So, what are these intriguing architectural structures standing like sentinels, sometimes in fields of ripening corn or surrounded by sunflowers, and quite often in need of drastic repair?
The best English translation for pigeonnier is probably ‘dove house’ or ‘dovecote’, but both seem rather lame for these puzzling constructions found all over southwest France. Pigeonniers were originally brought to France by the Romans, and the pigeon soon acquired an important place in French cuisine.
Pigeonniers and the Revolution
Prior to the Revolution, the keeping of pigeons was a right restricted to royalty, the clergy and the nobility. The privilege was a complex, hierarchical display of wealth, authority and power. Pigeonniers were soon being designed and built to reflect this status.
From extremely crude early examples in the form of basic clay pots for the birds to breed in, the Middle Ages saw pigeonniers develop into highly ornate and elaborate structures housing many thousands of birds.
The bigger and more ornate the pigeonnier, the more important the owner. Just as today, owning a Cadillac versus a VW beetle would make the same distinction.
Poop was an important by-product to pigeon breeding; their droppings were highly valuable because they make such excellent fertilizer. But peasants were prohibited by law from breeding, eating or hunting pigeons – even when the birds attacked their crops.
But after multiple formal requests to abolish this privilege, and a few heads being chopped off in 1789, laws changed and the keeping of pigeons became universally permitted all over France – funny how the guillotine affected some elitist ideologies.
Pigeon for dinner
Pigeon is far less popular today than it was back then. Contemporary urban dwellers almost universally refer to them as flying rats and winged vermin. Nevertheless, they’re making a comeback on the menu in numerous restaurants in both France and the UK. On a French menu, ordering baronnet de pigeon will get you half the breast and a leg, while suprême de pigeon will see half the breast and a wing on your plate.
The modern day Pigeonnier
These days when pigeonniers are refurbished they are quite often transformed into something functional – a grange, a granny flat, or even a small gite. Once again, in France, it has become very prestigious to have a pigeonnier as part of one’s property.