Review- Weber, “Peasants Into Frenchmen”

Eugen Weber, “Peasants Into Frenchmen: the Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914” (1976) – More like “PISSANTS into Frenchmen,” am I right?! No, I am not. The peasantry had a pretty rough row to hoe (literally and figuratively) in the nineteenth century. Moreover, and more of a problem for the French government, the life of the peasantry — depending on how you counted, something like half the country — was very poorly incorporated into the official and unofficial institutions of the country at large. In 1870, only a little more than half even spoke French. Again, this depends on some fuzzy numbers and how you count things, but many many rural French spoke either another language altogether (Breton, Basque, German, Flemish, etc) or a local patois. The government, such as it was in rural areas, was seen as something to avoid, tax collectors, gendarmes, and army recruiters (this would continue through our period — the peasants had a point — but get better from a governmental point of view). Most peasant kids had a few months of school and then were off to the farm. Most towns were “self-sufficient,” doing a little bit of trade for cash but otherwise largely living off their own produce. This sounds nice until you realize that means “always on the edge of hunger” and having to eat and wear crappy versions of what other places in the country could produce for cheaper. All in all, the unified France we’re used to thinking of had not come into existence, but it had by 1914, Weber argues- and the experience of the war sealed it.

What changed between 1870 and 1914? Weber was a liberal modernization theory guy, more sophisticated than many but still a great believer in the idea that things progress in an orderly fashion from “traditional” to “modern,” i.e. resembling consumer society in the mid-20th century US. Where others telling a similar story emphasize cultural changes brought on by schools, mass culture, etc., Weber puts a lot of emphasis on roads and railroads. There was a massive rural construction campaign once the Third Republic got on its feet in the late 1870s, and this cracked open the rural isolation that prevailed in the French countryside. You could think of it like the “market revolution” American historians identified in the Jacksonian period, where all of a sudden it made more economical sense for peasants to produce more for the market than for themselves. This had numerous spin-off effects, from wine country becoming wine country (from every area making and drinking its own wine, no matter how shitty) to peasants relying on their school-aged children to read the official, French language, documents they now needed to make use of in their expanded economic activity. If the schools were important, this could only be because peasants were prosperous enough to keep their kids in school for a few years instead of a few months. Similarly, the roads allowed government authorities better access to villages, the draft (reduced to only two years, so less of a death sentence than before) could reach further, etc. etc.

Weber clearly did massive amounts of research into the life of rural France for this book, and it shows. He provides numerous, sometimes dozens it seems, of examples of every dynamic he points to and provides an almost encyclopedic view of French rural life by doing so. It’s impossible not to get bogged down a little in that level of detail but he writes in a sprightly, straightforward fashion that makes it lighter than it might otherwise be. Weber depicts the peasantry as more or less happy with the changes that were wrought, though one wonders if they’d be so happy if they knew this state of affairs helped feed their sons into the meatgrinder of the war… still, better nutrition, health, and education are pretty huge deals when they make such sudden quantum leaps as they did in France’s case. All in all, a monumental work both in the good sense and the bad (i.e. long and somewhat tedious) sense. ****

Review- Weber, “Peasants Into Frenchmen”

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