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The Land and the Loom: Peasants and Profit in Northern France, 1680-1800.

The typical village study commonly grants us entry into a rich microhistorical world and, sometimes, a major historiographical debate. Liana Vardi's detailed analysis of the economy of the village of Montigny and its region of Cambresis reveals a variety of peasant activities, including entrepreneurship, commerce, and industry, but also engages two classic themes in European historiography and one traditional tendency in the social sciences. The themes are proto-industrialization and the economic history of the French Revolution. The tendency is the often caricaturish scholarly representation of the peasantry. The great strength of the book is its balance between micro-analysis and larger theoretical questions.

Montigny's population grew from around 250 in the early eighteenth century to 605 in 1790, its growth a function of both more productive agriculture and the development of rural industry. Industry permitted employment, but the land fed more people. As Myron Gutmann puts it for neighboring Flanders, this was a hybrid economy, combining agriculture and textile manufacturing.(1) But, whereas most historians of proto-industrialization, working in the tradition of Franklin Mendels, see the emergence of industry as a result of the weakness of peasant agriculture, Vardi sees the land and the loom as mutually reinforcing. Moreover, while other scholars see the turn to rural industry as representing the subjugation of the countryside to the city, Vardi finds a vibrant economy of rural producers and merchants.(2)

That vibrant economy involved considerable peasant speculation and diversification. It also linked small villages like Montigny to a much wider world. Farmers-turned-merchant weavers contracted with urban merchants in Cambrai, Valenciennes, and Saint-Quentin, but also marketed their goods as far away as Prussia. (153-154) The merchant weavers hailed from the middle ranks of local society. (162) One fifth of them acted as middlemen, buying cloth from other weavers, blurring the line between production and commerce. (165) Vardi follows their trail through often complicated financial and commercial thickets. She describes the growth of rural capitalism, and particularly the recourse to mortgaging land for purposes of industry, in the wake of urban economic crisis associated with the Seven Years War. (175) She explains the large extension of credit in the countryside in the 1770s and 1780s, when promissory notes issued to local suppliers replaced bills of exchange. She notes a return to the land by successful merchant-weavers and continued hybrid occupations in periods of industrial or financial crisis. But even new forms of credit, described superbly in chapter ten, were insufficient to avoid Montigny's landing in the prerevolutionary crisis.

If Mendels and the question of proto-industrialization loom large in the treatment of the emergence of weaving and merchant capitalism, the classic work of Georges Lefebvre provides a framework for understanding the crisis and revolutionary shakeup.(3) But Vardi differs from both. She sees the historians of proto-industry as ignoring the vitality of rural actors in the economy, and she is less concerned than Mendels and others with demographic questions, for she does not find a higher birthrate among proto-industrial families. (141) However, she does provide some data indicating changes in marital patterns. (22-24) As for Lefebvre, his description of a peasant ideal of self-sufficiency and disinterest in profit and accumulation is called into question. Lefebvre "dismissed rural industry as merely the agency of further pauperization" and characterized the peasant desire for land as a timeless obsession. (204) But Vardi finds that along with economic progress through industry and trade, successful peasants in the hybrid economy made political gains, both in the Ancien Regime and into the years II and III of the Republic. For her, their "obsession" was a short-term reaction to the downturn in the industrial economy in the 1780s. Land was again the rational choice for the merchant weavers.

Vardi also criticizes Lefebvre's social categories, his use of terms like rural bourgeoisie and peasantry. And in the Revolutionary competition for land, she finds not Lefebvre's "democracy of small landowners" but the richest peasants benefiting most, the "pastoralization" of merchants, a term she borrows from Francois Crouzet. (218-219) Her peasants had already had 30-40% of the land at the end of the Ancien Regime. They nearly doubled their holdings as a result of the Revolution. "The Montigny that emerged from the Revolution, then, was closer in some ways to the subsistence farming village of 1700 than to the commercial village of 1780." (221) In other words, the period that witnesses the peasantry at its most individualistic, employing both the land and the loom, is relatively brief, lasting essentially from the 1760s to the 1780s, and that raises questions of what long-term implications should be drawn from this study.

Vardi has sensibly criticized the stereotypical image of a backward, conservative peasantry, but when she describes Montigny in the first half of the eighteenth century she admits the existence of "solidarities of old," "age-old loyalties," and "communal rights." (199-201) She has provided a novel view of the economic transformation of Europe, but that transformation resulted eventually in the familiar triumph of the city, mechanization, and the decline of rural entrepreneurship. (204, 224-228) Vardi has taught us not to accept the stereotypical peasant and to beware of certain simplifications in Mendels and Lefebvre, but in addressing the long duree these historians' interpretations will still prove useful.

David G. Troyansky Texas Tech University


1. Myron P. Gutmann, Toward the Modern Economy: Early Industry in Europe, 1500-1800 (New York, 1988).

2. Franklin Mendels, "Proto-Industrialization, the First Phase of the Industrialization Process," Journal of Economic History 32 (1972): 241-261; Hans Medick, "The Proto-Industrial Family Economy: The Structural Function of Household and Family during the Transition from Peasant Society to Industrial Capitalism," Social/History 1 (1976): 291-315; Peter Kriedte et al., Industrialization Before Industrialization (Cambridge, 1981). Vardi's critique is found on pages 8-11 and 141.

3. Georges Lefebvre, Les paysans du Nord pendant le revolution francaise (Paris, 1972, orig. ed, 1924).
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Author:Troyansky, David G.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1994
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