Winners and Wasters

Tom Shippey

  • The French Peasantry 1450-1660 by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, translated by Alan Sheridan
    Scolar, 447 pp, £42.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 85967 685 4
  • The Superstitious Mind: French Peasants and the Supernatural in the 19th Century by Judith Devlin
    Yale, 316 pp, £20.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 300 03710 4

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.

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