Legends, History and Traditions in the Poitou-Charentes

Poitou-Charentes Today

Poitou-Charentes, former région of France. As a région, it encompassed the western départements of Vienne, Charente, Charente-Maritime, and Deux-Sèvres. In 2016 the Poitou-Charentes région was joined with the régions of Aquitaine and Limousin to form the new administrative entity of Nouvelle Aquitaine.

The legends, history and traditions in the Poitou-Charentes go back a long way. Here are some highlights to get you in a holiday spirit.

Poitou-Charentes History

The region’s first known inhabitants, the Pictavi, a Gallic tribe, were conquered in 56 BC by the Romans who incorporated the area into Gaul as part of the province of Aquitania. 

The Visigoths seized the region in AD 418, but it passed to the Franks in 507. In 732 or 733, Charles Martel ended the Muslim invasion of western Europe by his victory in the Battle of Poitiers. 

From the 10th to the mid-12th century, the counts of Poitou were also the dukes of Aquitaine, and the city of Poitiers grew in importance. In 1152, Poitou came under English control through the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry II (later king of England). 

The region was reunited with the French crown in 1416 and was a province of France until the Revolution (1789-95), when it was divided into three departments, Vienne, Deux-Sevres, and Vendee.

Legends, History and Traditions


Puy-Leonard Charentaise

This symbol of France was born in Angoulême at the time of Louis XIV. The city then specialized in making felt coats for the Royal Navy, whose falls were used to make slippers that quickly replaced straw in the hooves. 

The tongue is already there, which protects the kick from the friction of the wood. A shoemaker from La Rochefoucauld then came up with the idea of putting a sole under these slippers, which are now used as is.

The “silent”, as they were called at the time, made a hit at the Court: their felt skates prevented the servants from arriving with their big hooves and luster the floors, at the same time! 

We owe the Charentaise, as we know it today (with its Scottish printed top), to a certain Dr Jeva, who created this model in 1907, in La Rochefoucauld.

Today, Charentaises are sold all over the world, appreciated for their unrivalled comfort. They have not lost their little aristocratic side.

Regional language

In Poitou

Biau for “beautiful,” pus for “more,” kidney for “nothing.” And, on that, roll the “r” …?  Even if they don’t have the fleshy roughness of the Berrichon idiom, the patois of the West Country keep a good terroir. Although spoken south of the Loire, they stem from the dialects of the North, of which Poitou was the route of penetration.

Here, you will be shown ponnes, these large terracotta vats that were once used to make buai, laundry. From Vendée to Gironde, of course, a thousand shades punctuate the range of terroirs. 

However, all these dialectal languages can be grouped into the same family, called poitevin-saintongeais, or “parlanjhe”.

In Charente

Two Charentes, two regional languages! Finally, it’s not that simple since the “border” between langue d’oc and langue d’ol crosses the two departments along a north-south axis.

  • In the south, we talked for a long time limousin (or walker, or angoumoisin), Occitan what! And if this is no longer frankly the case today, Occitan has been an option in High Schools in Charentais since 1981.
  • And in the north, the Saintongeais, a Romanesque language, is once again experiencing a certain enthusiasm.

As proof, the success in bookstores of recent adaptations of the Adventures of Tintin in Saintongeais.

Architectural heritage

A Romanesque land

By crisscrossing the paths of The Angoumois and the Saintonge, crossing the villages of these former provinces of the Duchy of Aquitaine, the Romanesque churches are revealed. The rigorous forms of the novel flourish in a monumental flowering of apses, columns and domes in blond chalk.

From the 11th century on, the region became a land of choice for the dissemination of Romanesque art. These buildings bear witness to the emulation and cultural dynamism that marked two centuries of history.

In general, the churches of Angoumois and Saintonge follow simpler patterns than those of Poitou.

Castles in Charentes

Large families have thrived on Charentaise lands. The most famous is that of La Rochefoucauld, whose family castle stands superbly above the village of The Rochefoucauld. 

First (in the 10th century), a simple fortified camp elected at the request of Fucaldus, bishop of Angoulême, to protect the corner from Norman invasions, this castle of the Rock passed into the hands of the Foucauld family in the 11th century.

Renaissance style also for the Château de Cognac (which saw the birth of a certain Francis I) or for that of La Roche-Courbon or Dampierre-sur-Boutonne.

A good hundred other castles bristle the Charentaise lands: solid medieval dungeons in Pons, Confolens or Montignac-sur-Charente, Versailles Charentais (unfinished) towards Villebois-Lavalette, romantic ruins in Bouteville or elegant mansions like that of Maine-Giraud, former property of Alfred de Vigny.

The lover of stones and history (s) is spoilt for choice here. Some of these castles have been converted into guest rooms or hotels.

A sober habitat, with multiple influences

In Poitou and Charente, influences from near or farther horizons are visible. Wasn’t the region a land of transition between the oc language of the south of France and the oïl language spoken in the north?

Traditional rural housing is sober. Volumes and plans are organized with the utmost simplicity. With low-slope roofs covered with Romanesque tiles, the southern influence is omnipresent.

Charentaise and Poitevine houses are often narrow, with walls made up of limestone cobblestones; with a barn or barn attached, they form a set of buildings that sometimes stretch. In the vineyard region, the mansions, elegant but always sober, are numerous.

In contact with Bordeaux, these houses gain in prestige. On the seafront, the houses are small as if to give less grip to the offshore winds. The whitewashed walls are punctuated by green, blue shutters and trestle pink poles.

The Poitevin Marsh also contains a multitude of isolated “shacks” that are sometimes suddenly discovered by sliding along a canal. Again, white walls and brightly colored shutters seduce.

Finally, the houses in Gâtine and Confolentais offer an impression of robustness with granite and shale walls.

A coast to defend

From Ré to Oléron via the island of Aix and the entire coast of Chapus to Fouras, no less than 12 strongholds were built from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.

First there was the castle of Fouras, built in the 11th century by the Dukes of Aquitaine to counter the Normans and defend the entrance to the Charente. Then, in the twelfth century, the high tower of Broue, lost in the marshes a few kilometers from Brouage, and now in ruins.

But it was under Louis XIV and with his master builders, Vauban and Montalembert, that the forts multiplied. It was a question of sparing the onslaught of the English, Spaniards and other Dutch who had control of the seas at the time – not to mention pirates. 

It is mainly in Vauban that we owe the system of fortification in star, exemplary defense of which will be endowed Ré, Oléron, the island of Aix and the island Madame, some coastal points (fort Lupin, Fort Chapus), as well as the islet of Etnet. Let’s not forget the famous Fort Boyard, off Oléron. 

Despite some setbacks, this defensive system – and deterrent – has proven effective.

Poitevine goat

This part of western France is known as the Gâtine, meaning a land that is too poor for agriculture. Pocked with granite rocks and edged by bocage (hedgerows), the undulating fields are not planted with crops destined for the Rungis Market outside Paris. Instead, the area is known for animal husbandry, easpecialy goat’s.

The Poitou-Charentes has its own breed of goat – the chevre Poitevine, or Poitevine goat. The best known local goat’s cheeses are: Voeu du Poitou and the Chabichou.

Apparently it’s a legacy of the legendary Battle of Poitiers in 732 AD, when Charles Martel’s Christian army defeated the invading Muslim forces under Abd er-Rahman. As the enemy retreated to Spain, they left behind their goats, which became an unexpected agricultural gift. At least, that’s how the story goes.