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The “War of the Maidens”

In 1829 the population of Ariège was continuing to increase and the peasants sank deeper into poverty. Ignorant of these realities and anxious to restore the forest that had been devastated by centuries of exploitation, Charles X decided to take back from the communes control of the dominale lands by installing a new forestry administration. Since the middle ages the Couserans and the high valleys of Ariège had lived in quasi autonomy. The forest, and all it provided, assured the survival of the population and the people considered it their own. The peasants of the valleys of Bellongue, Bethmale, Biros and Massat revolted and the "Demoiselles" made their appearance.

The bear trainers from the "valley of the Americans”

bear trainers of AriegeThe "montreur d'ours" — literally, "displayer of bears", a man who trained a bear and took it from town to town, charging the public to see it perform tricks — was an occupation peculiar to the Alet and Garbet valleys of Ariège. As elsewhere in the Pyrenees, these two valleys were once highly populated. Around 1850 there were up to 10 000 inhabitants; today there are 1500. Living conditions were very difficult and traditionally a significant portion of the population, mainly men, would leave to work temporarily in other regions of France and in Spain. During the 18th century many became "colporteurs" --itinerant peddlars--returning to their villages in the spring to replenish their stocks.

It was in Ustou, at the end of the 18th century, that the first montreurs d'ours appeared in the Pyrenees. This practice originated with gypsies and bohemians in the Middle Ages throughout Europe. One probably gave the idea to an inhabitant of Ustou to train bear cubs captured in the surrounding mountains. Later this activity died out in Ustou but expanded greatly in the Garbet valley.

Orris: vestiges of the pastoral life in the Pyrenees

orriGrazing land in Ariège is insufficient at low and middle altitudes to support the herds of cows, sheep and horses for the entire year, so in late spring the farmer leads his livestock to the high mountain pastures where they will spend the summer and early autumn. This phenomenon is called the "transhumance."

In the distant past, the shepherd or cowherd who looked after the animals slept in a tiny, round hut made of stone called an orri, built by hand without mortar and sometimes topped with slate or tree branches. They measured no more than two by two and a half or three meters and were so low that standing upright was impossible. A wooden or stone shelf piled with leaves and pine needles served as a bed, which took up half the space.

Itinerant pedlars of the High Couserans in the 19th century

laffitteIn the Haut-Couserans, in the mid 19th century, there was massive overpopulation. With 50 inhabitants per km2 in the cantons of Oust and Castillon and 87 in Massat there were far too many people for the little usable land in this mountainous region. To the misery from this, in 1846 was added famine caused by the potato blight, which swept across Europe as well as Ireland.

Many had to leave the area. Some chose exile in the cities or in a far off land while others, whose roots were deep, only went into temporary exile, for example as itinerant pedlars ("colporteurs"). After this, peddling became an important part of the Haut-Couserans economy right up until the early 20th century.

The legend of the Ker of Massat

the Ker of MassatNowadays the Ker, heavily wooded and covered in underbrush, resembles a collosal sentinel keeping watch over the waters of the Arac, which flows through the canton of Massat. In the 14th century, however, when this craggy outcropping was more arid, it was home to a hermit, who would light a smoky fire to alert the valley’s inhabitants when bandits approached.

But it was not so long ago, at the end of the 18th century and during the 19th, that the Ker was the last refuge of the Petchets, refractory priests who refused to submit to the laws established under the Terror, then under the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Many thanks to these photographers

About us

From 2000 to the end of 2017 ariege.com was a site devoted to tourism in the department of Ariège. The site is minimally maintained now but you can get a flavour of this beautiful area of the Pyrenees.