Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Functional and Historical Explanations for Village Social Organization in Northern Europe

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Functional and Historical Explanations for Village Social Organization in Northern Europe

Article excerpt

At the start of his book The development of the family and marriage in Europe Goody offers a broad and intriguing generalization about historical continuity in European social organization (Goody 1983: 15). Goody argues that in the Mediterranean plains agricultural production has always been co-ordinated by large landowners, whereas the cleared forests of northern Europe have been characterized by a relatively free peasantry. Goody is interested in when, and why, close-kin marriage ceased to be practised in clan-oriented (northern) Europe, while clan endogamy remained common in the oriental/Arabic Mediterranean (Goody 1983: 31); this article will examine evidence for continuity in the organization of the northern European peasant community and ask what agencies have contributed to continuity or change. Villages in Switzerland and a neighbouring region of eastern France are characterized by the corporate ownership of substantial resources and popular participation in village government. Both are features which contrast strikingly with the weak political organization of modern English villages. The article explores the processes which have led these differences to develop over time. The Roman author Tacitus described a number of customs among the Germanic peoples living on the edge of the Roman Empire which can be paralleled in the medieval and recent rural cultures of Switzerland and eastern France where, for many centuries, they have enabled the co-operative management of resources. Since the re-publication of Tacitus's work in 1574, many authors have taken Tacitus as an authority for the Germanic origin of such customs. The article critically assesses the probability of real historical continuity and relates the debate among English political theorists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to contemporary changes in English rural society.

Village political organization

Today, villages in France and Switzerland possess a degree of political unity quite different from that characteristic of English village society. The corporate identity of the French village is particularly marked in the area of my PhD fieldwork, which was centred on the village of Pellaport but included a survey of thirteen other villages (Layton 1972).(1) The area studied encompasses the Plateau of Levier and the upper valley of the River Loue, east of the town of Pontarlier. Located within the northern French Jura, the district was formerly part of Burgundy, and later Franche-Comte. It is now situated within the departement of Doubs.

The contemporary structure of French local government derives from laws passed during the French Revolution. Each commune normally consists of a single village and its surrounding land. It is governed by an elected council which chooses a maire (mayor) from its members. The maire's political power is considerable, and council elections are often keenly fought, even though the commune is answerable to higher authorities (Chapman 1953: 83, 125-38). Before 1790, village affairs were regulated by popular assemblies (Gournay et al. 1967: 115). In the district of my field research, between one half and one third of the land within the commune is common land. The sale of trees from Pellaport's communal forest and the renting of its communal pasture raises sufficient revenue to pay for the village infant school teacher and to provide the village with drinking water from local springs. The communal pasture is managed by an agricultural co-operative to which all farmers in the village belong. This was typical of the fourteen villages studied in the course of my fieldwork. Almost all these villages also have their own dairy co-operatives.

In his account of the Swiss village of Torbel, Netting characterizes the village as 'resembling a state in microcosm. The community has its own name and identity extending centuries into the past, its own territory clearly demarcated from that of its neighbours, its own citizenship, and its own political structure with elected representatives and highly democratic town meetings' (Netting 1981: 78). …

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