René Plassais, 1770 ish – 1820

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It’s not just who lived in your house before you that’s fascinating. It is also what was happening around them during their lives.

This is especially true for the millers at le Moulin de la Roche in the late 1700s as, out of all the turbulent times that France has seen in its history, this period was one of the most troubled in this area.

René Plassais was born on the 3rd April 1749, at another mill in Auvers-le-Hamon, Le Cutesson. René’s father, Nicolas Plassais, was the third husband of René’s mother, Renée Beslot. Her previous husbands, both millers at Cutesson, had each died seven years after their marriage to Renée. Fortunately, Nicolas lived to the ripe old age of 78, which was no mean feat in those days. René would have grown up, helping in the mill, from a very young age. Sons often started from about the age of five or six, sweeping floors and running errands. Over the years he would have learned the miller’s art from his father and probably visited local farms to collect grain for milling into flour and animal feed.

The river Erve at the site of Cutesson. Only the ruins of the mill remain.

When René was born, Louis XV was on the throne and France had been at war for years, draining the country’s wealth. In 1774 his grandson, Louis XVI succeeded him and things went from bad to worse.

Roi Louis XVI

On 3rd August 1779, at the age of 30 René married Jeanne Baillif at Préaux in the Mayenne. Jeanne’s father was also a miller. The registration of their marriage states that while René’s father was still the miller at le Cutesson, René had moved out to another address in Auvers-le-Hamon.

In fact he had come to le Moulin de la Roche to work with his half-brother, René Monsimier. Ten years his senior and son of Renée Beslot’s second husband, René Monsimier had been the miller at Moulin de la Roche since 1769. We don’t know if this was a partnership or if René Plassais was employed as an ouvrier, worker, at the mill.

Over the next ten years we can only assume that René, his half-brother and their families worked away at the mill through good years and bad until in July 1789, when the French Revolution ‘happened’.

I have to admit that until recently I only had a fairly fuzzy idea of what happened during the French Revolution and Stephen Clarke summed up my understanding beautifully when he wrote in his brilliant book ‘1000 Years of Annoying the French’,

“Today most French people think that events went something like this:

  • Day 1, fair-minded but hungry liberators storm Bastille and release political prisoners.
  • Day 2, a people’s tribunal votes to cut off heads of evil king and his wife who made a tactless remark about cakes.
  • Day 3, the same tribunal votes to cut off heads of everyone else who is posh and against liberty, equality and fraternity.
  • Day 4, freely elected Republican idealists introduce glorious era of democracy that still reigns in France today.”

Exploring the local history has given me a very different picture.

For years France under the rule of Louis XV had been involved in war after costly war. When his grandson, Louis XVI succeeded him in 1774 the country was in severe financial difficulties. Taxes rose constantly and following three years of failed harvests and famine, the country had finally erupted.

At the start of the French Revolution the power of the Royalty and the feudal Seigneurs disappeared even before the King himself did. Administrative systems and law and order collapsed. There was general panic as speculation over what the new revolutionary assemblée nationale constituante would bring in. Each town organised its own administration as best it could, amid rumours that hoards of brigands were rampaging through the countryside taking what they could. The price of wheat went sky high as fear of a famine spread.

According to Sylvia Neely’s A Concise History of the French Revolution, the average 18th-century worker spent half his daily wage on bread. But when the grain crops failed three years in a row, the price of bread shot up to 88 percent of his wages. Bread was the staple of the working class diet. An average man would eat 2-3lbs (1-1.4 kilos) of bread a day. So grain and the flour milled from it was vitally important.

The two Renés would have been well and truly in the middle of local discontent – millers were usually more comfortably off than the peasant farmers who were forced to make use of their services. Whether because of envy or with good reason, the miller had always had the reputation of being dishonest and taking a little more than his share.

René and Jeanne’s first daughter, Perrine, was born in 1790 and during the following years of chaos the couple had a further 4 daughters, Renée, Jeanne, Marie and Charlotte.

René Monsimier and his wife Perrine Yvon had 11 children in all, and although many of them would have left home around the age of 12 to find work elsewhere, it must have been quite busy around the mill!

In February 1790 the former Haut et Bas Maine, part of Anjou and three communes of le Perche-Gouet were divided into two new departéments; La  Mayenne and La Sarthe, named after the local rivers. Auvers-le-Hamon became one of the 9 new communes of Sablé sur Sarthe. In their enthusiasm for all things ‘revolutionary’, the village was briefly renamed Auvers-l’Union.

The new admistration of Sablé were thrown in at the deep end as they immediately had to repress frequent mob riots caused by the high price of grain.

The new Republican government were keen to sweep away all the privileges that the aristocracy and church had enjoyed under the Ancien Régime and ordered the confiscation of all ecclesiastical property, which in 1791 was put up for sale.

As Le Moulin de la Roche was owned by the local Prieuré d’ Auvers-le-Hamon, the priory, at this point, which in turn belonged to the Abbaye de la Couture in Le Mans, the two Renés suddenly found themselves with a new landlord, Monsieur Louis Le Lasseux.

In actual fact, as the Prieuré hadn’t had a resident prieur since the end of the 15th century and all the rights and property of the seigneurie of Auvers had been leased out, or out-sourced to a Fermier Général, or tax farmer. His role was to manage all the property and carry out all the tax collecting, administering of justice, arrange for masses to be said and a multitude of other duties and services on behalf of the church. In return he got a substantial cut of the Abbey’s revenue from the farms, mill, businesses and so on.

From Toublet (Abbé Emmanuel), Histoire d’Auvers-le-Hamon

So the sale of the prieuré and all its property probably didn’t make a big difference to the brothers, as the new owner of Moulin de la Roche was the existing fermier général , Louis le Lasseux-La Fosse, who had already had a 9 year lease to run all the priory’s property from 1779, which he had renewed in 1787, and Jacques Le Lasseux-Chantenay (his brother) had previously held the lease from 1771 – 1779.

The lease stated that the lessee was entitled to all the worldly goods of the prieuré, including the priory house (in which Louis Le Lasseux lived) and the income from the tenant farms, mill, woods, rents and taxes amounting to 8000 livres (pounds), but in return he had to pay for the keep of the curate, invite the curate and his chaplains to dinner on the four main festivals of the year, provide all the cart transport up to a distance of three hours from the prieuré, maintain in good repair all the farms, mill, roads and  outbuildings, and pay for the masses and services to be said up to a maximum of 200 livres, plus all legal fees and church taxes which amounted to 1600 livres!

Detail of the lease for the Prieuré d’Auvers le Hamon, Abbé Emmanuel Toublet

Monsieur Le Lasseux must have been getting a fair bit out of the deal if he felt it was worth paying 72,750 livres to hang on to just a part of it. (the prieuré possessions were sold off for 193,650 livres in total). Apparently this would be the equivalent of £828,034/918,882 € in today’s money!

The next two years saw constant change, unrest, higher taxes and general dissatisfaction with the new state of the country. The initial optimism and enthusiasm for the Republican government faded and ordinary people started to think they might have been better off as things were before.

To give you some context, the events I mention below were all happening within 16km/10 miles from Moulin de la Roche, if not in the actual village of Auvers-le-Hamon.

Le Moulin de la Roche is high-lighted in yellow above. Auvers to Sablé is 10 kilometres

Towards the end of November 1792, the town of Sable was threatened by a band of armed militia who arrived from Le Mans and after forcing the local council to fix a maximum grain price at well below its real value, they then proceeded to impose their own ‘tax’ on the sale of wheat in the town, making off with many sacks of this precious commodity. The people of Sablé fought back with three canon and assorted hand weapons and called for help from the nearby town of La Flèche. They managed to repel the militia who turned tail, leaving behind sacks of wheat and the prisoners they had taken. But in their retreat they attacked and looted outlying villages. The church bells were rung in neighbouring villages, including Auvers-le-Hamon and that night Auvers sent all its able-bodied men, which would certainly have included René M and René P, together with those from other villages (1200 men in all!) to the aid of their neighbours in Brûlon and Loué, a few kilometres away. The militia from Le Mans were ‘persuaded’ to return to Le Mans and the grateful villagers of Brûlon and Loué shared what little bread they had with their rescuers and ‘celebrated with dances’.

But things were to get worse. Anyone who was suspected as having noble connections or even an education, were accused of Royalism and denounced. The lawyers and respected doctors and other professionals on Sablé’s town council were forced to flee and their places taken over by ‘hommes violents et d’action’.

Photogravure of Episode des Massacres de Septembre, 1792 (1887) by Julian Russell Story

Rural communities were becoming more and more disillusioned with the Republican government – taxes were higher, stomachs emptier and eventually civil war broke out in the Vendée area of western France and thousands of Vendéen peasants marched towards Angers on the Loire to call for the restoration of the old regime. Sablé sent hundreds of men to help protect Angers but there was a lot of sympathy for the Vendéens among the local peasants and farmers in the surrounding countryside. Republican Sablé found itself surrounded by Royalist villages. The Sablésien militia tried to forcibly disarm anyone who did not agree to join the forces against the Vendéens.

The 1793 harvest failed and an inventory was made of any wheat the peasant farmers had managed to produce. Grain prices were fixed for the year by the authorities. Farmers had to choose whether to sell at a loss or immediately go bust. Local millers suffered the knock-on effect as they had little to mill. A large part of their livelihood came from the ban, a percentage of the flour they milled for each farmer.

On the 11th September 1793, the church bell tolled all day in Auvers and other local villages to call up every able-bodied man to join the army against the Vendéen rebels. What little food was around, livestock, horses and arms, including agricultural implements were requisitioned. But the people of Auvers had had enough. Not only did they refuse to go but they declared the son of the deposed and guillotined King Louis XVI as the new king and marched on Sablé to set up their own centre for insurrection.

Episode of Chouannerie – Charles-Alexandre Coëssin de la Fosse (1829-1910)

Men from all the surrounding villages joined up in the forest of Bellebranche, about 5 km from Moulin de la Roche. The town of Sablé suddenly found itself in a perilous position as it had sent all its men to protect Angers. The council called for help from Le Mans, the préfecture, county town of the Sarthe. But relief turned to horror when the militia arrived from Le Mans – it was the same band of thugs who had been repelled from the town the previous year. No sooner did these soldiers arrive in Sablé but they turned on the townspeople and started burning the place down, starting with the chateau. Eventually 700 National Guards arrived from Chateau-du-Loir and restored order, rounding up the rebels from Auvers and the other villages from their hiding places in the forest and imprisoning them in the town’s prison – and when that became too full, in the school. The ring-leader, Father Daugré, a priest from the village of Souvigné just down the road from here, was beheaded in the town square.

The Vendéen uprising was quelled and with their homeland having been ravaged by the victorious Republican army, 80,000 refugees, men women and children, straggled northwards to try and find new places to settle in Normandy and Brittany. But their attempts were unsuccessful and on 27th November 1793 they returned through Sablé on their way back to the Vendée. The Republican forces massacred many of the Vendéens as they tried to make their way towards the Loire and their former homes.

Over the next few months a whole new civil uprising, known as the Chouannerie, started in Sablé as new persecutions, denunciations and imprisonments lead to all commerce breaking down in the town. Vendéen stragglers joined forces with deserters from the Republican army and Royalist sympathisers from the villages around Sablé and began a campaign of terror in revenge for the massacre of their compatriots. They lived in the forests surrounding the town and emerged to attack travellers and even villages. In Asnières-sur-Vègre, 13 km away from the mill, they dragged families from their beds and murdered 7 of them and left many others wounded. Tensions rose and on the night of the 29th/30th November all carts and other vehicles in the area were sabotaged to prevent grain getting to Sablé, causing famine in the town. Food was rationed to 750g per person, per day, for rich and poor alike. After several days without bread, Sablé sent out military expeditions into the countryside and seized grain and flour from farms and mills. Auvers was particulary targeted as being the richest and most hostile royalist village. Le Moulin de la Roche would have been a prime target.

As I sit here in the garden, overlooking the river, I wonder what it must have been like for these two brothers and their families to see armed men striding down the drive, demanding that they hand over everything they needed to work and feed their families.

There was a brief armistice in March 1795 when the Chouans, Royalist rebels agreed to negotiate a peace but this was only a play for time while they awaited the arrival of reinforcements from England. Hostilities recommenced on the night of the 2/3 May (La Deuxième Chouannerie). A period of guerrilla warfare followed, with bridges being sabotaged by the Chouans to prevent Sablé communicating with surrounding villages and towns. Again, food was strictly rationed for the towns people and the soldiers who were garrisoned there by this time. Wood for heating and cooking was also in short supply. On the 21st January 1796 Sablé requisitioned boats from the river ports in the town and sent them out along the river Sarthe towards Parcé-sur-Sarthe, to bring back wood from the forests surrounding the Château de Pescheseul, recently confiscated as property of the nation after the revolution. The wood was cut and loaded on to the boats but as they made their way back to Sablé they were attacked by 1600 rebels and the armed escort which was travelling along the opposite bank could do nothing to help. Two boats were sunk and the others all set on fire. Republican troops arrived from nearby garrisons and after three hours of fighting the rebels were overcome. Sixty men were left dead on the battlefield.

Le Bataillon Carré, Affaire de Fougères 1793 – Julien Le Blant (1851-1936)

On the 28th January the Sablé municipality wrote a letter to the Minister for War begging for help, describing the plight of the townspeople and how so many of the surrounding villages were now empty as their inhabitants had fled their homes to escape the constant attacks by the Chouans. In response Sablé was officially declared to be in a state of siege and troops from garrisons in the area sent to support them.   

The troubles in the area continued for many more years with murders of local officials, attacks on the National Guards and in 1799 the village of Auvers-le-Hamon was itself under siege. A band of Chouans walked in to the village in broad daylight and ‘got the mayor to contribute to their cause’.

On the first of July 1805, (a Monday as stated on the official record) René Monsimier died at the mill aged 66. His widow Perrine would live another 31 years and although she died in Auvers, I don’t know whether she stayed at the mill all that time. René Plassais continued to run the mill alone.

Between 1800 and 1815,  as France see-sawed backwards and forwards between royal and republican rule, followed by a brief occupation by the Prussian army, in the town of Sablé and surrounding villages there continued to be sporadic outbursts of violence, changes to local administration, fear and hardship for the people who lived here.

The Plassais family must have longed for the uncertainty and struggle to end, and eventually life did start to get easier, despite the random attacks by the Chouans continuing until 1825.  In 1809, there was a significant discovery which would change the fortunes of the area. A local farmer had brought a piece of black rock to the surface on the wheel of his cart and Monsieur Dugué, the owner of Le Ronceray, the farm just over the road from Moulin de la Roche, recognised it as anthracite. Over the next few years many concessions were granted for coal mines in the local area. The discovery brought new wealth to the local communes but today, no mines remain. There just wasn’t enough large industry round here to make the mines viable.

Throughout the turmoil of these years, René and his wife continued to work Moulin de la Roche. I’ll probably never know how badly these years of hardship affected the two families or if they just got on with life. Jeanne Plassais died in 1810, three years before the marriage of her eldest daughter Perrine to Louis Brossier a farmer’s son from Auvers. René followed 10 years later, passing away at the mill at the age of 70 on the 14th March 1820.

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