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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.4 (2006) 555-560
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Virtuous Peasants and the Value of Error:
Two New Works on Thought and Culture in Eighteenth-Century France
These two recent works provide fresh insights into the political and intellectual culture of France at the end of the eighteenth century. Amy Wyngaard's book From Savage to Citizen: The Invention of the Peasant in the French Enlightenment examines the notions of the French peasant held by the social and intellectual elite, and how they shifted for several political and aesthetic reasons throughout the eighteenth century. David W. Bates' Enlightenment Aberrations: Error and Revolution in France looks at the function of error and uncertainty in Enlightenment and Revolutionary political discourse. Together they open up new questions about the formation of French identity in this crucial period in its history.
From its title one might expect Wyngaard's work to be an eighteenth-century version of Eugen Weber's seminal Peasants into Frenchmen, but this is not the case. Apart from a few comments confirming how wretched their daily existence really was, real peasants are almost entirely absent from this book. Wyngaard's focus is on the peasantry as a "cultural projection" that over the course of the eighteenth century "came to represent the core of France and what it meant to be French"(13). This new ideal of the peasantry was a significant shift away from their portrayal in the previous century as savage brutes intended as objects of ridicule and scorn. The peasantry, and how it was represented in art and literature, was a central part of a political and social discourse among forces that real peasants had very little interaction with, and who used the peasant as an ideal to promote their competing views of the social order.
For the bourgeois who were vying for a higher standing in French society, the peasant was co-opted as a powerful symbol of social mobility; he represented "simplicity, honesty, and hard work, [and] articulated a new value system grounded in ideas of merit and virtue, that challenged traditional aristocratic codes and dominance"(31). Through a detailed examination of the early eighteenth-century plays of Marivaux and the paintings of Watteau, Wyngaard reveals a "destabilization [End Page 555] of the traditional equivalence between rank and appearance" in the first half of the eighteenth century (37). Many of Marivaux's plots involve the exchange of clothing and identity between masters and servants and play with the relationships between merit, rank, and appearance. Although the social order is inevitably restored at the end of Marivaux's plays, he "troubles this sense of order by showing that the characters' disguises work"(48). Watteau's paintings, particularly his fête galante scenes, likewise play with themes of class mingling and the performative nature of social categories.
The aristocracy projected different values on the peasantry that reflected their anxieties about social change and the erosion of the traditional social order. Physiocrats and other members of the enlightened aristocracy "emphasized the moral and social disintegration caused by the growth of the city and individuals' abandonment of the duties traditionally associated to their rank, and posited the country as the only place where an ordered and harmonious community could still be found"(79). By adopting the same discourse on the virtues of merit and hard work, the aristocracy sought to establish itself as the model of these values to uphold a position in society that they perceived as being under threat. In the face of growing tension between a patriarchal and fraternal model of society from the mid-century onward, the village became the "optimum site for the exploration of these nascent fraternal and egalitarian ideals" because it was perceived as "closer...