Background: The Mousseaux Life

Residing just to the south of the Loire river in France, close to Doue-la-Fontaine, the Mousseaux people farmed peacefully for decades. The summer months were spent growing and then harvesting their famous wine, while the winter months were spent digging their homes. Yes, digging their homes-- what do you do in your winter?  Endless vineyards covered their land, each owner’s property marked off by a small stone fence. The only things that betrayed the farmers’ existences were these fences, the meticulously kept vines, and an occasional chimney sticking out of the ground. Long days were spent in the field and the blazing sun, until the growing season was over and then there was very little work to be done except for quarrying stone, which could either be used to fetch a hefty price on the market or be used to fence off one’s own land.  It was this quarrying, and the large open mines, that gave them their characteristic lifestyle: underground living.
    Starting in the 1400’s, people lived and thrived in this style, and an estimated 25,000 cave dwellers still reside in France (Kempe 7). In fact, the cave-dwelling life is having a comeback as architects design modernized cave dwelling in France as weekend getaways (Kempe 151). However, the bulk of the traditional cave dwelling winegrowers left that life in the mid-1920’s for economic reasons. What they left behind are several well-preserved troglodyte villages and a bevy of tourist-centered restaurants, such as the Rochemenier Troglodyte Village.

Physical Structure of Rochemenier

The land is initially flat, covered in trees and vines, with a grass-covered ground that would little lead one to suspect the network of caves below. Then suddenly a natural looking gully appears, a large hole in the ground. This is where the site commenced: thousands of cubic feet of dirt and rock were relocated. This was the courtyard, and it took the longest to dig. From here, branching paths go into the ground from the quarry to make “rooms.” Originally, the doors of these rooms would be as large as the rest of the room, to facilitate the removal of dirt in large carts, but then an edifice was built in the front to block out the elements. Each of these rooms would extend about 50 feet back, so as not to be too far removed from the light. Farmers discovered that digging any deeper would leave the livestock prone to disease (light kills many microorganisms). The rock walls are sandy and give way easily to the touch. However, they absorb moisture to leave the interior safe for storing perishables.

The overall structural design of the complex is a branching one, first several large rooms come from the courtyard, and then a smaller courtyard is connected to the first through a tunnel, and more rooms branch off the second courtyard. These courtyards would often double as grazing ground for sheep and other livestock and then places to relax after a long day’s work. These cave networks were generally owned by extended families, large-clan like groups that would improve the dwellings over generations.

Each room took four to seven years to build, depending on size and quality, so it comes as no surprise that they were such a valuable inheritance.

 Advantages and Disadvantages of the Rochemenier Village

The primary advantages of the housing style of the Mousseaux people were economic ones. By living underground they obviously had more room for their vineyards above ground. Also, underground houses paid for themselves with the rock quarrying done. Finally, it saved tremendously on heating costs in the winter because the caves maintain a comfortable year-round temperature.

Of course, another cost-saver was the durability of the structures: they last for hundreds of years, while the typical village—due to disasters such as fire and storm—would have to be totally replaced every twenty years. The low long-term upkeep became very attractive to families that envisioned a long line of descendents. Modern cave dwellers have the advantage of not having to pay tax on underground structure: the surveying for tax purposes is only done on above-ground structures (if this is now incorrect, please let me know).

Cave dwelling did have some disadvantages, however, that had to be addressed. Sanitation was a major concern, especially with the livestock stored in various caves. Manure had to be constantly removed to prevent disease. Also, dwelling in caves tended to deprive one of light, but this problem was addressed by the sheer number of hours the people worked out in the fields.

Works Cited
Kempe, David. Living Underground--A History of Cave and Cliff Dwelling. London:
    Herbert Press, 1988.

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