We always recommend our guests to do a circular walk starting from Pépoulie, so as to get an idea of the past few centuries’ social and economic changes that have made the countryside round here the way it is. It’s also good exercise, taking about an hour.
Turning right out of the driveway, go down the hill. After a hundred metres or so, at the crossroads, ignore the sign to Prat Moure (this leads to a shorter version of the walk), and continue on the tarmac lane. You'll soon have the above view of the back of Pépoulie. Then on either side you’ll see farmhouses and fields of sunflowers, wheat, millet, or maize (depending on the year) and carry straight on past a sign, La Rousselié.
The lane now becomes a tree-lined track, until you come to a crossroads and a pretty little church, St Etienne, on the corner. In the tiny graveyard is an imposing family grave with the family names Castaing, Bastide, and, intriguingly, a Swedish name, Ljunggren. (All I’ve been able to find out so far, from the Puylaurens register of deaths, is that an eight month old Ljungren (sic), Eugêne Jules, died in the family house Saint Alens-Bas in 1892.)
At the crossroads, turn right and go past signs Mie Basse en Roque on the left and La Métairie Basse on the right. After Le Ségala (which in Occitan means “where seigle (barley) is grown), at the next small crossroads you’ll see Les Imbertaries marked to the right. Make a short detour along the lane opposite marked Bellevue, to see one of the pigeonniers so characteristic of this area. Up until the twentieth century an important source of protein was pigeon.
At the next crossroads turn right, and continue on this hilly road past signs to La Métairie Grande, La Causserie, Cassieu and Barens. You can then see Pépoulie across the fields to your right. Once you reach the Vielmur-sur-Agout to Pépoulie road, turn right and right again down the lane to Pépoulie.
Nearly all the signs you’ll see refer to houses very similar in size, form and age to Pépoulie – Barrau, La Rousselié, and so on. What is striking is how many working farms there are, like Les Imbertaries, En Ségala, Barens, or former farmsteads, like Pépoulie, and how close to each other they are. An 1834 cadastral map (copy in the gîte) shows that each only had between two and four hectares of land on which to support a family, and, before the Revolution, pay the hated taxes like the taille.
Some of the farm names have either métairie in them – Métairie Basse, Métairie Grande - or the abbreviation Mie - Mie Basse en Roque. The 1834 cadastral map shows that many more of the farms you pass were also métairies, including Pépoulie: Barrau Mie, EnSiau Mie, Roujou Mie, Rousselie Mie.
A métairie is a sharecropping, and a métayer a sharecropper, as opposed to an owner working the farm. During the 18th century, when Pépoulie was built, up until the Revolution, the number of sharecroppers increased dramatically: by 1791, only four of the 386 farms recorded in the commune of Puylaurens were owner-farmers.
Contracts drawn up by lawyers in Puylaurens in the 18th century give a good picture of how the farming was organized. Most often the contract start date was All Saints Day, after the harvest. The owner had to provide equipment, including plough oxen and cattle, as well as seeds, proof of how poor the sharecropper generally was. The only tools we find sometimes specified in the contracts that the sharecropper supplied were a scythe, a fork or a hoe.
He had to live on the land, and shared with the owner any surplus or loss at the end of each year on the cereals and cattle. This was either equally (after deducting the cost of seeds), or sometimes less for the sharecropper.
In addition, the sharecropper’s wife had to supply the owner with a fixed number of hens, capons, geese and eggs, which she brought to the owner on market days.
Taxes were generally paid by the owner, but with a contribution from the sharecropper often greater than his finances allowed. Contracts could be cancelled by either owner or sharecropper at any time. Between the 15th and 18th centuries these could be as long as 10, 15 or even 20 years. By the second half of the 18th century, these had often been reduced to only a year at a time. All of this would have increased resentment and uncertainty, resulting in the explosion of the Revolution.
The 1834 map shows Pépoulie métairie extending at the back to a line between Prat Moure and Barens, making it about four hectares instead of the one at present. One can imagine how much hard work it would have been ploughing this amount of land. Crops would have included cereals (especially wheat, of which the owner often took a major part to sell), and maize (used for flour and as animal feed), crops still grown in this region. A crop very common now, but not then, is sunflowers, used for making oil.
Further reading: Frèche G, 2001, Puylaurens, une ville huguenote en Languedoc (Editions Privat, Toulouse) ISBN 2 7089 5608 6. (I got much of the above information from this book, which is available in Puylaurens library.)