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History of Pedlars in Europe.

By Laurence Fontaine (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University, 1996. 280pp. $17.95/paperback $49.95/cloth).

When this book was published in France, it was hailed for breathing new life into the moribund field of social history. That it does. By rethinking the traditional techniques, categories and, assumptions of the Annales school, Laurence Fontaine of France's CNRS has produced a pathbreaking work which moves a hitherto neglected social type, the supposedly "marginal" pedlar, to the center of early modern European economic, social, and cultural history.

Fontaine begins by questioning the stereotype of the pedlar as a rootless, poverty-stricken migrant living on the verge of criminality. She argues that from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries the term "pedlar" was applied not just to lowly packmen of the stereotype but also to wealthy and respectable city merchants. This leads to her second redefinition, that of the nature of migration. City merchants were "pedlars" because they, like the packmen, had their roots in mountain villages - in, for example, the Scottish highlands, the Italian Alps, or the Dauphine. Although they may have lived for generations in a lowland city which an ancestor had first visited as a migrant pedlar (as the book-selling Brentanos of the Italian Alps lived in Frankfurt), they retained ties to their family's native village: cousins who still lived there, houses to which they returned for a few months each year, land, investments. Thus for them migration was not a permanent move from one locale to another, nor was its motive either the traditional "push" or "pull." Instead, migration was a "way of occupying space," specifically a way of making barren mountain land support a large and relatively wealthy population.

This leads to Fontaine's third redefinition, that of wealth and social dominance in peasant communities. We have usually assumed these flowed from land ownership and therefore we have reconstructed rural villages from their cadastres. Liana Vardi has recently shown that this approach slights rural protoindustry(1), and Fontaine shows it does not work for mountain communities either. Cadastres paint such villages as "republics" of equal - and equally poor - small holders. In fact, wealthy migrant merchants dominated these communities through the loans and credit they extended to their poorer neighbors. Fontaine meticulously reconstructs this complex financial web from notarial archives. Such loans not only brought the merchants more wealth in the form of interest, but also gave them access to land and grazing rights for livestock (the collateral of poor debtors), and, very importantly, labor, in the form of villagers who, to pay off their debts, would take to road selling the merchant's goods.

These peddling networks explain the central role of middlemen in the economy of early modern Europe that Fontaine assigns to her merchant pedlars. Eschewing the traditional focus of economic history on one town or region, Fontaine reconstructs the economic activities of her merchant pedlars from account books and bankruptcy records and follows wherever they lead, even across national boundaries (Frenchmen peddled in Spain; Scots in England, Scandinavia, and Poland). Fontaine's reconstructions show that merchant pedlars were the essential link between manufacturers of goods, with whom they cultivated long-term relationships, and the small shopkeepers and pedlars (usually from their home villages) they employed, extended credit to, and vouched for, who actually sold the goods to consumers. Fontaine argues that in early modern Europe most commodities were distributed through such peddling networks.

This was especially true of new goods, like books, and many of Fontaine's examples derive from the well-studied book trade. But it was also true of sheets, curtains, handkerchiefs, pocket watches and other new consumer goods, and Fontaine argues that pedlars played vital roles in the consumer revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the cities where they settled, merchant pedlars rather than the native elites were usually the first to adopt the new goods and the new lifestyles they made possible. And packmen brought the new goods to the countryside as well. Fontaine has interesting things to say about the interactions of peasants and pedlars and about the cultural effects of new goods in rural villages: the widening of intellectual horizons, the "selling of dreams" of health and happiness, and the facilitating of the expression through clothes and accessories of one's unique personality.

All this is very impressive and convincing. Of course this book has its flaws. I think Fontaine over-stresses the importance of her merchant pedlars to European commerce. Migrants could move into only a few guild-free cities; in most towns, native-born merchants controlled trade. Fontaine also slights the vast majority of pedlars who functioned outside her mountain-based networks: the native-born pedlars in towns (usually women, as Merry Weisner has shown:(2) craftsmen's wives who sold their husbands' goods; market women who peddled on nonmarket days) and the ubiquitous genuinely marginal, semi-criminal pedlars of the traditional stereotype. And she says amazingly little about fairs, the major source of goods for the latter. This is a history of certain peddling networks, not of peddling per se. Fontaine also overstates the role of pedlars in bringing the consumer revolution to the countryside. Carole Shammas has shown that in rural England consumer goods became widely available only with the rise of the country store, and this was probably true elsewhere.(3) Finally, Fontaine is sloppy about periodization. Although she argues that her peddling networks ended in the late eighteenth century, only to be reconstructed in very different forms in the nineteenth century, she neglects the role of the French Revolution, which abolished guilds, licensed pedlars, and altered fairs, market days, and trade routes across Europe, in their demise, and she draws many of her examples from the anomalous nineteenth-century situation.

But these are minor flaws in a major book which should be read by anyone interested in early modern European economic history, the consumer revolution, migration, peasant communities, the formation of the middle classes - indeed, by anyone interested in the future of social history, for it shows what discarding traditional assumptions and simply following where the documents lead can do. But read it in French if possible. This translation is very literal and therefore very hard going.

Cissie Fairchilds Syracuse University


1. Liana Vardi, The Land and the Loom: Peasants and Profit in Northern France, 1680-1800 (Durham and London, 1993).

2. Merry Wiesner, Working Women in Renaissance Germany (New Brunswick, 1986).

3. Carole Shammas, The Pre-industrial Consumer in England and America (Oxford, 1990), 225-60.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Fairchilds, Cissie
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1998
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