A village history : Keeping the home fires burning

In 1339, the ruler of the region of Faucigny, Dauphin Humbert II, proposed the sale of some of his territory to the King of Naples or to the Pope.  He listed his assets and his revenues; his lands included my village of Mégevette, where 140 feux – fires, i.e. households – were counted.

But then the Black Death struck and wrought its terrible havoc.  Eventually, the population gradually began to recover; by 1411 there were 80 feux, with an average of six people per household.  But by 1471 the number of households had reduced to 70, and there were only 73 in 1569, when over twenty families were recorded as “misérable” – poor – and twenty-two as insolvent.

Nevertheless, by 1606 there were 120 households in the village, which had increased to 130 by 1624, and – having taken three centuries to regain and then to surpass the figure of 1339 – 160 in 1666.  But by 1765 the number of households had reduced once more, to 120, with a total population of 750 persons.  There was a constant flow of families down to the valley, away from the harsh climate, and it strikes me that this second reduction in the population coincided with the failures of agriculture in France during the Little Ice Age, which caused great famine in 1693-4, when “Alpine villagers lived on bread made from ground nutshells mixed with barley and oat flour”.  [Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300–1850]

The poorer ground – that on the steeper slopes, which were harder to work and where carts could not reach, and which were subject to landslides and rockfalls – tended to belong to the poorer people.  Crops were brought down the slopes on wooden sledges called becquets – which now means crutches.  There were disasters to the harvest; on 4 September 1770 a snowfall ruined those crops which had not yet been brought in, and bags of flour were subsequently distributed to the affected families.  Once the snow fell, the wheelbarrow was replaced by a barrow with handles at the four corners for carrying.  The wooden houses burned down from time to time, and in extreme weather, wooden bridges over the river were damaged or carried away altogether.

As everywhere in Europe at that time, the village was pretty self-sufficient, with its own shoe mender, butcher, masons and carpenters; some of the older farmhouses still bear the trademarks of 15th and 16th century artisans.  There was also the notaire, who represented the landowner, and in 1765 there were three cafés in Mégevette, bearing witness to the importance of the café in the culture, as a social centre and meeting place.

For the most part the occupation of the head of the household was agriculture during the summer and colporteur – he who carried goods over the cols, i.e. a pedlar – in the winter.  They traded rolls of fabrics – cotton, silks, taffeta – or their artisanal skills, such as boot mending.  Those who proposed to travel had to be in possession of a document – a passeport, sealed by the local chatélain, requesting that he be allowed to pass through the lands he came to, and that he be provided with help and assistance in case of need.  In 1805, 110 passports were issued to people from Mégevette, indicating that there must have been a travelling member of almost every household.

Boys as young as 13 accompanied their colporteur fathers or elder brothers.  In 1780, Joseph Grivaz was away travelling with his two sons as cutlers and knife-grinders.  Some Savoyard colporteurs set up home in far-flung places in France, notably Alsace, or in other lands – Italy, Switzerland, Poland, the Rhine…  Others lost their lives one way or another, and never returned.

There was a tannery in the next village in the 18th century, and cowhides, as leather or au naturel, became one of the products carried by the colporteurs.  They returned with novelties, including casks of wine and the game of skittles.  In 1804, the contents of one Savoyard colporteur’s baggage comprised: 11 livres (pounds) of silk handkerchiefs, 10 livres of muslin, 6 livres of cotton handkerchiefs, 12 of cotton hosiery, 3 of crêpe, and 3 of gloves and handkerchiefs.  The Revolution saw the introduction of the metre and an attempt to enforce standard measures throughout France; but by 1822, the two Savoies had drifted back to the old familiar measures: un pied – a foot, une pouce – the thumb above the joint (there were 12 of these to a foot), and une toise – a measure, about two metres.

The symbol adopted by the colporteurs of Mégevette was a 4 with a double horizontal bar.  It signified a cross with on the left a triangle representing the trinity.  In 1993 the village adopted this symbol as its coat of arms, combined with the cross of Savoie and the colours of the house of Faucigny.

A beautiful film produced in 1983, La Trace, tells the story of a Savoyard colporteur who crosses the Alps into the Aosta Valley in autumn 1859, his adventures in Italy, and his return journey in the spring, where he discovers at the top of a mountain pass that Savoy has become part of France.

Even the very young travelled away from their mountain homes in order to work.  Boys walked in village groups to Paris to become chimney sweeps; generally they were housed in dormitories and supervised by a Savoyard sweepmaster.  Those who survived the dangers of asphyxiation, lung disease, blindness or falling from rooftops would usually return eventually to their home villages to marry and settle.

The Spanish occupation…  Well, there is no record of any Spaniards actually occupying Mégevette, but in 1742, the War of the Austrian Succession touched on the area, when Prussia and France challenged Maria-Theresa’s right to succeed to the Habsburg throne, a challenge which was supported by the Kingdom of Sardinia.  Austria was supported by Great Britain and the Dutch Republic; Spain, which had been at war with Britain over its colonies (remember the War of Jenkins’ Ear?) seized the opportunity to wade in against Austria and Sardinia/Piedmont with the intention of re-establishing its dominance in northern Italy, which Spain had lost to Austria in the course of its own war of succession.

Thus Spanish soldiers were billeted in Thonon, and attempted to requisition horses, bedding, food and taxes from the mountain villages.  In October 1742, for example, they demanded of Mégevette four horses or mules, together with their drivers; in fact the village had only pregnant mares and a few foals, and no drivers could be provided, since the capable men of the village were all away being colporteurs.  The village council considered imposing a tax on its remaining citizens, with the purpose of purchasing horses.  It turned out that there was no pressure at that time, but some months later, horses would have to be found and delivered by intrepid villagers to St-Jean de Maurienne, a long way south.

In December, eight pairs of sheets, four blankets and four mattresses were demanded, all marked with the names of their owners so that they could be returned eventually.  The village complied.  Then at the beginning of the New Year 1743, 200 livres had to be found and handed over for the expenses of the imminent war; and in March, Savoy was annexed to Spain.  All arms were confiscated and the financial imposition was doubled.

The Spaniards finally went home at the beginning of 1749.  The Duke of Savoy received a portion of the Duchy of Milan, and the Savoyards found themselves swindled; the King of Sardinia and the Duke of Savoy received 988 livres per annum from their dukedom.  The Spaniards had taken 3,388 livres.

The mountain people were not left in peace for long.  Less than fifty years later, on 22 September 1792, the French revolutionary army, led by General Montesquiou, arrived in Savoy at the beginning of Year I of the Republican calendar.  In October, tithes were abolished; they had been paid to the Abbaye d’Aulps for 689 years.  Danton had declared, “our boundaries are according to Nature”, and Savoie and Haute-Savoie together became the Département du Mont Blanc, until Haute-Savoie was separated off as the Département du Léman.  Each commune had to elect a delegate; that of Mégevette was François Marie Grivaz, a surname which has been pre-eminent in the village throughout the centuries.  A civil state had been declared, but the curé continued clandestinely  to conduct Catholic rites, aided by the people.  In October 1793 he blessed the marriage of Joseph Merlin and Aimée Favrat in the church; baptisms took place in private houses, but nevertheless the priest was found out, and was fined for conducting rites of baptism.

Tucked away up in the mountains, Mégevette was not affected by the worst extremes of the revolution; nevertheless there were occasional close shaves when families sheltering priests had hastily to conceal or disguise them – in one known case, as a sick woman in bed.

Villagers were ordered to take down their church bells to be melted down and turned into weapons and ammunition; one bell was sometimes allowed to remain, to be used to summon the citizenry.  The two bells of Mégevette were saved by being well hidden;  according to oral tradition, they were buried under a mill race.

Inventories were made of the productions of each commune, and although tithes had been abolished, donations of goods – crops, cheeses, hens – were now expected.  Each commune had to plant a “tree of liberty”; nothing is known about that of Mégevette, but the tree planted by a neighbouring commune was so small that the revolutionary district of Thonon demanded that it be replaced by a bigger one.  Liberty had to grow, but it had always not taken root…  In the next village, the planted tree was cut down, and was hastily replaced by the municipal council.

After the fall of Robespierre and St Just in July 1794, the churches reopened their doors, although they were sadly denuded of their treasures. Early in the 19th century, Mégevette’s damaged church spire was at last restored, and the bells were returned to their proper place.

In 1848, Mégevette had 750 inhabitants, by 1852 there were 182 households and about 900 inhabitants; then by the time of the annexation of Savoie and Haute-Savoie by France in 1860, the population was 1,003.  By 1864 it had crept up to 1,034, and in 1876 it reached a peak of 1,101 people.  But various local fairs and markets had sprung up, and the profession of colportage had become less lucrative.  Many people left to try their luck elsewhere.  People from the neighbouring village of Bellevaux went to America, and notable to Argentina.  Some stayed there; some returned, having made their fortunes.

In spite, however, of the climate, emigration and the difficulties of travelling, agriculture continued to be the mainstay of life in the mountains as the nineteenth century drew to a close – until the allure of industrial work drew the young to abandon their mountain villages to go and live in the valleys, and for a century the population gradually declined.

[With acknowledgements to Wikipedia and to the superb The Discovery of France by Graham Robb (2007)]