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  • Interpreting Social Violence in French Culture: Buzançais, 1847-2008
  • Michael Hanagan
Interpreting Social Violence in French Culture: Buzançais, 1847-2008. By Cynthia A. Bouton (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011. viii plus 256 pp.).

Following her important book on grain riots in 1770's France, Cynthia A. Bouton now turns to the nineteenth-century rural world and contributes a case study of rural violence and its aftermath. In the process she makes telling points about the nature of collective memory and the culture of protest.

In 1847 the events of Buzançais caused a national sensation. In Buzançais indolent carters took a long time over their meals while a famished crowd, some recruited from a nearby public works program, grew large enough to seize carts carrying grain outside the region. The homes of grain dealers and others were sacked and a large flour mill, that exclusively served distant markets, was destroyed. A member of a delegation seeking to secure a commitment to charge low grain prices from one prominent family was fatally shot by the young heir who was then brutally murdered. In the end political authority resurfaced, determined to reassert its authority. Punishment was exemplary: among the twenty-five villagers convicted for participating in the events, three were guillotined.

Buzançais attracted attention because it exemplified elite concerns, during the "hungry forties," about what might happen if ever half-starved peasants broke free from the constraints of armed authority. Bouton's more subtle analysis shows how violence emerged from underlying forces of hunger and poverty but also from the specific circumstances in which women urged men to resistance, the tentative character of elite response, and the furious claims of a crowd believing itself entitled to subsistence aid. The crowd's beliefs rested on the much-eroded tenants of an older "moral economy," an ethical view argued here by means of pitchforks, scythes, and guns.

Having presented an account of the events of 1847, Bouton looks at how it was used in ongoing debates about hunger and social responsibility in France. After the trials and executions were over, the name of Buzançais became a worst-case scenario in political discussions of hunger and violence. Groups on both the right and left selectively presented, and sometimes manufactured, material from the Buzançais explosion in order to advance their views in national political debate.

Bouton then focuses on the use of Buzançais in political debates in a variety of communicative genre including: illustrations, novels, historical works, TV specials, and cyberzines. Among the first to introduce Buzançais into national political debate was the old Communard, Jules Vallès, whose fictionalized account of the affair was serialized in newspaper in 1880 and printed as a novel in 1919, with illustrations by Mario Simon. Vallès introduced a new element into the debate, alleging the presence of republicans in Buzançais. There is no evidence of such presence but it allowed him to shift the terms of debate from the crowd's denunciation of failed [End Page 266] paternalistic responsibility by traditional elites to a more modern theme, one that emphasized the failure of citizenship and civic obligation. Simon's 1919 illustrations also show how different communicative genre can uniquely contribute to debate. His illustrations of Buzançais crowds are haunting. They are at once frightening and beckoning. In each the crowd—scythes and axes in hand—solemnly scrutinizes the reader at some distance, impassively waiting for a response. Stalling is impossible. The reader must chose. Join or flee? Even sympathetic readers of historical texts are not normally accustomed to such options on such terms.

The memory of Buzançais did not fade. In the 1920s and 1930s various texts preserved its memory in a class-divided France where food riots and hunger returned during World War I and again in World War II. In 1949 the Buzançais case appeared as one subject of a cartoon series published in France-Soir and entitled "crime does not pay," which more or less says it all. In 1978 a TV special working in an Annales vein left the watcher with a variety of interpretive options.

Bouton argues...


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