Forest Rites: The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth Century France.The War of the Demoiselles is one of the most striking incidents in French rural history, a series of rural riots made notable by the practice of the peasant participants of disguising themselves as women. It is often interpreted as a response by peasants to social and economic pressures in the Restoration countryside. In his reexamination re·ex·am·ine also re-ex·am·ine
tr.v. re·ex·am·ined, re·ex·am·in·ing, re·ex·am·ines
1. To examine again or anew; review.
2. Law To question (a witness) again after cross-examination. of this event, Peter Sahlins Peter Sahlins (born April 26, 1957) is an American historian of France and Europe. He is the Director of Academic Programs at the Social Science Research Council, where he directs the major fellowship programs and leads a new environmental programming initiative. argues that a complete account must take into account not only such factors as the Forest Code of 1827, which denied peasants their long-standing access to the forests and impoverished them, but also "the substance and distinctiveness of a peasant culture." (p. 7) In so doing, Sahlins adds another work to the growing list of rural histories that attempt to maintain the separateness and significance of peasant culture during the process of nation-building in modern France.
Sahlins begins his account with the outbreak of the War in May 1829, when reports of armed men disguised as women in the royal forest of Saint-Lary in the mountain forests of the Ariege in southwestern France appeared. By July their tactics - firing guns in the air and screaming at forest guards and charcoal-burners - and their objectives - to drive these "enemies" from the forests - had become clear. Sahlins' purpose is not simply to retell re·tell
tr.v. re·told , re·tell·ing, re·tells
1. To relate or tell again or in a different form.
2. To count again.
Verb 1. these events, but to analyze them from the perspective of a peasant culture that gives meaning to the events recorded in archival materials. Sahlins carefully develops a complicated argument that can only be sketched here. It begins with an investigation into the cultural meaning of the forest itself. Men worked and controlled this space, but it was also a place of cultural inversion and disorder cultivated using the methods (jardinage) with which women cultivated gardens. The forest, he argues, was therefore coded female in peasant culture, even if peasant men were the usual cultivators. The War of the Demoiselles, therefore, can be read as a form of charivari cha·ri·va·ri
n. pl. cha·ri·va·ris Regional
See shivaree. See Regional Note at shivaree.
[French, from Old French, perhaps from Late Latin car , in which peasant men sought possession and control over a feminine forest in the same way as a traditional charivari expressed male control over the women of the peasant community. The War also drew on the festival calendar of peasant culture, especially the inversion that was a part of carnival, which Sahlins shows provided the rioters with a language that became more obvious as the class dimensions of the conflict emerged in February and March 1830. To this point, Sahlins has been focusing on peasant culture, but the account acquires a larger significance when he links the War in the Ariege with the July Revolution July Revolution, revolt in France in July, 1830, against the government of King Charles X. The attempt of the ultraroyalists under Charles to return to the ancien régime provoked the opposition of the middle classes, who wanted more voice in the government. in Paris and its aftermath, for in this he is able to show the parallel and interrelated in·ter·re·late
tr. & intr.v. in·ter·re·lat·ed, in·ter·re·lat·ing, in·ter·re·lates
To place in or come into mutual relationship.
in courses of elite politics and popular culture. The forms of charivari that had served the Demoiselles in 1829 and 1830 became useful to critics of the July Monarchy The July Monarchy (1830-1848) was a period of liberal monarchy rule of France. It was proclaimed on August 9, 1830 after the Three Glorious Days (or July Revolution) in France. such as Charles Phillipon and Honore Daumier, in their journals La Caricature and Le Charivari Le Charivari was an illustrated newspaper published in Paris, France from 1832 to 1937.
Le Charivari published caricatures, political cartoons and reviews. , as well as a form adopted by urban critics of deputies to the National Assembly in 1832. As charivari became increasingly politicized among the elite, its popular manifestations became less acceptable to the authorities. The War therefore allows him to illuminate a key passage in the relations between popular and elite cultures, a development made possible by the revolutionary moment of 1830. As Sahlins properly notes in his Epilogue ep·i·logue also ep·i·log
a. A short poem or speech spoken directly to the audience following the conclusion of a play.
b. The performer who delivers such a short poem or speech.
2. , to see the War and its unusual aspects, such as the female dress of the rioters, only in functionalist func·tion·al·ism
1. The doctrine that the function of an object should determine its design and materials.
2. A doctrine stressing purpose, practicality, and utility.
3. terms is to miss the significance of the peasants' use of their cultural repertoire: he sees a nineteenth-century peasant society that was not immobile im·mo·bile
1. Immovable; fixed.
2. Not moving; motionless.
immo·bil , but rather continually adapting to the outside world, using the "traditions and elements of their culture" (p. 133) in their struggle against government officials and others.
Sahlins' book is one of a growing number that criticize the "peasant into Frenchman" orthodoxy of French rural history. His selection of an incident like the War of the Demoiselles makes this a book that is not only fascinating to read but also allows him to make his point about the specificity of uses of rural culture. Such specificity, however, limits his ability to make large statements about rural history, and he seems to accept a relatively confined role for histories such as his own in the reconceptualization of rural history that changing the orthodoxy requires, commenting that "the historians' job is, after all, less to construct models than to make sense of their informants' lives." (pp. 131-132) Those models, of course, themselves structure the ways historians make sense of lives in the past, and painstaking and insightful reconstructions of those lives such as this one must also take on the task of reconstructing those models.
James R. Lehning University of Utah The University of Utah (also The U or the U of U or the UU), located in Salt Lake City, is the flagship public research university in the state of Utah, and one of 10 institutions that make up the Utah System of Higher Education.