The structures of village life towards the end of
the ancien régime
If village life really had become moribund by the end of the ancien régime, as Alexis de Tocqueville argued,1 it becomes quite difficult to explain the collective vigour and spontaneity which ordinary French people displayed for much of the revolutionary decade. No doubt he would have recognised the problem had the second volume of his famous study ever taken on permanent shape. Indeed, the failure to complete the work may amount to a tacit acknowledgement of the frailties embedded in the original thesis. What is this thesis? As far as the village is concerned, Tocqueville makes five bold assertions which lead him to the general conclusion that state centralisation had become all-embracing and stifling. First, he suggests that whilst villagers had once possessed representative institutions, these amounted to little more than a hollow shell by the time of the Revolution. Second, he argues that local administrative superstructures had decayed to the point where most villagers possessed no more than a sindic and a tax collector. Third, he claims that titular seigneurs had withdrawn from the management of the village completely, although they still had the capacity to impede the smooth running of parish life by virtue of their privileged status. Fourth, he depicts the eighteenth-century village as depleted of its natural leaders, the rural bourgeoisie having decamped to the towns. Nevertheless, resident peasant households — for all their incapacity — remained pathetically grateful even for the simulacrum of local self-government that had survived. This is his fifth point.
The present chapter will paint a picture of village life that departs significantly from the one drawn above. While Tocqueville's general thesis can be endorsed, with qualifications, his detailed assertions do not always withstand close scrutiny. In the light of evidence assembled here, they appear open to question on grounds of accuracy. And even where accurate in detail, Tocqueville's strictures often fail to take the larger picture into____________________