Part IV: France <3 Food – Adapting to the Ration System

Part IV: France seriously loves food. It’s on the top 5 list of French stereotypes amongst berets, smoking, mustaches, and baguettes. How did they ever adapt to the food rations during WWII?


France & Food: Adapting to the Ration System


In 1941, a Time magazine reporter witnessed a riot in Paris. A queue of people, waiting in line for their meager rations at a food store, became overexcited and began throwing rocks. German authorities watching nearby tried to stop the mob but the rock throwing continued. As punishment, the Germans banned potato distribution for 40 days. This was life in WWII France. With the food rationing system instituted in September 1940, tensions ran high and, as people began to feel the pains of hunger, desperation set in. In addition to showing the extremes to which people would go to acquire food, it also showed their impressive adaptability.

War and occupation in France affected many aspects of French culture, but nothing was hit harder than its cuisine. Food was and continues to be an essential part of French national identity. Adapting to a less plentiful and lower quality cuisine proved difficult. A correspondent for the French magazine Le Gerbe wrote in July of 1941, “Eating and, more important, eating well is the theme song of Paris life. In the street, in the metro, in cafes, all you hear about is food. At the theater or movies, when there’s an old play or movie with a huge banquet scene, the audience breaks into delirious cries of joy.” Despite their difficulties, the French courageously dealt with their circumstances, nicknaming their system of improvisation “le système D”, from the verb se débrouiller meaning to untangle or “to get by.” (Alternatively: se démerder which means to remove oneself from shit.)

(LEFT: “Save bread! Cut it in thin slices and use the crusts for soups!”) The rationing system was instituted to ward off inflationary prices and panic. Instead the system and the effects of occupation created endemic foot shortages and malnutrition, owing partly to an unequal distribution and availability of foods to the French population. Critical foods like bread, meat, cheese, and milk were rationed, with the daily amount being rationed decreasing as the war continued. Though it varied based on age, occupation, and health, an average person could expect to receive half a loaf of bread, a piece of meat about the size of one’s palm, and a few crumbs of cheese for a daily ration. The pitiful amount of food meant most people would settle for stale bread rather than no bread or the gristle on a piece of meat instead of the actual piece of meat. The food itself was also in a sorry condition – memoirs describe the common sight of “grayish bread and yellowish coffee.” Even alcohol was rationed: the iconic mid-afternoon aperitif was outlawed. France became a much more sober country during the war years.

France experienced a dramatic reduction in the food supply. The total food supply was estimated to have been reduced 50%; fats dropped even more and fruits approached nearly 100%. Food was in short supply because of many reasons. Imports of fruit, meat, and oil from North Africa had ended, on account of the blockade. Agricultural production had severely decreased. By 1944, production in France was 40% of what it was in the 1930s. Many farmers could not afford the price of fuel for machinery or seed for new crops. After turning to horse-drawn plows and carts instead of gasoline powered ones, they found that it was still too expensive to feed the work animals. Thus, a large number of farms were abandoned, especially when faced by the threat of advancing German troops. Cows and other farm animals were lost or killed and eaten by the German army. Refrigeration units had their electricity supplies cut and food spoiled. Whole industries were abandoned too. An example with an ironic ending was that of the fishing industry in the English Channel, which had been forced to end all commercial activity in the highly active military zone. In 1941, overcrowded herring began committing suicide by stranding themselves on the beaches of Normandy. This plentiful and unwarranted harvest was taken in trainloads to Paris to feed the hungry. There was also the simple issue of Germans outright taking food. Most food that was produced in France was shipped to Germany to feed German civilians. Nazi supply officers commonly arrived at markets in massive trucks and loaded up goods, requisitioned for German soldiers and officers.


“200 grams of meat per week, it’s nothing! _00 grams of sugar per month, it’s crazy! AND A ROUGH TRANSLATION FROM HERE: It would be possible to have more meat and more sugar for everyone… Only, there are some who are stealing the supply by using fake tickets… Anyone caught with counterfeit tickets will be arrested immediately…”

As a result of these shortages, some store owners were unwilling or unable to honor ration tickets. Many French people simply bypassed their ration cards and opted to trade directly with merchants. Trade was a more valuable exchange than money or ration points. Those who were desperate opted to make counterfeit ration tickets. The most desperate of the desperate devised a more sinister scheme: after reading over the daily obituaries in the newspapers, they would disguise themselves as police officers and steal ration cards from the relatives of the dead.

By 1942, chocolate and coffee had become unattainable, with sugar and candy almost equally hard to find. These sweets and other “unrationables” were able to be obtained only by the very wealthy. The demand for these items opened the doors for a black market. This proved to be an impressive hidden power in the French economy – it was organized and efficient and rarely suffered shortages of goods. It began operating two months after the ration system went into effect. Demand was so high that prices were often far above market price, but at least a desired product was available. All social levels were involved; in fact, even school children operated their own black market. Vitamin-enhanced cookies that were served in schools were in short supply and highly desired. Therefore children would save their cookies and then resell them for a high price. They’d use the extra money to buy fun things instead, like movie tickets or makeup.


A year after the rations started, the government allowed families living in the countryside to send care packages to their loved ones. The items sent were usually food, but the slow mail service and bureaucratic mire the packages usually got stuck in caused much of the food to go bad. Hardly appetizing, the food arrived covered in maggots and meat had to be soaked in vinegar and boiled for hours before it was relatively safe to eat. Some people living in cities took it upon themselves to do their own hunting in the countryside. Weekend excursions became popular and the trains running outside of Paris were given nicknames like le train des pommes de terre and le train des haricots verts (the potato train and the green bean train).

Meanwhile, housewives were learning how to adapt to new and fewer ingredients. It was a time of creative adaptation and substitution. To replace meat, many people began raising guinea pigs in their homes. It was also reported that pigeons and even cats were eaten – the Vichy regime had to issue a pamphlet warning of the dangers of eating stewed cat. Some other examples of substitutions include using mashed potato for flour, sour milk for cheese, grated vegetables for fruit, whipped margarine with vanilla instead of cream,  saccharin for sugar, and, the most  inventive, toasted barley mixed with chicory for coffee.

France’s iconic baguette and other breads is an interesting case study on the effects of food rationing. The war years would forever change the bread making industry in France. As ingredients became scarce, bakers substituted things like maize and rice for wheat in their bread. Flour that was shipped from America had a higher protein content and French bakers did not know how to use it. The quality of baguettes decreased significantly. After the war, people were concerned with quantity not quality. Mass production became the norm for breads and baked goods. Unfortunately this process created tasteless bread, though in appearance it was white and fluffy. This was in stark contrast to the dreary baguette of the 1940s, but it lacked nutrition and, of course, the French tradition. Much later, when French society could afford to care about the quality, artisan bakeries appeared, advertising that they used traditional recipes and better ingredients.

Food shortages and poor nutrition resulted in many health problems for the French. On average, a person consumed about 950 calories a day; with access to the black market, they might have enjoyed as much as 1500 calories. Diphtheria became a major health concern, reported cases rising from 13,000 in 1940 to 47,000 in 1943. Cases of tuberculosis and influenza also increased. Yet the resilient French survived, as did their cuisine which is popular and highly respected all around the world. Rationing ended in 1945 and the French rejoiced and, though there were still food shortages, once again began enjoying their traditional dishes. The government was reminded again of the importance of food in December of that same year, when bread rations were reinstituted, causing riots across France.


In Lyon, the bakers and townspeople celebrate the *end* of the ration system by burning their bread ration tickets. Banner at 0:38 says “Tickets are dead, they were hated. No one will cry, they are buried.”

Best museum for French life under the occupation: Musee d’histoire Jean Garcin in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. Which is a pretty tiny town that might be hard to get to but IT IS WORTH IT.

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Part III: Transportation during the Exodus

As a somewhat logical follower to part II, here’s a survey of the transportation options during WWII for the thousands of Northern French who headed South, fleeing the invasion of the Nazis. To know before you read: In June of 1940, the Nazis invaded Paris. Before their arrival, 4/5 of the city had fled. The mass movement of people (close to 25% of the French population) to the interior and South of France is called “l’Exode.” A month later, Vichy France (the cooperative French-Axis government) was set up in the unoccupied Southern “free zone.”


Transportation during l’Exode

In 1940, author Antoine Saint-Exupery served as a reconnaissance pilot for the French army. Just two short years later, he recorded his experiences in his book Flight to Arras. While flying on a mission just northeast of Paris, he wrote: “German bombers bearing down upon the villages [have] squeezed out a whole people and sent it flowing down the highways like a black syrup… I can see from my plane the long swarming highways, that interminable syrup flowing endless to the horizon… There is a crazy contagion in this exodus. Where are these vagabonds going? They are going south – as if in the south there was room for them, food for them, tender hands waiting to welcome them… But southward the most generous hearts are beginning little by little to harden at the sight of this mad invasion which little by little, like a sluggish river of mud, is beginning to suffocate them.” What he witnessed would become known as l’Exode, or “the Exodus,” the biggest single movement of a European population since the Dark Ages. As German troops invaded Northern France in the summer of 1940, as many as 10 million people fled their homes and took to the roads and railways in the hope of finding safety beyond the Loire River. Although many modes of transport were available, roads and resources were disorganized and the endless “black syrup” that pushed steadily southwards was “a stampede of alarming proportions” that would foreshadow the inadequacy of old trade routes and supply lines in wartime France.

When the Exodus began in May of 1940, modern conveniences such as airplanes and the TGV did not exist. It was not yet possible to jet across France in as little as two hours. Civilians had to travel by road or rail and they had many different options to choose from, though not all were appealing. In the war years before the Exodus, trains were used to transport injured soldiers to hospitals in the South. However, they became crowded beyond capacity as they began to carry evacuees as well.

The SNCF, the national French train company, even requisitioned freight cars so that they could hold passengers instead of cargo. At some point, the company had to cease issuing tickets because there were just not enough resources to transport everyone (SNCF cars would later transport Jews to Nazi concentration camps and the company would bill the state of France for 3rd class tickets for each “traveler”). Buses were also used to transport as many civilians as possible; on a typical bus there were 21 seats and 52 standing, at a cost of 10 francs per passenger.

Memoirs from the time recount a steady progression in the waves of refugees. First came the luxurious limousines complete with chauffeur. It seemed more like the normal seasonal shift when people from the North would go to vacation in the South. Second were the people in their family sedans; their cars packed full with their belongings. Finally, there were the least fortunate, who traveled with the cargo of supply trucks, in wagons and carts, on bicycles, or simply on foot.

An observer would have seen many emblematic French cars, from Citroens, to Peugeots, to Renaults. The vast majority of these cars were standard transmission, front-wheel drive and in the constant starting and stopping of the cross-country traffic jams, they commonly broke down. Stripped gear boxes, worn-out brakes, blown tires, overheating radiators, scarce amounts of gasoline and oil: all of this combined to make for huge numbers of broken-down vehicles, littering the sides of the road. The cars, with their “groaning springs and bulging tires,” were packed full of people and luggage and often carried a mattress on the roof. The mattress served a secondary, yet important purpose: protection from the bullets of the German air attacks. Along with aerial attacks, lack of gasoline was one of the biggest problems that refugees faced: as all importation of the commodity had stopped (and France has no indigenous oil production), there was an extreme shortage of fuel. Gasoline that was available was generally reserved for ambulances or army transports. The need for an alternative fuel led to the development of “gazogenes” – a generator that could be fitted onto cars and buses and burned charcoal or wood pellets. However, there was one major drawback to this invention: the cylinder was usually exhausted after 40 kilometers and there were very few “depots” at which to refuel.

As a result, modes of transport that did not rely on fuel became popular. Bikes, already popular since the late 1800s, became even more useful but were also very likely to be stolen. In at least one instance, when rubber was in high demand for military uses, bicycle tires were replaced with corks.
An enterprising young man, Fidele Outterick, invented the velo-taxi in June 1940. Essentially the French version of the rickshaw, they became very popular during and after the Exodus as a cheap and efficient means of transport in the crowded cities and on roads. Even by 1940, France was still a largely rural country; it was also very common to see wagons, as well as horses traveling on the roads. Imagine watching a country cart pulled by horses, piled high with hay and old peasant women, racing down the cosmopolitan streets of Paris. Additionally, if unfortunate enough to not have any wheeled-transport, people walked. Many tried to catch rides with motorists, but more often they were able to catch a ride with a team of soldiers on a supply truck.

Moving at the impossibly slow rate of five kilometers per day, on a route that was typically 100 to 500 kilometers total, at times the exodus resembled a vast boiling stew, rather than a steady flow of refugees. The slow advance owed partially to the fact that French army trucks were traveling the opposite direction than the Exodus. Army troops were moving north to halt the advance of the Germans, but the roads, blocked by refugees, impeded their movement. The mixing of French soldiers into the civilian crowds also caused the refugees to become victims of German air attacks. These “Stukas,” as the planes in the attacks were known, not only killed horses and people, but destroyed the transportation networks, cutting communication lines, destroying bridges, and delaying the arrival of supplies and personnel. When a German plane started firing, people were forced to abandon their cars and luggage and find safety in the ditches along the road. When horses were killed, people had to either abandon their belongings or carry what they could and continue the long walk south.

The Exodus of 1940 was an invasion of the South, mirroring the Germans’ invasion of the North. Though it was of course less hostile, Southern France was inundated by successive waves of refugees, each one sweeping through sleepy villages and gobbling up resources like food and shelter. This endless flow of people, lugging their belongings and all different types of wheeled machinery was a burden on the roads, transportation networks and communication lines, and supply movement for the French army.

The movie that made me want to research this topic (Rene Clement’s Jeux Interdits). Also, I think they might’ve actually killed a dog in it, which is kind of a bummer:

Part II: Takin’ it to the Streets… of Aix

Part II of my rediscovered bevy of papers written while studying abroad: “Secrets & Stories from the Streets of Aix,” complete with photos and video. Some of these posts have modern day photos of the streets I talk about here.



Besides being an undeniably awesome conglomeration of art, design, and information, a map is a useful collection of labels and place names.

The study of toponymy is the study of these place names. But it is really the study of many things: history, geography, archaeology, philology, etymology, and anthropology. Toponymy shows us the development of urban areas and the process of urbanization, as well as the movements of people; it even teaches us about economics and society. In this way, place names are the greatest geographical reference system available to us.

We can use this reference system to discover the secrets and stories behind seemingly ordinary locations, transforming them from blank stretches of pavement into places of romance and poetry. (I’ve become far less melodramatic since I wrote this….)


This paper aims to investigate the origins and meanings of a handful of the most interesting street names in Aix-en-Provence, as well as the historical events that have taken place there.


VIA AURELIA
Though there exists no sign and it won’t be marked on a tourist’s map, the oldest road in Aix is the Via Aurelia. The name derives from a renowned Roman road builder, Caius Aurelius Cotta (whose name comes from the Latin word for “golden,” reflecting his family’s hair color). This ancient highway, built by the Romans in 12 BC, connected the province of Gallia Narbonensis (today’s Provence) to Italy. A crucial part of their extensive road network, it helped Rome maintain control of its colonies, as well as spreading their cultural and economic influence. The Via Aurelia shuttled armored legions, government officials, traders, and others on a paved interstate “complete with rest stops and chariot service stations every 12 to 20 miles.” After the fall of the Roman Empire and subsequent waves of invading tribes in Provence, the Via Aurelia largely disappeared. Then, in 1508 a Bavarian book collector named Konrad Peutinger discovered a 22-foot-long medieval map of the Roman world. The Table of Peutinger, as it would become known, offered a detailed look at the empire’s entire road network, including landmarks and the location of 550 rest stops. Researchers can now trace the route of the Via Aurelia; in many places it follows today’s Route Nationale 7. It enters the city of Aix from the southeast (Cours Gambetta and Rue d’Italie), heading towards what is now Place de Verdun. Here, where the road was six meters wide, there were two towers marking what was then the official entrance of Aix (or Aquae Sextiae). The road continued its way towards Place de l’Hotel de Ville (the clock tower, as well as other buildings, have foundations of Roman stones) and then up past the Cathedral Saint-Sauveur, where it turned west to meet up with another Roman road – the Via Domitia. (Read this!)


As a young American who simply cannot comprehend the age of things older than the 1700s, I am amazed that my route to school every morning follows along the Via Aurelia. But let us start at the beginning: I live behind the Lycée Militaire d’Aix, which sits on the

BOULEVARD DES POILUS
This road is also part of the Route Cezanne, funneling tourists to scenic destinations at the base of Mt. St. Victoire. Long before that, it was known as Chemin de la Torse or Chemin du Tholonet because it led to the Torse creek and the village of le Tholonet. The village’s name derives from the Latin word telonium, meaning “toll booth,” and it’s likely that the site served exactly that purpose for travelers on the Via Aurelia. In 1875, a military school was built and the street became known as Boulevard de l’Armée and the Boulevard des Poilus. “Poilu” is a term of endearment for military men. Its literal meaning is “hairy one” and reflects the “sturdy male bearishness” and rustic agricultural background of many of the French soldiers. This road crosses Boulevard Carnot and becomes Rue Marechal Joffre. In 1750, this intersection was witness to an event that is recorded in history books as, “A tragedy which shook the opinions of the Aixois.” In the middle of the night, a group of drunken young people stopped a peasant returning to town on his donkey. For fun, they pretended they were a court and interrogated him. The judgment was decided: a sentence of death (for what, we do not know). Using the donkey’s halter, they hung the peasant from a tree.


On my morning walk, it’s hard to resist the smell of fresh baked bread and pastries. Though pervasive in all of Aix (and the rest of France), I find there to be an overwhelming amount of bakeries on the


RUE D’ITALIE
Before acquiring its current name, it was called the Chemin de Saint-Jean after the church built nearby and, in 1646 when it officially became part of the city, Rue de la Porte Saint-Jean as there existed an entrance to the city at the far end of it. Today, we find a street name with two meanings. In translation, Rue d’Italie could mean street “from” Italy or street “of” Italy. In the first case, it would be referring to the fact that this was where the ancient Roman road (Via Aurelia) entered Aix. In the latter (the one that the city seems to mean), it is to honor a young unknown military commander’s successful campaigns in Italy. In 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte made a name for himself by defeating a much larger Austrian army and conquering most of Northern Italy. (*battle unrelated to bakeries*)


Now we’ve reached the Place de Verdun (named after the lengthiest battle in history, lasting from February to December 1916 and incurring 700,000 casualties) and the start of the oldest part of town:


RUE RIFLE-RAFLE
The unusual name originates from an old Medieval French word, the verb reiflare. Its various meanings include: to be despoiled, to steal away, and to take away by force. All of these apply to what happened here during the time of the Black Death: in 1348, every inhabitant of Rue Rifle-Rafle died of the plague. The disease was brought to Marseilles by trading ships from Genoa and moved north into the heart of Provence within a month. The effects of the Black Death, which overall killed 200 million people in Europe, even interrupted the construction of Aix’s Cathedral (followed shortly after by the Hundred Years War, work would not resume until 1472). Today this street ends abruptly in a vault because there used to be another door to the city here. Being as it was a main thoroughfare for foreign traders, perhaps this is why the residents of Rue Rifle-Rafle were so devastated. (“La Rafle” was the term used for the French roundup of Jews during WWII)


RUE GASTON DE SAPORTA
Its earliest name was Rue deis Fouitas and was accompanied by a gate at the southern end called the Portale deis Fouitas (or Porte du Bourg). A Provencal word, it referred to “whips” as this was where convicts would be led up the street and the public, showing their displeasure, could come out to whip them. Then it became Rue Droite, as it was the straightest street in the Bourg Saint-Sauveur. It was changed to Rue de la Grande Horloge when the clock tower was built in 1510. During the 17th century, a peculiar “pont de bois,” or wooden bridge could be seen jutting out over the street. Queen Anne of Austria, regent for her young son Louis XIV after her husband’s death, came to visit Aix with a certain Cardinal Mazarin, whose younger brother was the archbishop in town (and would later design the Mazarin Quarter). Anne was rumored to be secretly married to the older Mazarin, who she allowed to co-rule France with her until Louis XIV came of age. The royal family settled in at the Archbishops’ Palace while Mazarin stayed across the street in the Hotel d’Oppede (now part of the University of Aix-Marseilles). The bridge allowed the Queen and the Cardinal to pass between the two residences without actually having to leave, or be seen by the adoring public. Finally, following his death, the street was named after Louis-Charles-Joseph-Gaston de Saporta (1823-1895). Though he didn’t start researching botany and paleobotany until he was almost 30, he contributed much to his field of study. He became a member of the Academy of Aix in 1866 and its president in 1870. He used his influence to create the Natural History Museum in Aix, donating a large portion of his herbarium and collection of plant fossils. The museum also has on display his correspondence with Charles Darwin about the “abominable mystery” of the origin and evolution of flowering plants.


RUE DU BON-PASTEUR
This familiar address (where IAU is) was originally two streets. The western end was Rue des Trabaux, named after a family who lived there; the eastern end, where one could find artesian wells, or “un puits,” supplied by the nearby thermal springs, was Rue des Puits-Chauds. Directly outside our school, a horrendous event occurred in 1476. Leon Asturg, a Jew, dared to utter blasphemies against the Virgin Mary. When the count of Provence, René of Anjou, heard about Asturg, he put him in prison and sent in a team of theologians to catechize him. Stubbornly, Asturg repeated the same blasphemies (obviously too horrible to have been recorded). René, known colloquially as “Good King René,” sentenced him to be “stripped naked and hung on a scaffold outside his house, then skinned alive” [Chovelon]. When the other Jews in the town heard what had happened, they rushed to the house of René and pleaded with him to pardon their friend, offering him 20,000 florins in exchange. The count considered their offer and discussed it with his friends. Coming to a rather Machiavellian decision, one of his friends addressed the Jews: “The King and I are astonished at your audacity; we advise you to think about punishing your brother for his actions because living amongst Christians as you do, you should respect Our Savior Jesus Christ and his glorious Mother. So, to punish you also, we have decided that you will be skinned alive with your friend.” Horrified, the Jews had a change of heart and convinced René to accept their money without releasing Asturg, but instead being released themselves. René took their offer and excused them. The execution of Asturg continued as planned later that day. Supposedly, a column was erected on the place to commemorate the execution, which became part of the church (aka IAU) wall. The street gets its name from a “halfway house” for repentant girls who became known as Les Filles du Bon-Pasteur, or “the girls of the Good Shepherd.” Built in 1629 and lasting until the Revolution, it was most likely where the student housing sits now. *I am really sorry for the overly graphic image but it’s the only one I could find and, well… this needed an image.*


After enjoying a scholarly morning at IAU, I might decide to stop by the market in Place Richelme for some lunch. Historic street names surrounding the square teach us a lot about the market society of Aix. The names tell us where different vendors, products, and even whole industries were located. While many of these streets have been renamed, or simply no longer exist, their study offers insight into the types of food and merchandise available over the course of history: Rue de la Boucherie (butcher shop), Rue des Bouteilles (bottles), Rue des Chapeliers (hat makers), Rue des Chaudronniers (coppersmiths), Rue des Cordonniers (shoemakers), Rue de la Glaciere (icebox), Rue de la Frucharie (Provencal for fruits), Rue des Menudieres (Provencal for sausages), Rue de la Tricharie (Provencal version of tricherie, meaning cheating; this was where seafood was sold and many customers must have been cheated on the weight of their purchase).

RUE DES MAGNANS
What is today named after a rich family was until the 16th century Rue de la Tannerie. This was the main location of leather tanners. As an incredibly noxious and odorous trade, it was often relegated to the outskirts of town or where poor people lived. Famed Aix historian Roux-Alpheran described the street as, “The most filthy and disgusting street one can see.” That’s because the process of tanning leather is not a pretty one. Dried skins arrive at the tannery covered in dirt and gore. They are first cleaned off in water. This is followed by a soak in a vat of urine to make it easier to scrape the hair off later. The last step was soaking the skin in a vat of animal brains, or kneading dog or pigeon poop into the leather (often with bare feet and for as long as three hours). Either process made the leather more soft and desirable. It seems that with the growth of the city, the tanning industry shifted southwards as not far from here there is now a Rue des Tanneurs.


For a change of scenery at the end of my day, I might take a different route home, meandering through a series of tiny streets just south of the Place des Martyrs de la Resistance.

RUE ESQUICHO-COUDE
From Provencal words for “narrow” and “elbows,” the idea is that this road is so narrow you’d have to squeeze in your elbows in order to not touch a person who passes by you. (Picture!)

RUE ESQUICHO-MOUSQUO
This time the name comes from the Provencal words for “narrow” and “fly,” meaning so narrow that even one fly had difficulty passing through.


A survey of Aix’s streets would not be complete without the major thoroughfares:


COURS SEXTIUS
This large road was officially named in 1811 after Caius Sextius Calvinus, the founder of the thermal baths. A Roman consul who conquered the neighboring Salyens, he founded the first Roman city on what would become French soil in 124 BC. It was known then as Aquae Sextiae and is now charming Aix-en-Provence. Historically, the road was the border of the ancient neighborhood of Cordeliers. Becoming a center for commercial activities in the 17th century, it was the typical route that imported goods from the surrounding areas entered the city.


COURS MIRABEAU
Before the establishment of the Cours Mirabeau, the place to be seen for prominent Aixois was the Place des Precheurs. But in 1657, Parliament issued a decree that called for the building of a grand road for carriages, where there was then just crumbling ramparts. It was to serve the public and “never to be changed from the purpose upon which it was founded.” At first, not a single boutique was permitted, fearing that it would ruin the street’s image. In 1748, the first café was allowed, opening the floodgates for the many restaurants and shops that exist now on “the most handsome main street in France” [Mayle]. Since its founding it had been known simply as “le Cours,” but in 1876 the name of Mirabeau was added to memorialize the influential family. Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, count of Mirabeau (1749-1791) was a politician who played an important part in the National Assembly and governed France in the early parts of the French Revolution. In 1789, he was elected to represent Aix in the “Third Estate” – one of three representative assemblies in pre-Revolutionary France. It represented the great majority of the people, unlike the other two assemblies which were limited to the nobility and the clergy. His grandfather, father, and two uncles were also very important to the region of Provence.

The amount of history in an average European town is unfathomable. It makes me wonder: Do the locals know what they’re walking by every day? Are they aware of the age of the stones used in the buildings that house the local bank, their favorite bakery, their own home? Do they know of the illustrious guests who have lived in these same buildings and the shocking events that have played out on the streets outside their window?

Take Rue Boueno-Carriero for example. This translates from the Provencal to “good street.” Has anyone asked why it would get this name? Friendly neighbors? Well-built houses? No, it is in fact a result of ironic freethinkers of the 18th century who frequented the many brothels that could be found there. Before giving it this lasting nickname, it was called Rue deis Peitraoux, “pietraoux” being Provencal for “poitrine,” or chest. This was the one part of town where prostitutes could parade down the street, bare-chested.

By learning the origin of and the history behind the street names, routes previously used just to shuttle you from one place to another acquire a character all their own, and one can learn a little more about the place where they live.

Part I: The Fête-Dieu of Aix-en-Provence

It’s been a year since I studied abroad and I’m finally cleaning out all the paperwork I brought back with me. All my syllabi, assignments, essays, notes, journals, etc. So, in a four-but-maybe-more-part series, I’m going to post some essays from my time at IAU.

Why in the world would you want to read essays I wrote? Number 1: I’m going to reduce them to only the most interesting facts and enhance them with all sorts of photos and videos. Number 2: I only chose super-fascinating topics because I had very few guidelines to follow. Number 3: I had access to and the ability to read a library of French books, articles, and records that you will never find here in the States. Number 4: Because you will learn something and learning is always good, yes?

Without further ado, Intriguing Topics Taylor Teaches To You, Part I:


The Fête-Dieu of Aix-en-Provence


Important background information to know: Some knowledge of Biblical events and history. And the city of Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. This is what I’ve already written/photographed about it. In medieval times, France didn’t exist as it does today; Europe was made up of hundreds of different regions all with their own Kings. From the 9th century to the 15th century, Provence was a semi-independent state with its own cultural identity and its own language: Provencal, which is sort of a mix of French and Italian. I discovered the history of the Fête-Dieu while researching street names (part two, potentially) in an 1846 book by Roux-Alpheran (which is available in French online). And no, I have no idea what “bazoche” means.

Largely forgotten in the records of history, the celebration of Corpus Christi was a monumental event in Aix-en-Provence. The Catholic holiday, which occurs sometime in May or June, does not honor a specific event in Christ’s life; instead it pays homage to the Eucharist, or the Holy Communion. In medieval Europe, the day was popularly associated with the performance of “mystery plays” – theatrical performances depicting stories from the Bible. A long series of plays, collectively called the Corpus Christi cycles, could last for many days.

The calendar of events for Aix’s Fête-Dieu (the holiday’s name in French, aka “God’s Party”) included parades, plays, and grand feasts over the course of a long weekend. Almost everyone participated in the grand affair – rich and poor, young and old, male and female. The celebration was a poetic mix of ancient and modern history, juxtaposing the sacred and the profane. Unfortunately, many details have been lost over the years, which serves to make the events that much more curious and mysterious to modern day researchers.


The main record of events comes from a 1777 illustrated book by Gaspard Gregoire (1715-1795) entitled Explication des ceremonies de la Fête-Dieu d’Aix, en Provence. It describes in detail various events, players, and costumes, as well as the history and some of the symbolism behind it all. Gregoire writes that it was established in 1462 by King René, Duke of Anjou. More likely, the games had already existed but René bestowed his personal touch upon the ceremonies, adding new games, new roles, and probably a lot more money. Its main idea was simple: the triumph of Christianity over idolatry and the triumph of Christ over demons. The symbolism and meaning behind many elements has not been explained, but documentation of the event gives an entertaining look at medieval Aixois culture.

A few days before the actual day of the Fête-Dieu, leaders and officers were elected and those wishing to participate signed up for various jobs. A council decided those elected to four principle roles that represented the nobility, the clergy, and the people: the King of the Bazoche, the Abby of Youth (picked from the artisan class), the Prince of Love, and the Lieutenant of the Prince (usually a law student). The Prince of Love was chosen from amongst the young sons of the rich noble families. Sadly, in 1668, Louis XIV eliminated the role of the Prince because many wealthy townspeople had been complaining that it was too expensive – the Prince was expected to give out gifts and host huge dinners, at the expense of the city. Roux-Alpheran’s book includes a menu of an example dinner and it’s easy to understand how vastly expensive it must have been – four courses, over 20 different types of meat, and massive quantities. After banning the Prince of Love, the Saint-Sauveur church leaders took over and had to provide the dinner, though the menu stayed very similar and the guest list increased by 200; it’s hard to see how this would have saved the city any money.

On the eve of the Fête-Dieu, after the elected had been chosen, they all attended mass at the Church of Precheurs, where the King of the Bazoche was awarded the cordon bleu and a plaque. With bands playing and busy workers decorating the town with rich tapestries and diamonds (Aix was very rich during this time period), a mass of people poured onto the main road to receive their costumes for the following day.


At sundown, baton twirlers met in front of Saint-Sauveur and performed the Passado. Drummers danced suggestively towards all the young ladies in the audience, meriting raucous applause from their male counterparts.


At 10 PM, the elected and their entourage left the Hotel-de-Ville and walked the streets until midnight, mingling with the townspeople.

The actual day of the Fête-Dieu, a Thursday, began at 4 AM when a group of men, who would later be demons in one of the plays, held a race at the Place de la Metropole. Whoever lost had to pay for lunch. Shortly after an elaborate breakfast banquet at the home of King René, the procession began, complete with floats for many of the scenes.


The King of the Bazoche, the Abby, the Prince and his lieutenant marched behind a group carrying decorated banners.


Behind them, each carrying a torch, were representatives of the various workshops and organizations in Provence, such as religious brotherhoods or calisson makers.

Then there were the knights, an order instituted by King René, and trailing behind them caricatures of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, riding on donkeys. Rene included this detail to commemorate conquering Urbino in 1460 and, as the crowd jeered and laughed at them, to embarrass their honor.


A high pitched racket, imitating the cries and gnashing teeth of those in Hell, announced the arrival of the series of plays relating to Pluto. The first part was the “Lepers of the Bible,” or Leis Razcassettos in Provencal. One man wore a dirty old wig and three others jumped around him, trying to comb it and cut it with scissors. The exact meaning behind this has been lost.


Second was the Golden Calf game, though it was called Lou Juec dou Cat colloquially. This showed Moses with his divine law tablets and Aaron trying to explain them to the Israelites. However, they were too busy dancing around a golden calf icon. Meanwhile, one Israelite threw a cat, wrapped tightly in a sheet, into the air repeatedly.


Next a scene of King Herod, being attacked by demons with pitchforks and pikes, shaking their bells in his face. The demons were accompanied by a “diablesse,” sporting grotesque makeup and hair, trying to attract Herod to her.


And to finish off this series, was the Little Devil’s Game, or L’Armetto because it was symbolic of the soul (ame). A young man held a cross in his right hand while being harassed by devils. But his guardian angel, wearing fake wings, also held firmly to the cross and defended him against evil.


The most curious, but purportedly most enjoyable show followed: that of the prancing horses. Historically, men had stood on horses’ backs and did tricks but too many fell and were killed. So, real horses were replaced by fake horses made from thin wood and fabric that fitted around the person’s body and were attached at the belt.  The group of 8 or 10 men then pranced joyously around, mimicking the movements of a horse.


In the next set of plays, Queen Sheba visited King Solomon, accompanied by three finely dressed lady friends and a court dancer. The dancer did balancing tricks with a small white castle figurine sitting on top of his sword. The spectacle dazzled the ladies and King Solomon, who accepted their salutations and invited them to leave with him.


An interlude of fifes and tambourines then began. A dance troupe performed all the latest dances, and was followed by a group of younger dancers, who received joyous applause from the audience.

The chariot of the gods was the most elaborate float. Richly decorated and carpeted, it was pulled by six magnificent white horses. Each ancient god had their own throne: Jupiter with his thunderbolts at the top, Juno, sitting at his feet with an exotic peacock, and Venus and gods representing games and sweets beside her. Walking behind the chariot were the Three Fates of Greek mythology. They each held balls of yarn, rolling, spinning and cutting it to represent their control over the lives of mortals.


The final set of plays began with the scene of Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents. Children ran in a circle on their hands and feet, frightened and crying. Suddenly they all fell to the ground as Herod, looming above them, fired a gunshot (post-1400s). The children tried to pull themselves away, which is where it got the Provencal name of Leis Tirassouns, meaning “those who drag themselves on the ground.”


A happier scene followed. First, La Belle Etoile where the three Magi of biblical lore followed a man carrying a star raised high above his head. He meandered back and forth, from left to right, and the Magi followed accordingly.


Behind this line was a line of apostles and evangelists. A small scene was acted out in which Judas betrayed Jesus. The traitor then walked in front of the line of apostles and evangelists, who hit him on the head with long batons inscribed with biblical passages.

Gregoire’s record of the events end with this, however the series of plays and characters was constantly changing. As early as 1490, many ancient plays and characters had already been removed, such as Adam & Eve and Cain & Abel. The beginning of the end came in 1645, when the archbishop wanted to remove the secular aspects of the ceremony. The townspeople were so upset they threatened to burn the town hall, forcing the bishops to give up. The final end for the Fête-Dieu came in 1789 when the French Revolution overthrew all Catholic ceremonies, including Aix’s parade. Some tried to reprise the celebration in 1852, with the visit of Louis Napoleon, but the spirit and enthusiasm was lacking and it has been abandoned ever since.

And totally unbeknownst to me at the time of writing this, there is a giant painting of the procession of the Fête-Dieu:

And it was about 200 feet away from my school, hidden in this building that turns out is actually a museum. Dammit.