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Revolution and Environment in Southern France: Peasants, Lords, and Murder in the Corbieres 1780-1830.

Revolution and Environment in Southern France: Peasants, Lords, and Murder in the Corbieres 1780-1830. By Peter McPhee (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. vii plus 272 pp. $75.00).

"Too much local history," wrote the historian Marc Bloch more than a half century ago, "is useless for general history, that is, for the only history that matters, when all is said and done." [1] Bloch's judgement is perhaps no less valid today: in an age of excessive academic specialization and crisis in scholarly publishing of what use is yet another scholarly and deeply-rearched monograph in English on rural life in France across the revolutionary divide? In this case, the answer is not quite clear. Peter McPhee has chosen a territory he knows well, an isolated and arid region in southern Languedoc, the Corbieres, part of the Aude department. There, peasants fought a protracted battle with their seigneurs and, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, their former seigneurs over control of the rough, sparsely wooded hillsides (garrigues). He has written a local history based on extensive research in departmental and municipal archives, one that relies on and generously acknowledges the foundational w ork of local historians of the region. The detail is impressive: McPhee informs us about the average weight and height of the tiny sheep of the Corbieres and seems to account for every seigneurial piece of land and rights owned by the abbot of Lagrasse. Along the way, he returns to central figures, such as the "highly-intelligent, irascible, and pro-revolutionary figure" Jean-Baptiste Ciceron, who had been the abbey of Lagrasse's main legal officer before 1789, and who became the major public figure administering the area during the revolutionary decades. Indeed, like the poorer peasants engaged in massive land-clearance that are the heroes of his work, McPhee is something of a defricheur himself-- the term Bloch himself used to describe local historians whose work is so necessary to "general history." But what general lessons can be drawn from this book?

McPhee's local history certainly has implications for broader historiographic concerns of French historians. For example, the book devotes a central chapter to the "battle over the rural environment" during the French Revolution, and the author inserts his story of land-clearing into wider debates about deforestation and peasant abuses. At times, it is not always clear how this "new history" of the environment differs from older historiographic concerns of French social geographers and their detailed studies of changing landholding patterns: the engagement with environmental studies is somewhat limited. In any case, McPhee lays the blame of environmental degradation squarely on the shoulders of the monarchy, that had encouraged such massive clearing in its legislation of 1776 and 1770, and on noble and bourgeois owners of the forges and other charcoal-based industries that denuded the garrigues of wood. Of more general interest, perhaps, is his account of the nascent viticulture of the poorer peasants on the cleared hillsides. McPhee gives a detailed account of how, in the decades after the Revolution, the peasants became small commercial producers of wine whose activities transformed the rural economy and led the way toward capitalism. Here the author connects the Corbieres to a larger story of the "peasant road" through the French Revolution. Critiquing Peter Jones (largely inspired by Georges Lefevre) who made much of the "anti-capitalism" of the peasantry, McPhee makes a general argument about the peasant transition to capitalism, from a subsistence economy, based on stock- raising and agriculture, to commercial viticulture.

These days, a local history must be comparative: it has to consistently identify the singularities and convergences with other local histories, both proximate and distant, within France and beyond. It has to connect local events to national and international contexts (the Corbieres, after all, is virtually a border region with Spain). Moreover, since the success of "micro-history," local history should at least consider the methodological advantages and costs of "thinking small," and of "experimenting with scale." [2] The best local histories, even of rural societies, try to connect with the world and reflect on these matters. Unfortunately, the author is content to relativize the history of the Corbieres only tangentially. Struggles over the forests in the neighboring department of the Ariege are barely mentioned; the author doesn't say enough about the geography and meaning of peasant anti-seigneurialism elsewhere in France during the Revolution; there is little comparative or theoretical attention paid to the question of capitalist "transition." Although the archival and bibliographical material collected in this study is impressive, it is nearly all local: to survive (and especially in such a costly form), local history must simply be more global.

And what of the "murder in the Corbieres" that the title promises so darkly to deliver? The events concern the double murder of two particularly-abusive ex-nobles in the aftermath of the 1830 Revolution in France. In fact, it was the unintended consequence of a confrontation between the villagers of Villeseque, gendarmes, guards, and the two Latreilles in which "two shots rang out" and, however briefly and euphorically, a form of "popular justice" triumphed. McPhee devotes much of his last chapter to an account of the events within "the detailed context of local history" but concludes only that the murders "may best be understood as the climax of a half-century of open resentment and conflict between the inhabitants of Villeseque and the proprietors of the two large estates on the border of the commune's land." (p. 231). The conclusion, "Revolution and Memory," seems to open up another inquiry, this time into the "revolution in political culture," but the reflections are never elaborated or related to the ma in body of the book.

Revolution and Environment has its virtues: it is well-researched, and displays a great love of the region. It is a fine example of a certain kind of local history, perhaps now obsolete.


(1.) Quote adpated from in C. Applegate, "A Europe of Regions: Reflections on the Historiography of Sub-national Places in Modern Times," American Historical Review 104 (1999): 1157-82, quote p. 1161.

(2.) J. Revel, ed., Jeux d'echelles: la micro-analyse a l'experience (Paris, 1996).
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Sahlins, Peter
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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