Cottage life in 18th century France

Many thanks to Dani, of A work in Progress, for giving me the idea of this post on the early years of Gabrielle, the heroine of Mistress of the Revolution, with her wet nurse, Mamé Laborde.

Boilly Peasants

Boilly Peasants

My heroine spent the first years of her life in a cottage similar to the one depicted above by Boilly. She shared a single room with Mamé Laborde and her five sons, only separated from the family’s sheep by a thin partition.

Auvergne cottage

Auvergne cottage

As for the exterior, the cottage would have looked like the image to the right, except that the roof would have been thatched. The shutters, as here, would have closed, except in warm, sunny weather. Poor people could not afford window panes, so shutters provided the only protection against the rain, snow and cold. The cottage would have been very dark most of the time.

Some of my readers were surprised to learn that a daughter of the nobility would be sent for years to the care of a wet nurse. It was in fact standard practice, though attitudes were slowly evolving under the influence of Rousseau’s ideas, and parents were beginning to take more of an interest in their young children.

The only unusual thing about Gabrielle is that she stays with her nurse until the age of six, when she is sent to the Convent of the Benedictines in Vic to receive the rudiments of an education. Most children would have been retrieved by their families when they were weaned, at the age of two or three.

I do believe that life with Mamé Laborde is a positive experience for Gabrielle. As the only girl in a family of five boys, she learns to fend for herself. She owes these early years the ability to relate to people who are deemed socially her inferiors, and this experience serves as a preparation for the frugal lifestyle she will know during the Revolution.

Indeed Gabrielle dwells fondly on those childhood memories, in particular those relating to her beloved frère de lait (milk brother) Jacques. He is the one who holds her hand for comfort when, as children, they are made to attend the hanging of a thief. One summer day, he twines wild carnations into her braids.

“Since infancy,” writes Gabrielle, “we had played in the snow in winter and in the freshly cut hay during the long days of June. We had
slipped away together to bathe and fish trout by hand in the Cère River.”


All posts in the Footsteps of Gabrielle series:

Return to Fontfreyde

Cottage life

Arriving in Paris

Fashions in Paris before the Revolution

Dressing for Court

Discovering Versailles

The presentation to Marie-Antoinette in the Salon of the Nobles

The Royal Chapel

The Queen’s Bedchamber

The sweetness of living

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5 Comments to “Cottage life in 18th century France”

  1. Valerie Page says:

    I am trying to find any drawings or paintings of the early 18th century poorer people, as my ancestors were working class, servants or farmers or farm labourers. The painting of cottage life in 18th century france, seems to me as good as any. But my ancestors, were in England, not France. There seems to be, to me, a lot of images of upper class 18th century people, but not the common folk, that probably were there servants, or rented land from them, to farm, etc. Well, i’ll keep looking

  2. Yes, it was this childhood, with a strong, loving maternal figure and five brothers, that later gave Gabrielle the strength to go through the trials of her life.

  3. Danielle says:

    Jacques was indeed warned off by his mother. It was a sweet childhood really. I can see why Gabrielle would have been so happy there. I also noticed that staircase–gorgeous!


    Yet for years this is the only home Gabrielle knows. Note that these are well-to-do peasants. Well fed, with decent clothes, and they all have shoes or some kind of footwear. But there is no natural light, and the cottage has a dirt floor. For heat and lighting, you had the fireplace, which gives very nice shadows in the painting.

    And you are right, Dani, there was definitely a little something going on between Jacques and Gabrielle, but he got the message first. Gabrielle was off-limits to him once she hit puberty. And no, we don’t find out what happens to him. I think Gabrielle was really hurt by his aloofness.

    And if you look down at the Fontfreyde post, I added a picture of the monumental exterior staircase. So now you can have a better idea of the real place.

  5. Danielle says:

    Thanks for posting this. Quite different than Gabrielle’s actual home! Although the cottage looks picturesque to me now, it would have been quite a different story to think of no light or heat in it. The money must have been welcome to the Laborde family. For some reason when I started reading the book I was expecting Gabrielle to fall in love with Jacques (not sure where I ever got that idea)! We don’t ever find out what happens to him, do we?

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