Facts About Louis Braille's Birthplace

Copyright © 1995
National Federation of the Blind

          From Kenneth Jernigan: In the accompanying article I have told you about my visit to Louis Braille's birthplace in Coupvray, France. I thought you might like to have additional information, so here are excerpts from the guidebook given to visitors:

          It is obviously impossible to do justice to a life as exceptional as that of Louis Braille in the few pages of a booklet; the many souvenirs and testimonials contained in his home could in themselves provide the material for more than one book.

          The purpose of these few lines is to be for some people a reminder of a visit both moving and enriching--and for those who are not yet acquainted with Louis Braille and Coupvray, an encouragement to visit here.


THE VILLAGE OF COUPVRAY

          The village of Coupvray is situated on the slopes of a grassy hill set between the Brie region of France and that of the Champagne province. In spite of the proximity of the Marne Valley, it retains even today . . . the character of a rural village. One may still see the small brown-tiled roofs, the farmyards, the farmhouses and a village green surrounded by trees where are clustered together St. Pierre Church (where Louis Braille was christened on January 8, 1809), the village hall, and the monument by tienne Leroux set up in 1887 and topped by a bust of the inventor of the alphabet for the blind. The body of Louis Braille rested in the village cemetery till 1952. On his tomb can be seen a casket in which the remains of his hands are preserved--those hands which were the first in the world to finger the raised dots of the Braille alphabet. All around is still open country. High above is the farm of the chƒteau. Here and there amid the gardens and orchards, small grassy paths meander across the hillside. And, on the lower slopes, is an old wash-house with wooden posts and mossy tiles where the clear waters of the Fr‚minette flow swiftly by, gently murmuring.

THE BRAILLE FAMILY HOME

          The Braille family home is in the lower part of Coupvray at the end of a small street which in the past went by the name of Knoll Street. . . . It is a large solid house, built in the latter half of the 18th century and restored at various times since then. The Braille family also owned several farm buildings in the yard and on the opposite side of the street. A marble tablet was affixed in 1952 to the wall of the house facing the yard. The text, in French and English, reads:

In this house
on January 4, 1809 was born
Louis Braille
inventor of writing
in raised dots
for use of the blind.
He opened the doors of
knowledge to those
who cannot see.


THE LIVING ROOM

          This room is really the heart of the house, both by reason of the memories it evokes and on account of the very well- preserved Briard-style architecture. On entering, we find ourselves in the warm, cozy atmosphere of the homes of yesteryear. Here in this one living room, Simon-Ren‚ Braille, the saddler, lived with his whole family: his wife Monique and their four childrenÄÄMonique-Catherine, Louis-Simon, Marie-C‚line, and their youngest, Louis. It is here that are gathered together all the essentials of daily living.

Under the mantelpiece:

To the left, as you enter:

          Also of note in this room are: the oak beams on the ceiling; the doors of the 18th-century wardrobe; the "maie" or bread bin, in which the loaves were stored; the warming pan used to warm the bed; the oak table; the gun; the lantern; the cross; and, above the door leading to the [upstairs], the portrait of Louis Braille--the only photograph of the celebrated inventor.

THE WORKSHOP OF SIMON-REN BRAILLE, SADDLER

          For over a century the Braille family carried on the craft of saddler from father to son. Louis Braille's grandfather, Simon Braille, had settled in Coupvray early in the 18th century. He had taken over his father-in-law's business which was already established in the village in the 17th century.

          Some of the equipment and furniture used by the Brailles in their craft may be seen in this workshop:

On the walls of the room:

          Here we come to the tragedy which cost young Louis Braille his sight. In 1812, he is a happy little three-year old. THe loves to come and watch his father handle those mysterious tools laid out on the work bench. Mysterious and attractive. One day, taking advantage of his parents' absence, he seizes a [tool] and tries to cut a piece of leather, but his small hands are clumsy. The leather is tough. Suddenly, the blade slips and penetrates the child's eye. Nothing can arrest the infection which sets in, and the other eye becomes infected. At the age of five, Louis Braille [becomes totally blind].

LOUIS BRAILLE'S ACHIEVEMENT

          When we speak of Louis Braille's work, we should not forget two men who, in one way or another, were his forerunners. The first is Valentin Hay. In the 18th century this philanthropist had founded a school for the blind and invented an embossed alphabet for them. If Louis Braille was able to enter a special school in 1819, it was thanks to the pioneering work of Valentin Hay. The second is Charles Barbier de la Serre, a captain in the artillery [during the Napoleonic Wars]. He had found a way to communicate with his brother officers at night by means of a system of raised dots. The pupils at the . . . Royal Institution for the Young Blind . . . tried out this "Sonography," which took no account of spelling and, in addition, was most complicated. At the age of thirteen Louis Braille began his research with a view to designing an alphabet based on a cell of six raised dots. This system was enthusiastically acclaimed by the pupils but was rejected by the teachers (1826). Being sighted themselves, they refused to countenance a form of writing which they could not read. It was not till 1844 that, at the inauguration of some new buildings in the Boulevard des Invalides, the governors at last recognized the undeniable value of the system. Since then Braille, adapted to many of the languages of the world, has become for the blind a universal written language.

          In the room which is devoted to Louis Braille's work, various pieces of equipment and documents have been assembled, showing the birth of raised dot writing, its development and use.

          Books written in linear relief following Valentin Ha<>y's method:

          Several books written in French and other languages, printed in Braille, books for educational or cultural use, are shown here. Among other titles, attention is drawn to:

Gifts and Distinctions received by the Louis Braille Museum:

LOUIS BRAILLE IN COUPVRAY

          First a pupil and later a teacher at the Royal Institution for the Young Blind in Paris, Louis Braille always remained deeply attached to his native village. Letters written in "raphigraphy," preserved by the family Lecouvey-Braille are proof of the interest he always took in his family and friends in Coupvray.

          When, weakened by illness, he was forced to rest for long periods of time, it is here that he sought the impossible cure. He had one of the rooms of the family home, facing the street and with a fireplace, prepared for his own use. In this room where, close to his family, he lived out some months of respite, some touching mementoes have been assembled.

Documents from the village archives:

DAILY LIFE IN COUPVRAY IN LOUIS BRAILLE'S TIME

          From this house, a real witness in stone, we are able to recreate the daily life of a 19th-century village. There is a strong emotional bond between Louis Braille, his family, and Coupvray. Ties were forged with inhabitants of the little market town. Childhood ties: Louis went to the village school; his two sisters, Monique-Catherine and Marie-C‚line, married two of the local boysÄÄJean Fran‡ois Caron and Louis-Fran‡ois Marniesse. Civic ties: Ren‚, the father, was appointed several times to posts of local authority. Ties due to shared experiences: together they endured the war, the Russian occupation. Religious ties: Louis's christening, the various feasts of the Christian liturgy: Christmas, Easter, the Assumption, and, of course, St. Peter's (the local patronal festival). The bonds of tradition, too: the evenings 'round the fireside at the homes of friends and neighbors.

          In order to bring to life anew these vanished village activities and old customs, the Louis Braille Museum presents--in four distinct exhibitions--a variety of objects, documents, pictures, and articles of furniture, revealing clearly another way of life.



FULL INFORMATION ABOUT THE BIRTHPLACE

          After the death of Louis Braille and his direct heirs, the house became the property of the Maurice, Marniesse, and Braille familiesÄÄhis nieces and nephewÄÄwho administered the property jointly until 1878. At that time Mr. Toupet bought the house which overlooked the courtyard and in 1889 the Baudin family purchased the one facing onto the street. From 1898, the whole became the property of the Crapart family. The Braille home was sold on March 29, 1952, to the association "The Friends of Louis Braille," which was represented by Mr. Pierre Henri Monnet, the Mayor of Coupvray; it was then fitted up as a museum and opened to the public. With a view to acquiring for it the status of a municipal museum under government control, the association decided to donate all its assets to the Parish, recommending that the museum should be administered by an international organization (November 23, 1956). The Deed of Covenant setting out the agreement between the W.C.W.B. (World Council for the Welfare of the Blind) and Coupvray was signed on July 27, 1957.

          Since that time the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind (now the World Blind Union) has proudly devoted itself to caring for this shrine which the blind of the whole world value as the birthplace of their benefactor.




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