French Pigeonniers: Little Houses in the Sky
Have you driven along roads in France and seen unusual structures that are circular or square with a unproportionate height to ground space and with few or no holes? We have seen these little buildings with their pitched roofs standing alone in a field, often silhouetted against the sky and tried to guess just what they were and what their purpose was. I imagine that if you’ve travelled through the French countryside you may have seen these structures also.
Not knowing at the time that these structures were pigeonniers (pigeon homes) these are the options that we came up with:
- Communication towers used during WWII – but then we worked out that the structures were too old to have been built for the Second World War.
- Outbuildings for animals – this was dismissed though as the floor area was not large enough to be useful for farm animals and there was the unnecessary height of the building. Why waste precious building materials on going up into the sky for such a limited floor area?
- Crop storage was initially a thought but then we ruled that out because of the little openings exposing the crops to the weather and birds (this option was closer to fact although we didn’t know it at the time).
Wanting to find out more I investigated and learnt that these fanciful structures we were finding were in fact the elaborate homes of lucky pigeons. Pigeon homes were called colombiers or fuies from the 13th century onwards and then pigeonniers until the 19th century.
Pigeonniers are either free-standing, like the ones we have been seeing across the countryside in France, built into the upper walls of a manor house or in rare cases, they have even been built into the upper gallery of lookout towers, like the one at Toul-an-Gollet Manor in Plesidy, Brittany. Free standing ones are often alone in a field to protect its occupants from raptors living in large trees and their location is usually shielded from prevailing winds.
Sections of a Pigeonnier
Styles include circular, square and occasionally octagonal form, often with smooth stone walls and a protruding band of stones, designed to keep climbing predators such as martens and weasels away. In some French provinces, especially Normandy, you’ll find pigeonniers built of wood with a very distinctive style. The interior space that is devoted to the pigeons, called the dovecote interior, is divided into a number of boulins (pigeon holes) where a pair of pigeons will typically mate and live together for their life.
It is the number of boulins that determines the capacity of the dovecote. The boulins can be carved in rock, brick or cob and installed at the time of the construction of the dovecote or be made of pottery. Pottery boulins can be from jars lying on their sides or constructed out of tiles. Even braided wicker in the form of a basket has been used.
So why would you have a pigeonnier on your property? Well, in Medieval times it reflected how wealthy you were when meat was a luxury and only eaten rarely. Having a pigeonnier at your manor or château was a symbol of status as well as a display of wealth as it let everyone know that you were feasting happily on pigeons everyday. A blooming garden to show off to your promenading guests was also helped along with the best known fertiliser of the time, colombine (pigeon excrement)!
Did You Know…
- The pigeonnier at the Château d’Aulnay with its 2,000 boulins and the one at Port-d’Envaux with its 2,400 boulins of baked earth are among the largest pigeonniers in France.
- A flock of just 100 pigeons can produce up to 4,800 pounds of colombine annually.
- Pigeon excrement also contains salpeter and was used to produce gunpowder.
Many land owners who are lucky enough today to have a pigeonnier on their château or manor grounds, have refurbished them into small guest rooms, intimate alfresco dining areas or I’ve even seen one converted into an elegant office. I’d love the challenge of decorating a circular room – what about you?
One of my favourite authors Jane Webster, owner of Château Bosgouet, writes in her book French Ties about the pigeonnier on her property and that of her neighbour John. John has transformed his pigeonnier into a guest house for family and friends with a circular living room on the ground floor and an upstairs bedroom.
Now when driving in France we play ‘I Spy a Pigeonnier’ and I dream of owning my own ‘little house in the sky’ and decorating it for guests – the kind without wings and feathers!
Till next time…
This post first appeared on A French Collection and is linked to travel blogs #AllAboutFrance by Lou Messugo, #FarawayFiles by Hilary Style and #TheWeeklyPostcard by Caliglobetrotter. To get behind the scenes with me and my family follow us on Instagram and to see what inspires us head over to Pinterest. We chat over on Twitter and Facebook so please join us.