Tales Told by the Hemp-Dresser

Imagine yourself in rural France on a cool autumn evening in the 1840s.  After the work of the harvest, what would you do for entertainment?

You might find yourself outside in the dark, listening to the cries of migrating birds, the howls of dogs, and eerie tales told by a worker traveling through — here is an account by author George Sand:

The part which, in Brittany, is played by the … village tailor, is taken in our part of the country by the hemp-dresser and the wool-carder, two professions which are unusually combined in one. He is present at all ceremonies, sad or gay, for he is very learned and a fluent talker, and on these occasions he must always figure as spokesman, in order to fulfil with exactitude certain formalities used from time immemorial. Traveling occupations, which bring a man into the midst of other families, without allowing him to shut himself up within his own, are well fitted to make him talker, wit, storyteller, and singer.

The hemp-dresser is peculiarly skeptical. He and another village functionary, of whom we have spoken before, the grave-digger, are always the daring spirits of the neighborhood. They have talked so much about ghosts, and they know so well all the tricks of which these malicious spirits are capable, that they fear them scarcely at all. It is especially at night that all of them—grave-diggers, hemp-dressers, and ghosts—do their work. It is also at night when the hemp-dresser tells his melancholy stories. Permit me to make a digression.

When the hemp∗ has reached the right stage, that is to say, when it has been steeped sufficiently in running water, and half dried on the bank, it is brought into the yard and arranged in little upright sheaves, which, with their stalks divided at the base, and their heads bound in balls, bear in the dusk some small resemblance to a long procession of little white phantoms, standing on their slender legs, and moving noiselessly along the wall.

From a 1940 book in the digital collection of the New York Public Library. Public Domain.

It is at the end of September, when the nights are still warm, that they begin to beat it by the pale light of the moon. By day the hemp has been heated in the oven; at night they take it out to beat it while it is still hot. For this they use a kind of horse surmounted by a wooden lever which falls into grooves and breaks the plant without cutting it.

1836 Patent drawing for a hemp-breaking machine; full details below.

It is then that you hear in the night that sudden, sharp noise of three blows in quick succession. Then there is silence; it is the movement of the arm drawing out the handful of hemp to break it in a fresh spot. The three blows begin again; the other arm works the lever, and thus it goes on until the moon is hidden by the early streaks of dawn. As the work continues but a few days in the year, the dogs are not accustomed to it, and yelp their plaintive howls toward every point of the horizon.

It is the time of unwonted and mysterious sounds in the country. The migrating cranes fly so high that by day they are scarcely visible. By night they are only heard, and their hoarse wailing voices, lost in the clouds, sound like the parting cry of souls in torment, striving to find the road to heaven, yet forced by an unconquerable fate to wander near the earth about the haunts of men; for these errant birds have strange uncertainties, and many a mysterious anxiety in the course of their airy flight… But what cries, what reproaches, what protests, what wild curses or anxious questionings are exchanged in an unknown tongue amongst these winged pilgrims!

Sometimes, in the resonant night, you can hear these sinister noises whirling for a long time above the housetops, and as you can see nothing, you feel, despite your efforts, a kind of dread and kindred discomfort, until the sobbing multitude is lost in boundless space.

There are other noises too which belong to this time of year, and which sound usually in the orchards. Gathering the fruit is not yet over, and the thousand unaccustomed cracklings make the tree seem alive. A branch groans as it bends beneath a burden which has reached, of a sudden, the last stage of growth; or perhaps an apple breaks from the twig, and falls on the damp earth at your feet with a dull sound. Then you hear rush by, brushing the branches and the grass, a creature you cannot see; it is the peasant’s dog, that prowling and uneasy rover, at once impudent and cowardly, always wandering, never sleeping, ever seeking you know not what, spying upon you, hiding in the brush, and taking flight at the sound of a falling apple, which he thinks a stone that you are throwing at him.

It is during those nights, nights misty and gray, that the hemp-dresser tells his weird stories of will-o’-the-wisps and milk-white hares, of souls in torment and wizards changed to wolves, of witches’ vigils at the cross-roads, and screech-owls, prophetesses of the graveyard. I remember passing the early hours of such a night while the hemp-dressing was going on, and the pitiless strokes, interrupting the dresser’s story at its most awful place, sent icy shivers through our veins. And often too the good man continued his story as he worked, and four or five words were lost, terrible words, no doubt, which we dared not make him repeat, and whose omission added a mystery yet more fearful to the dark mysteries of the story which had gone before. It was in vain the servants warned us that it was too late to stay without doors, and that bedtime had sounded for us long since; they too were dying to hear more; and then with what terror we crossed the hamlet on our way home! How deep did the church porch appear to us, and how thick and black the shadows of the old trees! The graveyard we dared not see; we shut our eyes tight as we passed it.

But no more than the sacristan is the hemp-dresser gifted solely with the desire of frightening; he loves to make people laugh; he is sarcastic and sentimental at need, when love and marriage are to be sung. It is he who collects and keeps stored in his memory the oldest songs, and who transmits them to posterity.

From The Devil’s Pool, Appendix I, The Wedding by George Sand, here at Wikisource.

I enjoy reading good historical fiction, but so often, it seems like the characters are people from our own time who were just dropped into a different era.  I prefer to read books that were actually written during those other eras; I always get insights into other ways of thinking.  Last summer I dipped into the works of George Sand for the first time, and read her 1846 novel La Mare au diable, translated into English as The Devil’s Pool (and I have also seen it called The Haunted Pool).

Regardless of its name, it is not a spooky story, but a fairly sweet tale of a pair of peasants discovering they are in love with each other, and getting married.  But after the main story, Sand placed lengthy appendices about rural traditions, and I found that part much more interesting.  She included the hemp-dresser because he had a major part in the wedding traditions, and even in the 1840s, she had to explain his role to her readers.

According to Marie-Hélène Huet, in the journal New Literary History, George Sand had written La Noce de campagne (The Country Wedding) and La Mare au diable separately, but combined them at the behest of her publisher. The aim was to make the book more saleable, but as a result, Sand was able to include colorful accounts of traditions that she feared were disappearing.

While looking for pictures of hemp breaking machines to illustrate this post, I found some great patent drawings at the National Archives.

J. Pursell’s Patent Drawing for a Machine for Breaking Hemp, 3/18/1836, National Archives 178330035

patent drawing of hemp processing machinery, 1836

After retting and breaking, the hemp would need to be hackled (or heckled) and spun. Moses Day’s Patent Drawing for a Hemp Spinner, 1836, National Archives 178990221

A hemp-breaking machine patented by Robert McCormick — the same one who invented the reaper! This image also from the National Archives.

I really enjoyed this glimpse into the life of the hemp-dresser, and how George Sand captured a wild and wonderful night outdoors.


∗Hemp – a coarse, strong, lustrous bast fiber obtained from the inner bark of the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa, which is found in many parts of the world. Italy produces the best grades. The fibers are obtained by retting and occur in narrow, flat ribbons three to eight feet long, steel gray to creamy white in color. It can withstand the rotting action of water and is used for halyards and tarred rigging; its principal use is in twine and cordage. Some of the finer grades are used in weaving. The term hemp is often incorrectly used in a generic sense for fibers from different plants, e.g. Manila hemp, Chinese hemp, sisal hemp, sunn hemp, etc.

Fairchild’s Dictionary of Textiles, Isabel B. Wingate, ed., Fairchild Publications, 1967

Huet, Marie-Hélène. “Ritual Violence: Courbet and George Sand.” New Literary History, vol. 26, no. 4, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995, pp. 833–53, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20057321