Throughout Picardy, a fascinating reflection of surface life exists. Scores of villages are mirrored underground by ‘villages’ which include houses, stables, stores and streets. Locally they are known as Muches from a regional word meaning ‘hidden’. Because of their defensive importance, they are often undocumented but enthusiasts are recording what they know and learning more each year. Evidence points to the Muches being constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries as refuges during the Franco-Spanish Wars. During these wars, the Spanish occupied the Low Countries and attacked France from the north east. Soldiers and mercenaries roamed the area and stole their food from local farmers. The Muches are within the area where the battle lines of the war ranged over the period of the conflict.
Most of the sites are located under or very close to Churches as these would be the strongest buildings. In addition the Church Tower could be used as a lookout. Livestock and foodstuff as well as the residents were hidden underground when conflict came near. If the enemy were to gain access, they would find darkness, twisting passages and low ceilings, putting them at a disadvantage to those who knew the layout. The Muches are constructed under streets and common ground as in France landowners own everything underneath their own property.
A typical Muche is based on one or more linear ‘streets’ with single or double rooms leading off at frequent intervals. Some of the rooms have the remains of mangers and troughs for livestock to feed from; each room being ‘owned’ by a family above ground. Some researchers believe the structures were originally for storage only and that human occupation only came in later conflicts such as the Franco-Prussian war of the 1870s. In most cases access is gained via a twisting ramp to a depth of around 12 metres. Wells and spiral staircases were also used for access. Smoke from underground fires was sometimes led into surface buildings so as to reappear through a normal cottage chimney! Many Muches probably fell into disrepair after a law passed by Louis XIV which forced soldiers to buy rather than steal their provisions. Some Muches, however, were re-occupied during World War I as shelters and hospitals.
The Muches at Mesnil-Domqueur were re-discovered only in 2005, after being lost for around 200 years. They were found when a routine inspection of a village well revealed some different masonry in the lining of the shaft. When this was removed it was found to form a hidden entrance to the Muches. Volunteers expended many days work to work backwards, removing clay as they went, to the original entrance within the vilage church. This entrance had been built over around 1800, indicating the length of time the site had been hidden from view. The last dated grafitti is from 1729.
A detailed archeological survey followed, where some rooms were found to have original carved inscriptions, detailing the owner and purpose (eg beer store) of the subterranean chambers. A total of 46 rooms have been identified, along two main galleries. The evidence seems to show that the prime purpose of this refuge was to store foodstuffs rather than shelter people. When Sub Brit first visited in 2009, we were the first group to be allowed access apart fronm those who had conducted the original re-excavation.