seem unusual to us: the midwife unceremoniously reshaping the newborn's head, the bourgeois tasting the nurse's milk, the bride dressed all in black, the cuckolded husband being walked backwards. on a donkey, the dances in the cemetery, or the trial for the clover that grows there. From the matron to the recruiting sergeant, from the `` croque-oat '' to the uncle parish priest, all these characters have marked, for centuries, the life of our ancestors much more than Richelieu, Louis XIV, could have done. Chateaubriand or Berlioz!

Conception and pregnancy

The goal of marriage being procreation, a whole process of attentions, miracle recipes and pilgrimages is put in place to promote it because a fruitful marriage is "blessed by God". Throughout her pregnancy, the woman will continue to take care of her daily occupations, the survival of the house and its honor are at stake. The future mother will protect herself effectively from the setbacks of her condition by wearing talismans blessed by the priest, plasters of plants to keep the child in her womb while hoping for the arrival of a boy, much better considered than that of a girl.

The expectation of a child is hoped for and feared because the woman knows well that she risks her life. For a long time, many women died in childbirth or its consequences (see the article "The condition of women in the Middle Ages"). The risk of death for the baby is very high. The women of the house are busy, we light the candle of the candlestick (the one that we place at the bedside of the dying and which has the value of purification)

The matron and her instruments

The matron is both respected and feared, she is trained on `` the job '' is an elderly woman who has had several children, who must be Catholic and virtuous because she is authorized to give what one called "waving" a kind of baptism given in extremis to dying newborns so that their souls do not wander in limbo. The matron's instruments have enough to terrorize the childbirth: metal clamps to pull the child at the risk of tearing it up and mutilating the mother, or the hook of a fire shovel, a Roman scale or of an oil lamp are commonly used without prior disinfection!

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the three-branched head puller appeared, followed by the levers and forceps designed to keep the child alive on condition of knowing how to use them at the right time! All this has something to make us shudder! In obstetrics as in medicine, the bleeding of pregnant women was practiced until the 18th century and the dilemma "to save the mother or the child" was resolved on a case-by-case basis.

The matron has absolute authority over the place of birth, urging the mother not to sit or lie down until the last moment, making her recite prayers. She checks that we have prepared linens, basins filled with water, old rags that will be used to wipe the thighs of the childbirth and to clean the floor, and places her "tools" on an overturned chair. This being done, our "fairy of the house" goes into the yard to twist a hen's neck in order to prepare a bowl of broth for the parturient. To give herself courage, she drinks a glass of gnaule because it is not a question of failing in the task! ...

The birth

Many children are born already dead (the hooks of the matron are not foreign). We do not know the feelings of parents in the face of these deaths as they were so frequent, but what is certain is that the parents feared that death would occur before the baptism of the newborn. Stranger are the cases where the `` afflicted '' parents of a puny or deformed child did not hesitate, as was the practice in the Dombes until the end of the 19th century, to present him to such or such a saint for the doom "to life and death," inflicting hardships on him from which he is unlikely to survive. This horrible cult is practiced by parents who refuse to let their child be sickly or misshapen.

Once the child's cord is cut, it is customary to bury the '' deliverance '' at the foot of a fruit tree to increase its prosperity. When the membrane remains stuck to the baby's head, it is a serious guarantee of happiness and luck, at the origin of the expression "to be born with a cap". If the newborn's head does not please the matron, she remodels it, taking advantage of the still fragile framework allowing it (Languedoc, Poitou, Normandy)! She can also make girls' nipples longer so that they can later be good nannies. Finally, she cuts the net under the infant's tongue to facilitate breastfeeding.

Newborn care

The child is massaged then receives a bath of water with the addition of brandy (which will not be renewed anytime soon) then swaddled or rather tied securely to firm the body. The wooden cradle (pierced with holes for urine to flow) in which the child is attached hangs from the ceiling to protect it from rodents, the infant itself can be kept aloft at the using a hook for the same reason in the absence of his mother.

We care little about the day of his birth for lack of calendar, the priest will note, at his birth or at his death "aged about such age". Illegitimate children, rejected by society, are most often the victims of abandonment, especially in the countryside.

Status of women

The woman reigns over all that concerns the domestic chores of the house, the meals, the children, the fire, the garden, the milking of cows and the making of cheeses, the care of animals. She has a monopoly on water: the well, the fountain, the wash house are feminine worlds just like childbirth and birth.

In many regions, she does not eat at the table with the men but remains standing in the background after having served them because in the society of yesteryear everyone has their place and their function according to their sex and age.

Legally, a married woman is considered a minor and cannot act without her husband's permission! The adages confirm it: '' who has a husband has a lord '', '' the hat must command the headdress '', '' when the rooster crows the hen must be silent '' and woe to the recalcitrant who incur corporal punishment !

The man commands: woman of wine! Woman of the sausage! And the woman to obey. All of this is backed up even in the parish priest's sermons "Christ is the head of every man and man is the head of woman". The history of misogyny is read over thousands of years !! (see '' the condition of women in the Middle Ages '')

Role of man

To the man whose authority was so long undisputed return the work of the fields (plowing, seed harvest) the transactions of fairs and markets (forges, inns and cabarets are exclusively male places) and all the trades that require of physical strength. Mobilization in wartime is a man's business. In all cases, he participates in public life.

When a man is widowed it is urgent for him to remarry which has the consequence of creating blended families (of which our time does not have the prerogative) and many siblings from several `` beds '' with all problems of inheritance, dowries and property to be shared. It is not uncommon for a man to remarry several times, mortality being common for women in childbirth.

Likewise, a widowed woman must quickly find a husband in order to regain social status and still have children because it was frowned upon that she remained alone (but there were many cases where she continued to carry out the business with competence and the affairs of her late husband).

Thus our ancestors obeyed precise codes and rites that they themselves took charge of applying to the "letter" punctuated by the rules established by the Church which conditioned the lives of both adults and children.

Without doubt more important than the political and social revolution of 1789, the industrial revolution which extends from 1840 to 1920 will in a few decades upset in depth institutions and rhythms which seemed immutable. The world has changed: some marvel at each new invention, others regret "a good old days" difficult to define.

The world of our ancestors was, however, no offense to the nostalgic, a hard world, sometimes black, but above all a different, bygone world, which it is good to know because these men and women of the past carry our own history. . We are the descendants of it!

Sources: Thus lived our ancestors of Jean-Louis Beaucarnot.


Video: Human Evolution: Evidence of Our Ancestors - Science Documentary 2017


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