It was in 1955 that Raymond Dugrand first spoke to me of the compoix of Languedoc and suggested I undertake a study of them. The compoix, he told me, are old master cadastres composed solely in regions subject to the taille on real property. The earliest date from the fourteenth century. They describe in detail the extent, nature, and value of landholdings. They make a long-range history of property possible and can therefore be made to shed critical light on the long-ago conquest of the land on the part of capital - on one of the essential aspects, in other words, of the birth of capitalism.
It seemed like a forbidding assignment. The departmental and village archives contained literally hundreds of discouragingly voluminous compoix. But I was young at the time; I was teaching at Montpellier, close to the sources; I had my sixiemes and my vacations; I was interested in agrarian history and loved the Mediterranean countryside; and I was fascinated by the problem of the origins of capitalism. I decided to follow my friend's advice.
The first results did not disappoint me, and from the start I discovered in the compoix exactly what I was looking for, namely, the classic activity of capitalist land engrossers already described by Febvre, Bloch, Merle, Raveau, Venard, and a host of others. Lattes, in the countryside of Montpellier - a city of notables - was a perfect illustration for the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the time-honored and still valid model of the progressive accumulation of rural property by city-dwellers. Has this very model not become a mainstay of agrarian history ? I published an article on the subject in 1956.
Little by little, however, these happy convictions began to strike me as insufficient if by no means inexact. My methods of sifting the statistical material in the compoix improved with practice and became more exhaustive. I
broadened my investigation to take in the almost purely peasant countryside as well as the mountain districts far from the small cities of the land engrossers. Here, certain phenomena that did not fit the traditional picture or confirm my original hypothesis attracted my attention. The process of concentration lost its linear simplicity, and I began to discern the outline of phases, lasting well over a century, of almost unrelieved subdivision of landholdings. Peasant property, during the course of several generations, seemed to be disintegrating, while the number of landowners-of diminutive properties for the most part-increased at a dizzying rate. This relentless process of decomposition tended to make a mockery of the persistent efforts of the land engrossers, whether nobles, bourgeois, or coqs de village!
At other times - that is, in the subsequent phase - the consolidation of landed property resumed while the number of individuals subject to the taille diminished. The process seems to have continued for a century, more or less, but it was neither definitive nor irreversible. Once again, landholding subdivision became the order of the day, and once again the taxable landowners increased in number as the average holding contracted in size.
I observed these great secular movements with growing fascination, and I thought I could perceive the immense respiration of a social structure. By that time I was immersed in agrarian history pure and simple. I had come a long way from the "origins of capitalism" that had preoccupied me in the beginning. Mine was the classic misadventure; I had wanted to master a source in order to confirm my youthful convictions, but it was finally the source that mastered me by imposing its own rhythms, its own chronology, and its own particular truth. My initial presuppositions had been stimulating, but they were now outmoded.
Little by little, a periodization imposed itself; it was confirmed, despite the usual exceptions, in the case of a hundred-odd rural circumscriptions, with the cadastres and land tax rolls of the empires, monarchies, and republics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries serving as relays for the compoix and the books of the taille. This periodization offered immediate access to the long-range movements of agrarian history.
The starting point was the state of relative concentration of landholdings in the middle or at the end of the fifteenth century-relative, that is, to the preceding period (before 1350) and the succeeding period ( after 1500). It
1 Coq de village: "cock of the walk," that is, a well-to-do peasant, a village kulak (tr. note).
was not a question, in all probability, of a passing phase of capitalistic consolidation, but rather the consequence of rural depopulation born of the crises, plagues, and wars which had reversed the process of land subdivision still raging in the first half of the fourteenth century.
For that matter, following this passing phase of concentration at the end of the Middle Ages, the subdivision of landholdings recommenced with renewed vigor after 1500; it was strongly manifest throughout the sixteenth century, and it continued at a somewhat slower pace for a good portion of the seventeenth century until it reached a sort of critical threshold, a point of saturation and congestion of smallholdings, generally by about 1680.
At this juncture it came to a halt and slowly gave way once again to the reverse process of land concentration. Marginal holdings were sorted out. The better-qualified, the better-off, and the luckier individuals were cast in the role of engrossing landowners. The process favored surviving heirs and urban land buyers. The smallholders were decimated while the big and medium-sized landlords rounded out their properties from the spoils.
In the period about 1750-70 there was a new inflection, or rather a new inversion, and a resumption of the process of fragmentation spurred by the growth of population and stimulated by the spread of viticulture (which raised income per land unit and reduced the minimum size of a viable, taxable holding). This final offensive of land subdivision was unmatched by any similar movement in the past. It lasted fully a century, up to the phylloxera debacle of 1870-73 and up to the beginning of the rural exodus. Then, with slow deliberation, the contemporary movement of land concentration got under way. It has spared, right up to the present day, some solid blocks of peasant smallholds, but it is far from over.
Such a history of landed property, as outlined briefly above, would have been of little interest except from a juridical or purely technical point of view if it had not served as a sort of secular indicator and if it had not provided us with a concrete insight into the long-range evolution of agrarian society itself.
The outcome might have been different regarding the chronology and the real significance of the vicissitudes of landownership if I had studied the countryside of northern France, which was dominated by large farming units, but in the French Midi, characterized by small-scale agriculture and by the multitude of scattered tenements, the ebb and flow of smallholds constituted evidence of the greatest importance. It underscored the difficul-
ties of an entire society; it served as a partial control, or cross-check, for other kinds of long-term movements; and on several occasions it helped delimit the frontiers of southern agriculture.
Three times, it appears, peasant society in Languedoc, at the end of a long period of expansion, reached one of these frontiers which deflected but never entirely blocked its slow, secular growth from the eleventh to the nineteenth century. The first time, apparently, was in the fourteenth century on the eve of the great collapse symbolized, as a rule, by the Black Death and the Hundred Years War .The second time was under Louis XIII or Louis XIV at the critical juncture of the seventeenth century-in some cases by about 1630, but more generally about 1675-80, depending on the region, as we shall see later in detail. A third time was about 1873-76, when the long period of expanding viticulture which had lasted from Louis XV to the Second Empire was terminated by the phylloxera epidemic and also by the economic depression of the seventies.
The present study is concerned essentially with the problems of the second frontier that marked the conclusion, in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, of the phase of agrarian development under way since the Renaissance. It was not possible, in fact, to exploit the long-term data furnished by the com po ix and the cadastres in their entirety. Once the overall chronology had been determined and the main points of inflection had been situated on the time scale, it was necessary to stake out a period for a study in depth. Three major phases of expansion and contraction suggested themselves for this purpose: the medieval phase (from the eleventh century to the fifteenth century); the modern phase (from the end of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth); and the contemporary phase (from 1750 to 1950).
The third phase, everything considered, is well known and fairly well understood thanks to the studies of various geographers, agronomists, and historians of Languedoc. It could still be enriched in detail, but it promised little in the way of new discoveries. It was during this last phase, in fact, that a good many cultivators of Languedoc ceased being peasants, who by tradition practice forms of polyculture and subsistence farming, and became modern winegrowers, purchasing their food and producing exclusively for the market.
As for the first, or medieval, phase, just the contrary was true. It was difficult to study because in its case the compoix were rare and, above all, late, dating from the fifteenth century at the earliest.
I have therefore chosen to ignore - except for brief glimpses where strictly unavoidable - the problems raised by the medieval expansion and by the great agrarian crisis that brought it to a close. I have concentrated instead on the strategic middle phase, or "second wind," when at the end of the fifteenth century the rural society of Languedoc raised itself from the ruins and set off on the highroad of modern development.
The compoix can serve to delimit this long, cyclical movement lasting from Louis XII to Louis XIV. They fix the basic chronology and reveal certain major inflections. But one must not expect them to shed light on every last detail. The problems raised by the expansion of a preindustrial society, and by the inevitable limits to such an expansion, require a multiple approach and the appeal to documents and statistics of the most diverse sort, for it is a question of discovering the actual movements behind the abstract data of the cadastral records.
In 1958, therefore, I forsook the history of rural property in order to study variables and constants other than land structures. First were the constants: Trained as a historian, was I going to have to describe the geographic structures of Languedoc because of a sister discipline's failure to do so? Fortunately, no. Raymond Dugrand, a geographer by trade, had spared me that task thanks to the remarkable thesis he defended in 1963. I could therefore practice the true historian's craft with a free spirit. I was able, in the first place, to isolate certain anthropological constants. We shall see how these were rooted, paradoxically, in the very mobility of the men of the past, in their regular migrations and those of their flocks and herds, and in the migrations of their cultivated plants.2
Next come the variables, whose moving chronology and ever-changing interrelations constitute, basically, the fabric of my book. I have not omitted the variable of climate, which is so important in agrarian history. It helps us to account for harvest fluctuations and the vagaries of supply, at least in the short run. But above all, I was interested - in connection with the long-term tendencies - in the major variables susceptible to lasting inflections and to secular fluctuations; that is to say, population, the different sectors of production and the regional gross product, nominal as well as metallic prices, aggregate income (both nominal and real), revenues, and exactions of various sorts (land rent, tithes, taxes, interest, farm profits or income, money wages, wages in kind, and mixed wages) .Behind these abstract, if by no
2The sections dedicated to these problems are to be found in the original French edition of the present work (Paris, S.E.V.P.E.N., 1966).
means immutable, categories I began to perceive, at the end of a long journey, the living individuals-the peasants of Languedoc in their social context.
I had begun, in the early stages, by adding up hectares and cadastral units. By the end of my research I could observe the activities, the struggles, and the thoughts of the people themselves. In fact, economic and quantitative history by itself, no matter how rigorous or exhaustive, did not entirely satisfy me. It furnished only a rough, if indispensible, framework to build upon. I realized, as a matter of common sense, that the Malthusian stumbling blocks in the way of expansion were not all of a material nature. I sensed the presence of a formidable obstacle in mental attitudes and divined invisible frontiers of the human spirit, the most difficult of all to traverse. Little by little I learned to identify these spiritual stumbling blocks in the chronicle of hopeless popular revolts and in the bloody history of peasant religions.
With the best tools at my disposal, and within the framework of a single human society, I embarked upon the adventure of a "total" history.