THE BALANCING WELL IN FRANCE

Christian Lassure

French version

 

(This page to be updated shortly)

1 - THE SWEEP FOR DRAWING WATER: AN OVERVIEW

The sweep (or swipe) for drawing water is an ingenious elevating device using a first-order lever turning in its middle about a pivot and carrying a vessel at one end and a counterweight at the other. A slight variation of the weight on one of the two arms of the lever is sufficient to set the latter rocking. Erected over a well, cistern, pond, or water stream, this lifting apparatus turns into child's play what would otherwise be a tiresome job. A well-known instance of sweep is the Egyptian shadouf.

Already extant in Antiquity and common in the Middle Ages, the technique is, or used to be, widespread from France to Japan. It is, or was, to be found not only in the Far East, Western Africa, North Africa, but also throughout Europe.

The device goes under  the names of cegonha in Portugal, mezzacavallo in Italy, brunnenschwegel in Germany, vippebronden in Denmark, kutostor in Hungary, cumpana in Romania.

In France alone, in 1986, there remained a few surviving examples of sweeps in as many as 36 départements (*), where they are known, according to regional dialects, as cigogne / cigounho, canlèvo, banlèvo, manlèvo, gruo, brimbale. This last designation, originating in Charente, migrated across the Atlantic to French-speaking Quebec together with the device.

The sweep for drawing up water, as encountered in Europe, consists of four elements:

1 - a fixed vertical element (the support or upright), generally either a tree trunk topped by a fork, or a post ending with a fork-like mortise or pierced at the top by a through mortise, or sometimes twin posts; it acts as a pivot or fulcrum;

2 - a rotating horizontal element, i.e. a metal or wooden axis running through the fork or the fork-like mortise or the through mortise; it enables the sweep to swivel;

3 - a mobile horizontal element (the beam or sweep proper), consisting of a long tapered rod resting on the upright; to its thinner arm – the load arm or jib –on the water's side, is fastened the hanging system; to its thicker arm – the force arm or tail – on the opposite side, is fastened a counterweight;

4 - an articulated hanging element, a wooden bar or an iron rod fastened to the jib's end by a short upper chain and prolonged by a long lower chain with a hook.

Because of the counterweight weighting its tail arm, the beam, when at stanstill, tilts to the side opposite the water, resting either on the ground or in a fork, or again on a trestle.

In practice, it is necessary for the bar to be pulled down in order to lower the jib arm and sink the vessel into the water. But once the vessel is filled, the two arms of the beam come into balance again, and it only takes a slight pull upwards to initiate a rocking movement that will lift the water-filled bucket.

While the pulley is employed in connection with deep aquifers, the use of the sweep is confined to shallow water-tables and, naturally, water streams. Several sweeps can be placed in successive levels to raise water to the required level, as in Egypt, on the Nile banks, or they can be operated side by side, on the same level, to achieve continuous irrigation, as in the Sahara oases.

In the European rural environment, the sweep for raising water is likely to have been built by:
- an individual farmer, either on a river bank to irrigate a kitchen garden or a cultivated field, or in a farmyard to draw rain water from a cistern;
- a small community on communal land inside a hamlet or a village, to provide drinking water to people and cattle or to supply a wash-house;
- a craftsman, such as a brickmaker, to collect the water necessary to mold clay bricks or tiles.

Today, the tall silhouette of the machine is gradually being obliterated from the rural landscape by technological progress (in the form of mains water supply and pumps).

(*) Not including Territoire de Belfort, where a few specimens are still extant today, and Meurthe-et-Moselle and Alpes-Maritimes, two départements in which early-twentieth century postcards bear out the existence of the device.

Bibliography

Henri Polge, Typologie du cigognier, in Documents et archives pour la recherche sociolinguistique méridionale, 1976, No 1, pp. 18-23.

Christian Lassure, Une vieille technique de puisage en perdition : le balancier à tirer l'eau, Etudes et recherches d'architecture vernaculaire, No 6, 1986, 40 p.

Christian Lassure et François Véber, Le puits à balancier communal de Fonniovas à Sorges (Dordogne). Etude ethno-archéologique
in L'architecture vernaculaire, t. 10, 1986, pp. 27-32.

Christian Lassure, Sur quelques constructions à pauxfourches, balanciers de puits et bâtiments de type halle dans le nord-est de la Dordogne, in L'architecture vernaculaire, t. 13, 1989, pp. 81-86.

Serge Avrilleau, Christian Lassure et François Véber, Elévateurs à balancier d'Adoux-bas et d'Adoux-haut à Sarliac (Dordogne), in L'architecture vernaculaire, t. 13, 1989, pp. 89-92.

Christian Lassure, rubrique Well-sweep, dans Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, edited by Paul Oliver, Cambridge University Press, 1997, vol. 1, VI, Services, p. 494.

Michel Rouvière, Sur quelques systèmes hydrauliques en Ardèche méridionale, in L'eau en Ardèche. Ses usages, ses enjeux, ses contraintes, Mémoire d'Ardèche et Temps Présent, No 90, 15 mai 2006, pp. 8-11.

2 - THE BALANCING WELL THROUGH POSTCARDS

 

MEURTHE-ET-MOSELLE

 

At the vanishing point of roof eaves, stands out a well sweep poised on its upright, amidst firewood piles and manure heaps. A cast-iron water pump can also be seen against the façade of the house nearest to the photographer.

 

A closer view of the same well swipe. It faces the row of houses, the well being in the middle of the open yard called usoir outside one of the houses. The post is probably the work of a carpenter as evidenced by its decorative head piece and the hollow through which passes a beam weighted by a piece of wood. The hanging element comprises a wooden bar at the end of a chain. The bucket stands on the well brim.

 

An even closer view of the same device. Its elaborate workmanship is obvious: the thickened foot of the post ends with a triangular decor on all four sides; its head piece, carved to look like a pyramid with a rounded top, rests on a narrow stem. The axis of the beam seems to be made of wood. The wooden element weighting the beam's tail seems to be a reused piece from a former support. The hanging element comprises not just one but two bars linked to each other by a short iron chain. The parallelepiped lying to the left of the well is a drinking trough.

 

The well sweep in the background is the twin brother of the previous one (same carved head piece on top of the post). Both devices were to be destroyed with the rest of the village in August 1914.

 

LANDES

 

The legend on the back reads: "In the Landes country – Old balancing well".
With the trunk of a young tree for a post, a long perch for a beam, a metal pin running through the fork's prongs for an axis, this water sweep is a most rudimentary contraption. As the post is slightly tilted towards the well, its foot has been propped up by a couple of stays. When the machine is a standstill , the bucket hangs a few centimetres above the well's brim.

 

The legend on the back reads: "Landes. A Landaise farm and Landaise well".
A balancing well in the area round Aire-sur-Adour. The upright is a young forked tree, the flail a perch hinged on an iron pin that runs through the fork's prongs. Contrary to local rule, the bar is arched, not straight. Overall, a simple but rudimentary device, not unlike other existing Landaise well sweeps.

 

The legend on the back says: "Landes. A Landaise farm and Landaise well".
The post is a young forked tree, hardly thicker than the beam that hinges round a metal axis in the fork. A pail hangs from a long bar fastened by a chain to the jib. The device is at standstill, so that the pail hangs a few dozen centimetres above the well's rim.

 

The upright is a forked tree, the beam is a pole hinged round a metal axis running through the fork's prongs. The hanging system – probably a bar – is barely visible. The machine is at standstill, with its jib up and its bucket hanging a score centimetres above the well's rim. Since no counterweight is visible, one can conclude that the man in the picture is holding the beam down.

 

The legend says:: "In Gascony - Silents witnesses of the past: the old well".
The farmer's wife, holding the bar with both hands, lower the bucket into the well. The post is a forked tree, the beam is a thick pole weighted by a piece of wood fastened to its tail end.

 

SAÔNE-ET-LOIRE

 

The Balorin farm at Louhans, Saône-et-Loire. While one would expect the farmer's wife to be photographed drawing water from the well, the photographer has been content with catching her simply feeding the poultry.
The device is obviously the work of a carpenter : a squared post with a diamond-pointed top, a through mortise for the beam to pass, the upper part of the post strengthened by two binding pieces, etc. The beam is a tree trunk whose upper part (or jib) has been squared and made thinner.

 

This so-called "Bressanne farmhouse" is in fact the Balorin farm shown in the previous postcard. This time, the sweep is seen from the farmhouse's side, which is why we get a glimpse of the timber-framed barn with its ears of maize hung under the overhanging roof eaves. In this second shot, we can see the device up close, especially the unsquared tail of the beam, the through mortise, the metal axis and the bar for drawing water.

 

VIENNE

 

A particular feature of this machine is its post heavily tilted in the direction opposite the well, resulting in its flail being almost perpendicular to the ground. The upright is a thick squared post ending with a fork-like mortise in which the beam – also squared – swivels. The length of the bar for drawing water is an indication of the depth of the aquifer.

 

HAUTE-VIENNE

 

Part of the legend ("à balancier") is apparently missing.
The device is quite an impressive sight judging from the diameter of the upright and that of the forked post serving as a stop for the beam.

 

CÔTES-D'ARMOR

 

This Côtes-d'Armor well swipe is in a different league from its counterparts in the Landes region, judging from the diameter of its upright and the squaring of its beam. The force arm is weighted by an iron cauldron fastened to its lower end. The hanging element seems to have no wooden bar, only a chain (a sure way to avoid splinters...). The foot of the upright is buttressed by three stays. The opening of the well is amazingly narrow.

 

3 - REVIEWS PUBLISHED IN THE JOURNAL L'ARCHITECTURE VERNACULAIRE

ROUVIERE Michel, Les balanciers de puits ou  « manlèves » du bas Vivarais, in Revue des enfants et amis de Villeneuve-de-Berg, 1990, pp. 18-27 (review by Christian Lassure, in L'architecture vernaculaire, t. 14, 1990, p. 68).

In this article, Michel Rouvière points out that a number of swipes for drawing water are still standing in the commune of the Assions in the Ardèche département. In their design and structure, these swipes are identical to those encountered in other French regions. Their metal parts come from salvaging. Water is drawn either from garden wells whose water originates from a nearby stream or from tanks whose water comes from a spring or even a river. The manlèves, as they are called, come with a number of small hydraulic devices used for recouperating, channelling, storing and heating water for irrigation: grooves and circular basins (or gourgues). The watering technique consists of splashing water with an espoucho, i.e. an old saucepan tied to the end of a long handle.

At a time when water becomes scarce in Southern France, the manlèves of lower Ardèche deserve our whole attention.

BARBIER Jean-Marie, Les puits à balancier de Meurthe-et-Moselle, in Cartes postales et collection, 1990, No 132, pp. 16-21 (review by Guy Oliver in L'architecture vernaculaire, t. 19, 1995, p. 96).

The author stresses the vital role of water and the high level of expenses that is incurred by a small, unaffluent commune in order to supply its inhabitants with water. He evokes the principle of the ancient Egyptians' shaduf, a forerunner of the well swipe that was widely used in Lorraine until the early 20th century.

This short article contains a facsimile of an October 26th, 1750 estimate for the refurbishment of three communal wells in Mouacourt as well as a 1782 estimate (taken from P. Simonin's  book, Le puits à balancier lorrain, 1984) about a well in Pont-Mousson.

The interest of the article lies in its seven early 20th-century postcards showing balancing wells that supplied water to homes in Lorraine: Parroy (3 pictures), Petit-Mont (2 pictures), Mouacourt and Ogévilliers. These pictures bring out the many similarities of the four devices.

Once more, old postcards, although often neglected or simply ignored, constitute an irreplaceable source of information.


To print, use landscape mode

© CERAV
January 18th, 2006 - Augmented on February 1st, 2008

The above contribution will be referred to as:

Christian Lassure
The balancing well in France
http://www.pierreseche.com/balancing_well.htm
January 18th, 2008

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