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Wardrobes in Normandy (1) by Claude Vilars


It was at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century that the Norman armoire took on its full importance: it became a popular tradition deeply rooted in the collective unconscious and, above all, a concrete reflection of social position.

The wardrobe is directly linked to marriage and is part of the ritual surrounding the ceremony.

In addition to the objects, effects and utensils that symbolise the domestic tasks that the bride has to perform from now on, the wardrobe is carried in a horse-drawn "banneau" to the home of the newlyweds on the eve of the wedding. A custom that has only recently disappeared from our countryside...

Before arriving in this house, the "Norman wardrobe" already had a long history: at least the age of the young bride. When a daughter was born, the tradition was to have the oak tree for the future wardrobe cut down. About ten years later (the period corresponding to communion), the wood was dried and cut up. Then the family waited for the engagement period... Then, several solutions were presented to the family: either the village carpenter was responsible for making the various elements of the wardrobe and sending them to be decorated by a sculptor in the nearest town, or the piece of furniture was designed by the village carpenter and finished, on the spot, by an itinerant sculptor; or the work was entrusted entirely to an itinerant carpenter, who settled in the home of the girl's parents for the duration of his work.

The value of this work was directly related to the quality and abundance of the carvings which, in the eyes of neighbours, relatives, friends and visitors, would symbolise the family's social power. The price of the cupboard was fixed, among other things, according to the number of carved roses. This number ranged from one to five, not on the whole cabinet, of course, but per "reserve".

The itinerant nature of many of these carpenters and sculptors has led to many misunderstandings as to the origin of the furniture that has come down to us... Indeed, it often happened that, during his travels, the craftsman, while respecting the general idea of the order he was given, produced a piece of furniture that was influenced not only by his own personality and aesthetic criteria, but also by the adaptation, or even the replica, of such and such a motif that he had encountered during his peregrinations. Therefore, any classification must be formulated with great caution!

Many enthusiasts think that they can justify their certainties by examining the fittings and lock entrances of cabinets, but contrary to popular belief, the fact that a cabinet has iron or brass paintings and entrances has no relation to its age. However, this detail can be used to determine the origin of the manufacture. Thus, it is generally accepted that in the Manche, Vire and Upper Normandy regions, they are made of brass, whereas in the rest of the Normandy "Pays" they are made of iron. Of course this does not determine the value of a Norman cabinet.

A continuation of this article: Wardrobes in Normandy (2): the Viroise.

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