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Reviewed by:
  • The Life of Property: House, Family and Inheritance in Béarn, South-West France
  • Michael Herzfeld
The Life of Property: House, Family and Inheritance in Béarn, South-West France. By Timothy Jenkins (New York, Berghahn, 2010) 181 pp. $60.00

The exciting convergence between historical analysis and ethnographic actuality that Jenkins achieves in this remarkable study of Béarn arises from three major factors. First, he has conducted extensive field and archival research there. Second, access to notaries' files (rather than official promulgations of decisions already taken) has given him rare insight into the internal dynamics of property management in an area characterized by primogeniture and by the long persistence of a type of "house society" that formally conflicted with French codified law. Third, Béarn—its archival documentation reaching back at least to the twelfth century—has been studied with particular intensity by writers from de Bonald and Le Play in the mid-nineteenth century to Bourdieu in the latter half of the twentieth, with the result that its local peculiarities have influenced regional, national, and even international discourses about social stability and order. In the case of Bourdieu, it helped to propel notions of social strategy into the theoretical vocabulary. A careful reading of novelist Palay's psychologically acute dissections of inheritance conflicts reinforces Jenkins' analysis from an internal perspective.1

Jenkins ably demonstrates that Béarnais society was not a passive recipient of legal interference in favor of equal partible inheritance as some have imagined. Repeated predictions of its imminent demise, he shows, were themselves part of an ongoing structure of self-concealment; conservative and progressive forces—respectively located in tensions between large and small farmers and between men and women—continually adapted to external pressures without ever substantively yielding on fundamental principles of inheritance and house. Indeed, Jenkins shows [End Page 290] that the elegiac quality of Bourdieu's account is but another iteration of an old trope, which this reviewer has elsewhere called "structural nostalgia" (the assumption, repeated in successive generations, that a more balanced order is just vanishing from memory).2 The demise of Béarn's social order (and generally that of European rural society) has, in another idiom, "always-already" been about to happen—and has never done so.

One peculiar genius of this book lies in the agile demonstration that Bourdieu's failure to live up to his own theoretical principles instantiates a recognizably Béarnais problem—the conviction of imminent dissolution. Despite his expressed anti-structuralism, Bourdieu found it practically impossible to resolve the "tradition-modernity" binary as he celebratedly did that of structure-practice; Jenkins exposes Bourdieu's difficulty in specifically cultural terms that nicely complement Deborah Reed-Danahay's excellent analysis in Locating Bourdieu (Bloomington, 2004). The familiar trope of the town as the moral cesspit against which the countryside maintains purity and honor similarly reproduces a conventional dualism that conceals moral struggle in both loci. Bourdieu's agonized, imperfect reflexivity reproduces this nostalgic entailment, which on Jenkins' evidence is of considerable antiquity in Béarn and elsewhere.

At the very end of the book, Jenkins describes such valedictions as "theodicies," in which Béarn and the wider world act on each other in deciphering the intractable problems of society. The Béarnais writers who address social issues are the mediators of that secretively and paradoxically regenerative process, elegantly unpacked in Jenkins' dense, complex, and richly rewarding historical anthropology.

Michael Herzfeld
Harvard University


1. See Louis de Bonald, Œomplètes de M. de Bonald (Paris, 1864); Frédéric Le Play, L'organisation de la famille, selon le vrai modèle signalé par l'histoire de toutes les races et de tous les temps (Paris, 1871); Pierre Bourdieu, Le bal des célibataires: crise de la société paysanne en Béarn (Paris, 2002); Simin Palay, Los tres gojats de Bòrdqvielha (Pau, 1974).

2. See Herzfeld, Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State (New York, 2005; orig. pub. 1997), 147-182.



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