My Burgundy Your Burgundy

History, culture and nature

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Friendly (mostly) local animal life

He was, I think lost, almost certainly a hunting dog, and very keen on chorizo. And not very well socialised to the idea of relating to humans or to the idea that barging into the house mightn’t be appropriate. He was also very, very wet.

I was struggling to read the (roughly hand-written) telephone number on his collar to call his owner (and yes the French comms would have been a challenge) when a local stopped and offered to help. Said dog last seen disappearing in the rear of his car, shaking himself dry vigorously…

Then there was what I’m going to call a banded grasshopper, to coin a name, with a smaller friend in the background…

And an insect I’m struggling to categorise – maybe a dragonfly relative?

Fruits of the late summer garden…

Well, okay not my apricots – don’t think it is warm enough quite where I am, but my cooking…

But this definitely my home-grown radish…

And what you’d call a serious squash…

And finally what I hope will be a real harvest of Jerusalem artichoke. Certainly the above-the-ground action is looking promising…

L’Alice – wonderful film, wonderful life

To a packed salle de fete in Etang sur Arroux for a showing of a documentary film, L’Alice, a fly-on-the-wall style documentary about the life of a woman farmer in the hamlet of Dront, near Anost, in the Morvan.

Alice Dumont, in this film made between 2006 and 2008, is a widow who runs a traditional farm with her odds job man Pierrot Garnet. (I should preface all of the following by saying that a large part of the French of the film was too colloquial and too fast for me – I mostly got by through looking at the pictures, and while that meant I missed a lot of the laughs, I still got a huge amount out of it, but I may have got some details askew.)

There are ducks and geese and hens, all fed, as Alice tells us, on proper grains, none of that pellet stuff; cattle and sheep (and the scene with Alice massaging the tongue of a milking cow, which chews on her hand as gently and affectionately as a puppy, is an unforgettable image of inter-species understanding); rabbits, a traditional source of protein in the Morvan – there are cages still in my garden; and plentiful vegetables (we see Alice transplanting the lettuce seedlings, hard work at any age). And of course cats and rather plump dogs, and horses around, although apparently no longer in working use.

This is country life – almost no scenes barred from the camera, including animal death and human mourning. It was interesting that the audience, pretty well entirely local, gasped and exhibited shock at the killing of a rabbit by the traditional method here – it was stunned by a punch to the head, having been held upside down until it was still, then the throat cut with a thin-bladed knife. Yet there’s much compassion and care for the animals – Alice practically talks to them and they appear to understand, most notably in a scene where some hens wander through the house.

The audience were interestingly also rather uncomfortable with the making of blood sausages – into pig intestines, then boiled in an outside vat; something that was probably one of the highlights of their parents’ year, and certainly something Alice and her friends much enjoyed.

So the life is fascinating, as a fast-disappearing, but highly sustainable and ecologically sound one (I’d love to be able to put together some of the older people still living this life with some groups I know of that are trying to in effect re-create it from scratch, because I think at the moment there’s little communication, but much that could be learnt).

But it’s also a wonderful human and often also wonderfully funny story. The scene of a cat clambering backwards down a snowy ladder in mid-winter; Alice’s discovery of the accident of ploughing that left lettuce seedlings wandering across the field; neighbours getting together in cheery if rather alcohol-fueled fraternity.

And the total star is Alice herself – her energy and enthusiasm for life are breathtaking. The scene of her chasing at full speed runaway cattle through the forest – well one can only wish to be capable of that at 80. And she’s clearly someone who’s suffered a lot in her life – her husband I gathered was killed in a tractor accident, and since then she’s carried on the vast work of the farm almost single-handed (inside and outside work), with only the rather limited help of Pierre.

She’s utterly unself-conscious in front of the camera – utterly comfortable with herself and who she is – and director Alice Comode has done a wonderful job of bringing it all together. She was at the showing and indicated, I believe, in questions afterwards that Alice died last year –

One Facebook commentary describes the film as “une formidable leçon de vie”, which I think sums it up pretty well. Even if you don’t understand a word of French, it’s a film you could get a lot out of.

More about the film.

Peacock butterfly caterpillars (I think) on my nettles

Seen this afternoon amidst a vast (I’m cutting them down in stages) patch of nettles, the following formidable-looking collection of caterpillars…

Close up…

What seemed surprising was that they were concentrated on a couple of stalks of nettles, although closer examination reveated that close by were a couple of stalks that seemed to have been stripped by them and covered with a spider web-like netting.

There also seemed to be signs of their droppings on some stalks nearby.

I’ve come to the conclusion they are probably peacock butterfly caterpillars, based on the facts that they feed primarily on common nettles, that “large vigorous plants in the middle of nettle beds are often selected” as a place to lay eggs, which fits this description, and they are “very conspicuous in June ” (well it has been a warm year).

Fascinated to read that they hibernate over winter so can live up to 11 months, can fly up to 90km, and that they appear to be doing well out of climate change.

Also nearby was this butterfly, which confused identification, but I don’t think it was related to the caterpillars, just in close proximity to them….

(It’s not really as blue as that picture suggests – the base colour of its wings was really white.)

Do you know what the butterfly is? If so please leave a comment!

Update: Further support for my butterfly identification comes from my copy of Vents Du Morvan, which had an illustration of common Morvan animals, in which the Peacock butterfly is the only butterfly.

Ecouter le Monde… Sculptor Bernard Dejonghe at the Bibracte Museum

When I read that Bibracte Museum was not going to have an archaeological exhibition this year I was disappointed. I much enjoyed last year’s Gallic heads exhibition, and the previous year’s La Tene display, and was looking forward to something similar. (The Museum also traditionally has an annual small modern art exhibition, but I’ll confess none have stuck in my memory.)

But after seeing Ecouter le Monde (Listening to the World), by sculptor Bernard Dejonghe, I am disappointed no longer. To start with it is not just modern art, but it starts, temporally if not physically, in the far distant past, with astonishing curiosities from North African deserts.

Among these are pieces what is known as Libyan desert glass, thought (although this is still a subject of much controversy) to have been formed by meteorite impact some 26 million years ago.

There are also fulgerites, formed by lightning strikes on sand, millions of joules of energy trapped in fragile equilibrium.


And then there’s the grand daddy of geological moment, 77 fragments of the meteorite gathered from Tafassasset in Niger, gathered by the artist over three expeditions and arranged here from largest to smallest like the tail of a comet. The massive heat of the force of the passage through the atmosphere is visible on some of the pieces.
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Some snippets of local Burgundian medieval history

I’ve been reading Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 and was pleased to find that Burgundy features quite prominently.

We have Theodoric the Ostrogoth giving the Burgundian monarch Gundobad a water-clock in about 506, which Wickham says, was designed to show the superiority of Italian/Roman technology. (p. 218)

Wickham talks about the centrality of kings in the Merovingian political system, the place of aristocrats and bishops defined by court politics. That he says that local politics could have place, the bishops in particular who threw themselves too heartily into central government politics could be unpopular. “When Leudegar of Autun was finally destroyed by Ebroin in 676-8 it is clear he got little support Autun itself.” (p. 127)

Autun also features earlier, in the late 460s, as Sidonius Apollinarus tells a friend, the bishops of Lyon and Autun had to choose a new compatriot in Chalon-sur-Saone. “there were three candidates, unnamed, one claiming office because his family was old, one who had built up support in the city by feeding the people, and one who promised church land to supporters. The bishops instead chose the holy cleric John, who had slowly moved up the church heirarchy, thus confounding the local factions.” (p. 50)

Getting into Carolingian times, Autun was in the early 860s held by Count Bernard “Hairy-paws” (i.e. foxy, d. 886) of the Guilhelmid family, which had got tangled up in civil wars in earlier decades, not to its benefit. In 864 “for unclear reasons, he tried to assassinate either Robert the Strong or Charles the Bald himself; he lost most of his honores at once, and Autun two years later.” But he was able to recover, return to court, and start accumulating lands again – his son called himself duke of Aquitaine. (p. 511)

After the Carolingian empire broke up (887-8) into five kingdoms, the first Burgundian king was Rudolph. from Queen Judith’s family. “What destroyed Carolingian power was simply genealogy. There had always been too many Carolingians…. as late as 870 there were eight legitimate adult male Carolingians, all kings or ambitious to become kings. In 885, however, there was only one… Charles ‘the Fat’ … reunited the whole empire in 884 for the first time since 840…Charles was ill, and had only an illegitimate son.” (p. 402)

And we have the Macon famous as “one of the nest-documented areas of tenth- and eleventh-century Europe, thanks to the thousands of charters of the monastery of Cluny, and thanks also to Georges Duby’s epoch-making regional study of 1953”. What Wickham sees is “the pulverization of the structures of the county, and the takeover of all the public traditions of the state by private landholding families”. (p. 515) So he follows one family the Uxelles lords, who by the second quarter of the eleventh century had descended to having rights of over only around 100 square kilometres, “by no means all of it directly controlled by the family.”

Those are mere fragments, but one of the things I find fascinating about this area is that you can often be walking on the ground where these events happened, or even between the walls that held them…

Was this what a Druid looked like? The Gaullish head exhibition at Bibracte (“Les Gaulois font la tête”)

It’s a tenet of archaeological faith that the Celts had a primarily non-figurative art, but the current exhibition at Bibracte, the museum at the Eduen capital that was later replaced by nearby Roman Autun, focuses on what can be found from across the continent.

Its basic thesis is that the most dominant objects, sculpted heads, occasionally in wood (but how many might have survived?) but more commonly in stone, probably represent a cult of ancestor worship, the subsequent understanding being hopelessly warped by the Greco-Roman religious perspective on which most of our written knowledge of the Celtic civilisation is based. It says we can’t know if they had a funerary function, or votive, but were certainly meant to provide magical protection, security and prestige to their community.

In smaller items, handles for metal vessels, swords, jewelery and the like, there’s figures in which the vegetable is transforming into human forms. The catalogue suggests these represent a form of metamorphosis, a suggestion that the metaphysical is present always in the everyday.

(I learnt,which I hadn’t previously known, that the Celts often believed in reincarnation.)

The other thing about Celts and heads is that they seem to have been rather fascinated with skulls, not just, perhaps the taking of heads in battle, but beyond that. There’s quite a number here, including a particularly gory one with a nail driven through it, whether pre or post mortem isn’t clear – perhaps for display on a wall? The exhibition reports that fragments of craniums were carried in amulets. In one case a buried body was left whole after the face was carefully cut out.
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The frustrating July garden

It is all growing beautifully, but except for the courgettes, nothing is ready to eat. Won’t be back for quite a while, so hopefully the neighbours will enjoy…

The tomatoes, of which the three types I put in have all done well…

green tomatoes

green tomatoes

green tomatoes

And the pumpkin vine is rampant…

pumpkin vine

… and showing real signs of productivity (last year I got two huge ones, this year a number of smaller ones would be preferable!

young pumpkin

The chilli pepper and the aubergine have done less well – suspect they need more warmth than they are getting at 650m.

Our local traffic hazard

Everyone slows down, or stops, to see how the baby donkey is doing today..

baby donkey


Morvan, then and now…

Extracts from Le Morvan, [A District of France,] Its Wild Sports, Vineyards and Forests; with Legends, Antiquities, Rural and Local Sketches by Henri de Crignelle (1851).

Pictures from the 21st century.

“In the woods … the storms there are sometimes terrible, and, like those of the tropics, arise and terminate with wonderful rapidity. These tempests, which purify the atmosphere, leave behind them a delicious coolness, the trees and shrubs, as they shake from their trembling leaves their sparkling tears, appear so bright—the flowers which raise again their drooping heads, load the air with such delightful odours—the whole forest, in short, seems so refreshed and full of life, that every one hails their approach, the toil-worn peasant breathes without complaint the sultry air, and observes with pleasure the dark and lowering clouds gathering in the far horizon.”


“No; there scarcely breathes the human being who could be so insensible to the charms of scenery like that of Le Morvan…”


“If the woods and forests of Le Morvan, which, by the clouds they attract, the thunder-storms that continually fall over them, and the moisture that generally prevails, feed a great many streams, the district is not the less deprived, by its elevated position, of large rivers and extensive sheets of water; for the rains, falling down the sides of the trees, and penetrating the thick mossy grass at their roots, do not remain for any length of time on the surface of the earth. The whole forest may, in fact, be described as a large sponge, through which the water filters, descending to the inferior strata, where it finds the secret drains of Nature, and is by them conducted into the plains.”

Morvan forest

“Le Morvan is certainly not a country for a petit-mâitre or a delicate lady to live in; to enjoy yourself there you must have the fire and energy of youth in your veins, a stout heart, the lungs of a mountaineer, and a sinewy frame. You must love a forester’s life, the hound and the rifle… to him who in the full sense of the term is a sporting man, or a lover of nature, I would say: Go—explore Le Morvan!”

Morvan hills

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