Itinerant pedlars of the High Couserans in the 19th century

laffitteIn the Haut-Couserans, in the mid 19th century, there was massive overpopulation. With 50 inhabitants per km2 in the cantons of Oust and Castillon and 87 in Massat there were far too many people for the little usable land in this mountainous region. To the misery from this, in 1846 was added famine caused by the potato blight, which swept across Europe as well as Ireland.

Many had to leave the area. Some chose exile in the cities or in a far off land while others, whose roots were deep, only went into temporary exile, for example as itinerant pedlars ("colporteurs"). After this, peddling became an important part of the Haut-Couserans economy right up until the early 20th century.

They left during the winter, most of them on foot. Only the well-off could go by cart. They took a "cayché", the case carried on the chest with straps over the shoulders or sometimes the "marmotte" with two cases, one inside the other. There they laid out their stock bought from one of the wholesalers such as Dougnac or Souquet in Soueix or Denis Farge in Saint Girons, settling the accounts when they returned with the money from their wanderings.

caseColporteurs couldn’t afford to be lazy. Visiting customers was better than setting up in the center of a village and this could take them up to the isolated farms. In this way, little by little, they gained faithful customers and would return to them every year. There they could sleep out under the stars or in the barns, avoiding the towns where they wouldn’t be welcomed in the same way.

Each area of the Couserans specialised, both for the goods that were sold and the areas they were taken to. In the canton of Massat, which covered many of the activities, Aleu was known for ‘sharpening stones’, Soulan for reading glasses and Biert for vanilla. Oust and Ustou were known for jewellery, notions (haberdashery) and religious objects such as rosaries and medallions from Lourdes; often these were taken to Spain and Algeria, and pepper, vanilla and other exotic products were brought back. Couflens, Capvert and Salau specialised almost exclusively in reading glasses; the valley of Bellongue in bonnets and cloth which were taken to the East of France where the peddlers were nicknamed ‘les Gascons’.

As well as peddlers, there were other temporary economic migrants from the valleys such as

- ‘montreurs d’ours’ whose skills with bears were developed in the valleys of Alet and Garbet starting in the late 18th Century.
- wet nurses from the Bethmale valley who were renowned in Toulouse and always left in traditional costume.
- ‘brûleurs d’eau de vie’ from Massat who carried their stills on their backs and visited villages at a fixed date to distill the ‘eau de vie’ -- brandy -- from plums and apples.
- seasonal workers who left for the plains of the Garonne or Languedoc.

All those people travelling across France and countries abroad and having no fixed abode started to worry the authorities. So, on the 15 December 1815, the Ministry of Police sent out a circular requiring every pedlar and travelling salesman to carry a ‘livret’ (record book) issued by the authorities where they usually lived and these had to be stamped by the authorities in each area they passed through.

The regulations governing the livrets were frequently revised during the course of the 19th century and required that none be issued without a strict investigation of the person’s moral standards and previous history. It is these records, partially conserved in the Archives Départementales de l’Ariège, that give us today an understanding of just how important these activities were.

Based on an article by Marie Noëlle ARTAUD
(trans. T. Nash)

Many thanks to these photographers

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From 2000 to the end of 2017 was a site devoted to tourism in the department of Ariège. The site is minimally maintained now but you can get a flavour of this beautiful area of the Pyrenees.