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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 of this event, Peter Sahlins 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 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, 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 in Paris and its aftermath, for in this he is able to show the parallel and interrelated 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 such as Charles Phillipon and Honore Daumier, in their journals La Caricature and Le Charivari, 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, to see the War and its unusual aspects, such as the female dress of the rioters, only in functionalist 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, 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
COPYRIGHT 1996 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Lehning, James R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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