by Candy Lien
In October of 2011, a long-held dream of mine came true. I was privileged to visit the birthplace and childhood home of Louis Braille in Coupvray, France. Coupvray is a small town (current population less than 3,000) 28 miles southeast of Paris. It is very near Euro Disney; in fact, the top of Sleeping Beauty's tower is visible from the town. Even though Coupvray is near Paris, it is a quiet town off the beaten path, so to speak, being bypassed by the nearby freeway, the A-4.
Our tour was scheduled for 3:00 p.m., but, due to the unexpectedly heavy traffic around Paris, we arrived 45 minutes late. Thankfully, the guide was gracious enough to allow us to join the tour that was in progress and then to let us participate in the first part of the next tour. The guide was a friendly, middle-aged gentleman who spoke English with a heavy French accent. He was very knowledgeable about Braille, the man and the code. It was apparent that this was not just a job to him, but he spoke of his topic with pride. All the other tourists were French, so the guide delivered his spiel in both languages, speaking a sentence or two in French first, and then repeating what he had just said in English for our benefit.
The Braille home, or La Maison Natale de Louis Braille, as it is known in French, consists of several stories that are staggered at half-floor intervals; in other words, one would enter on the ground floor, then ascend a half-flight of stairs and turn to enter a room, then go back out to the landing and continue up another half-flight of stairs and turn the opposite direction to enter another suite of rooms. It is built into a hillside, so that one can walk out from the second story onto the ground, then walk down the hillside and go around the corner of the house to re-enter on the ground floor. Someone had made a scale model of the home which enabled me to better understand its layout. This model was labeled in braille, French of course. Thankfully, I was able to remember enough of my college French to be able to read the labels!
The guide was very accommodating, allowing me to handle anything I wanted in the museum, except for the original tools that Louis' father had owned. These tools were displayed in a glass case, but replicas of the tools were available for me to touch. Thus I learned what a serpette is, the tool with which Louis Braille had accidentally blinded himself. A serpette is similar to a paring knife, with a wooden handle, but with a slightly curved blade. The edge of the serpette and its tip are extremely sharp. It is used to trim leather, so you can imagine how sharp it would need to be. Gently touching the finely honed blade, I cringed as I imagined little Louis, at the age of three, accidentally stabbing himself in the eye as he attempted to imitate his father at work. I was also able to touch the elder Braille's workbench, covered with gouges. Monsieur Braille was a harness-maker by trade, and there were harnesses hanging on the walls of the workshop.
In the "common room," I saw some of the family's belongings, such as a cheese-making form, the bread oven, the stone sink that opened into the ground at the back, and the parents' bed, which is built into the wall like a cupboard. There was a bed-warmer that was used to heat the bed on cold winter nights. The floor was paved with terra cotta tiles. The guide showed me the letters made of rounded nail heads hammered into a strip of wood that Louis' father had made in order to teach Louis the print alphabet.
As we were listening to part of the explanation, we heard a crunching sound. My daughter leaned over to me and whispered that it was a cat calmly having his dinner! Upstairs, there was a display of items that Louis Braille had owned, as well as some old braille artifacts. I was allowed to hold and page through a print book that Louis had owned. "A print book?" you ask. Yes. When Louis was a pupil at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, he was the top student in almost every subject. At the end of each school year the top student in each subject was given a prize, and the prize consisted of a print book! Why print, when the students were blind? Because before Braille had devised his code, the only way blind people could access print was with the use of embossed (or raised) print books. These embossed print books were extremely large and unwieldy and very expensive to produce. The Institute had only a small number of these books. I was able to handle one of them. I was surprised to note that the embossed print was not block letters as I had imagined, but more like italic print. It was very hard to read, and Louis Braille was one of the few students who were able to master the reading of embossed print. Since the books he was given as prizes were published in ink print rather than in embossed print, Braille would have had to have been dependent on someone else to read them to him.
A book embossed in braille dating from the late 19th century was on display, and I was allowed to examine it. The dots were in amazingly good condition and it was very readable, though it was in French. This book contained an early example of a tactile picture. The book was "The Imitation of Christ," and the picture was a monstrance made of raised dots.
I saw a slate and stylus that Louis Braille had devised for writing his code. The stylus was very similar to the styluses we still use today, but the slate was different. It was similar to a board slate. The "board" part was made of metal and had horizontal grooves across it from top to bottom. A metal cross piece containing two rows of cells was moved down the length of this "board" as one wrote. The writing was done from right to left as is done currently. I also saw an early model of a mechanical braille writer. It was very similar to a Perkins brailler, except that it had no backspace key and no new line key. Moving from line to line had to be done by turning the roller knobs. This old braille writer was still operational and I was able to insert paper into it and write with it.
I also saw an example of the raphigraphe. The raphigraphe is a lesser-known invention of Louis Braille. It is a machine that he invented to enable blind people to communicate with print users. It used pin pricks on paper to form touchable print letters. Using the raphigraphe was a very slow, cumbersome process, however, which is probably why it did not become popular.
The guide taught us some interesting facts about the original braille code, which was meant for use with the French language, and later adapted for use with almost every language in the world. Louis used dots 4 and 6 as the capital letter sign, rather than the dot 6 that we use today in English Braille American Edition. He did not create contractions as such, but used the signs that are used in English Braille American Edition (EBAE) for the single-cell contractions to indicate the various accented vowels used in the French language. A dot 6 placed before some of these signs were used for the numerals rather than re-using the letters a-j as we do in English braille.
At the conclusion of our tour, we drove down the street to the small church, St. Pierre's, where Louis Braille had been baptized in 1809. We were hoping to locate his grave. We found a cemetery but there was no sign of his grave there. Regrettably, we had to leave at that point and were not able to look further. I had read that Braille had originally been laid to rest in Coupvray, but that in 1952, on the centennial of his death, the French government had wanted to disinter his body and move it to the Pantheon in Paris. The citizens of Coupvray objected, and a compromise was reached: his hands would be left in Coupvray. It sounds rather grisly, but this solution seemed to satisfy everybody.
If you ever have the opportunity to travel to France, I would encourage you to visit La Maison Natale de Louis Braille. It is well worth the time and effort. I actually would go back there again if I ever had the chance. Visiting his home gave me greater insight into the life of this remarkable man, one of my heroes. My daughter, son and I rented a car and drove to Coupvray, but it can be accessed by train as well, with an additional taxi ride. I would check first to find out the hours that the museum is open, since they vary according to the seasons.