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Forest Rights: The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France.

Legal history has been enriched in recent years by studies examining the confrontation and interaction of rival conceptions of the nature and place of law in the popular consciousness. The Warwick school has argued that in England the age of Walpole, defined by the Waltham "Black Act" of 1724, saw an externally imposed, uniform, predictable and "rational" set of legal norms clash with local, indigenous views of the role of law. Likewise, this stimulating and welcome study of France a century later depicts a conflict between the products of legislation and judicial precedent on the one hand, and the popular construction of the law on the other. The differences were especially marked with regard to which values should govern the ownership and exploitation of private property: individual rights and the profit motive, or long-standing community practices which emphasized collective rights?

This is a probing study of the demoiselles of the northern slopes of the Ariege mountains, male peasants described in official reports as "armed and disguised as women," who for three years from 1829 intimidated forest guards, charcoal burners, and the innkeepers who gave them lodging. It illustrates that broad generalizations which construct a polarized and fatal confrontation between spokesmen for liberal modernism and those for conservative reaction can be both crude and misleading. The peasants did not unite in opposition to restrictions on their historic practice of grazing livestock in the forests, whether owned by the state or by private entrepreneurs; ancient disagreements over property and inheritance continued. And the early protests by the demoiselles sometimes represented a common front between urban bourgeoisie and the peasants whom they paid to husband their livestock in the woods. Each endorsed popular views of the forest as a communal resource. Nor did the end of the raids signal victory by the laissez-faire modernizers; the peasants simply transferred their activities to politics and the new opportunities opened by the July Revolution of 1830. This strategy marked a natural evolution in peasant protest, one enhanced by the bourgeois victors of 1830 themselves legitimizing the rhetoric of the recent peasant protests (as in founding Le Charivari in 1832).

At the heart of this study is a fascinating reconstruction of the cultural norms, symbols and values which inspired the demoiselles' "elaborate and peculiar war" (p. ix). No enemies were killed nor prisoners taken. This "festive rebellion" of serious intent asserted traditional "user rights" to the forest which were being denied or restricted by private entrepreneurs licensed and supported by the state. The protests are best understood, Sahlins convinces us, within the folkloric constructs and historic experience of the participants. Their views and values differed from the linguistic and cultural perspectives (termed Cartesian) of officials and contemporary commentators. The latter saw the disguises of the demoiselles as utilitarian: hiding identities and imparting a sense of unity and hierarchy to collective action. However, a folkloric reading indicates that the disguises represented a self-conscious caricature. Retaining their identity as men, the protesters identified their cause with the fertile, generous and sustaining presence of the forest, and with its traditional protectors, the fairies (demoiselles or dames blanches). Their actions may have been modelled on those of youth groups (potentially all bachelors of marrying age who were as yet unpropertied) who at Carnival in late winter and spring imposed ritual corrective sanctions on errant marital partners. In general, then, the demoiselles engaged in "gigantic charivari against the arranged but mismatched marriage of 'outsider' forest guards and the forest" (p. 59).

This widely researched and entertaining study reminds us that the rhetoric surrounding the deed is as important as the deed itself. This was recognized by the victors of the revolution of 1830, who claimed to represent rational, political, and protocapitalist values, but who adopted the symbols of popular revolt after 1830. The complementary protests of bourgeois and peasant against the real or suspected policies of Charles X and the Forest Code of 1827 echoed their separate appreciations of what the revolution of 1789 had meant, and helped to forge an alliance in defence of the revolutionary tradition.

Christopher English Memorial University of Newfoundland
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Author:English, Christopher
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1995
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