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History of Peasant Revolts: The Social Origins of Rebellion in Early Modern France.

History of Peasant Revolts: The Social Origins of Rebellion in Early Modern France. By Yves-Marie Berce (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990. x plus 359 pp. $57.50/cloth $18.95/paper).

This is an abridged and translated edition of Berce's 2 volume, 974 page, 1974 these entitled Histoire de Croquants: Etude des soulevements populaires au XVIIe siecle dans le sud-ouest de la France. His thesis examines the context for, the course of, and the patterns underlying the late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century rebellions of croquants (meaning rebel peasants) in the southwestern part of France known as the Aquitaine. Despite the title of this English abridgement, it was never intended as a general history of peasant revolts in early modern France (although some of Berce's other work is more general in scope). Because of the publisher's perceived need to abbreviate the study to half its original size, the end result is much less than English readers deserve. Gone is almost all of Berce's penetrating analysis of the background for rebellion in the seventeenth century: his work on weather, dearth, prices, plague, war, and taxes. Gone as well are his studies of the Aquitaine's nobility and officialdom, their interests and behavior, and their interactions with the people. While the editors have retained his chronicle of rioting of the Tard Avises at the end of the sixteenth century and the peasant movements of the mid-seventeenth century (Perigord and Quercy between 1637 and 1641), his studies of the rebellions in the Guyenne in 1635 and Saintonge in 1636, popular participation in the events of the Fronde in Aquitaine, and the last uprising of the Tard-Avises of Quercy in 1707 have been omitted. Moreover, the text is devoid of footnotes, bibliography, most explanatory notes, and all maps except one.

What is left, however, is not an entirely empty shell, as the book highlights Berce's focus on the local, communal dimensions of peasant life, his typology of rebellion, and his excursion into the mentalite of croquants. Berce argues that revolt was an expression of the local community that "bred a variety of collective loyalties designed to unite its members against the insecurity caused by war, against the tax collector, and against the sovereign" (3). He finds considerable evidence of communal autonomy and solidarity at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Local elites--noble and official--presided over local affairs. Town and village inhabitants attached tremendous importance to local symbols: the consular livery, town bells, customary/communal law, fairs, festivals, and political ceremonies. Through these and other symbols, "the population showed that it thought as one" (30). Community was thus both an institutional entity and a product of "shared feeling and collective consciousness" (20). Berce embraces a Mousnier-esque vision of generally classless communal loyalties. Although the common people might turn more readily to excess--drunkenness, public disorders caused by rowdy students, journeymen, river people, bread-rioting women and lackeys, and rollicking displays of public enthusiasm and celebration in festivals--than their more elite neighbors, all members of the community rallied quickly to defend it against outside interference.

The seventeenth century constituted a turning-point, however. Communal institutions and solidarities suffered under the onslaught of a centralizing monarchy, war, rationalizing religion, and even town planning. With officers of the crown came "a painful collision of cultures" (19) that included: written law, French as the language of domination, loss of control over municipal institutions, an orderly policing system, and taxation. The almost incessant warfare that wracked the seventeenth century brought marauding soldiers, widespread billeting, and requisitions. The post-Tridentine Church sought to purge popular, local culture of its exuberance and its attachments to doctrinally dubious practices and celebrations. Town planning entailed a "rigid social segregation" which constituted "the death of a social order"(55). The police brought the first significant attempt to shut the poor away and order social life.

The over 450 revolts that erupted in southwestern France between 1590 and 1715 were thus largely the product of this break-up of communal solidarities and autonomy. Berce has isolated four separate types of riots, each having its own pattern, participants, targets, goals, behavior, and results. He distinguishes: riots over the price of bread, riots against soldiers, riots against taxmen, and riots against tax-farming. Rioting peaked during the period 1635-1660 when over half of them erupted. All four types were, he argues, "characteristic of a social order in which the subject was attached to his locality by a network of group and community ties"(242). He explains that while a combination of greater military control over troop movements and an increased reliance on force to coerce tax payments had helped quell some forms of these revolts, it ultimately took the disappearance of the "old social order" to cause recourse to such rioting to die away (242). While rioting against the depredations of troops and against taxation evolved into different forms of protest (such as the conscription riots of the 18th century) or receded quickly, food rioting endured well into the nineteenth century.

Berce also argues that croquants drew from a set of popular myths or "fantasies" (247) to sustain and legitimize collective action. Recurring themes such as those that claimed that the well-intentioned king had been deceived or robbed by his ministers, that rumored that the king had granted a tax remission to his subjects, that warned that even worse abuses, such as taxes on death, loomed, or that conjured evil pictures of the hated taxmen, reassured the people and spurred them into action. Berce claims that none of these rebellions aimed at revolution: "peasants did not attack the idea of authority or attack the social hierarchy, they merely limited their obedience to what they called their patrie.... Beyond that they acknowledged only the King" (340).

Berce's work has contributed greatly to our understanding of early modern French popular culture and collective action and much of the argument presented here made its way long ago into more recent research. He is at his best discussing the centralizing state, the intrusion of new types and means of taxation, and community solidarity. He is less convincing when he attempts to evaluate the context for bread rioting, which certainly, as he explains, included a conjuncture of bad harvests, tempestuous prices (although this information is deleted from the English abridgement), local loyalties and state intervention.

It also involved factors ignored or sketchily described such as changing economic structures and behavior. Moreover, his correlation between the presence of women rioters in food riots and the "almost biological nature of this kind of episode" (174) contributes little to understanding the complexities of these very numerous events. Overall, this edition of Berce's work may provide English readers with a look into some important aspects of community relations in the early modern period. I would, however, urge those who can to consult the original French these for a more nuanced history.

Cynthia A. Bouton Texas A&M University
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Bouton, Cynthia A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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