History of the Region
An introduction to the Correze and Limousin geography, history, culture, flora, fauna, architecture and more…
Limousin, on the western edge of the Massif Central, is a vast mountainous area situated in the southern half of France, and comprises three departments; Creuse, Haute Vienne and Corrèze. The Massif Central, 78 800 square kilometres, represents 14% of the whole of France.
The department of Corrèze consists mainly of “high lands” (978 metres maximum, about 3000 ft) : the plateau de Millevaches, (the name of which has nothing to do with cows, but means either 1000 springs, a deformation of the Celtic word “batz” meaning ‘source”, like the name of the town Bath, or perhaps the “empty mountain” from the ancient Gaul “mella”, mountain), then, towards the south, of a lower plateau (400 to 600 metres, i.e. 1200 to 2000 ft), the region of Tulle, and finally the “low lands” or Brive basin (200 to 100 metres, i.e. 600 to 300 ft).
The high lands (la Montagne Limousin) are mainly made up of rocks such as granite. The soil is poor; the scenery consists of moor land with heather and peat bogs, partly re-wooded (conifers). The climate is harsh; some winters, snow can cover the earth for up to three months on end, and it is possible to go cross country ski-ing. There are few crops, just rye and buckwheat, but there is extensive sheep and cattle farming (the famous breed of Limousin cows). Vast areas of wild bilberries (or whimberries) are exploited for jam, preserves and the pharmaceutical industry. In autumn, mushroom picking brings in quite a lot of extra income to the local inhabitants (cep mushrooms in particular). Recently, this area has been included in the new Regional Natural Park, and “green” tourism is thus encouraged.
The medium high plateau of the Tulle area is of a more varied geological nature (granite, gneiss and schist) and there used to be a lot of chestnut trees. This is an intermediate zone; the climate is milder, but very changeable.
The “low country” (Brive area), which has sedimentary soil, is fertile and much richer: market gardening, fruit, walnuts, tobacco, vines, highly reputed poultry farming. The winters are milder, and the summers very hot. This is practically the “Midi”, already Aquitaine.
Three rivers flow NE-SW in Corrèze; the Vézère, the Corrèze and the Dordogne. They have hollowed out deep valleys with steep gorges. (The river Vienne flows NW towards the Loire). These are trout rivers, and in the little streams crayfish can be caught.
Many dams and hydro-electric power stations were built between 1930 and 1950. Before they were built, and above all during the nineteenth century, salmon were plentiful and used to swim up from the Atlantic Ocean. Recently the angling Societies and the Associations for the protection of nature, have restocked the Dordogne with salmon, and some now come back upstream as far inland as Argentat.
The largest river, the Dordogne, in the east of the department, springs out of the volcanic Mont Dore mountains and joins up with the Garonne to become the Gironde estuary at Bordeaux. This river has always been a link between the high lands and Aquitaine. For transporting timber, “gabarres”, a sort of primitive boat, were made of the wood that was sold after the journey downstream in Bordeaux, along with the wooden stakes used for the vineyards. The wood trade was very important, and concerned mainly the tough Limousin oak used for making barrels and the pickets for vines. (The casks in which the best Scotch whisky is aged are said still to be made of Limousin oak.) Hollowed out of the cliffs in the lower length of the Dordogne are many natural caves which were used as shelters by prehistoric man.
Limousin is also a district of many lakes, some big enough to be used for sailing. The region, especially in the high lands, is very sparsely populated and the average age of the population is quite high!
Flora and Fauna
Many common trees and shrubs grow here; oak, beech, birch, willow, mountain ash, holly, pine, fir, spruce, larch, juniper, etc. Some of the high landscapes, with silver birch, rowan, spruce and mountain willow, resemble the Scandinavian forests or the Russian taiga. Lower down, chestnut trees were very common; their fruit was an indispensable foodstuff in this region of few cereal crops. (The leaf of the chestnut tree can be seen in the Limousin emblem). Some rare, specific plants can be found such as the Drosera, a carnivorous peat bog plant.
Although wolves became extinct at the turn of the 20th century, there are still many other wild animals: boar, deer, foxes, badgers, martens, otters, hares, partridges, pheasants, woodcock, etc. A few rare species remain, such as the short-toed eagle and the booted eagle. A few couples of the latter nest in the high valley of the Dordogne.
Limousin, and especially Corrèze, situated on the edge of the well-known tourist areas, has happily preserved its landscapes unspoiled and without pollution. At this beginning of the 21st century, water, greenery, lakes, rivers, wide open spaces with nothing but heather and the wind, certainly represent a heritage to be treasured, and the opportunity of developing an ecological and harmonious form of tourism. This is the realm of trees and water, sometimes called “le Pays Vert” – the Green Country.
Houses and Architecture
Homes here are scattered over the countryside; there are many hamlets and isolated farms, because spring water is plentiful. The traditional Limousin houses are low and solid, built out of stone, mainly blocks of hewn granite, with thick walls and small windows facing only south and west. Originally they had thatched or stone roofs, but nowadays tiles or slates are used.
The main room was “la salle commune”, with a wide ingle-nook fireplace in which the cooking was done, and where one could keep warm in winter. A curtained-off bed in a corner was usually kept for the old grandparents. There was often an oven to bake bread adjoining the house, and the cowshed and barn were usually part of the same building. Certain very old barns or houses have a typical kind of rafter framework called “cruck construction”, which can still be seen in northern England, Scotland and Wales. (Alcock: “A Catalogue of Cruck Buildings” London – Chichester 1973) This seems to corroborate the ancient ties existing between these different regions of Europe
The churches, mainly Romanesque style, are sturdy granite buildings. “Ce sont les rudes filles d’un rude pays” – the solid daughters of a rugged land.
This is on old land well known to Palaeolithic (Stone Age) man. These hunters and fishers sheltered in caves (mainly in the Brive area) and in summer they followed the valleys – Vézère, Dordogne – up to the plateaux to set up their temporary camps. Examples are:-
– the man of La Chapelle aux Saints (near Beaulieu in Corrèze), a relation of the Homo Sapiens Neanderthaliensis (80 000 to 35 000 BC)
– later, in the Palaeolithic era (from 35 000BC) a more advanced kind of man, the Cro-Magnon (Homo Sapiens Sapiens), the ancestor of present day man, to whom we owe the development of art (the colourful cave paintings such as those in the Grotte de Lascaux just south of Brive, c 15 000 BC)
– finally, a permanent settling of Neolithic man, later Stone Age, (c. 4000 BC) to whom we owe many present day villages. They began to set up granite stone blocks; this is the beginning of the era of “pierres levées”, or upright stones – the “menhirs” in the Breton language and in English, or “peyrelevade” in Occitan – dolmens and cromlechs. Many relics of these can be seen in Corrèze.
The later Celtic origin of certain names can be pointed out: Brive, from “briva”, bridge, Tulle perhaps from a Celtic word meaning water-mill, although most historians favour the name of the goddess Tutela.
Julius Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic Wars describe our region in this period of history. We learn that the Lemovices (the inhabitants of Limousin, a name that doubtless comes from “lem”, (as in Léman), the lake, and “limon’, mud, suggesting a region of peat bogs and lakes) had already a well organized society, with an established social structure (election of the chief, joint ownership of land and herds, etc.) well-maintained roads, agriculture, animal breeding, mining (gold, tin) and skills unknown to the Romans (salting to preserve food, water-mills, barrel-making, soap) as well as the fortresses such as the oppidum of Roche de Vic. At the time of the Roman conquest, a certain level of civilisation had already been reached.
However, although the Lemovices played an important part in the fight against the Roman legions, by sending 10 000 soldiers – an enormous number for that period – to try to rescue Vercingetorix, the chief of the Gauls, who had defeated Caesar at Gergovia near Clermont-Ferrand but who was besieged at Alesia, they had to surrender and three Roman legions settled in the region. Uzerche claims to be the place where the Gauls fought and lost the last battle for independence (50 BC).
Romanisation and Christianization
The Roman domination had only a superficial influence on the characteristics of the region; more often than not, the Roman gods were the same as those of the Gauls, only the names were changed! However, big farms were set up, towns grew, and the old Gallic roads were improved and paved to facilitate travelling and the access to the main highways going to Lyon and the south.
The language of the Gauls, primarily a Celtic tongue (the relics of the written language are rare and contested) was enriched with many Latin words, and gradually became the Limousin language (northern Occitan). The Roman government joined Limousin up with Aquitaine.
During the 4th century, Christianity gradually spread, (with the 3rd century initiators, St Martial and St Martin), but in rural districts remained only superficial. The ancient beliefs, rites and traditions linked with worship of the sun, Mother Earth, or water, have survived until today in folklore taken over by the Christian church. Examples of this include:
– crosses erected on certain stones used for religious purposes in ancient times
– the St John’s Eve bonfires which were originally the celebration of the summer solstice by the ancient sun worshippers
– the “holy’ springs and wells with magic properties
– the Easter eggs the country children used to roll down a sloping meadow, doubtless as a symbol of the return of Spring: the eggs represented Mother Earth who had to be set off spinning again in Spring so she might continue to join in the cycle of the universe.
Although Limousin, and particularly Corrèze, gave birth to several 14th century Popes (Clément VI, Innocent VI, Grégoire XI) the Christian religion had difficulty taking root and long remained superficial. In spite of this, many monasteries were built, such as the Abbeys of Vigeois, Uzerche and Beaulieu.
The Middle Ages
At the beginning of this period, the region was devastated by invasion and wars: the Vandals and the Visigoths (5th century), the Franks (6th century), the Arabs from Spain (8th century), the Normans through the valleys of the Vienne and the Dordogne (9th century). The country folk got into the habit of taking refuge in underground shelters – a habit they had doubtless had since prehistoric days! These shelters could hold several families and even crops and provisions. Many of these underground refuges are known and listed, and during archaeological digs, building or road works, etc., more and more are still being discovered today. For centuries they played their part, and more recently during World War 2 some were used by the Resistance. Tales of fabulous hidden treasures were still being told not long ago, during the long evening conversations in the depths of the country.
The Anglo-Angevine domination in the XII and XIII centuries
The Hundred Years War
When Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy and King of England, she took with her the province of Aquitaine – and hence Limousin – in her dowry.
As the Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Henry II became the vassal of the King of France, but the latter’s kingdom was much smaller than Henry’s, as all the rich land south of the River Loire was not in his realm. War became inevitable.
During this troubled period, the feudal lords sided alternately with one or the other, mainly according to their personal interests, and the privileges they hoped to obtain. Their neighbours’ coveted lands were used as battlefields by the enemy armies, towns were plundered and sacked, the countryside devastated. For example, Tulle was conquered and re-conquered twice by the opponents (by the duke of Lancaster in 1346).
This was also the period when the feudal lords opposed the kings. The Lord of Ventadour could say to the King of France: “Sire, all the straw in your kingdom would not fill up the moat of my castle of Ventadour!” This was also the time of the troubadour poets, such as Bernart de Ventadour.
When Henry Plantagenet gave Aquitaine to his son Richard the Lion Heart, Richard was not a “foreigner” in the modern meaning of the word. He spoke the same language as the inhabitants of Aquitaine and Limousin, Occitan, which is still spoken today here and in the main part of southern France. It was also, at that time, the language spoken at the Court of England. Eleanor had taken with her many lords, pages, servants and, above all, troubadours. Occitan, or Langue d’Oc, very nearly became the official language of England. One can imagine, had that been the case, the cowboys in American western films talking in Occitan . . .
The Wars of Religion – 16th century
The reformed religion spread slowly, and there was no real religious fanaticism among the local population. Was this due to a lack of religious fervour or the sign of profound wisdom? In spite of this, Limousin, on the border of the regions quarrelled over by the two religions, was to suffer terrible consequences. For example, the town of Tulle was again completely devastated by the Protestants of the Viscount of Turenne (of the Château de Turenne south of Brive). Once again, as in the days of the Barbarian invasions or the Hundred Years War, the people had to take to the underground shelters.
From this poor but relatively densely populated region, people had already begun to emigrate in the Middle Ages, but it was in the 18th century that emigration – often seasonal – became a common thing. Stone carvers, masons, carpenters, reputed sculptors, all went north to Paris and played an important part in the building of the monuments of the capital: churches, cathedrals – Notre Dame de Paris – the Louvre palace, and later the Pantheon, etc.
The Revolution of 1789 and the Reforms
On the eve of the Revolution, and although much had been done towards the development of the region by the Intendant Turgot, Limousin was still a poor region, hard to get to, where there were really no good roads to and from the neighbouring provinces and the capital.
The events of 1789 barely touched the local people, but they subscribed to the reforms, in particular the abolition of feudal rights and privileges, and the possibility of acquiring their own land. In consequence, Limousin was to send a large contingent of soldiers to the new nation, up to the beginning of the Napoleonic Empire. From 1807 onwards, many soldiers deserted, and groups of rebels went into hiding in the hills.
The 19th and 20th centuries
In the 19th century, the population started decreasing rapidly, and this went on right into the 20th century, with the catastrophe of the Great War, 1914 to 18. Thus between 1831 and 1946, the population of the three departments of Limousin went down by 148 000. Just before World War II, Limousin was a poor rural area, off the beaten track, and until very recent years, no motorways went through it. On the other hand, the railways, in particular the secondary lines, were well-developed: Paris-Toulouse via Brive, Clermont-Ferrand-Bordeaux via Tulle and Brive. Today, the region has unfortunately no fast train line, the TGV, doubtless because of the geographical difficulties such a construction would meet – and also because of the small population involved.
1940-1944: the German Occupation and the Liberation
It was very early on in the war, in 1942, that the French Resistance started up in Limousin, against the Nazis. Along the country roads can be seen numerous memorials in remembrance of the victims of the fighting. A very dangerous area for the Germans, Corrèze was nicknamed “Little Russia” by the occupying troops. The RAF parachuted tremendous amounts of arms and equipment for the “maquis” – for example on the moors of the plateau de Roche de Vic, where the ancient Gauls had built a fortress.
In June 1944, just after D-Day, a fierce and premature insurrection freed the department. Tulle was liberated on the 8th of June, and re-occupied later by the S.S. Limousin paid dearly for having resisted against the occupation forces. The S.S. troops of the Das Reich Armoured Division burned down houses, hanged 99 young men along the streets in Tulle, destroyed a whole village in Haute Vienne ( Oradour sur Glane), and deported many hostages, the majority of whom never returned. But the “elite” S.S. Division was so weakened by the fighting and the bombing of the Allies, that what was left of it arrived too late on the D-Day battlefields in Normandy to help the German Army.
Today, many Limousin towns are twinned with German towns (Tulle and Schorndorf) and there is no anti-German feeling amongst the population, just aversion for what can be called Nazi ideology.
The region was modernized, new industries (electronics, the uranium mines near Limoges) have been added to the traditional ones (porcelain, shoes, arms, canning and preserves). The number of farmers has gone down drastically, whilst bigger and more worth-while farms are set up, mainly devoted to the breeding of the famous Limousin beef cattle. The population of Limoges and Brive has increased, but, although Tulle remains the administrative chief town in Corrèze, the number of its inhabitants has diminished, mainly since the almost complete closing down of the Manufacture d’Armes. A university was installed in Limoges, and secondary and higher education have been considerably developed. Limousin is now one of the regions boasting a high proportion of qualified young people – even though most of them are obliged to leave the region to find work. Since 1962, the depopulation appears to have stopped, but the density remains very low in certain areas – 4 inhabitants to the square kilometre! More recently, people from other European countries, Britain in particular, are settling here, and we can perhaps look forward to a more dynamic future.
Histoire du Limousin et de la Marche, by Désiré Brelingard (Collection “Que Sais-je ? », N° 441, Presses Universitaires de France) Bulletins de la société des Lettres et Arts de la Corrèze Revue « Limouzi » (Société Historique et Régionaliste du Bas Limousin)
This document was written by Maurice and Kathleen Fourches (Rathbone), who had no historic pretensions, nor the intention of producing a brochure for tourists (there are plenty of these already!). By showing you some of its characteristics, they hope you will learn to appreciate – and perhaps to love – this old, hard land, which is little known but lovable, the land of Maurice’s ancestors, Kathleen’s adopted land
first published on frenchentree.com/