A Social History of Nineteenth-Century France

By Roger Price | Go to book overview

5

Peasants

Introduction

As late as the middle of the nineteenth century some three-quarters of the French population was classified as rural, and much of the remainder lived close to the land in small towns and market villages. Rural society had altered very little in spite of the political changes brought about by the revolution, and of the progress made in agriculture since the second half of the eighteenth century. Most of the population, even in close proximity to Paris, remained isolated by poor communications and low levels of functional literacy. The proportion of the population actually employed in agriculture was inevitably less than that made up by the rural population (given the presence in the villages of landowners, professional men, artisans, etc. ). In 1856 the primary sector of the economy (agriculture, forestry, fishing) employed 51.4 per cent of the active population, a share which gradually declined to 49.3 per cent in 1876, 45.3 per cent in 1896, and 43.2 per cent in 1906. These average figures of course conceal major regional variations. Thus in Côtes-du-Nord, even in 1872 the rural population made up 91.6 per cent of the total, while in Pas-de-Calais the agricultural population made up 58.9 per cent of the active population in 1851, but only 26.8 per cent in 1911 - a decline primarily due to the employment offered to agricultural labourers in the developing coalfields. However, in terms of actual numbers of people employed, the active agricultural population continued to increase from 7,305,000 in 1856 to 7,995,000 in 1876, 8,463,000 in 1896 and 8,845,000 in 1906. There can be no doubt then of the importance of a study of the rural population, even if, as Chapter 1 revealed, the share of agriculture in the total gross national product fell quite substantially.

It would have been possible to have written a chapter about rural society rather than one on the peasantry, but it seemed that a more instructive representation of French society would be achieved by means of an analysis of social groups rather than of contrasting milieux. This chapter, therefore, concentrates on the peasants, a social category distinguishable from the rest of the population in terms of the activities and way of life of its members. The peasants' primary function was to cultivate the land, and their essential objective was to provide for family consumption rather than profit-making. The analytical problems are substantial. A complex hierarchy existed both within the peasantry and the

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