Kill a Pig, roast a Prussian

Michael Burns

  • The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870 by Alain Corbin, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
    Polity, 164 pp, £25.00, July 1992, ISBN 0 7456 0895 7

In this very short book about a very long murder Alain Corbin returns, as he puts it, ‘to the peasants of my youth (or at any rate to their traces in the archives)’. And he returns with new sensibilities shaped by new methodological tools. Listening to his rural actors with ‘a fresh ear’, he identifies the ‘alchemy’ of a violent event which, in the history of modern France, represents the ‘last outburst of peasant rage to result in murder’. The Village of Cannibals, like Robert Darnton’s Great Cat Massacre, confirms the degree to which social historians, building on the Annales tradition, have embraced cultural anthropology and the study of popular political language over time. Darnton calls it ‘history in the ethnographic vein’, and whether applied to a cock-fight, a cat-skinning or, as in Corbin’s case, to the gruesome killing of a provincial aristocrat, it is a history of blurred genres and deep backgrounds. The bestial mobs – as inscrutable as they were instinctive – of Taine, Zola and Le Bon have given way to crowds of contentious Frenchmen whose diverse cultures and ‘psychological mechanisms’ can be understood by the multi-disciplined modern researcher. By unravelling the violent actions of 16 August 1870, Corbin aims to analyse the peasantry’s ‘collective psychosis’.

The small commune of Hautefaye, in the north-east corner of the department of the Dordogne, prospered under the Second Empire: livestock prices increased; low-lying areas continued to produce abundant chestnut crops; and not all the small mines and forges of the Périgord region had fallen victim to the concentration of industry that would be achieved by the century’s end. In the 1860s a third of the population still used local patois and could neither read nor write French, but whatever the language, they had no trouble understanding the material gains secured under the Empire. Louis-Napoleon had swept out the Second Republic, and for peasants who equated that brief regime with onerous taxation (Republicans were ‘despoilers of the public treasury’) it was good riddance. While country people in other localities rose up against Bonaparte’s 1851 coup d’ état, the inhabitants of Hautefaye and its environs welcomed the nephew as they remembered welcoming the uncle; selective memory had done its work, Waterloo was forgotten, Napoleon had defended France against the Prussian menace.

Charting the local Bonapartist connections and the distrust of Republicans and ‘Prussians’ (a word Périgord peasants applied to suspect Frenchmen as well as to distant Germans), Corbin also surveys the violent legacies of the Old Regime and the early Revolution. We are reminded that country people throughout south-western France had long detested the nobility. Popular tales, still vigorous in 1870, portrayed aristocrats as avaricious and cruel – one such tale described the region’s châteaux as built from mortar mixed with the blood of peasant victims (mortier de sang). Priests were no less hated. Corbin distinguishes the anti-clericalism of Périgord from that of regions with a more pronounced ‘lack of religious enthusiasm’, yet even the devout in Hautefaye feared conspiratorial links between priests and aristocrats.

Fear is the story’s leitmotif – fear and the rumours that gave it life. ‘Stirred up’ by the rural bourgeoisie, who ‘hoped to focus social antagonisms away from issues of wealth and land ownership’, the peasants feared an aristocratic return. The brigands of 1789 were waiting to strike again (more rumour had it), and panic over a recrudescence of the Great Fear gripped the region through the agrarian crises that accompanied 1830 and, most dramatically, 1848. The flush years of the Second Empire defused tensions, but prosperity could not obliterate memory, and by August 1870 prosperity seemed to have run its course.

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