Rural Society in France

by Robert Forster and Orest Ranum


1 - Lucien Febvre, Man or Productivity

2 - Paul Leuilliot, A Manifesto: The Defense and Illustration of Local History

3 - Georges Lefebvre, The Place of the Revolution in the Agrarian History of France

4 - Albert Soboul, Persistence of "Feudalism" in the Rural Society of 19th Century


5 - Jean-Marie Pesez and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Deserted Villages of

France: An Overview

6 - Alain Morel, Power and Ideology in the Village Community of Picardy: Past and Present

7 - Tina Jolas and Francoise Zonabend, Tillers of the Fields and Woodspeople

8 - Lucienne Roubin Male Space and Female Space within the Provencal Community


Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, two historians of remarkable breadth, are probably best remembered for their pioneering work in rural history and collective mentalities. The Annales, in the forefront of French scholarship, has earned incontestable prestige in the field of rural history, so much so that a single volume of articles cannot begin to do justice to its range and depth. For many historians and cultural anthropologists, the most rewarding aspect of the French approach to the rural world has been the recreation of a vivid and concrete human existence not merely the formal design of fields , the state of technology, the production and distribution of the fruits of the land, and the juridical framework that accompanied economic activities but also the attitudes and values of ordinary people in a pre-industrial society . Agrarian history readily lends itself to the longue duree by the timeless rhythm of the countryside, the slow acceptance of innovation, and the semi-literacy and inescapable localism of people who even today compose the world's largest human mass. In the work of the Annales -school historians, we never lose sight of real human beings who toil and talk, feel and reflect. As Febvre said thirty years ago, there is another world, a world of peasant psychology that the historian must recapture in all of its complexity.

In this volume we have attempted to join the two areas that Bloch and Febvre espoused so well in their own work. We have selected not only those articles that treat the impact of the events of a decade or the secular trends of a millennium on the agrarian structure of France but also those that describe the peculiar combination of physical surroundings traditions habits and "tone" that give the village its special character and durability. Hence three of the eight selections treat specific villages. The essays are qualitative, despite their precision about acreages and occupations; interdisciplinary, relying heavily upon cultural anthropology and folklore; and, above all, subtle in performing the double role of describing in depth the activities and values of a restricted number of human beings and of evoking situations that reflect a timeless, human dimension-the durable. As Paul Leuilliot writes, "Here local history overflows into the history of mentalities, of attitudes toward life death, money, and innovation

Lucien Febvre's short essay, entitled "Man or Productivity," is perhaps even more appropriate to our own time than it was to his, three decades ago. Febvre was concerned that in our obsession with economic growth and the efficiency of labour and capital, we might lose sight of the village community as a special way of life in which "production" may not be the primary value. There is in Febvre's comment more than a warning about historical method; it contains a strong nostalgic sentiment for the countryside and the peasant outlook on life. Like so many of his generation-Marc Bloch, Georges Lefebvre, Gaston Roupnel, Henri See, Pierre de Saint-Jacob-Febvre had a deep feeling for the French countryside, the empathy of one who viewed its rows of poplar trees, meandering river valleys, tidy furrows, and creaking carts with a loving eye. And if these men all erred a little in the direction of an idealised bucolic harmony, their sympathy for the village community gave their work a powerful evocative quality that even an urbanite in another "world" can appreciate and share.

Paul Leuilliot wrote his "defense and illustration of local history" ten years ago. No doubt it contains a defensive quality that seems unnecessary today.

One thinks immediately of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou, a village study that in a year has not only sold 100,000 copies to the lay public but has also captivated specialists--historians, sociologists, ethnographers-who can now listen to thirteenth-century peasants speaking about their intimate. Everyday lives . Leuillot defends local history with " seven principles," almost like a military engineer's system of entrenchments, aimed against the writers of traditional political history, of premature or speculative syntheses, of thesis subjects chosen by Parisian mentors who have too often looked down on local history as trivial and nonanalytical. Leuilliot emphasises that local history is an indispensable corrective to the broad synthesis, yielding the necessary nuance and suppleness that aggregate statistics and national trends cannot provide. But even more important, the local study stands on its own, not as a discrete building block for some future synthesis, but as a coherent "world" in its own right, able to capture, as no other framework can, the psychological dimension of daily life. By this vehicle one can hope to identify the elusive links among many aspects of human activity, such as diet and ,disease, birth ,,birth control and religious belief ,self-esteem' and deference or to uncover a hierarchy of loyalties to family, craft, seigneur, or village community. Sometimes one can even hope to detect more subtle indications of changing attitudes toward work, leisure, and deviance, or toward childhood, old age, and death. Leuilliot would surely have been pleased to see today's practitioners of local history, researchers propelled by fresh elan, armed with new sources, new approaches, and new allied disciplines, clearly on the "offensive."

A collection of articles on French rural history would be incomplete without at least one selection from the prodigious corpus of Georges Lefebvre's historical writings. Despite the efforts of some recent interpreters to force his history into a narrow mould, Lefebvre defies easy categorisation. Deeply respectful of empirical evidence, scrupulously honest in his interpretations, fully aware of the continuities as well as the "ruptures" in social history, he earned the respect of historians of all shades of political opinion and philosophical affiliation. Among his many scholarly endeavours, his most intense commitment was to peasant history, followed closely by the French Revolution. Thus, when Lefebvre joined the two subjects, one clearly belonging to the longue duree, the other to histoire evenementielle, he was able to bring his keenest talents and most sympathetic inclinations to bear. In this article written in 1929 Lefebvre is at his best, demonstrating the complexity of the rural world, its many internal conflicts and regional variations, the subtle changes that have undermined the traditional village community, and the strong continuities of autarchy, small property, communal rights, and suspicion of innovation. Against these deeply rooted conditions, psychological as well as material, a revolutionary wave would break, surely bending the rural structure but hardly splintering it or sweeping it away. Lefebvre is too honest not to express his doubts and hesitancies, and the accidental and unexpected results of a conscious policy, action, or piece of legislation have their place. "It should be pointed out," he writes, "that the Revolution was much more moderate than it might have been. " Failing to attain for the poor what it promised, slowing down rather than stimulating agricultural innovation, the Revolution nonetheless favoured the small landholder and the craftsman. In short, once Lefebvre's description of agrarian society of the Ancien Regime is understood in all its complexity and durability, the limitations of the revolutionary "event" seem almost-if not quite,--predictable.

If Lefebvre conveys a philosophical acceptance of the limitations of the social effects of a "great event" in history, Albert Soboul exhibits a certain frustration before the failure of the Revolution to root out thoroughly and completely both the fiscal reality and the psychological legacy of "feudalism. " But with an equal intensity of commitment to the hopes raised by the Revolution, Soboul exposes the delays of legislation against seigneurial rights and the various legalistic subterfuges employed by parliamentary committees to frustrate complete abolition before definitive action was finally taken in the spring of 1793. But the story of the survival of "feudalism" does not end in 1793 or even with the Code Civil in 1801. Soboul explores the persistence of the church tithe and other dues under various guises well into the nineteenth century, usually in new leases and sharecropping contracts, verbal or notarised. Like Lefebvre, Soboul is aware of regional variations and the different rates of atrophy of these dues. He moves beyond the legal and material aspects of feudalism to embrace the state of dependence that the word suggested to Frenchmen in the last century. Most medievalists and some scholars of the Ancien Régime, among them Alfred Cobban, have objected to the application of the word feudalism to non-military, essentially owner-tenant relationships. But Soboul demonstrates how the word was used in nineteenth-century rural France, and his article explains its context and connotations. 'Re persistence he stresses is not so much an economic reality as a "collective memory" of personal dependence that coloured much of peasant thinking in the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century. It is a credit to Soboul's craftsmanship and careful reading of the evidence that his avowed Marxist theory of history does not seem to have conditioned his conclusion that the "anti-feudal reflex" and "myth" influenced the minds and actions of peasants independency of the material reality of seigneurial dues or church tithes. "The attitudes of the collective mentality are at least as important as the legal and economic aspects of the institution."

The substantial article by Emmanuel Le Roy Laurie and Jean-Marie Pesez is a fine example of history over the longue durée, since it treats the survival and decline of villages of France from the late Middle Ages to the present. But beyond the scope in time, the most interesting aspects of this piece are its methodology, resourceful use of evidence, and open discussion of possible explanations for the desertion of villages at certain times and in certain regions. First, the authors know their geography; they map the distribution of abandoned village sites and relate them, where possible, to physical considerations including natural resources, defensible positions, proximity to disease-infested areas, and so on. They use archaeological findings to help confirm locations indicated in the written documents. Ale regions are considered in the perspective of both cyclical and linear developments--for abandoned villages were often reoccupied-and these developments are related to secular trends in demography, food production, and major migrations as well as to more episodic influences, like natural catastrophe, epidemic, and war. The authors also consider local custom, types of agriculture, and the pull of the villeneuve or larger urban center. The rise of the monarchical state, the domain building of both urban and rural seigneurs, and the burden of taxes and debts on the average villager were particularly intense between 1560 and 1720, accounting for a spurt in the desertion of villages. However, Le Roy Ladurie and Pesez are careful to distinguish between "real villages," on one hand, and hamlets and outlying farms, on the other. Taking the millennium as a whole, French villages were remarkably tenacious, more so, it seems, than those of England and Germany and perhaps even Spain. The authors point out that even the best tax lists (compoix) cannot furnish explanations and that villages undergoing similar pressures may react in quite different ways. Although much weight is given to the secular trends, there is no rigid determinism here; human will counted for something.

This article marks a certain milestone in the history of the annales. Part of a large project presented at the meeting of the International Economic History Association in Munich in 1965, "Deserted Villages" captures much of the boldness of the "school." Ambitious in scope and in the use of new sources and ancillary disciplines, it was able to build on a solid and proven tradition of rural history. Under the imaginative guidance of a new generation of historians such as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Georges Duby, French scholarship in agrarian history took another leap forward. And if more recent developments in the "history of mentalities" have redirected research to subjects more circumscribed in space and time, "Deserted Villages" remains a classic of its kind.

Alain Morel departs from, a compartmentalised approach to village study-demography, production, social structure, and mentalities-in order to demonstrate how his nineteenth-century Picard village society was held together. His is a study of "social control" by the local families of notables that goes beyond economic power and even social pre-eminence based on access to educational advantages and contacts with the outside urban world and includes a code of normative behaviour, an ideology. This code was one of reciprocal obligations between the patron-employer and those dependent on him, and it did much to mitigate, or at least disguise, a crass economic relationship. The villagers "behave more like commoners toward a seigneur than like proletarians toward management. " But in Picardy, that relationship exhibited little of the "anti-feudal hatred" described by Albert Soboul; it was much more a relationship of active paternalism on one side and social respect on the other. Morel suggests that the villagers, especially the very small farmers and the landless agricultural workers, might have opted for rural socialism, unionised, and fought collectively for a more favourable distribution of wealth. But instead, a pervasive work ethic gave them hope of improvement by individual effort. What is more, theirs was a highly competitive work ethic. Morel reviews a whole litany of epithets for those who failed to measure up, as well as those popular expressions-vaillant, fameux, heuré-that conferred public approval. Invidious distinctions were founded on sheer energy and a capacity for work rather than on achieved wealth or power in the community. The patron-employer in his turn practised Christian paternalism---including private charity, of course--but there was also a bonus system cheap housing, a religious school, and even "trousseaux" for the poorer girls of the village. The patron's relations with the villagers were direct and personal .

Morel's Picard village appears to be the fulfilment of the idealised seigneurialism of the Ancien Régime. The family in the chateau, albeit without any claim to noble ancestry, combined the leadership roles of employer, rich landowner, local erudite, mayor, and "notable." This personal clientage network was sustained by a whole package of values and attitudes that are only now, three-quarters of the way through the twentieth century, beginning to crumble, as more and more villagers leave their circumscribed world. New needs, inspired by the city, cannot be supplied by the patron-employer. "Individual "arrangements" will no longer do."

The last two articles share a certain resemblance. Both treat tensions in the village community that are based, not on the distribution of wealth, but on essentially nonmaterial cleavages. They serve to remind us that the village world is large enough to produce-and accommodate--a wide range of internal tensions. Tina Jolas and Francoise Zonabend have chosen to study Minot, a village situated in a heavily wooded region of northern Burgundy. In addition to endemic conflicts between the "rich" and the "poor" and between two families of notables, Minot exhibited a more fundamental cleavage, based on a relation to the land and livestock, between those who had "land and cows" and those who had only "a goat, a pig, and some chickens. " The former were the "tillers of the fields" and lived in the village; the latter, "woodspeople," made their living as woodcutters, sawyers, charcoal burners, and day labourers; they lived most of the time in the woods. The remarkable part of this study is the manner in which the authors construct an outlook or mentality by a careful inspection of everyday chores and occupations, intimately related to physical environment and local custom and made immediate and compelling by personal interviews with the villagers.

"There was a certain way of doing things" is the constant refrain of the villagers. The tillers of the fields were bound by exacting laws and customs involving mutual aid, an etiquette of kinship, and marriage within the group, all of which relegated newcomers and "outsiders" to the outlying farms, "for a generation or two. " The woodspeople were very different in their habits. Far from sedentary, they worked in the forest about half the year, but gleaned on the communal fields or worked as harvest hands in the summer. They produced a large number of "handymen," people who performed all sorts of " odd-jobs "-which was not the same as "working" at a steady occupation or craft. They also appeared suspect to the villagers, who saw them as "shack people," who hunted or poached, ate differently (their staples were game and herring), and had no milk of their own. Above all, the woodspeople did not live regulated lives, either in their work or with regard to their property or in human relationships. Even their marriages were unregulated, and their kinship ties were loose. And, of course, there was almost no intermarriage between the two neighbouring communities. But the cleavage of habits and outlook did not result in open conflict. The village festival, Mardi Gras, national holidays, and periods of communal labour in field or wood followed by the harvest banquet brought the two "worlds" together long enough to keep hostilities within bounds throughout the year. The authors end with a touch of envy for the way of life of the woodspeople, in whose "wild sphere" there is no place for hierarchies or even for the categories of space and time.

Lucienne Roubin's village is in sunny Provence, far from the wooded plateaus of North Burgundy and the wheat fields of Picardy. It is the land of chambrettes and clubs, of an advanced community life and a sociability that seem to be particularly strong in the south of' France and in Mediterranean lands generally. The tension analysed by Roubin is that between the sexes or more precisely, between the two spheres of their assigned activity. "Male space" dominates field and municipality-champs and place. "Female space" is the "domestic universe"-house, especially kitchen, poultry yard, and kitchen garden, and the nave and the chapels of the church. Much of the male's free time is spent talking in the square or wine cellar or hunting, where a certain kind of physical endurance is often tested; the female is a less frequent participant in the chambrette, which in her case assumes the form of a sewing bee held in the stable or barn on winter nights. Roubin's description of the two spheres would have us first believe that sexual segregation is so complete that the spheres defy comparison. But in fact sexual segregation is not airtight; it is "tempered" by an elaborately organized and carefully executed array of saint's-day festivals, charivaris, banquets, community balls, games (boules, horseracing), and processions. Most of die essay is devoted to describing and dissecting the ceremonial aspects of these ritualized activities. As an anthropologist and folklorist, Roubin interprets these festivals as part of a timeless constante fondamentale in Provencal society. The rules involving precedence, for example, are indicators of notions of hierarchy; the masks worn on Mardi Gras, a momentary relief from hierarchical boundaries. Among many functions, the festival also consciously joins couples and, somewhat like the forest banquet of the woodspeople, reduces a tension in the local community that might otherwise become unbearable.

The varieties of rural history are hardly exhausted in this selection of articles from the Annales. They do reveal, however, at least three kinds of French rural history: the impact of a revolution on the rural community, the temporal endurance of the village, and the values and attitudes that hold the village community together. The Annales might use the shorthand of "event," longue durée, and mentalité to categorise them. Of course, one must resist facile classification; the richness of description and nuance is central to the recreation of rnilieu without which there can be no rural history. Yet considering the guiding themes of each article, it is impossible not to notice the impact of new sources and the new use of auxiliary disciplines (sociology,social psychology, and ethnography, among others). It is obvious that these newer approaches have led to greater sophistication and depth; in the field of rural history they have also led to a greater appreciation of the remarkable staying power of a certain form of social organization in the total environment of the countryside. If this suggests a kind of conservatism, it is one that Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and Georges Lefebvre would endorse and share.