Tracing the history of our French home – Part 6

Cartulaires (or ‘If only I had paid attention in school…’)

Have you ever thought “Oh, how I wish I’d paid more attention to that in school”? Three of the lads in our gang of friends in my teens couldn’t wait to leave school and celebrated crazily when they left to start apprenticeships in local garages, only to find that they needed all the maths and physics lessons that they had messed about in. They ended up having to go to night school to catch up on the learning they had missed. But at least they had a motivation and real-life context, second time around.

If like me you have since bought a home in France, it might be your French lessons that you regret not working your socks off in.

But one subject I was absolutely certain I was never EVER going to need again was latin!

Back in the 1970’s you still needed an ‘O’ level (exams normally taken at age 16 in England, now called GCSE) in latin to study some subjects at uni in England, so I found myself having to recite ‘amo, amas, amat’ and spending hours translating passages from Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Odyssey for nine months to scrape through the exam with a mediocre but adequate grade. And then I promptly forgot everything.

Actually, that’s not true because I was surprised to find how much a basic grounding in latin helped with working out unfamiliar words in English and French, never mind other languages when I went on holiday.

But nevertheless it took until this year and (cough, cough) my sixties before I REALLY wished I had studied harder and kept up my knowledge.

I was having a fascinating time researching the history of our French watermill and trawling through online historical journals and was really excited to find that what is now our home had been donated to the local priory in the eleventh century.

If your home is more than a couple of hundred years old, it really is worth seeing if you can find out whether it might ever have been donated to the church. It seems to have happened constantly as wealthy landowners gave farms, mills, vineyards, even whole villages as in our case, to the church in return for masses being said for themselves or a relative, a prominent place for their tomb or even a political favour.

The fact that our mill had been donated to a local abbey meant that there had been detailed records kept of changes of ownership, legal disputes, and much more in the ecclesiastical records over the centuries. Not only had everything been written down but the records had been guarded and hidden through times of war and destruction when other archives had been lost. These records are known as the ‘cartulary’ or cartulaire in French and were kept by churches and monasteries for all their dependent properties, goods, benefits and taxes.

Although these were typically kept in the church or monastery archives, (if those still existed after the Revolution), many have been transferred or copied to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, National Library of France, and may even be available in digital form on their Gallica website.

I found that many of the important bits of the Cartulaire de l’abbaye de la Couture in Le Mans, which owned the prieuré d’Auvers and therefore our mill, had been studied and even translated into French by various historical societies and local historians, particularly during the 19th century.

But not all.

I found the cartulaires for the Abbaye de la Couture, the Abbaye de Bellebranche and Abbaye de Solesmes (all local to Auvers) quite easily by googling. Most were on the ‘Gallica’ website but the most interesting one, I found on the University of Grenoble website!

Once in the digitalised cartulaires I tried using the key-word search tool of the site to look for instances of names such as ‘Moulin de la Roche Auvers’ to find references to the mill in documents. (Ctrl+F keyboard shortcut can also work on some copies)

The problem is that it was monks who kept these records and they wrote everything in Latin. I found out that our mill was often referred to as ‘molendino de Rocha’ or ‘Rocha super Arva’ (the rock on the Erve) in these records so I have been able to find quite a few references to our home in charters and contracts for the mill which have never been deemed sufficiently important to other researchers to be translated into French.

Never mind the problem of deciphering the hand-written script which is often full of abbreviations and ‘shorthand’ symbols for common words (I haven’t attempted this!)– it’s not much easier reading a typed transcription.

My first thought was “there must be some whizzy software or website out there that could help”, but lengthy searching only came up with Google Translate and I’m afraid that was totally useless for latin. Excellent sites that I would normally use, such as Deepl, Reverso and Linguee don’t even offer latin as an option.

So I’ve had to fall back on my own resources and have started a revision course! I may or may not keep up with this but it has reminded me about a lot of what I already knew from school.

I think my aim will be to be able to pick out enough from the text to know if it is going to be useful in my search. Then if I find something really fascinating I may save up to get it professionally translated. I have given this a go once but with medieval French to English translators being akin to rocking horse poo, it does tend to work out quite expensive! Maybe I should have stuck with the latin lessons at school. I could be earning a fortune now!

If you have had any experiences using old latin documents or have any good resources you have found please share! Write a comment and let us all know how you got on.

In case you’re as loopy as me and want to give it a go, some resources I have found to be useful are:

The National Archives of the UK has a free online course on basic Medieval latin, which is of course a bit different to classical latin (and French medieval latin is a bit different again!) but it gives a good introduction and concentrates on reading old documents rather than poetry about battles and mythical creatures.

an online latin-english dictionary similar to Reverso

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