Community in the 18th Century French Peasantry
Family, Community and Class
101 Section (01)
February 18, 2002
Community in the 18th Century French Peasantry
by Elizabeth Aaker
The community of 18th century rural peasants provided both economic and social support for its members. This aspect of community is a theme which runs throughout the writings of F.Y. Besnard and Pierre Jean Baptiste Le Grand d’Aussy and into the article of Bonnie Smith. Although primary sources such as the documents by Besnard and Baptiste provide good specific examples of how community played out in peasant life, secondary sources like Bonnie Smith’s article give an overview of the role community performed in peasant life. Specifically she writes, “agricultural practices connected families to one another in a community” (Smith 23). She goes on to explain the how the agricultural practices of the time lead to the economic interdependence of the rural peasantry. No aspect of their farming was completely separate from the operations of others in the community. This reliance was to such a degree that they needed the community to survive. From this economic based dependence on one another social relationships grew and developed into what can be recognized as a social community. The social aspect of community interactions allowed the peasants to release the tensions of their economic destitution. Smith writes, “villagers worked together, watched each other, and celebrated as a group” (24). In the lives of 18th century, rural peasants, community provided the economic resources necessary for survival and the social support to deal with the hardships of life.
The economic ties between peasants created a community with multiple layers and relationships that formed a web of dependence. Farmers who did not own enough land to provide for themselves entered into agreements with others in the area to share their economic resources (Besnard 149-50). Besnard notes the peasants’ use of technology and the pooling of resources to increase production (149). The farmers used plows to work their land in a more productive way. However, a horse-drawn plow requires a team of two horses and many of the small holders had only one horse. Some of them collaborated to form a complete plowing outfits (Besnard 149).
Those farmers who didn’t have the resources to enter into such agreements relied on their community in a different way. They “made arrangements with neighboring farmers who did their plowing and transported their fertilizer and harvest at a price fixed in money and working days” (Besnard 150). This created another level of dependence between rural peasants. The sheer amount of labor it took to harvest crops created a dependence on the larger community for each farmer. Many of the larger land owners hired farmhands and therefore depended upon the community for its work power.
The community’s role extended beyond economic dependence into social functions. Peasant families gathered in the warmest stable during the winter months to conduct their social assemblies (Le Grand d’Aussy 147). According to D’Aussy, these social gatherings took the form of gossip and complaints. “They chat, laugh and complain about taxes… They say bad things about the priest, the landlord and everyone else who isn’t there” (Le Grand d’Aussy 147). When the prejudice of Baptiste is filtered out from this passage, what remains is the description of a modern-day support group. Meaning what is actually happening is the farmers are getting together to share their experiences, they are releasing the stresses of their hard work by talking about them. The people who Baptiste notes as subjects in their conversations are those who are responsible for the economic hardship of the peasant class. Both the priest and the landlord collected taxes from the peasants (Smith 10). According to Baptiste, although this particular social interaction does not include the women, “they have arranged things so that they too may have a turn” (Le Grand d’Aussy 147). He goes on to illustrate a scene parallel to that of the men, with the women staying up late into the night talking after the men have gone to bed (147-8). In a life of hardship and difficulty, expressing frustration and sharing it with others who are experiencing the same things creates the bonds of a community.
The solidarity of the peasant community stems from a basic need to survive economically. Whether the farmer is a large land holder who hires the poorest day laborer or a small land holder who pools his resources with others to work his own land, all the peasants in a rural farming area required the community to exist. Once tied together by agricultural needs the peasants sought out social comfort from the community as well. In the resulting community, each individual required the larger group for economic security and social relations as well. The defining characteristic of this rural community is the interdependence between the individual farmers.
Besnard, F.Y.. Souvenirs d’un Nonagenaire. Paris: Librairie H. Champion, 1880, as excerpted in France on the Eve of the Revolution, ed. by Jeffry Kaplow. New York: John Wiley, 1971, pp.148-52.
Le Grand d'Aussy, Pierre Jean Baptiste. Voyage d' Auvergne. Paris: Eugene Onfroy, 1788, as excerpted in France on the Eve of the Revolution, ed. by Jeffry Kaplow. New York: John Wiley, 1971, pp. 145-48.
Smith, Bonnie. Changing Lives: Women in European History Since 1700. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1989, pp. 6-51.