After Argentan we stay in Normandy but move north to the ‘plaine de Caen’, and specifically the village of Fontenay-le-Marmion, a few miles from the city. In the nineteenth century bobbin lace was the most significant industry in this region. At its height it employed something in the region of 45,000 women, concentrated in the arrondissements of Caen and Bayeux. ‘In the villages, in the towns, nay, even in the cities, you every day see people sitting before their doors working, especially the lace-makers… so inveterate their passion for shewing themselves’ wrote a British visitor in 1831. Fontenay too could boast its ‘rue des dentellières’, where lacemakers would gather to work together in the sun (in the case of the Fontenay it was officially the ‘rue d’Eglise’, now renamed ‘rue de la République’). The most famous product of lacemakers from this region of Normandy was ‘blonde de Caen’, a lace similar to Chantilly made from silk and usually destined for export to Spain or Latin America. For a variety of reasons the trade went into rapid decline from the 1870s onwards, and by the early twentieth century, despite some public investment in training, there were no more than two thousand lacemakers left. One of the few villages to escape this collapse was Fontenay, as will be explained below.
Fontenay-le-Marmion was also the birthplace of Emile Legrand (1841-1903), probably the most important French scholar of Romeic – the language of post-classical Greece. Son of a village joiner, Legrand’s path to the professorship of Modern Greek at the Paris School of Oriental Languages was long and tortuous. His parents had originally destined him for the priesthood, and he attended the seminaries of Bayeux and Lisieux. However, while studying at the Lycée de Caen he became obsessed with the modern Greek language, and in 1867 moved to Paris to pursue his studies. The long Greek campaign for independence from Ottoman rule continued to fire the French cultural imagination in this period; Claude Fauriel’s Chants populaires de la Grèce moderne (1824) had done much not only to generate sympathy for the Greek rebels’ cause but to stimulate the collection of folk song within France. The Cretan Revolt of 1866 may have made a similar impression on Legrand. Yet as a scholar he seems to have been remarkably retiring; according to his pupil, Hubert Pernot, Legrand only visited the theatre once during the more than thirty-five years he lived in Paris. Instead, he dedicated his time to editing volume after volume — nearly a hundred of them — of medieval, early modern and folkloric Greek texts. It was Legrand who, together with Constantin Sathas (1842-1914), published a rediscovered manuscript of the early medieval epic of Digenes Akritas, a sort of Byzantine El Cid, and demonstrated its relationship to much later ballads set on the frontier between the Greeks and their Muslim neighbours. This was to prove one of the most important developments in post-classical Greek letters.
Legrand returned every summer to his family home in Fontenay, where he continued to work on his transcriptions. In the early 1870s, his focus was on folksong. In 1874 he edited a Recueil de chansons populaires grecques, followed in 1875 by his edition of the Akritas manuscript, and then a further collection of Chansons populaires grecques in 1876, which drew on the recordings he had made during a five-month long journey through Greek-speaking Italy and then Greece itself — his first, and perhaps only visit to the source of his fascination. Exotic though this material was, the experience of recording singers viva voce led him to think about songs closer to home — those sung by his mother and her neighbours. In October 1876 he noted down 49 song texts, without music, which he later sent to the philologist Gaston Paris (1839-1903), who would publish them in the journal Romania in 1881.
Legrand’s mother Célina (born in Fontenay in 1818) was the most important source for these songs, providing more than half of them. The other singers were Adelaïde Le Paulmier (born in Fontenay in 1807) with nine songs, Delphine Lacroix with five (probably born in Fontenay in 1834), and then Clélie Péronne (born in Fontenay in 1838), Marie Roger, Blanche Lecarpentier and Marie Dausmesnil each with one, as well as a solitary male informant, Pierre Guillot. Marie Dausmesnil was the village baker’s teenage daughter but all the other women, where they can be identified with certainty, were lacemakers, as was practically the entire female population of the village. Neither Legrand nor Paris provide any information about the circumstances in which these songs were performed and transmitted, but it seems likely that we are, through Legrand, eavesdropping on the kinds of songs lacemakers sang while working together in groups, perhaps on the ‘rue des dentellières’ in the summer, or in the barns where they gathered to work on winter nights to benefit from the heat generated by the cattle.
As we’ve seen in previous posts, singing was an element in the work culture of lacemakers in various regions. A handful of nineteenth-century writers about Normandy mention the practice, as do some Norman lacemakers themselves in their letters. However, whereas in the Velay and in Flanders folksong enthusiasts were making recordings of lacemakers’ songs, there was no significant attempt to do the same in Normandy. Legrand’s is almost the only such collection. Its contents differ markedly from the repertoire recorded later and in other parts of Normandy, with a substantial showing of the prized ‘great ballads’; so surprising is the presence of these songs in nineteenth-century Normandy that some scholars have doubted the authenticity of Legrand’s texts. In 1920 Joseph Lechevrel sought out one of the singers named by Legrand (unfortunately he does not say which one), to see if he could obtain any more songs from her, but her only answer to his questions was ‘I don’t remember any more’. However, this answer was not quite the final word as we will see; the collective training and working practices of lacemakers goes a long way to explain the durability of a particular repertoire.
A couple of these song texts are unknown from any other source, and a couple of others are very rare, but the bulk of Legrand’s collection was made up of songs that could have been heard in other parts of France, indeed in some cases far beyond, because versions of the same songs circulated in Catalonia, northern Italy and francophone Canada. This was not a repertoire restricted to lacemakers: none of the songs make direct mention of the trade. Nor is there any evidence that Normandy lacemakers used ‘tells’ to count pins as did their counterparts in Flanders and the English Midlands. In some ways these texts are at odds with what we know of lacemakers’ musical tastes, whether in Normandy or in other regions. In 1839 the journalist Emile Souvestre described the lacemakers of nearby Aunay as singing ‘cantiques’, that is hymns, on their doorsteps, but there is not a single religious song among those recorded by Legrand. Conversely there were several in which ecclesiastics engage in sexual shenanigans – these were mostly sung by Legrand’s mother, who also voiced a forthright rejection of the convent in favour of the boy she loved. ‘To love is not a crime,/ God does not forbid it’ she claimed in another song, and while it would be a mistake to assert that a singer’s words represent their own views, Célina certainly had a pronounced taste for such playful and slightly bawdy material.
Nonetheless, there are some similarities to the kind of songs we know lacemakers sang in other regions. The most striking group of songs are those performed by Adelaïde Le Paulmier, Legrand’s oldest informant. By the 1870s she was a widow living with two of her sisters, all lacemakers. Her fancy was for long ballads, some full of the ‘lurid, gruesome, clammy or grizzly terrors’ that Thomas Wright observed was the preferred singing matter of Buckinghamshire lacemakers. Such songs feel old, even if evidence for medieval origins is often quite tenuous. In the ballad of ‘Jean Renaud’ (Coirault 5311), the eponymous huntsman is given a mortal bite by a wolf; news of his death and burial are kept from his wife in childbirth, but when she finally learns his fate she joins him in his grave. In ‘Marianson’ (Coirault 9904), a ballad of thirty verses, the eponymous heroine is tricked into lending three gold rings that her husband Renaud (the generic name for male protagonists in French narrative songs) had gifted her when he went to the wars, which are then counterfeited. On his return the unnamed villain shows the counterfeit rings to the knight to prove his claim that Marianson has been unfaithful and that the boy she has just borne is not his. Without more ado Renaud takes the baby and dashes its brains out on the cobbles; he then ties Marianson to his horse’s tale and drags her from Paris to Saint-Denis, a distance of six miles, and between them ‘there wasn’t a hedge or bush that was not marked by the blood of Marianson’. Her mother runs after, begging Renaud to return her daughter’s bloody body. On her deathbed Marianson produces the real three rings, and thus proves her fidelity. Renaud, overcome with remorse, burns his own face off, and both die within two hours of each other.
An even more horrifying song concerns Marguerite who lives with her mother at the ‘castle of martyrs’. By night Marguerite is a woman, but by day she is a white hind hunted through the forests by her own brother Julien and his men; no explanation is proffered for this metamorphosis. She is finally caught, killed and served as the evening meal: Julien asks where is his sister, and she replies ‘Sit down, gentlemen, I was the first at the table;/ My head is on the serving dish and my organs are cooking,/ and my poor entrails are being torn to pieces by your great dogs.’
Célina Legrand knew and sung some similar ballads, but her preferred material was lighter: dance songs, songs of love – particularly illicit love – pastorals in which girls sometimes trick the boys and the boys sometimes trick the girls. Her songs overflow with flowers and fruits to be planted, gathered or plucked. Some are so pared down that their meaning is unclear; others combine lines from a number of different songs which disorientates the reader. Such confusion is often assumed to be the result of faulty memory: the singer – entirely reliant on oral transmission – makes mistakes, skips lines and becomes lost in her own narrative. All of which is possible, but Gerald Porter, in his study of English lacemakers’ tells, suggests another possibility. Lacemakers’ songs are condensed and elliptical because they were performed so often by many members of the same group. ‘At each performance, the sung part stands metonymically for the whole’, the listeners able to fill in the gaps because they too were participants in this communal work culture. For outsiders the songs were meaningless but that was part of the point: comprehension was restricted to insiders, the group of women who shared their working lives on the ‘street of lacemakers’.
Singing was a way of passing the time, of enjoying oneself with one’s friends and neighbours, and finding pleasure in a repetitive task. In their songs lacemakers travelled to Paris and Nantes, to England and Spain, visited palaces, encountered princes and magicians. Given that several of their narratives turned on the suffering of women one couldn’t call these songs ‘escapist’, but they introduced fantasy and drama into their toilsome lives. Yet while the settings may have been exotic, the issues addressed in these songs were not. A king banishes his daughter’s suitor, another king marries his daughter against her will, a Duke departs for war leaving a pregnant, unmarried princess to face the consequences…; strip away the titles and these would be familiar situations in any nineteenth-century village. In almost every song some domestic conflict is evoked that pitted daughters against fathers – and occasionally mothers – or wife against husband. Lovers are sought, jilted and retrieved. Many songs turn on the vulnerability of working women, for example as shepherdesses alone in the fields or market-women trying to make a sale: they are the prey of men, particularly men of superior rank. Sometimes they find a ruse or clever words through which to escape the threat, sometimes not. One could hardly describe these texts as a manual for inter-personal relationships, but they did allow singers and their audiences, to think through some of the difficulties that faced people like them – those who because of their sex or their social position were relatively powerless. In their imagination they could consider the consequences of their choices.
Unlike other villages in the region where lacemaking had more-or-less died out by the turn of the century, one could still find groups of lacemakers gathered on the streets of Fontenay even after the Second World War. At some point, and no one seems to know exactly when, they had developed a specialism: lace made from human hair which was used as the basis for wigs worn in Paris theatres. There were two local producers employing twenty or so women in the 1950s. The survival of this domestic craft industry — and the work culture that surrounded it — enabled Marthe Moricet, curator of the Museum of Normandy, to collect songs in the 1950s that Legrand had noted eighty years before. Contrary to Lechevrel’s impression in 1920, the tradition had not been forgotten. This is an intriguing example of the resilience of a work culture, even when there was no formal institution to uphold it.
 J. Augustus St John, Journal of a Residence in Normandy (Edinburgh, 1831), p. 11.
 Claudette Bouvot and Michel Bouvot, Dentelles normandes: La Blonde de Caen (Condé-sur-Noireau, 2012).
 For the history of lacemaking in Calvados see: Georges Noé, L’industrie de la dentelle à la main dans le Calvados (Caen, 1910); Gabriel Désert, Une Société rurale au XIXe siècle: Les paysans du Calvados, 1815-1895 3 vols (Lille, 1975).
 Almost all the biographical information about Legrand comes from a sketch provided by Hubert Pernot in the introduction to Emile Legrand, Bibliographie hellénique ou description raisonnée des ouvrages publiés par des Grecs aux XV et XVIe siècles, vol. 4 (Paris, 1906).
 Roderick Beaton, R. and David Ricks, Digenes Akrites: New Approaches to Byzantine Heroic Poetry (Brookfield, 1993).
 Emile Legrand, ‘Chansons populaires recueillies en octobre 1876 à Fontenay-le-Marmion, arrondissement de Caen (Calvados)’, Romania 10 (1881): 365-396. A handful of texts collected by Legrand from his mother appeared in other dialect journals, for instance in Revue des patois 1 (1887): 120-125.
 J. Augustus St John, Journal of a Residence in Normandy (Edinburgh, 1831), p. 24.
 Mireille Bossis (ed.), Ursin et Ernestine. Amours paysannes en Normandie (1863-1866) (Condé-sur-Noireau, 2006), p. 103. Ernestine Lebatard was a lacemaker from Plumetot, north of Caen; her letters were written to her fiancé Ursin Thomas, then performing his military service.
 Joseph Lechevrel, ‘Le Folklore normand’, Bulletin de la société des Antiquaires de Normandie 36 (1924/1925) : 359-382.
 Emil Souvestre, ‘Pierre Rivière’, Le Journaliste 1 (1839) : p. 173.
 Gerald Porter, ‘“Work the Old Lady Out of the Ditch”: Singing at Work by English Lacemakers’, Journal of Folklore Research 31:1-3 (1994): 35-55; Mary-Ann Constantine and Gerald Porter, Fragment and Meaning in Traditional Song: From the Blues to the Baltic (Oxford, 2003), pp. 63-74.
 André Garnier, ‘Dans un village du Calvados, à Fontenay-le-Marmion, vingt paysannes tissent les perruques de la Comédie Française’, Paris-Normandie, 6 March 1953
 Michel Boüard, ‘Marthe Moricet’ (obituary), Annales de Normandie 10 (1960): 86-87. Moricet died before she was able to publish any of these songs, and to date we have not been able to track down her archives.
A longer version of this post appeared in Marjet Brolsma et al (eds), Networks, Narratives and Nations: Transcultural Approaches to Cultural Nationalism in Modern Europe and Beyond (Amsterdam University Press, 2022). Happy to send a copy of the relevant chapter to anyone interested — just email email@example.com