Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914

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Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914  
Author(s) Eugen Weber
Publisher Stanford University Press
Publication date 1976
Pages 632
ISBN 0804710139

In this highly readable and extremely interesting monograph, Eugen Weber argues that rural France could not be considered truly part of France as a whole prior to 1870. Local culture, customs and traditions prevailed amongst the peasantry, with little knowledge or wish to adopt modern ways. It was only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and through a variety of mechanisms that French peasants were incorporated into the modern state. He divides his argument into three sections. In the first, he summarizes the “nasty, brutish and short” aspects of peasant life, including descriptions of language, family life and agricultural practices. In the second section, he describes the various agents of change such as roads, military service and schools that combined to create the “ultimate acculturation process” (303). Weber’s third section, “Change and Assimilation” analyzes how specific peasant cultural rituals such as festivals and markets eroded with modernization. While Weber’s argument is relatively simple, he uses an impressive array of source material and subject matter to back up assertions.

Though he provides an enormous number of specific examples and anecdotes, a couple of specific themes stand out within each section. First, rural France consisted of thousands of individual communities and cultures, no two of which were alike. This diversity and distance – both physical and cultural – made France a disparate collection of societies. Thus, for Weber, the keys to modernization were the roads and railroads that brought remote regions into contact with each other, and with markets and urban areas. But it was not just physical technologies – it was also ideas that modernized the French peasantry and united diverse peoples within a common framework. Schools and military service were two of the most important change agents, as Weber shows. Their emphasis on a national language and service to the nation engendered new ideas regarding French unity. The chapter, “France, One and Indivisible,” is particularly important for its analysis of how France “achieved the spiritual unity that is the necessary precondition of nationhood” (95). Weber argues that this was an incredibly slow process. He comments, “…they had no uniform concept of patriotism at the Revolution or at any other time in our period, and that patriotic feelings…far from instinctive, had to be learned” (114). Continuing this argument concerning the impact of ideas in the chapter, “Peasants and Politics,” he asserts that the rise of political participation amongst the peasantry then signaled an advancement of national unity and a modernizing of social classes. Interestingly, a discussion of peasant modernization as “colonization” rounds out the changing of hearts and minds argument.

Weber’s approach to writing this history is more empirical than theoretical, with its ponderous amount of facts and documentation, and is not without faults. He frequently uses the words “backwardness” and “modernize” without providing much context or definition. The lack of chronology also leaves the reader wondering if side-by-side mentions of circumstances in 1870 and 1914 can really be fairly compared. Additionally, the lack of description regarding the complexity of multiple social classes seems problematic – the reader gets the impression that everyone in the countryside was a peasant. But overall, the work seems to operate as an excellent social and ethnographic history with its detailed narrative of peasant life. The synthesis of so much factual evidence is an overall success, and Weber, having set out to prove a fairly straightforward thesis, succeeds.