This study first encounters the village in the culminating decades of the ancien régime, a period of some thirty or forty years during which a totalising vision of administrative monarchy took hold of France. From the 1760s country dwellers in general and rural communities in particular became the focus of attention of reformers to a degree which historians have only recently begun to understand. While most of the reforms that were mooted received little more than piecemeal application, their reverberations would be far reaching. By 1789, when instructions were issued for parish assemblies to draw up cahiers de doléances, life in many, perhaps the majority of, French villages was already caught in a spiral of accelerating change. These changes — at once institutional, cultural and socio-economic — signal the direction in which it would be most profitable to press our enquiries.
At the most fundamental level we will need to ask whether Alexis de Tocqueville's argument that rural communities had become moribund by the end of the ancien régime can be accepted. We will need to determine whether such administrative structures as villagers did possess were subscribed, that is to say developed from within, or imposed from the outside. The former invites a comparison of villages equipped with 'municipal' institutions in emulation of the towns with those lacking independent organs of collective expression and reliant still upon the resources of the seigneurie or the parish. The latter raises questions pertaining to the power of the state in the second half of the eighteenth century. Did the monarchy perform a normative role in successfully fashioning the institutions of village life around a common template, or did it compete uneasily and, in the final analysis, unsuccessfully with sectional providers of administrative tutelle: the Provincial Estates, the parlements and the sundry cours des aides and chambres des comptes? The policies of successive reform ministers are known in some detail, as are those pursued by a number of provincial intendants. The outlook of the Estates and of the various sovereign courts in the face of perceived encroachments by 'ministerial' power are not too