- Voices of the People in Nineteenth-Century France by David Hopkin
Although David Hopkin, a prominent historian at the University of Oxford, wrote his book primarily to encourage historians to pay attention to folklore because it reveals more about social history and customs than his colleagues realize, his superb study should also be required reading for folklorists and scholars of fairy-tale studies. Or, perhaps I should simply say that it is time for scholars of folktales and fairy tales to pay more attention to Hopkin’s use of history and folklore to comprehend just how intricate the relationship of oral and literary networks is and how informants and collectors of tales combine efforts to produce unnoticed history through storytelling even today.
In his introduction Hopkin states: “This book is an attempt to show that the material collected by folklorists and labeled traditional might nonetheless provide sources for a history that escapes ‘the story of national development’ that Lehning warns ‘is implicit in the French discourse about the countryside, and indeed virtually all modern discourses about country dwellers.’ Like Lehning, I want a history that ‘will make country dwellers the actors in their history, rather than shadows drawn from developmental categories’” (19). Hopkin’s reference here is to James Lehning’s Peasant and French: Cultural Contact in Rural France During the Nineteenth Century (1995). To accomplish this mission, Hopkin presents six meticulous case studies to examine how voices from below formed and continue to form dynamic subaltern cultures resistant to the dominant culture. Moreover, he provides ample evidence to show that there was no such thing as a homogeneous peasant or folk culture. Rather, it was regional, particular, and heterogeneous. Indeed, Hopkin maintains that “folk culture is not the common [End Page 191] culture of a nation or a province, binding together seigneur and peasant, master and servant in the happy acceptance of social inequality; it was the voice of the dominated, separate from, sometimes radically hostile to their ‘betters’ and ‘governors,’ including folklorists themselves” (22).
Hopkin’s six case studies, drawn from different regions of France during the latter part of the nineteenth century, are the following: Chapter 1, “Storytelling in a Maritime Community: Saint-Cast, 1879–1882”; Chapter 2, “The Sailor’s Tale: Storytelling on Board the North Atlantic Fishing Fleet”; Chapter 3, “Love Riddles and Family Strategies in the dâyemans of Lorraine”; Chapter 4, “Storytelling and Family Dynamics in an Extended Household: The Briffaults of Montigny-aux-Amognes”; Chapter 5, “Work Songs and Peasant Visions of the Social Order” (from the tiny parish of Montbrun in the Corbières); and Chapter 6, “The Visionary World of the Vallave Lacemaker.” In each case Hopkin focuses on the biography and intention of the collector of the tales, songs, and riddles. In particular, he deals with three of the great but neglected French folklorists—Paul Sébillot, Achille Millien, and Victor Smith—and the particular relationship that they had with the storytellers. Interestingly, all three folklorists, despite their education and upper-class backgrounds, were strongly attached to rural cultures and for different personal and political reasons wanted to recognize and celebrate customs and values that they could not share but esteemed. The repertoires of the storytellers who provided their songs and tales to Sébillot, Millien, and Smith were influenced by the relationship with their “superiors,” but they were also not afraid to voice their opinions about work and family in their tales. In fact, Hopkin demonstrates that the lower-class, often illiterate storytellers had an impact on how the folklorists wrote down their tales and caused them to change their attitudes and methods of collecting. Hopkin relied on archives, letters, and manuscripts that provided him with massive information about the specific conditions under which the storytellers worked, their conflicted relations with family members, church, and government, and their aspirations. The result in each chapter is a discrete and thorough analysis of how stories and storytellers made traditional tales their own stories and formed a means of communication that allowed people to articulate their wishes...