History and Statistics: Patterns of Family and Community Life
in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century France

Robert Schwartz History
Harriet Pollatsek Mathematics

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        Computing Applications in History and the Humanities (History 257) makes use of data analysis to enhance the study of French social and cultural history. The first part of the course examines family and community life in rural France during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. We begin by reading My Father's Life, a fascinating biography of an eighteenth-century peasant named Edme Rétif, published in 1779 by his son, Nicolas. A disciple of the philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the younger Rétif was a prolific writer whose nightly strolls in the popular quarters of Paris supplied much material for his numerous risqué novels and utopian tracks. Caught up in the demi-monde of Paris and seeking escape from the corruption that he (and Rousseau before him) linked to cities, Nicolas takes his reader into the Burgundian countryside to show how the rustic virtues of a simpler life are embodied in his father. A tale well told, the story of Edme's exemplary life seems at times too good to be true. This leads us to ask what, if anything, can this glowing portrait tell us about the reality of peasant life?

Consider Edme's household for example. According to the author--the second son of Edme's second marriage--there were during his childhood as many as 10 of his father's 14 children living under the same roof, a number augmented by resident hired hands. Everyone, we are told, ate dinner together, all seated around one large table, with Edme at the head and his wife at his right. In short, Edme's household was clearly a housefull. But was this situation typical or not? In terms of size and structure, what was typical of peasant households at that time?

What about Edme's economic position? Since it appears that his resources were sufficient to sustain a numerous family, where did he stand in the social pyramid? In the middle? At the top? At the base? How are we to know?

Finally, how should we understand the author's bold claim that Sacy, his father's village, was a community whose government "resembled in many respects the republics of old"? Are we to believe that Sacy and other Burgundian villages governed themselves along the lines of Sparta or Athens? That elements of republican self-government were functioning in the French countryside before the 1789 Revolution? That a village was governed by many and not just a few? Or was the claim in question merely an expression of the author's reformist hopes, something surely to be expected from a follower of Rousseau? The latter seems much more likely, but how can we be sure?

And so it goes as we proceed through a critical reading of My Father's Life, raising questions about the difference between the representation and the reality of peasant life. From simple to complex, intriguing problems take shape that call for quantitative research. For the students, that realization and engaged curiosity motivate their hands-on learning of quantitative methods.

In directing this process, we supply census records and other archival materials on five Burgundian villages, explain basic statistical concepts in class, and supervise the weekly computer labs, where students work in pairs to carry out statistical examinations of the data. Exercises guide their search for numerical patterns in family structure and in village office holding and, in due time, provide repeated practice in the framing and testing of a statistical hypothesis.

For example, the students come up with the following hunch as they explore the census data on the five villages. Hypothesis: The number of residing children in village households varied by occupation: landowning families engaged in agriculture tended to have a larger number of residing children than other village families because of the greater need for labor in farming families. To test their hypothesis, they tabulate the number of children living with families of different occupations, summarizing with the mean and standard deviation of the number of residing children by occupational group.

Number of Residing Children by Occupational Group

 Occupational Group

 Means No. of Residing Children


 Officials  1.67  3  2.89
 Manouvrier (landless peasants)  2.02  89  1.61
 Cultivateurs (landowning peasants)  2.79  29  1.78
 Artisans  1.93  27  1.11
 Service Workers  2.00  9  1.22
 Petty Merchants  2.25  8  0.71
 Wage Workers  1.52 21  1.57
 Proprietors  1.62  13  1.71
 All Groups  2.05  199  1.57

Not satisfied with the tabular display, they create a visual representation.

With this kind of preparation, students tackle a larger question: to what degree was village office holding monopolized by the wealthy few ? Or, was it shared among a broad segment of household heads? Following their collaborative investigation in pairs, each student writes a paper that discusses and interprets her results, and this essay marks the culmination of the first part of the course.


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Copyright © 1999 Mount Holyoke College. This page created by Math Across the Curriculum and maintained by Jennifer Adams. Last modified on August 8, 1999.