- Fraternity among the French Peasantry: Sociability and Voluntary Associations in the Loire Valley, 1815–1914
When Emile Zola visited the village of Romilly, outside Châteaudun, in early May 1886 he was struck by the vastness of the sky, the thick yellow soil of the plain, the sight of distant wooden windmills, their white sails turning slowly in the breeze—and the isolation of the inhabitants. “The Beauceron such as I saw him,” he jotted down in his notebook. “Clean-shaven, placid, thoughtful and trim-looking characters, a sad manner: the Beauce is sad, the hospitality cold, [End Page 457] the peasant lost in this sea of wheat, like a sailor: the effect of the environment, contemplation, sad daydreaming, egotistical withdrawal into one’s self...” Zola fed this menu of antisocial qualities into La Terre, one of the most graphic novels on French peasant life ever written. He was much rebuked by the defenders of rural values at the time, and he has come up against a barrage of negative commentary from historians ever since. “This bleak picture of the peasantry,” says Alan Baker, adding his name to the long list of critics, “portrays them as being essentially selfish, avaricious, suspicious, land-hungry individualists with little sense of community, of solidarity or even of social responsibility.”
Baker has been writing about nineteenth-century rural life in the department of Loir-et-Cher since the 1960s. The basic aim of his work has been to unearth, through detailed research in the local archives, the “practical expression of the principle of fraternité” in the area—not something to which Zola would have given much thought.
Being one of the most beautiful spots on the face of the planet, the area is well worth a lifetime’s research. It is an extremely varied zone: the department includes the sands of the Sologne (good for growing irises, but little else), the vineyards of the middle Loire, the Cher, the Renaissance city of Blois, the châteaux of Chambord and Cour-Cheverny, along with the Beauce and what Zola called the “distant blue hills of the Perche”. Furthermore—as Roger Dion noted in 1934 in his magisterial thesis on the Val de Loire—between Blois and Beaugency there developed the earliest agricultural syndicates in all France; the Syndicat des Agriculteurs de Loir-et-Cher, founded in 1883, became a national model.
But Baker would trace the ‘principle of fraternité’ within the department to a much earlier date. What motivates his book is politics. In his introduction he provides a summary of ‘revisionist Marxist’ polemic, which turns essentially around the idea that peasants were ‘politicized’—and thus fraternized—by the revolutions of 1789 and 1848. Baker sympathizes with this, criticizing those, like Eugen Weber, who have argued that a truly national political awareness developed only towards the end of the century. Baker’s central concern is to reveal the process by which “rural communities and individuals came to adopt particular practices and ideologies,” and “especially socialist and republican ideas.” So he has a real incentive to prove that the fraternal spirit existed in the department of Loir-et-Cher long before 1883.
It is not Zola, but the works of Maurice Agulhon that have inspired Alan Baker. He presents his study as a contribution to the ‘history of sociabilité.’ But he at once runs into trouble here. Agulhon worked on the nucleated, walled villages of the Var, on their cafés and chambrées, on a political culture that turned socialist (and later Front National). Loir-et-Cher was very different. Its settlement was dispersed, its politics was mainstream France; even today the political gurus watch it as a barometer on national sentiment.
What do thirty years of research actually show? Baker—combing through a mass of administrative surveys, reports and correspondence, kept in uncatalogued piles at Blois—identifies around six hundred voluntary associations founded in the department between 1800 and 1914; most of them were created after 1850. He...