This blog covers the entire domain of sericulture. It is designed for providing a common platform for discussion between scientists, policy makers and students in the field. reproduction of content from this blog with due acknowledgement is encouraged.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Sericulture in the Cévennes: from a first visit, autumn 2010

Simon Charsley
Simon Charsley
Prof.Simon Charsley’s name evokes mixed feelings of respect, admiration and affection in our minds. Of course, he belongs to the older generation, the classical phase of Indian sericulture and in every sense is a classicist. Marked by its characteristic all pervading ‘enthusiasm’ (to borrow Charsley’s own word), the classical phase has left a large legacy, of which the succeeding ‘techno-savvy’ age was little solicitous. Charsley was born in 1939 in England while the Second World War was looming large. He studied Philosophy and Social Anthropology at Cambridge. After obtaining PhD from the University of Manchester in 1968, Charsley started teaching Social Anthropology at the University of Glasgow, where he still continues to teach at the age of seventy one. He has held positions at Makerere College, Uganda (1965-6), University of Manchester (1967-8), Department of Sociology, University of Glasgow (1968-85) etc. Prof. Charsley had a key role in the preparation of ‘Beneficiary Assessment’ (BA) for the World Bank’s National Sericulture Project and was the Principal Adviser for BA to the CSB. Professor Charsley calls himself an expert on South Indian Sericulture and is proud of donning that label.
Professor Charsley spent his prime years in India, and took up study on a topic which would have appeared rather unfashionable to the contemporary intelligentsia. His introduction to Indian Sericulture was quite accidental. In his own words”... I first came to India on a Younger Scientist exchange programme and found sericulture in Mysore. The enthusiasm that I met led me to a research project on the silk industry and how it worked in practice, and also to many good friends....” That was in the mid seventies- an era marked by rapid modernisation of Indian sericulture sector. The result of his intensive study of the rural livelihood was the classic “Culture and Sericulture (1982)” which still remains one of the most authentic documentations on Indian sericulture and probably the only one comparable to the work of Lefroy and Ansorge (1915), though different in perspective and purpose. Subsequently he wrote a number of papers practically covering every aspect of the industry viz.regulated markets, middlemen, technology, silk reeling etc. which still remain most valuble reference material for students of respective disciplines.
Indian sericulture is indebted to Prof. Charsley, primarily for bringing it into the contemporary developmental rhetoric. He was the first and (unfortunately) the last to address sericulture as a livestock industry. Probably its scope of being so designated is largely under-estimated by the academics and policy makers. Prof. Charsley argued that sericulture shares much with and historically has led the way for other livestock industries and advocated its importance in the developmental context. His view of sericulture- as a ‘study material’ in social and anthropological assessment of development in a society where people are separated not only by status, culture and life circumstances but also by religion caste and politics is still highly relevant.
It is high time that the International Sericultural Commission considered prof. Charsley for its prestigios Louis Pasteur award. In this article Professor Charsley writes on the remnants of sericulture and silk industry in Cévennes, in southern France. The article shows how well the sericultural past is preserved in the French psyche, that they use it as a tourist bait. Shouldn’t we take a cue from this?

The Cévennes, in southern France, is an attractive area for summer tourists who want something other than sea and beaches. It is part of the Massif Central, the mountainous centre at France’s heart, with a high and wild National Park and, to its east and south, an area of wiggling wooded river valleys with precipitous rocky sides. These enclose small towns and villages with handsome old limestone houses often clinging to the steep slopes. It is a country of striking views and opportunities for enjoying ‘the great outdoors’. It is also one in which economic decline left, set in the marvellous landscapes, a supply of old houses in need of renovation. Over the last 30 years or so it has attracted numerous British and other northern Europeans to buy such houses, renovate them, construct swimming pools and settle in for at least a major part of the year. It is also a region with a distinctive history, much of it of peasantfarming, poverty, conflict and disasters. The disasters have arisen over the centuries from depopulating disease, political and religious warfare, extremes of torrential flooding, destructive frosts and, for these and other reasons, repeated collapse of livelihoods. However, its history has also included the memory of a golden age of prosperity, based in sericulture. There is evidence for its beginning here as early as the twelfth century but its conspicuous flourishing is considered to date only from the early eighteenth century. Though serious retreats as well as advances followed, it climaxed in 1853 after advancing during the first half of the nineteenth century. Then, struck by epidemics of silkworm disease, particularly pebrine before any effective means of controlling it was known, and by imports of cheap silk from Italy and the Far East, it ran down to virtual extinction over the following hundred years. After the Second World War, before it had entirely disappeared, efforts to give it a kiss of life were made with government support but no success.

A promotional poster: Saint-Hippolyte museum

The most recent effort at revival began to be seriously considered in the 1970s. In 1972 a school teacher in the village of Monoblet, by name Michel Costa, set about reviving knowledge of silkworm rearing as an instructive and engaging activity for his primary school pupils (Laurens 2004: 145). Perhaps he had been stimulated himself by a special edition of a school newspaper, Le Petit Cévenol, from 1930. It had been written, illustrated and printed by six girl pupils aged 9 to 12 years and was centred on their participation at home in the silkworm rearing which was still going on in their villages at the time (Cévennes 1997: 3-19). In 1977 a new Mayor of Monoblet came in with a project for ‘soil to silk garment’ production, and Michel Costa, his deputy as mayor, founded an Association for the Development of Sericulture in the Cévennes (ADS) to encourage and support rearing. By 1981 there had been sufficient progress for a co-operative of rearers and weavers to be formed with government support. It set up business in a former filature. About the same time, factories were started, also by ADS at Monoblet and by another organisation at Le Vigan, a larger town 30 kms to the west. They were to reel, prepare raw silk for weaving and to weave it. A further enterprise of ADS was a Silk Museum first at Monoblet and then moved to another former silk centre, Saint-Hippolyte, where a silk-garment workshop and a boutique for selling silk products were also established. As a later observer notes (Laurens 2004: 145), a mutually supporting network of linked enterprises of rearing and manufacturing and marketing and displaying was filling out.

          Mountages displayed at the Saint-Hippolyte museum
About this time a British entomologist and biologist, Dr John Feltwell, who settled and restored an old magnanerie or rearing house, also became involved. In 1983 he reported on ‘The revival of the silk industry in Basse-Cévennes’ in the Proceedings of the British Entomological and Natural History Society. The revival, he said, was ‘not necessarily run by Cevenol people in the heart of the Cévennes’: they remembered ‘all too well the great labour and energy expended in the magnanerie and are not likely to return to it lightly’ (1983: 24). But there was also sericultural progress to excite potential rearers and enthusiasts. A new mulberry significantly more productive and less demanding in land and in labour for leaf picking appeared. This was a legacy of government attempts from the 1950s to revive the industry then. New varieties from Japan had been sent in 1956 to an agricultural research centre near Alès, the old hub of the Cévennes silk industry. There a cultivar named Kokuso 21 had been identified as particularly promising for Cévennes conditions. It was still growing there 25 years later and in 1982 cuttings were made available for sale at the Monoblet museum (Feltwell 1983: 25).
From the beginning of this attempted revival there had also been a separate strand to thinking about it, or perhaps two such strands. Heritage or patrimoine as the French usually call it more pointedly, increasingly recognised as fulfilling a need for identity for the Cévennes and its people was one. In 1987 the Council of Europe [1] started sponsoring such heritage projects with its ‘Cultural Routes’ programme. Silk and Textile Routes were amongst the first projects to be selected for development, and funds for ‘Chemins de la Soie – European Silk Itineraries’ were provided (Clavairolle 1994). UNESCO also had a similar initiative at the global level [2], distinguished in France as ‘Routes de la Soie’, and Cévennes was a prime site for it. Heritage and identity were becoming an international industry in themselves.
A French filature: from St. Jeans Museum
The other and more directly material strand of thinking was an interest in securing a profitable place on the international tourist map. Remains of the sericultural past there were aplenty on the ground, but they did not have any such obvious appeal as sun, sea and the beach for northern European visitors. Things of potential interest needed to be given value, developed and pointed out if they were not to be missed by uninformed visitors. It was a more obvious asset to have sericulture being practised, though its seasonality in a temperate climate was a limitation: it would not be as readily available as tropical sericulture, but could at least be made to coincide with the main summer holiday season for visitors [3]. As well as live rearing providing additional points of attraction, they could be linked with sights to be discovered in countryside well worth exploring for its own sake, and with static displays in museums and elsewhere. The experience offered could thus be enriched and the potential returns increased. Promotion to the tourist industry through paper publications as well as television and then the internet took off. In recent times therefore, silk and its history have been promoted as a major focus around which other attractions in the Cévennes could be built up. It is visible as houses often standing high above terraces that were originally built on the steep and rocky hillsides with hard manual labour for the creation of mulberry plantations. An almost fanatical attention came to be aimed at charting the distinctive styles of silk-rearing architecture to be seen in the streets of villages and small towns, as well as large isolated houses set in what were once mulberry plantations. From the nineteenth century altogether different and even larger filature buildings also survive, built for capitalist ventures beside the rivers that provided their essential water supply. The last of these closed at Saint-Jean du Gard in 1965. One grand old filature was reopened in the early 1990s but by 1999 the project had been abandoned. Today the buildings are either converted to other purposes or remain derelict, but their working days, together with other picturesque aspects of sericulture, are pictured in the museums alongside collections of the silks, equipment, machinery and the propaganda media of the industry. There and in the shops catering for the visitors, originals and reprints of the postcards which played an important part in publicising and glamorising sericulture, at the beginning of the twentieth century particularly, continue in the same exercise today [4].
   A renovated rearing house with a mulberry twig on the fore ground
Just what happened over the last two decades is not yet documented, but the revival of sericulture as industry and livelihood is over. Today, three museum displays remain and one restored magnanerie, somewhat out of the way in its location, opens in the two main tourist months of the year. The only rearing being carried on is on an occasional and minute scale in connection with the displays at these. Nevertheless there is a presence and the memory is alive.
From Alès however, once Alais, capital of the Cévennes and centre of the industry, the only remaining sign of the silk industry is a fine statue of Louis Pasteur, great pioneer of microbiology who, starting in 1865 carried out his research on pebrine, the most dangerous of silkworm diseases there [5].
Statue of Louis Pasteur at Alès with a
mulberry tree in the background
He unravelled the complex nature of the disease and the means that were soon to be known across the sericultural world, of controlling it by practices of cellular rearing and microscopic examination of the mother moths. In the twentieth century, the Alès State Sericultural Research Station was taken onto a world stage. Its director, André Schenk, in 1948 organised there the 7th International Sericultural Congress which was to re-launch the worldwide trading industry after the set-backs of the War period. Then in 1955 it held the first International Technical Sericultural Conference from which emerged the International Sericultural Commission of which Schenk was the first Secretary-General. Its history in silk was coming towards its end however. In 1978 the Alès Research Station itself closed, its activities and staff moving mainly to France’s great city of the silk trade, Lyons on the River Rhône in the east of the country. Pasteur, his statue identifying him as ‘saviour of sericulture’, still looks out on the town from his prominent position in front of Fort Vauban, the seventeenth century castle in the centre of the town now again flourishing, but in other ways. Its distinguished presence in sericultural history is over.

Prof Charsley can be contacted at Email:  
To read Prof. Charsleys blog go to:

Cévennes 53/4. 1997. Architectures et Paysages de la Soie: le Fil de la Mémoire. Florac: Parc National des Cévennes
Clavairolle, Françoise 1994. ‘L’éducation des vers à soie: savoirs, représentations, techniques’, L’Homme, 129, 34: 121-45
Feltwell, John 1983. ‘The revival of the silk industry in the Basses-Cévennes’, Proceedings of the British Entomological  and Natural History Society, 16: 24-29
Laurens, Lucette 2004. De l‘arbre d’or à la sériciculture: filière et gestion culturelle du territoire dans les Cévennes’,  in Charlery de la Masselière, Bernard (ed) Fruits des terroirs, fruits défendus: identités, mémoires et territoires, Toulouse:  Presse universitaire de Mirail

1. The Council of Europe was established by the Treaty of London in 1949 with its seat in Strasbourg, France. It now has 47 member countries, compared with the 27 of the European Union, and many activities and organisations, including a Parliamentary Assembly and the European Council on Human Rights. See ; .
2. UNESCO: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. ‘The Silk Road’, routes across the landmass west of China along which silk and other good traded from ancient times, was a paradigm for its Cultural Routes programme in 1994.
3. The rest of silk processing and manufacture, with the exception of weaving, are in practice likely to be more difficult to display accessibly and interestingly.
4. Cards and one of their main creators, the multi-talented Gabriel Lafont, are valuably displayed and discussed by Daniel Travier in Cévennes 53/4, 1997: 20-21.
5. Also for a time in 1869 at St Hippolyte du Fort.

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