The history of the French peasantry is, to paraphrase Gérard Walter, one long cry of misery, for thousands of years. French peasants suffered under the ferocious oppression of their lords, the ravages of nature, the pilfering of the tax collector, the pillaging of the soldier, reducing them to a powerless, marginalized, and downtrodden group. Gérard Walter's book Histoire des paysans de France expounds this view, almost bloody-mindedly, delighted in recounting the tales of woe which French peasants were subject to. Much less a general history of French peasants and peasant life as the name implies, it is the story of their response - of the revolts and protests which shook the French countryside to contest feudal and royal authority, of the battle between implacable repression and desperate resistance. His book might lack for nuance and the title may be inaccurate, but it is a riveting narrative and one which is well furnished with massive amounts of primary sources which brings it to life.
When Walter refers to the history of French peasants being thousands of years of misery, he means it - for his book starts from Roman times, with the Roman conquest of the country and the development of Roman latifundia, before moving onto the German conquest and the expropriation of lands, the melding in the countryside, and the ultimate creation of the feudal system and its restrictions and control on peasants. After this, much of the rest of the book is a recounting of different revolts, be it peasants revolting against their feudal lords in an effort to do away with the status of serfdom (sometimes in an uneasy, although mostly empty, alliance with the king), or in popular social movements, or the Jacqueries. He also lists various oppressions of the peasantry such as during times when soldiers were demobilized after the Hundred Years War which led to vast increases in banditry in the French countryside. In the 1500s, the target of the revolts began to increasingly shift to the monarchy as it established an increasing degree of taxation on the peasants, grinding them down under these impositions, which reached its apogee during the second part of the 16th century, concurrent with the Wars of Religion (where Catholicism and Protestantism were used by the elites to divide resistance movements against each other), and the beginning of the 17th century up until the Fronde. The French Revolution was the last gasp of this effort. The last two centuries mostly concern economic development in the countryside and its demographic levels, particularly around the time of the First World War, and the continuation of social protest up until the 1950s (effectively, the present day when the book was written).
Histoire des paysans de France can be a difficult read, with extensive quoting of primary source materials from across French history, stretching back to well into the Middle Ages - and this material being only marginally, if at all, translated into modern French. Reading through its lengthy pages with strange medieval words - icelui and icelle instead of celui and celle for example - is an experience. But it is also one of the greatest strengths of the book, since it provides reams of primary source material and a real perspective on social movements through their own eyes. It manages an impressive feat of really managing to capture the feelings of popular anger, rage, unhappiness, misery, and desperation - particularly well done with the Cahiers de doléances immediately prior to the French Revolution, which show in lucid and stark terms the despair and deep seated discontent of the French peasantry. It is a refreshing touch to read directly what was said and what was planned by the common people, and is a real window onto the past. But not one to approach without a strong command of French!
The other, even larger weakness of the book, and far more serious than the difficulty of understanding some medieval and early modern French, is that it is not really a "History of French peasants," but rather a "History of French peasant revolts." Walter is entirely concerned with covering the misery and oppression of the French peasants and how this led to revolts breaking out, and he has no time whatsoever for daily peasant life, peasant customs, traditions, rituals, social organization. Not only does this narrow and one-sided view mean that it lacks greatly for providing a holistic and well-rounded story, but even more importantly, it ignores a crucial part of the social contract and the way the system worked. Walter's focus on purely coercive measures - the ability of the lords and the King to put down peasant revolts through brutal force if necessary, as he shows time and time again with failed revolt and aborted revolution - means that he ignores the rest of the time, when relative peace and tranquility reigned in the French countryside. Why did peasants, for the most part, accept a system which placed them as subservient in the economic and social hierarchy and which degredated them and rendered them inferior? There must have been a carrot and a positive side to peasant life, or they would not have been willing to mostly tolerate this. It would be akin to writing a book entitled "A History of Cities" and only talking about the police, law enforcement, and martial law, without any description of both the broader context of life and the development of cities, and why for the most part city dwellers do not burst out in revolt. Similarly, Walter makes no real attempt to explore why the countryside order was mostly perceived as legitimate and accepted by peasants, outside of their admittedly frequent revolts.
How well does Walter treat the principal subject that he is in fact covering, peasant revolts? Very nicely I would ay! He has a diverse collection of them ranging from the early Middle Ages up until the 1960s, with particular focus on the middle Middle Ages and upon the Early Modern Era, and he does an excellent job in displaying the reasons for the revolt, their progress, with good primary source coverage, and their results - almost every single time the peasants being crushed, a very illustrative thing indeed for learning about attempts at social contestation from the peasantry for most of human history.
Perhaps it is a product of the last several decades, or perhaps it has always been more of a feature in English language scholarly books, but French books seem to attempt to provide less in the way of general, systemic rules and principles laid out for social sciences, and instead to elaborate these principles by supporting details and analysis over the course of the examples provided. A English-language scholarly book on this subject - certainly not all, but some - might provide for some of the "rules" behind why rebellions were formed and what were the general principles behind oppression of the peasants. Histoire des paysans de France by contrast, is content to discuss these on a chapter by chapter basis. This can make it seem as if it doesn't offer the same degree of structural analysis, but this is completely wrong: Walter's book is deeply concerned with the structural reasons behind revolts and analyzes them over time, as they shifted from resistance against lords and feudalism, to the fiscal burden imposed by the French monarchy, to the relative marginalization of rural regions in the modern era.
Certainly the book would have done better with another, better title, with having a more well-rounded view of peasant life and revolt beyond just their uprisings, and in some more thorough translation of older French. But it gives a good impression of the nature of most French peasant revolts, an interesting window on their thoughts and actions, and an achingly emotional piece at time which brings to light the misery, sadness, and cruelty that the oppressed, marginal, and downtrodden felt in French society. If one can read French and has an interest in the history of the French countryside and social revolt in France, a good book to read.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Ryan C Thomas