- Something of a Peasant Paradise? Comparing Rural Societies in Acadie and the Loudunais, 1604–1755 by Gregory M.W. Kennedy
Gregory M.W. Kennedy’s fine book deploys the methods of the Annales school within a comparative framework to answer an old question: just how good did the settlers of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Acadie have it? Scholars have long tended to depict the colony as a kind of photo-negative of ancien régime France’s supposedly blighted countryside. Where French peasants groaned under the burdens of the tithe, seigneurial tyranny, and a deep-seated culture of inequality, the argument runs, the settlers of Acadie lived in a natural “republic,” a “democratic society” of lordless farmers in which ossified institutions could not hamstring the agrarian prosperity that sprang from the diked and dried salt marshes of the Bay of Fundy. To test this notion, Kennedy undertakes a wide-ranging comparison of Acadie to the Loudunais, a swath of rural west-central France that happens to be the mother region of many of the first Acadian colonists. The results show that Acadian society and its French counterpart were in many respects quite similar, and that what differences there were cut mostly against the idea that Acadie’s underdeveloped institutions and geographical isolation turned to the good of its inhabitants.
Kennedy organizes his research thematically, beginning (in true Annales style) with a chapter on the natural environment in Acadie and the Loudunais. He then tours readers through the political and military contexts of early modern life in both places; the economics of production and consumption then come in for consideration, followed by chapters on the relative importance of Acadian and Loudunais seigneuries and state institutions. These comparisons yield a series of ironic conclusions. By many metrics, for instance, the presence of the French state was felt with greater intensity in contested Acadie than in the peaceful Loudunais. Faced with “repeated state demands for provisions, information, labour, and military service,” Acadians likely would have envied their Loudunais contemporaries, only a few of whom ever served in the non-functional militia. True, the Loudunais paid taxes that the Acadians did not, but they also enjoyed governmental stability that the Acadians, caught between the belligerent French and British empires, did not. In addition, Kennedy finds that differences in rank in Acadie resembled those in the Loudunais. Just as Loudunais peasants negotiated the social hierarchy of the ancien régime, Acadians lived in a landscape dominated by wealthy clans descended from the colony’s seventeenth-century pioneers. Even the seigneury, an institution of lordship assumed to have been strong in the Loudunais and moribund in Acadie, turns out to have worked in [End Page 514] broadly similar ways in both places; seigneurs focused on fisheries, agriculture, and the fur trade certainly exerted an influence—albeit an uneven one—in Acadie, while landowning lords in the Loudunais were often absentees, artificially limiting their power in the region.
In sum, Kennedy has crafted a convincing, tightly argued book that responds neatly to a problem that has lurked in the Acadian historiography for decades. His treatment of the role of Acadie’s indigenous Mi’kmaq might have been more extensive and methodologically nuanced, and his occasional quote rendered in the original French might put off an anglophone reader, but in general the book is a pleasure to read. Yes, Something of a Peasant Paradise? is in some sense a modest comparative study of interest mainly to historians of Acadie. But, in a salutary way, it also complicates the centre-periphery models of colonial development that continue to shadow Atlantic history writ large, demonstrating that there is no substitute for deep knowledge of local conditions when it comes to charting the confusing, almost non-Newtonian flow of social structures and state power in the early modern period.