February 3rd, 2016
The name of the river comes from a Celtic word meaning “tranquil.” The Somme flows, gentle and winding, through the north of France, towards the English Channel and a bay where Duke William of Normandy once assembled the fleet that would transform him into William the Conqueror. Halfway through the river’s 150-mile course across Picardy, the city of Amiens rises on its banks, but this spot was seen as a good place to live long before its citizens spoke French. When Caesar came this way, he found the Ambiani, minting gold coins in a place they called Somme Bridge.
The languid river often fans out to form wetlands, one of which is just east of Amiens. Peat fields form in these fens, and the medieval inhabitants of the Somme Valley would dig peat to warm themselves in the long, dank winters. They worked systematically, excavating peat in long strips, and the river, never far from the surface, would flood those strips. Some time — the earliest written evidence suggests that time was somewhere in the late Middle Ages — those flooded strips evolved into a maze of diminutive canals, called rieux, dividing the one-time marsh into a maze of tiny islands, called aires, and on those islands, people began to plant vegetable gardens.
Amiens grew into a bustling city. The farmlands around it produced wool and flax, as well as the woad plant, a source of indigo. The Somme brought merchant vessels right to the doorsteps of this city and it became a a center of cloth manufacture. As the cloth business grew, power in the city shifted from the church and the nobility and the rich bourgeoisie, to a broad coalition of weavers, cloth merchants, dyers and, interestingly, tavern-keepers. As a hub of the cloth trade, the streets and wharves of Amiens were thick with visitors here to buy and sell and consequently, the nascent hotel industry of the taverniers was big business.
Feeding all those people was the livelihood of those who worked the water-maze called the hortillonnages. Now, it must be said that vegetable gardening in the gloomy and chalky landscape of Picardy was generally regarded as a miserable occupation, the kind of thing that people did because they had to get food on their own tables. The Little Ice Age had a lot to do with that, after bringing down the curtain on the sunny, bounteous centuries of the high Middle Ages and making the task of subsisting alarmingly tenuous. But life, and agriculture, was different in the hortillonnages.
In the history of vegetable gardening, the culture maraîchère of nineteenth-century Parisian market gardeners is still regarded as the apogee of the craft — eight harvests a year, fresh produce through the winter, supply for the entire city and extra to export, and all without the benefit of machines, electricity, artificial heating or artificial fertilizers. It’s beyond anything anyone’s been able to do ever since, regardless of technique or technology, but perhaps the most startling aspect of their achievement was that it was completely sustainable.
While the culture maraîchère is all but gone, vegetable gardeners are still known as maraîchers, and there’s a clue to where it all started in that name; the literal meaning of maraîcher is “marsh-man.” Most of the key innovations that made possible the culture maraîchère earlier appeared on the marshy outskirts of Amiens.
The hortillons (men) and hortillonnes (women) of the hortillonnages built their way of life on four basic principles. The first was lavishing their plants with water and enriched soil. Next, they watched each plant for signs of faltering and immediately replaced those not growing vigorously. They also practiced succession planting, sowing together species that matured at different times so that there was never a time when the land was fallow. Finally, they were prudent in choosing to work plots small enough so that they could examine, and know, every last plant.
It wasn’t a leisurely life. Hortillon families worked most daylight hours, and that’s a long time in the high latitude summer of northern Europe. They were their own draft animals: men, women and children. But they never went hungry through centuries when the Little Ice Age routinely delivered famine to the continent. And there’s a certain advantage to having everything come down to what a human can do with his or her own muscles, because that quickly inspires cleverness. Lack of power, in other words, can beget wit.
The river was a big part of it. The hortillons developed a characteristic boat called the barque à cornets. Long, flat-bottomed, and with a peculiarly high prow, the barque à cornets was the pickup truck of the hortillonnages. Three times a week, the entire family would turn-to, filling flat, round baskets called mannes with produce and stacking the baskets into the boats, as many as 120 in each. Though it was the men, mostly, who took the lead in working the gardens, when it was time to take the produce to market, the hortillonnes ran the show.
On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings, they would paddle downriver, their laden boats aided by the current, until they reached an embankment inside the city wall of Amiens. This open square along the river was le marché sur l’eau, the Market on the Water, and it’s indicative of both the industry of the hortillonnages and culture of Amiens that it was a wholesale market; their produce went only to the tavern-keepers and merchants of the town.
The river also enabled the surprising fact that the hortillons commuted to work. The families lived in the Saint-Leu neighborhood of Amiens, close by le marché sur l’eau, canals coming right to the doors of their modest, closely-packed houses.
There was one more key element that tied the island gardens of the hortillons to the city of Amiens, and that was shit. Horsepower came from horses in every century before the twentieth, and for the hortillons, that manure was priceless. The cargo they collected at a “dung harbor” at the foot of the city wall was the essential element to maintaining the fertility of their relentlessly worked soil. It was also a power source of its own, the heat of the decomposing manure helping to keep the soil warm in the dark, chill winter.
But if there was a closed circle of sustenance between the hortillonnages and the city, it was also a circle which enclosed the hortillons. Their homes, their work, the river, the market, and church were the boundaries of their world. They had their own dialect, their own mode of dress; hortillons married only hortillonnes and they kept the secrets of their miraculous productivity to themselves. Though the larger hortillon community would pitch in together at times, for the most part, a hortillon’s life was defined by family. Islands were worked by single families. And when they got back to Saint-Leu, they tucked into their family homes.
But, in between, was the river. It was the one place in their ordered lives where there was time and opportunity to do those things which human beings cannot help but do. If you let your imagination drift back, it’s easy to wonder… How many rivalries played out as the barques jockeyed to be first through the narrow arches of the du Cange Bridge? How many courtships played out as glances between passing boats? How many infants were lulled to sleep by the rocking of the boat and the rhythm of the paddle?
The river was a stage for pride and playfulness, for competition and camaraderie. The barques were not simply loaded down with produce. The baskets were carefully stacked in layers of color, brilliant greens, oranges and scarlet, each family competing with the display of their harvest. The boats streamed down the rivers in long lines, piloted by the hortillonnes, their soft bonnets fluttering like the butterflies for which they were nicknamed.
As they approached Amiens in the dusk, resting their paddles and letting the river carry them forward, they could watch the sky turn rosy behind the cathedral’s god-reaching spires, and feel content in a certain knowledge. In this thriving, wealthy city, all the nobles, and all the traders, all the weavers, and dyers and stable boys and travelers, and the every other one of them, whether or not they ever gave it a thought, was dependent on the skill and steadfastness of the hortillons. When they brought their parade of most literal “floats” to rest at the quayside in Amiens, they talked about their cargo of food — all of it, the sum of all their combined labors — as la marée, “the tide,” and there’s something to that, because for decades and generations their delivery of food to the city was as inevitable and unstoppable as the turning of the earth and the cycles of the moon.
It was, by most measures, a small way of life. No hortillon novels or paintings have come down to us. No hortillon wrote a treatise on their techniques. They were too busy to pause for these things, and would have had no use for any education that they could not gather at the market, on the river, or working the aires. What they left to us are only a few specialized tools that no one knows how to use any more and the hortillonnage radish, pure scarlet with a white tip, highly prized and now lost.
All that’s really left, of course, is the hortillonnages itself, a quilt of soil and river now given over to bird watchers and fishermen and tourists, who roam the rieux in replicas of the barques, never mind that now they have motors and run stern-first so as not to spoil the view with that high prow.
The hortillons never created anything that lasted and maybe that’s the problem. Ours, that is, not theirs. We only notice the great men, the big battles, the deathless artworks and the enduring buildings and the vast fortunes and think that, yes — this is what the history of my kind tells me is meaningful, so this is what I should aspire to, this is how I should measure success.
But mostly unnoticed and largely forgotten, the hortillons suggest something else. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to think of them as a civilization. Tiny, to be sure, and leaving only the most modest of ruins, but the hortillons — with nothing more than mud and shit and some backyard boatbuilding — endured. They lived their way of life for at least five hundred years and probably seven hundred. Dozens of generations came and went with the rhythm of la marée, and still they went on, almost unchanging in the midst of renaissance, reformation, enlightenment and countless wars. You could say that it was because their way of life was so primitive, that there was nothing much there to change. But you could also say that they didn’t need to change because they had embraced one of the most essential human activities and perfected it, made it their own, shaped the work as it shaped them in an endless cycle that is not about time, or progress, but simply about living within the circles of human life, circles which our own civilization would dearly like to replace with a straight line that never ends. There’s a little bit of irony in that, because by bending themselves to match the circles of seasons, the hortillons created a civilization that outlasted all of the West’s empires, be they British or Roman or — in all likelihood — American.
All via the Amiens Wiki
For More Information, see the chapter “The Hortillonnages: Reflections on a Vanishing Gardeners’ Culture” by Michel Conan in The Vernacular Garden, edited by John Dixon Hunt.