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.

A new constellation of crises emerged to trigger old hatreds: a six-month drought took its toll on fields, livestock and the nerves of local residents; news of the war with Prussia, a war only a few weeks old, was mostly bad, and defeats at Wissemburg and Froeschwiller excited a ‘spy mania’; mass conscription and all it conjured up of earlier wars threatened to decimate the male population. When reports arrived that the Emperor (on horseback and within range of enemy guns) had joined the battle in eastern France country people edged toward another ‘panic reminiscent of the Great Fear’. More important than an abstract patrie, the Napoleonic protector and the benefits he had brought to Périgord peasants were en danger.

In the second half of his study Corbin turns with fine narrative skill and a high sense of drama from the backdrop to the main stage, to the ‘heinous crime’ that would make Hautefaye synonymous with savagery in the eyes of the ‘civilised world’ – the world of cities and towns and enlightened ideas. Incited by rumours of ‘a dreadful plot involving nobles, priests, republicans and Prussians’ (the usual suspects) peasants attending a market fair unleashed their rage on a hapless young nobleman named Alain de Monéys, a short, balding bachelor with ‘a local reputation for politeness and generosity’ who had made the mistake of arriving at the fairground in the wake of his despised cousin, Camille de Maillard. Accused by the crowd of having shouted ‘Vive la République’, the ultimate provocation in a land of Bonapartists, Maillard ran for cover, helped by his light leather boots, while the peasants plodded along behind in wooden shoes. The mob then transferred its hostility to Alain de Monéys, whose pledges of allegiance to the Emperor were ignored. His two-hour agony began. Most attacks by village gangs were premeditated and took place under the cover of night: this explosion of anger occurred in mid-afternoon, in full sunlight.

In fact, Maillard, a confirmed legitimist, never cried out in support of the Republic, nor did Monéys say anything to justify the assault. That is the point. The event ‘is impervious to political science’, Corbin tells us: it was a ‘clash of two logics, two political cultures’. Rumours of a conspiracy found fertile ground among peasants who feared economic collapse and enemy invasion, and who naturally conflated nobles, Republicans and dangerous outsiders (‘Prussians’) in one ‘focal point of violence’. Corbin calls it the ‘victim’s equation’.

The long torture and death of Monéys – the bludgeoning with clubs and cattle-prods, followed by the burning of the body (perhaps while still alive) under straw and walnut branches – ranks in grisliness with the better-known slaughter of Ravaillac or the drawn-out execution of Calas. Corbin uses trial records and memoirs to capture the horror:

To make sure the fire would burn well, the fuel, along with the body beneath it, was trampled underfoot. Chambort ‘packed the wood down with his foot’ and ‘danced precariously’ atop the pile ... Young Campot also danced about and raised his arms while shouting ‘Vive I’Empéreur!’ ... [The] men displayed a ‘fierce joy’, and those closest to the fire fanned the flames. The execution had unleashed the crowd’s Dionysiac instincts. This was no mere murder ... Here, the desecration of the victim’s body, the scorn, insult and ridicule heaped upon the dead man, the joyful reaction of the crowd, and the adherence to a form of ritual (however corrupt it may have been) – all these set the execution of Alain de Monéys apart from ordinary murder.

The vast majority of the mob, having come to the fairground from beyond the immediate village, did not know then victim. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it rarely leads to the ritual murder of a local resident by hundreds of his neighbours, some of whom had been the beneficiaries of his aristocratic largesse. The men who pummelled and burned Monéys acted with ‘comparative anonymity’ and without ‘local allegiance’. They also acted, however, with little challenge from Hautefaye’s inhabitants. A priest, a pit sawyer and one or two tenant farmers showed courage as they tried to extricate the victim, but the complicit silence of other neighbours sealed Monéys’s fate. Mentioned only in passing by Corbin, that collective cowardice on the margins of the mob is part of a social history of violence which reaches far beyond the Dordogne in 1870 and deserves its own study.

Nor did the forces of order come to the rescue. In fact, they were nowhere in sight on 16 August – an indication, Corbin suggests, of the collapse of authority in the Empire’s final days. But geography played a role as well. Located on regional boundaries to attract traders hawking a variety of goods, some market fairs were off the path of village gendarmes. The absence of ‘supervisory authorities’, we are told, ‘permitted the unimpeded execution of a lethal plan that the peasants ... had long proclaimed to be their wish but had always been prevented from carrying out’. Police officials were missing, but so, too, were the local means of maintaining order in the countryside’s ‘moral economy’. Had Monéys been the target of a night-time charivari, had he broken a customary law in the eyes of villagers who knew him, he would have ended up humiliated but most likely alive. With the complete absence of any restraint from the state or the community, anarchy prevailed and angry words were allowed to spiral into murderous deeds. Corbin is right: the intervention of a few citizens ‘would have sufficed to confine the whole affair to the realm of rhetoric’.

And that coarse and violent rhetoric was full of allusions to slaughter which would later horrify journalists and trial judges, but which were hardly surprising in communities where the blood and unwanted body parts of animals flowed straight out of butcher shops and leather tanners, where the castration of livestock was a common occurrence, and where hogs, above all, served many purposes – culinary and linguistic. When a farmer paid for a military replacement he ‘bought a pig’ (cochon vendu), and when asked why they preferred a king to a republic, peasants answered with a proverb that made local sense – ‘better to fatten one pig than feed five’. Listen to a field hand describing Monéys’s final moments: he ‘flailed his arms and legs and made sounds like the noises a hog makes when you stick a knife into its neck’. Once the victim had been bludgeoned with the clubs that they used to stun animals, and his body incinerated, the mob boasted of having ‘roasted a Prussian’. In Périgord, Eugen Weber has written, ‘to kill on such and such a day’ meant a feast would follow: ‘to kill meant to kill a pig.’

Habits of animal slaughter gave shape to the attack, and habits of drink gave it licence. Wary, perhaps, of echoing the prejudices of 19th-century historians who condemned the drunken debauchery of Revolutionary mobs, Corbin treats the question gingerly. He describes fairgoers going to inns and cafés before the murder (the heat having ‘stimulated their thirst’), but does not speculate on the extent to which intoxication broke down taboos and unleashed the peasants’ rage. Orgiastic and lawless, the killing of Monéys, however logical its inspiration, fits the character of a bacchanal.

The Hautefaye crowd, in contrast to those of the Revolution or of the bread riots that largely disappeared in France after the 1860s, was exclusively male. Livestock-trading tended to push women ‘into the shadows’ and the ‘handful of wives and daughters in the village were lost amid the hundreds of men gathered on the fairground’. Unlike the notorious scene in Germinal (also set in provincial France in the late Second Empire), no women at Hautefaye ‘thirsted for blood’ and the castration of their victim; no wild-eyed petroleuses set fire to village homes as they would to Paris apartments during the Commune a few months later. Contrary to the pseudo-scientific views of Gustave Le Bon, the Fin de Siècle’s reigning crowd psychologist, women were not among the ‘inferior forms of evolution’ who massacred Alain de Monéys.

In a masterful concluding chapter, ‘Monstrous Brutes’, we learn about the impact of the tragedy on the world beyond the fair-ground. According to the chief judge at the trial of Monéys’s assailants, the barbarous crime was tantamount ‘to a denial of the 19th century’; and according to Corbin, ‘the horror and anger, disbelief and stupefaction that greeted the event suggest how rapidly things had changed since the end of the Revolution.’ Drawing on recent work by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Frank Lestringant and Denis Crouzet, Corbin surveys representations of ‘bestial violence’ from the Wars of Religion through the Revolutionary Wars and demonstrates how ‘the everyday violence of another era’ – the cannibalism of Saint Bartholomew’s Day, the grotesque dismemberment of convicted criminals, the severed heads stuck on pikes by revolutionary crowds – was no longer tolerated by a civilisation which had found its âme sensible. In the France of the Sun King or of Robespierre the Hautefaye murder would have hardly registered. Its significance lies in its tardiness. By the middle decades of the 19th century, the torture and murder of Alain de Monéys had become ‘atrocious acts of barbary’ perpetrated by ‘cannibals ... drunk on blood’. There is no evidence that the Périgord mob consumed its quarry, but to the outside world those ‘scenes of savagery’ could only have occurred in a ‘village of cannibals’.

Contemporary observers, like later historians, found nothing ‘political’ in the events of 16 August: disturbing reminders of a savage past, they belonged in a folkloric chamber of horrors. Now Corbin has rescued the murder of Alain de Monéys from the history of irrational acts, and has penetrated its many ‘mechanisms’. But can he penetrate them all? Are the ‘Dionysiac instincts’ of the crowd ‘impervious’ to more than ‘political science’? Acknowledging the peasants’ ‘naked cruelty’, Corbin insists that they ‘did not behave irrationally’; this was not a ‘rearing up of primitive forces’, but a logical response on the part of country people ‘attempting to exorcise the fear that held them in its grip’. Indeed, the fact that Monéys’s killers did not indulge in ‘ceremonial mutilations’ confirms, for Corbin, that ‘inroads had been made ... by the humanitarian sentiments’ of the Enlightenment.

The accomplished author of this history of extremes and excesses should be allowed a few of his own. He has given us a thin volume thick with insights, and there is a suggestion here of a more detailed history to come. But, after following Alain de Monéys down the via dolorosa of his native village, one wonders if the real ‘enigma’ of Hautefaye lies in ‘the tension between horror and political rationality’, as Corbin concludes, or in some realm inaccessible to even the most multi-disciplined modern scholar. A compelling study, The Village of Cannibals re-creates a world of pentup rage and collective violence which, from the perspective of our own fin de siècle, seems distant in time alone.