The French Peasantry


Figure 1.--The first realistic images of French peasant life come from Louis La Nain. This view of a French peasant home and family was painted around 1643. As a result of a series of wars launched by Louis XIV and his successors, the living standards of workers and peasants declined in the 18th century.

Wealth before the Industrial Revolution was primarily derived through agriculture. And the importance of France during the medieval era was derived from both its substantial population and rich agricultural lands. The richest of French farm lands can be seen in the way France rapidly recovered from even devestating eras like the Hundred Years War. The bulk of the French population was the peasantry. The rich farmland resulted in copious yields, but the peasantry did not always benefit from their labors. Much of the land was held by the nobility which took alarge part of the crop. The standard of living was thus low, although probably marginally higher than peasants in the rest of Europe. There were peasnant revolts. The best known was the Jacquerie (1358). As in the rest of Europe, the peasants did not have the organization or military skills to suceed against the nobility in armed confrontations. When Revolution came, it ignited in Paris, not in the countryside (1789). The pesantry reacted differently to the Revolution. In some areas the peasntry influenced by the Church resisted the Revolution. This despite the huge part of agricultural production they turned over to the nobility. But the Revolution's attack on the nobility and destribution of land won over the peasantry. When Napoleon rehabilitated the aristocracy, even the emigres, he did not return their estates. They got back their country homes and surrounding gtounds--but not the agricultural land. The peasantry retained the land broken up from the great estates. That made the French peasantry a largely conservative force throughout the rest of French history. There was still a substantial peasant population at the time of World War I, but rapidly declined after the War. France's rural population is now a small part of the overall population and no longer be called aeasant population.

French Agriculture

Wealth before the Industrial Revolution was primarily derived through agriculture. And the importance of France during the medieval era was derived from both its substantial population and rich agricultural lands. The richest of French farm lands can be seen in the way France rapidly recovered from even devestating eras like the Hundred Years War. The bulk of the French population was the peasantry.

Living Standards

The rich farmland resulted in copious yields, but the peasantry did not always benefit from their labors. Much of the land was held by the nobility which took alarge part of the crop. The standard of living was thus low, although probably marginally higher than peasants in the rest of Europe.

Peasant Rebellions

There were several peasant rebellions in Frebch history. The best known was the Jacquerie (1358). It occurred in northern France during the Hundred Years War, a particularly difficult time for the peasantry. The peasants rose in the Oise valley north of Paris. This term Jacquerie developed from the derisive attitude of the nobility. They referred to the peasants as "Jacque" or "Jaque Bonhomme". This was based on their padded surplice which was called "jacque"--the origin of the modern "jacket". The Jacquerie was led by Guillaume Cale, often called Jacques Bonhomme ("Jim Goodfellow") or Callet. As a result of the dimensions of the rising, the name "Jacquerie" has become used as a generic term for peasant revolts. As in the rest of Europe, the peasants did not have the organization or military skills to succeed against the nobility in armed confrontations.

Pre-Revolutionary France (18th Century)

Assessments of the peasantry in the 18th century suggest that they owned something like 30-40 percentbof the agricultural land. Most of it ws held in small, semi-feudal plots. Most peasants did not own any land at all. They rented land to farm from other peasants or the nobility. They were forced to supplement their earnings by hiring themselves out as day laborers, textile workers doing piece-work at home, or for other manual laborers. Peasants were heavily taxed. Thus the poorest element of society was saddled with the heaviest tax burden. And the French Government needed increased revenue as a result of aseries of wars launched by Louis XIV. The War of Devolution was the first war launched by French Louis XIV to expand France's borders. Several more were to follow. Louis XIV at emense cost gained little. Louis XV lost France's overseas Empire in the Seven Years War. Louis XVI destroyed the fragile finances of the monarchy by supporting the American colonists against Britain. Some have termed the wars as the Second Hundred Years War. Taxes were needed to support all these wars. And the hard-pressed peasantry was the main source of revenue. French peasants paid taxes to the king and Church and both taxes and dues to the lord of the manor. Thbere were also a range of indicrect taxes they fell heavily on the peasantry and workers. These uncluded taxes on wine, salt, and bread. And in addition to taxes, under the medieval system which still survived in law, the peasants had a labor obligation to their feudal lords. The 18th century burdens on the peasantry did not stop here. The rents the peasantry paid to land owners increased and the duies on produce and goods sold in markets and fairs. Thus the living standards of the peasantry, despite the rich agricultural land and the smart talk of the Enligtenment declined during the 18th century. The situation for both peasants and workers was clear to many observers. The monarchy to cover the increasing debt burden increasedc taxes and the nobility and ckergy increased rents. Despite important scientific advances during the century, there was no attempt to improve agricultural methods. Few nobels took an interest in improving his estates, except for figuring out how to obtain increased revenur from the peasants. Bread prices continue to raise in Paris and the cities and like overall inflation rose at a higher pace than wages--and in the 1780s the disparity between the two had reached unsustainable levels. All of this was exacerbated by the pooer harvest of 1788-89. It was workers in the city that felt this even more than the peasantry. They were generally more aware of the siituation and urban women unlike rural women, much more demonstavle. And urban workers unlike the peasantry had no way of raising food themselves. The urban workforce included journeymen, factory workers, and other wage earners.

The Revolution (1789)

When Revolution came in Franxe , it ignited in Paris, not in the countryside (1789). The pesantry reacted differently to the Revolution. In some areas the peasntry influenced by the Church resisted the Revolution. This despite the huge part of agricultural production they turned over to the nobility. But the Revolution's attack on the nobility and destribution of land won over the peasantry. When Napoleon rehabilitated the aristocracy, even the emigres, he did not return their estates. They got back their country homes and surrounding gtounds--but not the agricultural land. The peasantry retained the land broken up from the great estates. That made the French peasantry a largely conservative force throughout the rest of French history.

20th Century

There was still a substantial peasant population in the early 20th century. The numbers began to decline perceptively after World War as France became an increasingly urbanized and industrialized country. A notable development durung the inter-War era was the appearance of a militant anti-republican, authoritarian, and corporatist peasant movement rather comparable to Fascist urban movements. The movement was led by Henri Dorgeres, who began in Brittany as a journalist for a farmers' newspaper. His influence was strongest in northern and western France. Peasants there were more conservative than in the south. Dorgeres "greenshirts" were vocal participants n anti-Government demonstrations (1930s). Dorgeres desired to restore the peasantry as a political force. An important factor here was agricultural recession in the 1930s in the wake of the Depression. Dorgeres after the Germann invasion supported Vichy, but for some reason never gained much influence there. [Paxton] France's rural population is now a small part of the overall population and no longer be called aeasant population.

Sources

Paxton, Robert O. French Peasant Fascism: Henry Dorgeres's Greenshirts and the Crises of French Agriculture, 1929-1939. Paxton is the author of a senminal work on Vichy, detailing collaboration with the NAZIs.







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