The French Peasantry 1450-1660 
by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, translated by Alan Sheridan.
Scolar, 447 pp., £42.50, March 1987, 0 85967 685 4
Show More
The Superstitious Mind: French Peasants and the Supernatural in the 19th Century 
by Judith Devlin.
Yale, 316 pp., £20, March 1987, 0 300 03710 4
Show More
Show More

Professor Ladurie declares, near the beginning of this immensely detailed volume: ‘I hope in this study to bring to life the country people themselves.’ Such a reconstruction, he thinks, is bound to be fraught with difficulty, since so little attention has been focused on this stubborn main stratum of the pre-industrial population, the food producers themselves: ‘we know much more about “the way of life” of the Magdalenian hunters of Pincevent (8800 BC) than about the French peasants of 1450.’ Ladurie seems to be unnecessarily despondent here: this book shows how much there is to know, while his own previous books, especially Montaillou (1975) and Carnival (1979), have excelled in giving down-to-earth detail of an almost journalistic kind about popular risings and establishment repression. However, one can sympathise with his feelings. He is trying to anatomise some seven generations, with an average population of twenty million people, the overwhelming majority from the ‘peasant classes’. And the close, detailed, day-by-day written evidence, strikingly preserved in the Bishop of Pamier’s Inquisition Register, or the anonymous reports of the Archives Départementales de l’Isère, is simply not available. How can a ‘way of life’ be reconstructed?

The answer is: largely through statistics. This book – Volume Two of the Histoire Economique et Sociale de la France – is formidable often to the point of aridity in its presentation of figures. Almost anything is likely to be calculated. Basic considerations are the number of hectares under cultivation within the boundaries Ladurie decides to reckon as France, together with the return on seed sown, and the number of mouths needing each generation to be filled. On top of that, there are calculations as to the effect of prices, the spread of viticulture, the turn-down in the woad industry, the probable evasion element in the returns on salt tax, the differential height of conscripts from the North and from the South – almost everything on which data are available, or even imaginable. Beneath this welter of information the reader, especially the average literary reader, may well feel Gradground out of comprehension: the issue of ‘the way of life’ seems for long periods to have been totally forgotten. Yet Ladurie does once again have a story to tell, and once again it is one of considerable interest and provocation, even to the insularly English reader.

The story is one of collapse, recovery, ‘stagflation’ and painfully slow emergence. The collapse was caused by the English wars. By 1450, Ladurie considers, it is reasonable to talk of a ‘Hiroshima’ model of the French population. The Paris region had lost two-thirds of its population, the Normandy area almost three-quarters. Nearly ten million acres of land had gone out of cultivation. The most effective practical joke anyone could play was to run into church during Mass and shout Véchi les Anglais – the church would be empty in no time at all. Yet, as with the Black Death in 14th-century England, one person’s loss (or death) was another’s gain (or birth). As the English pressure was relieved, peasants like Perrin Bordebure moved into deserted villages such as La Cicogne, took them over, raised families, and bred the population back to its earlier and ‘natural’ mark around twenty million. The period 1450-1550 was accordingly one of growth and relative ease for the peasant classes.

By 1550 this was over, and France had moved into a ‘Malthusian’ world, trapped in a vicious circle of inefficient agriculture. Everyone needed bread, so they concentrated on cereal growing, but lack of livestock meant lack of manure, so cereal yields went down. Even the protein-rich fishponds were liable to be drained and ploughed over. Ladurie insists that behind the apparently rich landscape of 16th-century France there was a growing squeeze on laboureur and manouvrier – ploughman and labourer respectively. From this squeeze only a few ‘kulaks’ escaped, though a rather larger group of bourgeois, lawyers and officials were able to make substantial profits and launch themselves on the road to château-building and gentility. Progress did come from their introduction of new capital and better methods, Ladurie concludes. Yet it is no surprise that such progress was achieved only at the cost of innumerable bitter revolts from the peasantry, significantly never directed against the seigneurie – no matter what A Tale of Two Cities may say – but always against the power of the towns and the fiscal authorities. It was not the squire but the second-home owner whom the peasants hated – one might say, especially if he worked for Whitehall.

Sidelights on this story come from all directions. Ladurie notes that French customs of inheritance are almost wildly variable, but have been recorded in great detail in such works as Bourdot de Richebourg’s 18th-century Coutumier Général. In Occitania the rule was submission to the wishes of the bequeather, who might well decide to give a unilateral advantage or préciput to one child among a group. By contrast, Flemish custom forbade any choice of a favourite, a lief kindr. Normandy went even further and insisted on ‘fierce fraternalism’: all brothers shared equally. Bretons allowed sisters to share, too, while in the centre of the country, the Orléans-Paris region, complex bargains could be struck with regard to early dowering, later restitution and final division. One might expect that all these variations would lead to major differences of demography. After all, Ladurie suggests, the custom of primogeniture (he remarks en passant how snobbish and affected of the English peasants it was to follow this) helped to make England a land of emigration. One would suppose that by similar logic central France would be a land of contented grandparents, where stay-at-home children were favoured, while in Normandy, where land was divided up with strings immediately after a funeral, the human race would eventually have died out as a consequence of trying to live off bedsheet-size squares of property. In fact, it seems that under Malthusian pressure all the customs led to much the same result. The Norman peasant might declare with proud independence, C’est mon dréit et mé j’y tiens, the Occitanian peasant might console himself with fantasies of the ‘love square’, but anyone with less than about an acre and a half to grow grain on was going to die, simplifying everyone else’s equations.

What mechanisms, social or otherwise, did people develop for coping with the 16th and 17th-century squeeze? Ladurie describes several. One was coitus interruptus, an effective Mediterranean tradition, though not one that spread very far. Unhealthy towns acted as another: rural overspill might easily be attracted to population centres, but a large proportion of it would never be heard of again. Perhaps the most powerful birth-control technique was the traditional peasant mix of late marriage, strategic chastity, and the deep admiration of what one might call ‘the austere personality’ – one of sullenness, reserve, repression and meanness. Some have seen in this personality-type a premise of capitalism, but Ladurie insists that it was rather the result of a demography ‘programmed to achieve equilibrium’. Statistics show that very few 17th-century couples anticipated marriage, Ladurie declares – at least, French couples, for Englishwomen were notoriously loose. Those that did were likely once more to be too generous or too unguarded to survive.

The picture painted is, on the whole, a depressing one, summed up in Ladurie’s final words: the period he has covered was one ‘when agrarian communities meandered – a time of sad repetition and slow change’. Yet there are moments of relief, and moments of illumination. After so many statistics of starvation and repression – each sous tournois on the price of a sétier of grain meant ten thousand dead in 1693 – one feels a certain enthusiasm for Ladurie’s account of peasant revolts, and his insistence that most of them, however inefficiently led, were perfectly rational and even in the long term successful. The success was rarely immediate or personal. The priest of Cressac who led his parishioners to battle with green cap and feather, blue breeches, and a sword in each hand, was unfrocked by his executioners and burnt alive – though he was luckier than the commoners who were crowned with red-hot iron and then broken on the wheel. The Norman Gautiers who rebelled because a woman of their village, raped by soldiers, ‘wailed and cried so much that her parents and neighbours were determined not to suffer such a vexation again’ were massacred by royal troops. The Bretons who marched to the boast Holl Vretonet tud gentil (‘All Bretons are gentlemen’) fared no better. But in the long run they did get taxes diverted, or diminished, and not only because of the risk the gabeleur ran of being chopped to pieces and nailed to the doors of Barbezieux. The peasants made tax-collecting counter-productive, often by mobilising the support of their aristocracy.

The French seigneurie also emerges with unexpected credit from Ladurie’s examination. At one point he benefits from the type of documentary good luck which had such effect on Montaillou and Carnival: the survival of the Journal of Gilles de Gouberville, lord of Le Mesnil-en-Val, near Cherbourg, in the mid-16th century. Gouberville resembles nothing so much as T.H. White’s fictional Sir Ector, from The Sword in the Stone. His basic principle was ‘Say it with meat.’ Whether bribing judges or seducing ladies – he seduced peasant women more simply under the droit de cuissage – Gouberville accompanied everything with hares, legs of beef or venison pâtés. If his servants were sick, he fed them up, or increased their alcohol ration above the normal two litres of cider a day – so much healthier than drinking probably polluted water. His reply to all discipline problems was a blow, heavy or light according to the size of the offender. On the other hand, he would have thought it shameful to eat on his own, from a private menu: he ate with his labourers. He rarely had any money, and he never owned a purse, tying all his coins into his handkerchief and frequently dropping them. Though he lived an hour’s walk from Cherbourg, he had no interest in foreign parts. Once, on his way to drink a glass of cider with Gillette la Blonde, he saw elephants’ tusks laid out on the beach: but his only seafaring venture was to go and steal some cows from Alderney. Gouberville never disowned a bastard, whether his own or his father’s. The only time he took any interest in his noble blood was when non-nobles were ordered to pay tax, and he spent a panicky day rummaging through old papers for proof of his family’s title. What Gouberville seems to represent is a very strong sense of community. He was not a ‘peasant’ himself, but he was attached to the land in the same emotional way that his peasantry was. The peasants were much more like him than like the descendants of their runaway relations who had managed to thrive in the industrial towns.

He is also oddly recognisable, and points to an area where, for once, England appears to have more interesting records than France – something particularly welcome in commenting on a book like Ladurie’s, which is not without its element of neighbourly fun. The English works which seem to fit Ladurie’s thesis especially well are the alliterative poems of the 14th century – earlier than the period discussed here, but England started its demographic spurt and Malthusian squeeze rather sooner. Gouberville sometimes looks like both the contestants in the alliterative debate of ‘Winner and Waster’. ‘Luke thi knave hafe a knoke bot he the clothe spred,’ says Edward III to Waster: Gouberville would have agreed. He would also have sympathised strongly with Waster’s claim that large feasts are good for poor people, who always get a share, and been unmoved by Winner’s condemnation of giant meals running from boars’ heads to barnacle geese, snipe, and larks and linnets lapped in sugar. On the other hand, he might well have tut-tutted over Winner’s claim that Waster did not look after his timber or his dovecotes properly. The ideal behind the poem, of a responsible, conservative hierarchy, was his too.

Professor Rodney Hilton suggested, some years ago, that ‘Winner and Waster’ further exposed the squirearchy’s failure to re-invest capital, exactly the error Ladurie points to. Meanwhile, the urban success and rural misery which Ladurie indicates appear in many guises throughout the whole Langlandian tradition. ‘Bee war of gyle in borough,’ says the doggerel of John Ball in 1381. The peasants of Hurepoix – who saw their share of the land inexorably reduced by town buyers, from 40 per cent to around a quarter in the century after 1550 – could have had ‘gyle in borough’ tattoed on their hearts. The poor folk of Piers Plowman C IX, who will turn their hand to anything – washing or carding or rush-peeling – for a bran-loaf or a farthing’s worth of mussels, are exactly the class of landless labourer Ladurie shows being squeezed out of existence. The picture in ‘Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede’ of the muddy ploughman driving his oxen while his barefoot wife goads them on, and his baby and two-year-old twins cry on the edge of the field, is a pitiful image of the decline of the once-proud class of laboureurs (men with their own draft animals).

Even the French failure of cultivation under fiscal oppression exists in some English texts. Harley MS 2253 has one poem in which ‘men upo mold’ complain that their lands lie fallow because they have sold their seed corn and their horses, their bill-hooks and cleavers, to pay the king’s taxes – often, they suspect, paying more than they should, because they have no way of checking the written assessments. There is an old English conviction that peasants do not exist in England: ‘We know your commons be vylayns paysynes, not able to abyde the countenaunce of an Englysheman,’ declares a 1550 text, insultingly. Yet when one considers the ‘peasant situation’, even the ‘peasant crisis’, of the world after the Black Death and before the real ‘green revolution’ of stone barns and nitrogenous crops, clover and lucern and efficient mixed farming, there are few more graphic illustrations than those in the West Midland tradition of poems of protest and social recommendation.

What is missing, perhaps surprisingly, from The French Peasantry is any account of mentalités. This may be thought to be supplied by Judith Devlin’s book, though it centres on a much later period. Ladurie’s and Devlin’s methods are far apart: the former works from statistics and inference; the latter from anecdote and supposition. There is nothing wrong with anecdotes, which are often fascinating. But Devlin expects too much of people. The thesis she wishes to argue against is the one saying that an ‘archaic’ mentality has been replaced in modern times by a ‘rationalist’ one. Not true, she declares: in the first place, a ‘rationalist’ mentality is by no means universal even now – this hardly needs proving – and in the second place the superstitious practices of French peasants in this century and the last made a good deal of sense. She observes, sensibly enough, that traditional medicine with its charms and rituals may have provided a measure of ‘psychological relief’; that witchcraft accusations had the function of legitimising the accusers’ feelings of anger or guilt; and that treating hysterical adolescents as if they were possessed offered them, sometimes, a prestigious way of coming to their senses. But this does not take us to the issue of mentalité. It may explain, to the sceptical modern reader, why magic worked. It does not explain why people invented the corpus of magic beliefs, nor why they abandoned them.

Sometimes Devlin’s own lack of sympathy with ‘the superstitious mind’ shows through. She explains the shot poacher who thought he was protected by the fairy Viviane by saying he must have lost consciousness and hallucinated; lycanthropia was probably food poisoning; as for a tale of dwarvish treasure, the teller must have been drunk. All the excuses given are plausible. But they do not explain why peasants had these beliefs rather than any others, nor what the ‘cognitive structure’ of a reasonably coherent belief-system can have been. The Superstitious Mind gives those who are interested an introduction to a very considerable corpus of material on flying dragons, werewolves, sorcerers, grimoires, the patenôtre blanche and much else. It does not tell us how peasants thought, even in the 19th century, nor lead us into that strange world of instinctive reaction, half-conscious calculation, short-sighted meanness, and urgent necessity, revealed – or half-revealed – in the work of Ladurie.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences