They might easily be mistaken for playhouses fit for a princess, like Marie Antoinette’s little hamlet houses at Versailles, but the petite pint-sized castles dotted around France were in fact designed for a much smaller tenant– one with wings to be precise…
You might vaguely recognise the mini castle pictured above, which has been cleverly re-imagined by photoshop and passed around Pinterest as a fairytale home, however these little wonders are actually built for pigeons, known in French as le pigeonnier.
Pradère les Bourguets, Haute Garonne (c) Gimbellet
Pigeonniers, or dovecotes in english, intended to house pigeons or sometimes doves, were popular in the Middle Ages for their meat, eggs and fertilizer. Typically found in the southwestern French regions of Tarn and Dordogne, pigeonniers and pigeon breeding were born out of a need to supplement the French diet, which then consisting mainly of grain.
In the Middle Ages, meat was an exceptional luxury and was consumed only on rare occasions, but amongst nobility and royalty, the presence of a pigeonnier at their manor or chateau was a symbol of status and power, essentially letting everyone else know that they were feasting happily on pigeons everyday. In the 13th century, the King of France’s residence consumed around 400 pigeons daily.
Galliac (c) le Haricot
The other function of the pigeonnier was the production of columbine, pigeon feces, which was highly sought after as a fertilizer for demanding crops in vineyards, vegetable gardens and orchards. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, pigeon still held an important place in society as food and fertilizer and in the late the 19th century, the city of Paris was consuming about 2,000,000 pigeons a year.
Labessière-Candeil, Tarn (c) Hervé R
After that, pigeon breeding in France went on the decline as European diets changed and meat industry evolved. While many have disappeared, these medieval pigeonniers can still be found in certain regions of France, some crumbling and neglected, others treasured and preserved. They range from the simple to the extravagant, built in proportion to the importance of the property, particularly the medieval structures which were at the time regulated by law. Pigeonniers were after all a luxury for an estate, granted only with permission from the overlord.
Graulet, Mid-Pyrénées (c) Lisbeth
A pigeonnier next to its Château de Ségoufielle in Gers, south west France,available for weddings by the way! (c) Christopher Ramos
Haute Garonne (c) Christophe Ramos
Moissac (c) David Barrie
The pigeonnier of Château du Roc, St Sauveur de Bergerac, Dordogne (c) Dominique Montestier
Some of the structures are so grand, it’s really hard to believe that these mini castles were built just for pigeons, a bird we commonly see as nothing more than street rats, a nuisance to our cities today. And we aren’t the only ones. Although they produced an excellent fertilizer, even then, nearby peasant farmers saw the nobility’s pigeons as a nuisance, in particular at the time of sowing of new crops.
If you can spot those little holes near the top of the structure for pigeons to enter, you can bet your petite castle is actually a pigeonnier.
St. Pierre Livron, Tarn (c) Christopher Ramos
So what’s inside these grand pigeonniers? There are no four-poster beds fit for pigeons I’m afraid, but rather one large open space with walls divided into pigeon holes or boulins, which can lodge a pair of pigeons. The largest of pigeonniers could hold up to 2,000 boulins, crafted from rock, brick, pottery or even just jars lying sideways, installed at the time of construction and braided like basket or a nest.
(c) Andrea Kirkby
Most pigeonnier interiors were as elaborate as this, of course, but here a pigeon farmer (there are still some active grand pigeonniers keeping up the tradition) stands on his ladder, which rotates around the central beam, allowing the breeder to collect the eggs from each hole. Pretty neat!
Many pigeonniers even came complete with a pigeon bath, those spoilt little critters! (c) Hervé R
This old pigeonnier which used to be inhabited on the first two floors (by humans) while the 3rd floor was reserved for the pigeons, has since been renovated and turned into a bed & breakfast. Located in Valence d’Agen, the South West region of Tarn, you can find more details about staying in this former pigeonnier here (page 3).
Merville, Haute Garonne (c) Gimbellet
L’Isle Jourdain, Gers (c) Gimbellet
Merville, Haute Garonne (c) Gimbellet
81 Viviers-Montagne, Les Bels, Tarn (c) Hervé R
A fixer-upper pigeonnier?! Fraysinnet, mid Pyrenees. (c) Paul Needham
This old pigeonnier in Dordogne, is being cleverly used to shade an outdoor seating area. (c) Michel Channaud.
As mentioned, some medieval pigeonniers have been lovingly preserved and even restored to welcome a new breed of guests! In the Midi-Pyrenees region of southern France for example, this charming bed and breakfast with a recently renovated suite inside the property’s medieval pigeonnier offers a unique sleeping experience surrounded by the original pigeon holes. You can find a few other renovated pigeonnier bed and breakfasts listed here.
La Roque Gageac, Dordogne (c) Dominique Montestier
Turning glorified pigeon coops into fairytale hotel suites? The medieval farmers would have probably thought we’re barking mad.