THE FEW TRAVELLERS who explored this suffering land of fragmented village states inevitably came to wonder how the geographical entity known as France could function as a political and economic unit. Perhaps, after all, things were not as bad as they seemed? As French historians have been pointing out ever since the English farmer Arthur Young made his agricultural tours of France in 1787, 1788 and 1789, not everyone was drowning in poverty. Not all French towns were full of 'crooked, dirty, stinking streets' (Brive) and 'excrementitious lanes' (Clermont-Ferrand). Some of them, as Young observed, had 'foot-pavements' or trottoirs (Dijon and Tours). Not every tavern toilet was a 'temple of abomination' and not every serving-girl a 'walking dung-hill'. Sometimes the traveller was spared the agony of eating his meal on a straight-backed, straw-bottomed chair, and sometimes a glimpse of the greasy, dog-fouled kitchen did not instantly remove his appetite. Many rural houses had windows, quite a few peasants wore shoes and stockings, and if the women of Languedoc went barefoot, at least they had the 'superb consolation' of walking on magnificent new roads.
Wealthy men from northern cities pitied the half of France where the prehistoric plough was little better than a hoe - but indispensable on thin and rocky ground. They pitied the huddled masses whose windows were holes in the wall or panes of oil-soaked paper - though many in the warmer south felt no need of glass and spared themselves the cost of window tax and wafery panes that were shattered by wind and hail. They patronized the toothless, stunted peasants of the 'Chestnut Belt' who preferred the meaty fruit of their useful forests to the tasteless, warty potato, and who lived in smoky hovels, cheek by jowl with livestock - who provided them with companionship and warmth. They felt a sense of patriotic shame when they saw their compatriots carrying their shoes on a string around their neck on the way to church or market, and ploughmen who preferred the supple leather of bare feet to the abrasive weight of a mud-caked clog.
This was simplicity rather than deprivation, and even a kind of inoculation against true poverty. Most people lived in prudent anticipation of misfortune. Sayings of the 'knowing my luck' variety warned against the folly of trying too hard and expecting too much:
'No fine day without a cloud.'
'If the he-wolf doesn't get you, the she-wolf will.'
'Weeds never die.'
'Illness comes on horseback and leaves on foot.'
'Poor people's bread always burns in the oven.'
'When you've made a good soup, the Devil comes and shits in it.'
'If only God was a decent man.'
Civil order broke down altogether in the west of France during the Revolution, in parts of Provence during the 1832-35 cholera epidemic and in Paris itself at almost regular intervals. Lyon rebelled in 1831 and 1834 and had to be subdued by government troops. In 1841, a census created rumours that everything from furniture to unborn babies was to be taxed. Riots ensued, and for several weeks large parts of the country from Lille to Toulouse were out of control. In 1871, Paris became a separate people's republic and the country was governed from Bordeaux while seven other cities declared their independence.
NOW THAT MANY small communities are trying to protect themselves from the effects of global trade and economic migration, there is nothing obviously implausible about the idea that France was held together by the ant-like activity of smallholders rather than by the grand schemes of Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon I I I or François Mitterrand. Long before the lofty reclamation projects of the Second Empire (p. 268), the land was being cleared and colonized, step by step, by the majority of the population who lived as farmers, sharecroppers, hired hands and gleaners.
The millions of people who seemed so stubbornly inefficient to administrators were engaged in the mysterious activity known as 'muddling through'. The closest economic term is probably 'cross-subsidizing'. Few people, apart from blacksmiths, could earn a living from just one trade. A farmer might own a plot of land but also work as a day-labourer for someone else. A wine grower might also be a weaver. In the Alps, a single peasant, working on small plots at different altitudes at different times of year, could be a market gardener, a fruit farmer, a wine grower, a sheep farmer, a timber merchant and a dealer in hides and horns. Shepherds and shepherdesses had time for all sorts of other industries: making cheese (as some still do), weaving straw hats, knitting clothes, carving wood, hunting, smuggling, dog-breeding, searching for precious stones, serving as a guide to soldiers, explorers and tourists, making up songs and stories, playing musical instruments (which 'amuses the sheep and keeps away the wolves') and, like Joan of Arc and Bernadette of Lourdes, acting as messengers between this world and the next.
Every town and village was a living encyclopedia of crafts and trades. In 1886, most of the eight hundred and twenty-four inhabitants of the little town of Saint-Étienne-d'Orthe, on a low hill near the river Adour, were farmers and their dependents. Of the active population of two hundred and eleven, sixty-two had another trade: there were thirty-three seamstresses and weavers, six carpenters, five fishermen, four innkeepers, three cobblers, two shepherds, two blacksmiths, two millers, two masons, one baker, one rempailleur (upholsterer or chair-bottomer) and one witch (potentially useful in the absence of a doctor), but no butcher and no storekeeper other than two grocers. In addition to the local industries and the services provided by itinerant traders (see p. 146), most places also had snake collectors, rat catchers with trained ferrets and mole catchers who either set traps or lay in wait with a spade. There were rebilhous, who called out the hours of the night, 'cinderellas', who collected and sold ashes used for laundering clothes, men called tétaïres, who performed the function of a breast-pump by sucking mothers' breasts to start the flow of milk, and all the other specialists that the census listed under 'trades unknown' and 'without trade', which usually meant gypsies, prostitutes and beggars..
As the Breton peasant Déguignet discovered to other people's cost, begging was a profession in its own right. Beggar women sold their silence to respectable people by making lewd and compromising remarks about them in the street. They borrowed children who were diseased or deformed. They manufactured realistic sores from egg yolk and dried blood, working the yolk into a scratch to produce the full crusty effect. A judge at Rennes in 1787 reported 'a bogus old man with a fake hump and a club foot, another man who succeeded in blacking out one eye to give a terrible, dramatic impression of blindness, and yet another who could mimic all the symptoms of epilepsy. 'Idle beggar' was a contradiction in terms. As Déguignet insisted in his memoirs, it was no simple task to hide behind a hedgerow and to fabricate a stump or 'a hideously swollen leg covered with rotten flesh'.
These rustic trades were also found in cities. In the 1850s, one of the first amateur anthropologists of Paris, the Caribbean writer Privat d'Anglemont, set out to explain how seventy thousand Parisians began the day without knowing how they would survive 'and yet somehow end up managing to eat, more or less'. The result was a valuable compendium of little-known trades. He found a man who bred maggots for anglers by collecting dead cats and dogs in his attic, women who worked as human alarm clocks (a speedy woman in a densely populated quartier could serve up to twenty clients), 'guardian angels' who were paid by restaurants to guide their drunken clients home, a former bear-hunter from the Pyrenees who exterminated cats, and a goatherd from the Limousin who kept a herd of goats on the fifth floor of a tenement in the Latin Quarter.
Until the late nineteenth century, French travellers who saw the hellish industrial conurbations of Britain felt that they were travelling on a different planet. Most factories in mid-nineteenth-century France were run by families, most ironworks were located in villages, and most textile manufacture was manual. Even in the 1860s, craftsmen outnumbered factory workers by about three to one.
The truth is more chaotic than the census forms suggest. 'Muddling through' involved a great deal of bungling, improvisation, bluffing and deceit. A history teacher who explored his own département, the Aveyron, in 1799, found that the art of the potter was still 'in its infancy'. People wove cloth but could barely be described as weavers. Builders were jacks-of-all-trades who were good at nothing. There were carpenters who had never seen a rasp or a mortise chisel, blacksmiths who hobbled mules with heavy shoes and who tried to mend clocks, shepherds who marked their sheep with indelible tar, and cooks whose only recipe was salt, spices and as much meat as possible.
In the mid-nineteenth century, over a quarter of the young men who stood naked in front of military recruitment boards were found to be unfit for service because of 'infirmity', which included 'weak constitution', a useless or missing limb, partial blindness and eye disease, hernias and genital complaints, deafness, goitre, scrofula and respiratory and chest complaints. In a typical contingent of two hundred and thirty thousand, about one thousand were found to be mentally defective or insane, two thousand were hunchbacks and almost three thousand had bow legs or club feet. A further 5 per cent were too short (under five feet), and about 4 per cent suffered from unspecified complaints which probably included dysentery and virulent infestations of lice. For obvious reasons, people suffering from infectious diseases were not examined and do not appear in the figures.
This was the healthiest section of the population - young men in their early twenties. The physical condition of everyone else might give the traveller serious doubts about information culled from books, museums and paintings - even if the painters belonged to the Realist school...If one of the living figures turned around, the traveller might find himself looking at what Lieutenant-Colonel Pinkney unkindly called 'a Venus with the face of an old monkey'. To judge by the reactions of contemporary travellers, the biggest surprise would be the preponderance of women in the fields. Until the mid- to late-nineteenth century, almost everywhere in France, apart from the Provençal coast (but not the hinterland), the northeast and a narrow region from Poitou to Burgundy, at least half the people working in the open air were women. In many parts, women appeared to do the lion's share of the work...The report on southern Normandy cruelly suggested that women were treated as beasts of burden because hard work had robbed them of their beauty: a sun-baked, arthritic creature was hardly an ornament and might as well be put to work. In parts like the southern Auvergne, where society was patriarchal, women seemed to belong to a different caste.
And there are other proverbs that imply a certain unease at female solidarity: 'At the well, the mill, the oven and the wash-house, women leave nothing unsaid'; 'When a woman comes back from the stream [where the laundry is done], she could eat her man alive.'
Any of those women in the fields might have explained that none of this exactly matched the truth. The women worked because the men were in the high summer pastures, or out at sea, or on a seven-month tour of France, selling trinkets from a wicker basket. When the men returned to the harbour or the mountains, the women were naturally in charge. They organized the farm, repaired the buildings, negotiated with landowners and officials and struck deals with traders. Often, the women were the first to migrate to the city or the plain, and the first to create an industrial economy by selling their wares to travelling merchants. Many of them had no particular reason to wait for the men's return. Women in France are still automatically associated, in magazines, advertisements and casual conversation, with husbands and children. Yet nineteenth-century censuses show that over a third of all women were single, and that 12 per cent of women over fifty had never married.
In a rare surviving love note, written on a postcard in the 1900s in almost indecipherable spelling, a Vendée peasant told his fiancée, 'You're so fresh and lovely the only thing I can compare you to is fields of young cabbages before the caterpillars have got to them.'15
On her wedding night, the young people of her husband's village break down the door, in the traditional manner, and make the couple drink mulled wine from a chamber pot and inspect the sheets for signs that the marriage will be blessed. A child is born before the wedding bouquet of thorns and fruit has turned to dust. As the proverb says, 'Women give birth after three months, but only the first time.'
Her face confirms the truth of what she says in all but one respect. That evening, at Mars-la-Tour, the traveller remembers her face when he writes his account: 'It speaks, at the first sight, hard and severe labour. I am inclined to think that they work harder than the men.' 'This woman, at no great distance, might have been taken for sixty or seventy, her figure was so bent and her face so furrowed and hardened by labour, - but she said she was only twenty-eight.'