Salt exploitation in Franche-Comté and at Salins-les-Bains is very old, going back more than 7000 years. The first indication of salt production in the area surrounding Salins-les-Bains points to 4300 B.C. Production was then interrupted during the Roman period due to importations from the Mediterranean. With the departure of the Romans in the 4th century of our era local salt exploitation resumed. The existence of the saltworks in the 8th century is recorded in the annals of the Abbey of Flavigny.
As of the 9th century, historical documents become more numerous and confirm the existence of three different saltworks in Salins-les-Bains. At the time the town was divided into two municipalities.
The « Grande Saline » (also known as the « Grande Saunerie ») remains to this day and is now a museum. Situated in the “Upper Town”, it was the largest of the three saltworks. It had two brine wells, the well of “Amont” and the well of “Gré” that were connected via an underground gallery 165 metres long and containing a flowing stream.
The « Petite Saline » (the small saltworks) was to be found in the Lower Town at the current site of the thermal baths. It drew its brine from the well of “Muire”, another name by which the site is known.
The smallest of the three saltworks is known as the « Chauderette de Rosières ». It was located at the northern extremity of the Grande Saline, towards the Flore Tower, near the present-day town hall. Contrary to the other two saltworks, it had no salt spring of its own, but brine was piped in once a week from Amont and the Grande Saline.
Each of these saltworks had its own type of proprietorship and means of administration. Whether a nearly exclusive ownership, multiple ownership or ownership in shares, types of administration varied from era to era. Finally, at the beginning of the 17th century, the saltworks were united under a single administration by the daughter of the Spanish King Phillip II. Later, in 1674 the saltworks became a royal enterprise after the conquest of Franche-Comté by Louis XIV.
Tapestry of Saint Anatoile
For Salins-les-Bains and its inhabitants, salt was a highly precious resource and their economy depended on it. Any harm to the salt springs was a veritable disaster. In 1467, construction was undertaken at the Muire well and the spring ceased to flow.
Concerned, the inhabitants implored their patron saint, Saint Anatoile, for help. A solemn procession was organised and the saint’s relics were placed at the bottom of the well. A miracle is said to have happened and the spring waters once again came forth.
A tapestry from the beginning of the 16th century relates this event. The twelfth element in a series of fourteen, it was commissioned by the canons of Saint Anatoile to tell the story of the life of their saint. In addition to its religious and artistic features, it furnishes information about the techniques used at that time to draw the brine from the wells, as well as about the organisation of society in Salins at the time. A reproduction of this work is on display in the Grande Saline in Salins-les-Bains, the original being found in the Louvre in Paris.
To see: A reproduction of this work of art is on display at the Grande Saline in Salins-les-Bains; the original is found in the Louvre in Paris.