As he has done every Saturday morning for two decades, Marcel parks his battered white van on Avenue Edouard Millaud, main thoroughfare of the rural area west of Lyon. Removing a contraption that resembles a strangely-doctored bicycle, this robust senior citizen cycles hundreds of kilometres, but never leaves his spot in front of the Craponne village produce market. Curious, I am drawn to this cycling–sur-place.
Vestige of a French profession dating back to about 1300, Marcel is a rémouleur, (knife sharpener or grinder). Exercising his activity in the village streets, the grinder proposed his services to sharpen knives, scissors and razors. “I’ve been a sharpener on weekends for 20 years,” Marcel tells me, not stopping to catch his breath.
As was the case of the early rémouleur, knife and tool sharpening is a source of supplementary income. “I’m a carpenter by trade. I had to sharpen my tools, so I taught myself to sharpen knives and adapted my own bicycle,” he states, adjusting his drifting beret and caressing his slate block with a dangerous-looking Opinel knife.
At the beginning of the 15th century, grinders had the privilege of sharpening cloth shearers’ scissors. Charles IV granted the trade definite status and the rémouleur joined the cutlery profession at the end of the 15th century. This vocation evolved over the next few hundred years. In 1807, sharpeners were obliged by law to hold a passport to leave France, but also to travel within the country.
Often from poor regions, the rémouleur embarked on a long trip from February to November. In an extract from the specialised work of Henri Amblès, ‘Au pays des émoulers’, Madame Legaye cites her father in 1870:
“We left in February… the coldest month. We covered the long distance on foot, nearly 1000km; Lorraine, Alsace, Southern Germany and onto Switzerland. We departed penniless, carrying the bare necessities on our backs. Along the way we earned a little money selling razors and knives and doing odd jobs. Work was often rare … it was total misery.”
An émouleur differs from a rémouleur in that the former, while exercising the same activity, has a more sedentary working style.
13 kilometres west of Lyon, the Craponne village market caters to the gastronomic pleasures of its 7,000 inhabitants as it has done for half a century of Saturday mornings. Through convivial banter, smoke spirals from chickens revolving on the rotisserie, and boudins and saucissons displayed like plump limbs, Marcel cycles in earnest.
“How many kilometres do you cycle in a morning?” asks a customer, safely stowing his newly sharpened Swiss Army knife between punnets of fleshy raspberries and slices of pâté de campagne.
“Don’t know really,” Marcel replies, removing the next knife from his wooden storage crate and wetting the blade before passing it laterally across his revolving grindstone. “But I must’ve been around the world twice in 20 years,” he adds. Then, smiling ruefully, he confesses that he’s never been out of France.
The trade of knife sharpener in France continued until the middle of the 20th century. Then, the quality of steel and its treatment meant that there was less call for the service. Indeed, in today’s technological era, I wonder if Marcel really makes a justifiable contribution to his income.
The continual dribble of customers throughout the morning, at an average of 4 Euros an object, satisfies my curiosity. Evidently, in France at least, knives still need sharpening.
The church bells chime the Cinderella hour, signalling merchants to pack away their depleted stocks. Last minute haggling begins in earnest. Like the remnants of a battlefield, crates, fruit peelings and wilted greenery lay strewn across the square.
INFORMATION: The Craponne market takes place every Saturday morning in the centre of the village (Place Andrée Marie Perrin). Fresh fruit, vegetables and speciality cheeses from the west Lyonnaise region can be purchased, as well as meat and seafood. Clothing, household articles, pottery and miscellaneous items are also sold.
The village of Craponne can be reached by bus or car from the centre of Lyon in less than 30 minutes.
Author Liza Perrat grew up in Wollongong, Australia. She now lives in France with her French husband whom she met on a bus in Bangkok. Find out more about Liza Perrat