History on the Margins: People and Places in the Emergence of Modern France

History on the Margins: People and Places in the Emergence of Modern France

by John Merriman
History on the Margins: People and Places in the Emergence of Modern France

History on the Margins: People and Places in the Emergence of Modern France

by John Merriman


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In his distinguished career as a historian of modern France, John Merriman has published ten books and scores of scholarly articles. This volume collects some of his most notable and significant explorations of French history and culture.

In a wide-ranging introduction Merriman reflects on his decades of research and on his life, lived increasingly in France. At the beginning of his career he was determined to be not a narrow specialist but a historian who engaged with all the regions of France. So he set himself the goal of doing archival research in every single département of the country. A permanent resident of the small village of Balazuc in the Ardèche for more than twenty-five years, he laments what he sees as the over-professionalization of history at the expense of passion for one’s field. Yet Merriman is no cranky, tweed-bound scholar. Beloved by generations of historians of France, many of whom he has mentored (both as a graduate advisor and more informally), Merriman offers reflections on his life in history that will be of interest to a broad audience of historians.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496213082
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 12/01/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 246
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

John Merriman (1946–2022) was the Charles Seymour Professor of History at Yale University. He wrote and edited many works on French and European history, including, most recently, Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits: The Crime Spree that Gripped Belle Époque ParisMassacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune; and The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siècle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror. Merriman won the 2017 American Historical Association’s Award for Scholarly Distinction for lifetime achievement.

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The Demoiselles of the Ariège, 1829–1831

The Revolution of 1830 was part of a significant social, economic, and political crisis in France that lasted from 1827 to 1832. The popular protest of this economic depression included numerous grain riots, tax rebellions, forest disturbances, and possibly the mysterious series of fires in western France that still have not been adequately explained. Such violence reflected more than just this particular economic crisis. France was changing: the combination of a developing rural capitalism and a centralized, bureaucratic state, which protected and sponsored it, was winning its struggle with the French peasantry. The forcible integration of the peasantry into the national state and economy was not easy. The social and economic transformation of modern France in the nineteenth century came only at the expense of traditional peasant rights, local control over food supply and natural resources, and even the solidarity of the community itself. In the spring of 1830, while the famous "221" deputies were opposing the intransigent Bourbon, Charles X, and his minister Polignac in the name of what they believed were their essential political liberties, peasant communities and the urban poor were resisting tax collectors, grain merchants, gendarmes, and forest guards.

The Revolution of July 1830 was precipitated by political issues that were of concern to only a small proportion of the population. Nevertheless, the revolution was not finished when Charles X had fled, the tricolor was flying, and a new administration began to carry out its duties to a new king. As the victors of the "Three Glorious Day" tried to consolidate their power won in the name of "liberty," the common people seized the opportunity afforded by the events in Paris and renewed their own struggle with vigor. They attacked customs barriers, ripped apart tax registers, rioted against the high price of grain, and devastated royal and privately owned forests. This protest sometimes included an additional dimension, learned from the revolutionaries in Paris and seemingly legitimized by the tricolor and the official proclamations announcing the new regime — they often protested in the name of "liberty." The events of 1830 are an important indication of how France was changing economically and socially.

Far from Paris, in the mountainous department of the Ariège on the Spanish border, the struggle between the peasant communities and their antagonists, the revenue-hungry state and the local beneficiaries of a new economy, was waged in the forests. The most significant years of the peasants' organized resistance to these powerful "outsiders" were from 1929 to 1831, appropriately peaking in 1830. The "War of the Demoiselles," as it became known for reasons that will soon be apparent, lasted from 1828 until 1872. It has only recently been described in its entirety. If we look closely at the two most important years of this "war," we will see a good example of how the traditional peasantry was affected by the impact of rural capitalism, which gradually transformed French society. We will also see that the Revolution of 1830 was part of this interrelated social, economic, and political transformation.

The Ariège is extremely heavily forested. In 1830 there were 175,000 hectares of forest in the department, often making up a considerable percentage of the area of communes. On the edges of the forests and in the valleys, a very poor subsistence agriculture was possible, particularly at the lower elevations. But many communities in the arrondissements of St. Girons and Foix were completely dependent upon access to the forests for survival. In these communes the peasants pastured cattle and sheep as a "cash crop" and sold them in the markets below the mountain elevations. But these peasants also depended on wood from the forests for use as fuel and for repairing their houses in order to survive the harsh Ariège winters. Until about the middle of the eighteenth century, the seigneurs, and the Crown, who owned most of the forests, had always freely granted rights of pasturage and of gleaning to the peasants. In some areas there was a traditional yearly allotment of wood for fuel and repairs of houses. But generally the peasants just took as much wood as they needed and pastured their flocks freely. There was certainly enough forest and wood plentiful enough so that there does not seem to have been any speculation. The forests were valuable only to the peasants. Ownership and use were two different things, and use was by far the most important. Collective peasant rights of usage had only been infrequently challenged, even if the actual deeds or the grants themselves often no longer existed. The conflict of interest between the owners, the Crown and the seigneurs, and the users, the peasants, was only latent.

Beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century, this situation began to change. As France's metallurgical industry slowly developed, the number of forges increased in the department. The wealthy landowners could profit by using the wood from their forests to supply the forges. The price of wood soared, particularly in the 1820s. The departmental notables, whose number included many bourgeois who had purchased "biens nationaux" during the revolution (by 1830 only twelve of the fortythree forges in the Ariège still belonged to the seigneurial families — the others were owned by the bourgeois), began to challenge and oppose the peasants' use of their forests. Many contestations between the "owners" and the "users" ended up in the courts, where the local notables usually won.

And for the first time, the Ariège began to be overpopulated. There were now more peasants depending upon access to the forests for survival. Complaints of the devastation of the forests were frequent. As the price of wood rose, the local notables and the forest administration became more determined to keep the peasants and their meager flocks out of the forests. During the bad winter of 1816–1817, the peasants had difficulty finding enough wood for fuel and were put in the position, in the words of one mayor, of "dying from the cold and hunger or breaking the laws."

In 1827 a new forest code of 225 articles was implemented in France. This code was both an attempt to prevent the diminution of France's forest resources and a major concession to commercial and industrial interests. The code put under the strict control of the forest administration all woods and forests belonging the state, and Crown, and "the woods and forests of the communes and of sections of communes." It created a complex and complete series of regulations covering all types of usage of the forests by peasant communes, even in forests that were communally owned, to be enforced by the forest administration, civil authorities, and the courts. From the point of view of the Ariège peasants, the most important articles forbade the pasturing of any "bêtes à laine," goats, lambs, or sheep, which the forest administration believed were eating their way through France's forest resources; established strict rules about the registration, marking, and pasturing of other animals; carefully regulated all other rights in the forests, such as, in the Ariège, the right to a yearly cut of wood for fuel and for repairing houses in each commune concerned; put one-fourth of the communal forest into reserve if the commune owned at least ten hectares as well as certain categories of fully grown and underwood areas; prevented any division of the communally owned forests among the inhabitants; and barred any clearing of forested land without specific authorization.

The forest code also gave the sub-prefects the power to authorize the propriétaires of forested areas to hire private forest guards, who took an oath of service before the local court. They were to do the same thing as the royal forest guards did in the state, crown, and communal forests, that is, search the woods for peasants taking wood or grazing animals in violation of the forest code.

The tribunals were busy with an enormous number of prosecutions for violation of the forest code or of the private property of the notables. The latter were particularly vindictive. Even the local administration officials sometimes spoke of the "rapaciousness" of these fortunate few. Some peasants desperately searched for old deeds granting them rights of usage, checking the basements of deserted churches, and going as far to look as Montauban. Many communes, already staggering under the onerous taxes that victimized the poor throughout France, were now faced with the loss of their most important, and in some cases only, resource. General Justin Laffite, the department's leading citizen, later aptly described the situation of "an indignant people and several oppressive families of this department; here as elsewhere everything was organized for the domination of some and the suffering of others."

The peasants had no alternative but to resist. In February 1829 the Prefect, the Baron de Mortarieu, reported to the Minister of Interior that "for some time now, forest offenses have multiplied in a very alarming progression; there exists ... principally in the arrondissement of St. Girons a spirit of resistance against the execution of the new code." In May there were reports of "groups of armed men, disguised as women, and masked" in the royal forest of St. Lary, southwest of St. Girons. Throughout the late spring and the summer violations of the forest code increased. Forest guards and charbonniers were attacked in what appeared to be an increasingly systematic fashion. A strange disguise was sometimes reported, even in the arrondissement of St. Gaudens in the neighboring department of Haute Garonne. Some of the incidents, which began to spread into new regions of the department after beginning in the canton of Castillon in 1829, are particularly revealing. They will serve as an introduction to a discussion of the nature of peasant resistance, in the months preceding the Revolution of 1830, to the loss of traditional rights in the forests.

In October 1829, Marrot, a wealthy property-owner and lawyer who lived in St. Girons, complained that the peasants were taking wood from his forest every day and even selling it publicly in St. Girons, while local authorities looked the other way. On October 14 he went into the woods with one of his guards. They came upon a number of peasants taking wood. When the peasants saw them, they sounded the alarm. The guard later reported that "suddenly all of the fields of the gorge were filled with peasants making the most menacing yells!" Marrot and his guard were assailed with rocks. "My master fired at an individual dressed as a woman!" Marrot filed a formal complaint for damages against the commune of Moulis.

In Illartein, in the valley of Ballongue near St. Lary, a band of peasants threatened an innkeeper suspected of lodging forest guards, shot into his house, warned him that they would return in greater numbers, and continued their search for forest guards in other houses and inns. All of the peasants were disguised as women. In Aleu the mayor received notice "that if he should present the slightest charge [against any forest offender], his house and barns would be burned." In the royal forest of Buzan, the forest inspector and his guards found animals grazing illegally. When they attempted to seize the animals, they were fired upon by peasants and driven away.

Beginning in 1830, the incidents spread into the cantons southeast of St. Girons. Several wealthy landowners, principally M. Laffont-Sentenac and M. Trinqué, dominated this area. On January 26, 1830, forty peasants disarmed and threatened one of Laffont-Sentenac's forest guards. The next day an imposing crowd of between two hundred and four hundred peasants came to Massat, the chef-lieu of the canton of that name, and chanted, "Long live the King, Down with the Forest Administration!" A month later, nearly eight hundred came to Massat, armed with hatchets, scythes, and guns, and warned that as many as three thousand would return. The next day sixty peasants in nearby Boussenac burned down the house of a forest guard. On March 13 armed peasants devastated land belonging to Laffont-Sentenac and threatened to kill his sharecroppers if they did not leave within eight days. The inhabitants of Boussenac were suspected of this attack.

The difficulties of M. Trinqué are even more illustrative of the situation in the arrondissement of St. Girons. Trinqué bought the rights to the wood cut of 1829 in the forest forming part of the commune of Ustou, high in the mountains, quite close to Andorra. He paid four thousand francs, and his total investment would be twelve thousand francs, a considerable sum but easily returned with profit. On July 8, 1829, his charbonniers spent the day working in the forest. M. Trinqué tells us:

At the moment of the completion of this work, when the charbonniers were to return to my forge toward two in the morning [!], a band of armed and disguised madmen appeared before my charbonniers and made them promise to abandon their work under the threat of death. Nevertheless, I was able to persuade them to stay in the forest, with the promise to obtain the protection of the authorities. Last Sunday, the 12th, toward four in the afternoon, a crowd of masked and armed men, who were without doubt the same who had appeared before, entered the work area, and firing rifle shots, chased away fourteen charbonniers. The people of Ustou, joyous spectators to this horrible scene, offered no help to the unfortunate charbonniers. The mayor of Ustou was sick in bed, and could not find anyone to represent and support him, not even the deputy mayor, who said that he could not go to the scene because he had to be away ... everyone agrees, the justice of the peace, the mayor and the charbonniers, that the inhabitants of the commune themselves are the authors of similar attacks.

The next spring, 1830, Trinqué again complained that the peasants were devastating his forests. On April 2 several armed and disguised peasants came to the nearby commune Rivérenert, led by a "Monsieur Laporte, captain of the Demoiselles." They gave the mayor a letter for Trinqué and announced that if Trinqué did not grant "to the inhabitants of the commune and to those of Massat the free exercise of pasturage, his forest would be ravaged on a daily basis and himself and his guards exposed to the most horrible treatment." The mayor urged concession. Trinqué therefore went to the commune of Massat, where the peasants had gathered for an official function, and told the assembled villagers that he would give them pasturage for two years with the exception of certain areas of underwood, if they would guarantee no further destruction by the demoiselles. In nearby Rivèrenert, after unsuccessfully trying to persuade the mayor to call an assembly, Trinqué offered the peasants the same conditions offered in Massat. But when he said, "with the exception of the underbrush," the villagers cried out, "All or nothing." Trinqué's troubles were therefore not over; following this event, he "no longer dared to make any act of ownership in his own forest."

By the end of 1829 there had been more than thirty separate incidents in the arrondissement of St. Girons, such as those described above. These incidents involved the participation of armed and disguised bands. These bands became known as the "demoiselles," because the peasants were disguised as women.

The disguise was first mentioned in St. Lary, in May 1829, when, as we have seen, "groups of armed men, disguised as women" were noted. By July reports specifically mentioned the sighting of these "demoiselles." One forest inspector described the disguise as leaving the "shirt out and darkening the face with red and black." The disguise generally consisted of a white linen-cloth shirt, always left out and giving the impression of a woman's skirt or gown, some darkening of the face, and often some form of headwear. There were variations to the disguise, which seem to have corresponded to the extreme cultural, linguistic, and geographic compartmentalization of communes in the Ariège. Thus in one case, peasants from one commune were easily distinguished from others by local authorities because their disguise included a twig attached to their shirts, long a symbol of that particular commune.

The similarity of the disguises contributed to the establishment of a collective identity of the demoiselles. A proclamation of the prefect of the Ariège on February 22, 1830, stated that:

Any person who, beginning the 24th of February, is found masked, face darkened, any sort of weapon in hand, shirt left hanging out, or dressed in any sort of disguise, will be immediately arrested and handed over to the Prosecuting Attorney of the arrondissement.


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Table of Contents

1. The Demoiselles of the Ariège, 1829–1831
2. The Norman Fires of 1830: Incendiaries and Fear in Rural France
3. Incident at the Statue of the Virgin Mary: The Conflict of Old and New in Nineteenth-Century Limoges
4. The Language of Social Stigmatization and Urban Space in Nineteenth-Century France
5. On the Loose: The Impact of Rumors and Mouchards in the Ardèche during the Second Republic
6. Some Observations on the Transition to the Euro in France
7. I Went Up to Amiens Today: A Tribute to Charles Tilly
Source Acknowledgments

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