Stilts first appeared well before the forest, when Les Landes was an immense marshy country, very flat, with the vegetation primarily consisting of grass and undergrowth. Principally, it was shepherds who lived in this landscape. The shepherds had several reasons for using stilts:
- in order to more easily make a path through the vegetation when the shepherds travelled the long daily distances required by their sheep-tending;
- to avoid wetting their feet in the marshes;
- but their main use was to be able to supervise their flocks of sheep from afar.
The medieval peasants of the marshy Les Landes area kept vast herds of sheep. The shepherds used the sheep for manure and wool, rather than meat. It is said that these shepherds would walk on stilts to increase their stride and see greater distances, and knit while watching their sheep. To keep their wool from ruin, these men wore a knitting belt and made their own felted jackets and protective clothing for their feet.
The great, home-hewn ash poles were kept on hooks attached to the beams of cottage ceilings and could be mounted with ease by sitting on the mantelpiece, or with more difficulty from ground level. The walker lashed the stilts to his upper legs by cloth or leather bindings called arroumères, and thus left his hands free. He carried a third and longer pole as a balance, and when stationary he could prop his back on it to provide a firm tripod while he watched over the sheep. On his back he carried a little satchel, the baluchon, in which he kept food, animal medicines and the materials needed for knitting the footless stockings peculiar to the district.
There are tantalising suggestions that the shepherds used hooked needles (whether latched or not I can’t make out) but I don’t have access to either the book or the paper in which this appears to be recorded.
People who saw them in the distance compared them to tiny steeples and giant spiders. They could cover up to 75 miles a day at 8mph. When Napoleon’s empress Marie-Louise travelled through the Landes . . . her carriage was escorted for several miles by shepherds on stilts who could easily have overtaken the horses.
The novelty of a population upon stilts men, women, and children, spurning the ground, and living habitually four or five feet higher than the rest of mankind irresistibly takes the imagination, and I leant anxiously from the carriage to catch the first glimpse of a Landean in his native style. I looked long in vain. We passed hut after hut, but they seemed deserted, except that the lean swine burrowing round the turf walls gave evidence that the pork had proprietors somewhere. At last I was gratified ; as the train passed not very quickly along a jungle of bushes and coppice-wood, a black, shaggy figure rose above it, as if he were standing upon the ends of the twigs. The effect was quite eldritch. We saw him but as a vision, but the high conical hat with broad brims, like Mother Bed-cap’s, the swarthy, bearded face, and the rough, dirty sheep- skin, which hung fleecily from the shoulders of the apparition, haunted me. He was come and gone, and that was all. Presently, however, the natives began to heave in sight in sufficient profusion. There were three gigantic-looking figures stalking together across an expanse of dusky heath. I thought them men, and rather tall ones ; but my companions, more accustomed to the sight, said they were boys on comparatively short stilts, herding the sheep, which were scattered like little greyish stones all over the waste.
Anon, near a cottage, we saw a woman, in dark, coarse clothes, with shortish petticoats, sauntering almost four feet from the ground, and next beheld at a distance, and on the summit of a sand-ridge, relieved against the sky, three figures, each leaning back, and supported, as it seemed, not only by two daddy long-legs’ limbs, but by a third, which appeared to grow out of the small of their backs. The phenomenon was promptly explained by my bloused cicerone, who seemed to feel especial pleasure at my interest in the matter. The third leg was a pole or staff the people carry, with a new moon-shaped crutch at the top, which, applied to the back, serves as a capital prop. With his legs spread out, and his back- stay firmly pitched, the shepherd of the Landes feels as much at home as you would in the easiest of easy chairs.
” He will remain so for hours, without stirring, and without being wearied,” said my fellow-passenger. “It is away of sitting down in the Landes. Why, a shepherd, could stand so, long enough to knit a pair of stockings, ay, and not have an ache in his back. Sometimes they play cards, so, without once coming off their stilts.”