“The peasants, popular but misunderstood”

“The peasants, popular but misunderstood”

Professor emeritus at the University of Caen-Normandy, the historian observes developments in rural France. Meeting with a long-term ethnologist, as the opening of the Agricultural Show approaches, on February 24, in a context of deep crisis in the rural world.

You have just completed the third volume of a fresco, “Chronicles of rural France”, from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century. What does the recent explosion of anger in the rural world inspire you over this long period of time?

The majority of peasants have always been the losers of History. In our urban society which generally only sees the countryside from afar and intermittently, they are largely forgotten by a centralized power, cut off from realities on the ground. However, farmers are part of our DNA: even if it is less and less true, they have remained close to the heritage memory of the French. Especially since they embody values ​​that are being honored today – connection with nature, maintenance of landscapes, quality agricultural production. Forgotten but esteemed, misunderstood but popular, such is the paradox of French peasants.

Your book brings together testimonies about the rural world, year after year. Why did you embark on such a work?

Because it is customary to say that the peasants did not leave written traces and that we therefore cannot study them. But it’s wrong. If we search, we find documents, at least from the 14th century, and the actors of the rural world find their voice! We can grasp their work, their transactions, their conflicts, their feelings, their reactions to the calamities that befell them, thanks to mentions in notarial deeds, trials, the margins of parish registers, and the “books of reason” kept by a few of them – where accounts and family events appeared. In short, all kinds of sources converge to paint a vivid portrait of this ancient rural France.

You cross the ages, it’s rare for a historian!

This is due to my training: I was first fascinated by the Middle Ages. And my teachers at university, the medievalists Georges Duby and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, looked, before me, at the history of peasants. While retaining my initial interest in the Middle Ages, I immersed myself in modern history – the period from the 16th to the 18th centuries, the most fertile. Then, when for my thesis, I worked on the large farmers of Île-de-France, I traveled the region to meet today’s farmers and their ancestors.

Did you go there, like an ethnologist?

Yes, I always thought that it was necessary to combine field research with work in the archives. I cannot be a historian without taking into account today’s world: I need to grasp the traces left by generations of farmers on the landscape, to see the farm buildings to understand its evolution. Some families I visited in the 1980s had been on the same land for several centuries! Farmers themselves are producers of information. I asked questions: how did they farm in their childhood? What were the names of the horses? And I collected testimonies that could go back to the end of the 19th century, three generations earlier.

For example?

I remember a farmer who explained to me that he had demonstrated one of the very first tractors in front of his peers, in 1912. He recounted, as if it were yesterday, this dazzling experience in his eyes. Furthermore, in the attics are kept unpublished documents of all kinds: employment contracts, property deeds, survey plans, logbooks concerning crops, family portraits… A gold mine to reconstruct the evolution of this world which represented, until 1931, the majority of the French population.

You talk about “evolution” yet this world seems immutable for centuries in the eyes of city dwellers…

No way! Farmers have always evolved their practices according to the appearance of new techniques, they have adapted to the irreversible development of the market economy and have sometimes modified their cultural and religious habits, with, for example, the conversion of certain regions to Protestantism… Of course, we are talking about a long time. But no stillness! Not to mention that climatic hazards, epidemics and wars have regularly modified and restructured entire territories.

Where does this passion for the rural world come from?

I grew up in the 1960s in Athis-Mons, in the Paris region. This suburb, like many others, was undergoing transformation. From adolescence, I wanted to “rip up the asphalt” to find out what had been there before. I wanted to understand how the landscape had transformed. With my scout group, we also produced a brochure on our town in the Middle Ages! I was always encouraged in this taste for history by my parents who took me to visit castles and churches, then by my various teachers who pushed me to undertake studies at the highest level.

Your path has crossed that of the wolf. Tell us.

In the 2000s, I was working on the history of breeding at the time. And I discovered, during my research in archives, the story of a little shepherdess devoured by a wolf under the gaze of her comrades, in 1692, near Montlhéry (Essonne). Then little by little, I collected many similar testimonies. I then realized that until the 19th century this type of attack was far from rare. So I published a first book on the subject in 2007 (Story of the Bad Wolf) because I felt that, as a historian, I was contributing my contribution to the contemporary debate on the return of the wolf. As I had touched on the dogma then defended by certain environmentalist figures according to which wolves did not attack man… this gave rise to heated and passionate debates. Especially since the State, at the time, did not provide much support to farmers. Today, things are a little more nuanced between pro and anti-wolves.

Have you taken sides in this heated debate?

Obviously, I have been called a friend of shepherds and breeders. But above all I am pragmatic: I think that we must act differently towards the wolf depending on the territories in which they are found. We cannot have the same policy in regions with high human density and in very wild areas. We must also learn to better protect herds, not only of sheep but also of cattle and horses: history shows that this very intelligent predator can attack them too. Today there are no more young and frail children to look after the cows. So the risk for human beings is much lower, but not non-existent. This debate showed that historians could shed useful light on current social questions. Outside of the university, we do history in the open air and without a net, which is stimulating!

His bio

  • 1956 Born in Paris, then childhood in Athis-Mons (Essonne).
  • 1994 Creates the Pôle rural at the University of Caen, and the journal History & rural societies. Publishes his thesis.
  • 1996 Appointed professor at the University of Caen.
  • 2007 Publishes Story of the Bad Wolf. (Ed. Fayard).
  • 2010 First volume of “Chronicles of rural France”: The memory of the crunchers, 1435-1652 (Ed. Taillandier).

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