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August 17, 2005

La Longue Duree

From the excellent Robert Darnton (1984), "Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose," in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books: 0394729277):

To reconstruct the way peasants saw the world under the Old Regime... one should begin by asking... what experiences they shared in the everyday life of their villages.... [T]hat question can be answered... with qualifications and restricted to a high level of generalization.... The density of monographs can make French social history look like a conspiracy of exceptions trying to disprove rules. Yet... if one stands at a safe enough distance... a general picture begins to emerge....

Despite war, plague, and famine, the social order that existed at village level remained remarkably stable during the early modern period in France. The peasants were relatively free--less so than the yeomen who were turning into landless laborers in England, more so than the serfs who were sinking into a kind of slavery east of the Elbe. But they could not escape from a seigneurial system that dnied them sufficient land to achieve economic independence and that siphoned off whatever surplus they produced. Men labored from dawn to dust, scratching the soil on scattered strips of land with plows like those of the Romans and hacking at their grain with primitive sickles... to leave enough stubble for communal grazing. Women married late... twenty-five to twenty-seven... gave birth to only five or six children, of whom only two or three survived to adulthood. Great masses... lived ina sate of chronic malnutrition... porridge made of bread and water with some occasional home-grown vegetables.... They ate meat only a few times a year, on feat days or after the autumn slaughtering if they did not have enough silage to feed the livestock over the winter. They often failed to get the two pounds of bread (2000 calories) a day they needed to keep up their health... had little protection against... grain shortage and disease. The population fluctuated between fifteen and twenty million, expanding to... forty souls per square kilometer... [and] forty births [per year] per thousand inhabitants... only to be devastated by demographic crises. For four centuries... [until] the 1730s... French society remained trapped in rigid institutions and Malthusian conditions... l'histoire immobile.

That phrase now seems exaggerated, for it hardly does justice to the religious conflict, grain riots, and rebellions... that disrupted the late medieval pattern of village life.... But... the notion... of structural continuity... la longue duree... served as a corrective.... While ministers came and went and battles raged, life in the village continued unperturbed, much as it had always been since times beyond the reach of memory....

Grain yields remained at a ratio of about 5-to-1... in contrast to modern farming, which produces fifteen or even thirty.... Farmers could not raise enough grain to feed large numbers of animals, and they did not have enough livestock to produce the manure to fertilize the fields to increase the yield. This vicious circle kept them enclosed within... triennial or biennial crop rotation... fallow. They could not convert the fallow to... clover... [to] return nitrogen to the soil because they lived too close to penury to risk the experiment... [and] had no notion of nitrogen. Collective methods of cultivation also reduced the margin for experimentation.... [C]ommon gleaning and common grazing... common lands and forests... pasture, firewood, and chestnuts or berries. The only area where they could attempt to get ahead by individual initiative was the... backyard attached to their household plots....

The backyard garden often provided the margin of survival.... [S]eigneurial dues, tithes, grand rents, and taxes.... [T]he wealthier peasants rigged the collection of the main royal tax, the taille, in accordance with an old French principal: soak the poor....

Many of them went under... took to the road for good... milked untended cows, stole laundry... joined and deserted regiment after regiment... smugglers, highwaymen, pickpockets, prostitutes... pesilential poor houses, or else just crawled under a bush or a hay loft and died....

Death came just as inexorably to families that... kept above the property line.... 236 of every thousand babies died before their first birthdays.... 45 percent of Frenchmen born in the eighteenth century died before the end of ten.... Terminated by death... marriages lasted an average of fifteen years.... Stepmothers proliferated everywhere... [not] stepfathers, as the remarriage rate among widows was one in ten....

The peasants of early modern France inhabited a world of stepmothers and orphans, of inexorable, unending toil, and of brutal emotions. The human condition has changed so much since then that we can hardly imagine the way it appeared to people whose lives really were nasty, brutish, and short. That is why we need to reread Mother Goose...

I think that Darnton misses one important point. Life in early modern France, or Germany, or Britain, or the Low Countries, or elsewhere with the western European late marriage pattern according to which women did not get married until their boyfriends acquired cottages of their own which usually meant they were in their mid-twenties (or in places with similar patterns, like the lower Yangtze valley, where men couldn't get married until their older brothers believed that the lineage household could afford another woman), was quite good for a preindustrial agrarian human society. In most times and places marriage came earlier--not five or six but eight births--but more famines, worse nutrition, and thus greater mortality from disease gave the same two to three surviving to adulthood.

Posted by DeLong at August 17, 2005 10:56 PM