AT THE SOUTHERN END of one of the lovely flat valleys that spread out from the Pyrenees like the rays of the sun, when the cloud is not too low, the hamlet of Goust can be seen on a rocky platform fifteen hundred feet above the chilly spa of Eaux-Chaudes. Until the early twentieth century, it was considered to be an autonomous republic. The smallest undeclared nation in Europe consisted of twelve granite houses and about seventy people, who were ruled by a council of old men. There were no beggars, no servants, and, to the envious delight of the travellers who discovered this spartan Shangri-la, no tax-payers.
The hamlet-nation of Goust had been known to the outside world since at least the fifteenth century, but the people were left to their own happy devices, 'an entirely isolated tribe, which has conserved its simple, primitive customs'...The people of Goust had no church and no cemetery. When someone died, the coffin was attached to ropes and lowered to the valley below. In fine weather, the living clambered down the mountain to sell milk and vegetables, to have their children baptized or to look at the ladies who came to take the waters at Eaux-Chaudes. When a road was dynamited through the gorge below the hamlet in 1850 and the skimpy wooden 'Bridge of Hell' was rebuilt in stone, Goust became a picturesque excursion for a few bored invalids and travel writers. Without them, it might have passed into oblivion like the hundreds of other 'autonomous republics' that once existed within the borders of France...Goust was in many respects a normal community in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century France. As the economist Michel Chevalier told the readers of a Parisian journal in 1837 after a visit to the eastern Pyrenees and Andorra:
Each valley is still a little world which differs from the neighbouring world as Mercury does from Uranus. Each village is a clan, a kind of state with its own form of patriotism. There are different types and characters at every step, different opinions, prejudices and customs.
Even supposedly civilized regions were carved up like provinces after the fall of an empire. In Burgundy, according to Restif de la Bretonne, the neighbouring villages of Nitry and Sacy were so dissimilar (respectively courteous and brutish) that a certain Comte de S* 'chose them especially so that he could see a lot of country without travelling very far [about three miles] and thus produce an abbreviated description of rural life throughout the entire kingdom.' Restif's own mother was always treated as an outsider in Nitry because she came from a village on the other side of the river Cure, ten miles to the west. 'According to custom, her children-in-law disliked her, and no one took her side in the village because she was foreign.'
At Dieppe, the Polletais or Poltese fisher-folk spoke a dialect that was barely recognizable as a form of French. Cross-Channel tourists, who bought their ivory carvings and gawped at the women in their bunched-up petticoats and knee-length skirts, wondered why they looked so different from the rest of the population. (No one knows to this day.) Further up the coast, at Boulogne-sur-Mer, the suburb of Le Portel had a separate population numbering about four thousand, remarkable for its height and its handsome, vigorous appearance. In 1866, an anthropologist suggested that the people of Le Portel were of Andalusian origin, but his study of the heads, hands, feet and breasts of the female population (the male population was out at sea) proved inconclusive. Thirty miles inland, at Saint-Omer, the 'floating islands' to the east of town were farmed by a community which had its own laws, customs and language. They lived in the low canal houses in the suburbs of Hautpont and Lysel, which still look like a Flemish enclave in a French town.
The great cathedrals of France and their numberless flock of parish churches might appear to represent a more powerful common bond. Almost 98 per cent of the population was Catholic. In fact, religious practice varied wildly. (This will become quite obvious later on.) Heavenly beings were no more cosmopolitan than their worshippers. The graven saint or Virgin Mary of one village was not considered to be the same as the saint or the Virgin down the road. Beliefs and practices centred on prehistoric stones and magic wells bore only the faintest resemblance to Christianity. The local priest might be useful as a literate man, but as a religious authority he had to prove his worth in competition with healers, fortune-tellers, exorcists and people who could apparently change the weather and resuscitate dead children. Morality and religious feeling were independent of Church dogma. The fact that the Church retained the right to impose taxes until the Revolution was of far greater significance to most people than its ineffectual ban on birth-control.
AN EXPEDITION INTO tribal France could begin almost anywhere and at almost any time. A hilltop in the Aveyron, for instance, where the limestone plateaux of the Causses turn into a crumpled map of rocks and gorges. The year is 1884. The priest of Montclar has found an exciting diversion from the monotony of life in a small town. His telescope is trained on a battlefield in the valley below. An army of men, women and children, wielding cudgels and lugging baskets of stones, is advancing on the village of Roquecezière. But scouts have been posted. Another army has already emerged from the village and is preparing to defend its territory.
On the bare rock that towers above the village, turning its back to the battle, is a colossal cast-iron statue of the Virgin Mary. The statue has been funded by public subscription - something of a miracle in this impoverished region - and has recently been placed on the rock to commemorate a successful mission.
Incensed to see the sacred effigy pointing its bottom at their village, the invaders have come to turn it around. The battle rages for hours. Several people are seriously injured. At last, the Roquecezièrain lines are breached and the statue is worked around to face the other village. To prevent a full-scale war, the Church authorities find a compromise. The Virgin is rotated ninety degrees, supposedly so that each village can see half of her face. However, she now looks east-north-east, towards Saint-Crépin, which contributed more than half the cost of the statue, and still has her back turned to the little clutch of houses at her foot.
The Battle of Roquecezière, like thousands of other tiny conflicts, is not mentioned in any history of France. Village wars had no perceptible effect on national security and their causes were often ancient and obscure. Yet they were a normal part of life for many people well into the nineteenth century. A 'very fat file' in the archives of the Lot département describes village brawls between 1816 and 1847: 'bloody scenes, combats, disorders, serious wounds, treaties of peace and rumours of war'. Villagers settled their differences in pitched battles rather than waste their time and money in court. Half-forgotten insults and territorial disputes culminated in raids on neighbouring villages to steal the corn or to carry off the church bells. Sometimes, champions were appointed and their battles entered local legend. Usually, a single battle was not enough. The Limousin villages of Lavignac, Flavignac and Texon were at war for more than forty years.
Bells marked the tribal territory and gave it a voice. When the bell was being cast by a travelling founder, villagers added heirlooms to the metal - old plates, coins and candlesticks - and turned it into the beloved embodiment of the village soul. It told the time of day and announced annual events: the beginning and end of harvest, the departure of flocks for the high pastures. It warned of incursions and threats. In the 1790s, recruiting sergeants marched across the Sologne through overlapping circles of sound to find, when they arrived in each village, that all the young men had disappeared.
Some communities were forced by low numbers or by local feuds to look further afield, but even they were unlikely to travel far. The widowed ploughman in George Sand's The Devil's Pond (1846) is appalled at the thought of finding a new wife three leagues (eight miles) away in 'a new pays'. In an extreme case, the persecuted cagots, most of whom lived in scattered hamlets (see p. 43), might find a husband or a wife more than a day's walk from home, but this was very unusual. Records of six hundred and seventy-nine cagot couples from 1700 to 1759 show that almost two-thirds of the brides came from within shouting distance of the bridegroom. The others were close enough to cause little inconvenience to the wedding guests. In Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, all but four of the fifty-seven women had married less than five miles from home. Only two of the six hundred and seventy-nine were described as 'foreign'. This was not a reference to another land. It meant simply, 'not from the region'.
Some places were run by councils that were perfect miniatures of a national administration. The town of La Bresse, in a valley of the western Vosges, had its own legislature and judiciary until the Revolution. According to a geographer writing in 1832, 'the judges of this town, though clumsy and common in appearance, showed a great deal of common sense'. A visiting lawyer who quoted in Latin in his speech for the defence was fined by the court 'for taking it into your head to address us in an unknown tongue' and was ordered to learn the law of La Bresse within a fortnight.
Some village states covered many square miles. A clan called Pignou occupied several villages near Thiers in the northern Auvergne. They even had their own town, which apparently boasted all the comforts of modern civilization. A leader was elected by all the men over twenty years of age and titled 'Maître Pignou'. Everyone else was known by their Christian name. If the Maître Pignou proved inept, he was replaced. There was no private property, and all the children were brought up by a woman known as the Laitière because she also ran the communal dairy. Girls never worked in the fields but were sent instead to a convent at common expense. People who married outside the clan were banished forever, though they all eventually begged to be readmitted.
THESE LOCAL SYSTEMS of justice might explain the apparently bizarre fact that, according to some nineteenth-century criminal statistics, France had an almost entirely law-abiding population. Crime in some départements seemed to have died out altogether. Sometimes there were 'white sessions', when courts sat but heard no cases. In 1865, in the Aveyron département, where the Battle of Roquecezière took place, there were eight convictions for crimes against the person and thirteen for crimes against property. In the Cher département (population: 336,613), the figures were three and zero. Nationally, excluding Paris, the 1865 figures suggest that it took eighteen thousand people to produce one criminal.
It does not take a cynic to suspect that most descriptions of village republics are a misty image of the truth. Thieves, murderers and rapists did, of course, exist. François Marlin had picked his way through too many dung-obstructed, priest-forsaken places not to be impressed by Salency, but its cleanliness and the absence of crime were the public face of a necessarily despotic government. The self-proclaimed virtue of the people of Salency must have wrecked the lives of many people - 'foreigners', homosexuals, 'witches' and, perhaps more than any other category of undesirable, unmarried mothers. About ten times as many illegitimate children were born in Paris than anywhere else, not because Parisians were more promiscuous but because girls who 'sinned against modesty' were often forced to leave their pays.
Village justice was not always benign or fair. Slight deviations from the norm - a man or a woman who married a younger person or who married for a second time, anyone who married a stranger, a man who beat his wife or allowed himself to be beaten by her - was likely to be punished with a 'charivari': a noisy, humiliating and often bloody serenade or procession. According to an anthropologist, adulterers in Brittany were 'the object of insulting vegetable bombardments'. A cart containing the victim would make the rounds of neighbouring villages, turning him into an object of ridicule throughout the known universe.