The Stones of Balazuc: A French Village Through Time


Balazuc is a tiny medieval village carved into a limestone cliff that towers above the Ardeche River in southeastern France. Its dramatic landscape and Mediterranean climate make it a lovely destination for summer visitors, but for its residents over the centuries life in Balazuc has been harsh. At times Balazuc has prospered, most notably in the nineteenth century through the cultivation of "the golden tree" and the silkworms it fed, a process whose rigors and rewards are gleefully detailed in this splendid ...

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Balazuc is a tiny medieval village carved into a limestone cliff that towers above the Ardeche River in southeastern France. Its dramatic landscape and Mediterranean climate make it a lovely destination for summer visitors, but for its residents over the centuries life in Balazuc has been harsh. At times Balazuc has prospered, most notably in the nineteenth century through the cultivation of "the golden tree" and the silkworms it fed, a process whose rigors and rewards are gleefully detailed in this splendid book. But the rewards proved fleeting, leaving only the rigors of life on the "tormented soil."

Historical events from the French Revolution, through the Paris Commune and the two world wars, sent ripples through this isolated region, but the continuities of everyday life remained strong. Twenty-eight men from Balazuc signed the list of grievances against the king in the spring of 1789; the families of nineteen still live in the village. This is a story of resilience. It is the French story of tensions between Paris and the village expressed in battles over the school, the church, the council, and people's livelihoods. Most of all it is a love letter from an acclaimed historian who with his family has made Balazuc his adopted home. With a new "golden tree," tourism, now flourishing, the struggles of the village to prosper and to retain its identity continue, transmuted to a world of cell phones and an imagined village past.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Acclaimed Yale historian Merriman (A History of Modern Europe) has written an exhaustively researched and valuable chronicle of Balazuc (where he spends part of the year), using the small village in south-central France as an excellent lens through which to view larger economic, social and political aspects of French history. Merriman begins by describing the village's geography: because of its rocky soil and often violent weather, Balazuciens have had to work tirelessly, and against the elements, to eke out a meager existence. Merriman then details Balazuc's long history back to about A.D. 1000. In the 14th century, the infamous "Black Death" killed over a third of the local population, and because of the crucial influence of the Catholic Church, the town has historically been more conservative than the rest of France. Yet in 1789, as part of the national crisis, the men of Balazuc drew up a list of grievances, calling for an end to burdensome taxation and feudal obligations. The revolution, especially its anticlerical leanings, fractured the village for years to come. Meanwhile, the local economy was revolutionized by the silk industry. The silkworm harvest became the crucial event of the year and, for a time, made Balazuc prosperous. The silkworms, however, were devastated by disease in the late 1840s, and the town began a long decline. The advent of the 20th century, with its devastating world wars, accelerated Balazuc's decline, and the local dialect, or patois, slowly disappeared. While some of Balazuc's history is unique, much of it reflects on larger themes of French history. As such, Merriman's vivid account should appeal to those with an interest in French history, especially its rural aspects.(June) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This absorbing and beautifully written narrative is a journey through time that should interest general readers and scholars alike. Merriman, a Yale professor and prolific scholar of French history, focuses on the tiny medieval village of Balazuc in the Ard che region. Following in the tradition of other "village studies" and building on the recent popular interest in neighboring Provence, Merriman seeks to understand how the great events of history (religious reformation, revolution, war) played themselves out here. At the same time, this remains more social than political history. Merriman's theme is resilience and survival in the face of change. Using archival sources as well as personal reminiscences and oral interviews, he recounts how the hearty villagers persevered in a harsh environment, adapting to economic changes that led to the decline of key industries chestnut growing, wine harvesting, and silk production. He describes changes in schooling and population size and the role of religion, along with the decline of community customs like the veill e, the traditional institution of evening sociability. Merriman concludes by wondering what new "golden trees" like tourism might mean to a place he so clearly loves. Highly recommended. Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Loving literary postcard of a picturesque village that appears to grow from the limestone cliffs towering above the Ardeche River in southeastern France. Merriman (History/Yale Univ.) fashions here an appealing blend of meticulous scholarship and popular narrative. For example, a brief explanation of his initial fascination with the modern village is followed by a description of the nearby cave drawings created 32,000 years ago, the oldest ever discovered. After sketching the terrain, he begins his affectionate chronicle around a.d. 1000, when the first settlers arrived and established "a fortified village." He then records virtually every moment of significance in Balazuc's history: storms, floods, crop failures, wars, and wolf attacks. (The author accepts uncritically the story that in 1767, wolves killed 83 people in the area.) Most interesting is Merriman's lucid account of the emergence of the silk industry after eager 19th-century entrepreneurs planted myriad mulberry trees in and around Balazuc. For a while, the industry transformed the economy: people had jobs, made money, lived reasonably well. But arboreal disease and waning demand eventually took their toll, and the village went through a period of long decline in population and prosperity; only 211 people were living there in 1975. Merriman also records important moments in popular culture-construction of churches and a bridge, the arrival of the first passenger train, telephone, and toilet (the latter not until the mid-20th century)-and follows the fortunes of residents through the Napoleonic era and two world wars. Winemaking is now an important industry there, but the new golden goose is tourism; in the summer, thepopulation of Balazuc balloons to 1,000 and will no doubt inflate even more once this book appears. Lengthy accounts of local politics will strain readers' attention spans, but the author's animating affection makes his text for the most part thoroughly engaging. (15 photographs and 1 map, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393344967
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/1/2002
  • Pages: 446
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.99 (d)

Meet the Author

John Merriman is the Charles Seymour Professor of History at Yale University. A specialist in nineteenth century French history, Merriman earned his Ph. D at the University of Michigan. He is the author of many books, including The Margins of City Life: Explorations on the French Urban Frontier, 1815-1851; Red City: Limoges and the French Nineteenth Century; The Agony of the Republic: The Repression of the Left in Revolutionary France, 1848-1851; and, most recently, The Stones of Balazuc: A French Village in Time (Norton, 2002). He regularly teaches the survey of modern European history at Yale.

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