Chris might have promised not to get too far into the “This Old House” mode as he works on the cool old building he plans to turn into the Lost Art Press Bat Cave. I however made no such promise, and my neighbor recently gave me a couple of pallets of old roof tiles as a contribution to renovating my own Bat Cave/barn (with real bats! but no belfry, which doesn’t seem fair or appropriate, somehow).
When you receive a few thousand old roof tiles as a gift, on the condition that you do not leave the pallets full of tiles decorating your neighbor’s yard for any length of time, you get out the wheelbarrow and decorously start to move them to adorn your own.
The tiles were made from clay deposits down the hill along the river Cher that runs through my village. The clay was pressed into molds and then left in the sun to dry enough to be fired, and during that time various kinds of marks made their way into the fresh clay. So to relieve the tedium of sorting and moving the tiles, it is fun, as part of making sure they are still sound and fit to be re-used, to inspect what was the sunny-side-up, which goes down when they are installed on the roof.
You get dog prints, cat prints, small birds, big birds, various other types of beasts, even children. There was the one with the number 1786 written on the back, which either means it was the 1786th tile of that production run, or that it was made in 1786. I figure that 220 years is pretty good for a hunk of terra-cotta exposed to the weather in all seasons, and if the tiles are sound, they will last for plenty more.
But the other day, I found a real puzzler, which lead me into a Felibien-esque journey back in time.
“Sante lu Douice” it read as I turned it over.
“Santé” means healthy or in good equilibrium. But there is also the trace of an “i,” after the “a,” which would make it “Sainté” – sainted or blessed.
“Douice” does not exist, as such, in French, but a few minutes rummaging around turned up a couple of books from the 17th century where I saw it as an alternate spelling of “douce,” or possibly “doulce,” meaning pleasant, agreeable, moderate, sweet.
“Lu” is a puzzler, the past tense of “lire” (to read), which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in context. But there is the word “lieu,” which means place, which makes perfect sense.
“Healthy pleasant place” or “Blessed pleasant place” would be exactly what one might expect from somebody wanting to bless the house upon which they were installing a new roof.
Of course it could also mean “Falling off the roof is bad for your health.”
Asking around online and in the neighborhood, the inscription mostly got a Gallic shrug. The writing is obviously a benediction, but as to the specifics, the thoughts ranged from “Who knows?” to an old non-standard spelling, or in the local patois?
There are perhaps 50 more or less regional languages in France, the patois, and they could vary even from village to village. They are based largely on the ancient north vs. south, Langue d’Oil vs. Langue d’Oc language divide in France, with Basque, Breton, Germanic, Catalan and others scattered around the edges. Some of them developed a literature and more or less complete dictionaries, but in the French heartland, they were mostly the spoken dialects, with educated people, publicly anyway, speaking and writing in French. One of the gratifying signs, as I was learning French, was the increasing frequency with which I began to understand conversation around me. One of the surprising things was how often, in more isolated and rural areas, I realized that the French people around me were not in fact speaking French.
In the 1780s the locals speaking patois as their first language would have been a large majority. So it is easy to see how a word in popular inscriptions like this could be misspelled, or a word like “lieu” could end up rendered phonetically as “lu.”
Graham Robb, in his book “The Discovery of France,” has a good account of the history of the patois, along with in this context a perfect anecdote.
He says that nobody knows why the divide between the Langue d’Oil and Langue d’Oc falls where it does. It does not consistently follow any natural or historic boundaries. Is it perhaps a general Roman as opposed to Burgundian influence, or something more ancient? But there is one way to tell where the line runs.
South of the line, the tiled roofs of vernacular buildings have a slope of about 30° and are covered with canal, or Roman, tiles. North of the line, the slope is much steeper, around 45°, and the roofs are covered with flat tiles, like these.
— Brian Anderson. Anderson is translating Andre Felibien’s “Des Principes de l’Architecture, de la Sculpture, de la Peinture, et des Autres Arts qui en Dépendent.”