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Book Review: Love and Power in the Peasant Family: Rural France in the Nineteenth Century by Martine Segalen

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When you start reading Martine Segalen’s Love and Power in the Peasant Family: Rural France in the Nineteenth Century, you might think she’s taking on straw men. Surely no one believes any more that peasant families were unemotional, wholly practical alliances of economic value only, or that children were not loved or treated as human to quite an age, or that the views of the 19th-century folklorists about the “backwardness” of traditional cultures would be given any weight.

Then you look at the publication date (1980 in French), and the foreword by Peter Laslett which explains how Segalen set up the “magnificent” exhibition on Mari et femme dans la France rurale traditionelle in 1973, and you realize that you are reading a modern classic, a revolutionary text, one that well-deserved being translated into English.

As you get into the text you realize that it deserved to be translated not just because of the revolution in theory it helped to create, but also because it has a cracking good story to tell. One of Segalen’s main sources is traditional proverbs, sayings, rituals, and practices. What a rich storehouse they are — and often a surprising one, too.

On courtship, she notes how the practices in most places – thought by the 19th-century observers to be crude, rough, even violent – were in fact a practical way for both sides of the potential relationship to test out each other. The romantic explanation (yes, the peasants did do romance) was that the force of the interaction reflected the strength of emotion, but as Segalen says, this was a practical test. “The sense of what is beautiful is guided by the essential prerequisites of a society based on manual labour applied with both strength and skill.” She quotes Henri Massoul: “Beauty consists in being well-fleshed, glowing, plump and large. A ben groussiere (buxom) woman, a ben rougeaud (ruddy) man, this is the criterion of beauty.”

And she says that while in a society where words were rare and
often little used, courtship often relied on gestures, and when words were used, “the metaphors were often borrowed from the world of peasant objects.” You might not want to try this Vendean effort out on your own beloved, but it certainly worked at the time: “I think you’re so lovely, my great big darling: and then you’re so fresh, that I can’t do better than compare you to a field of young cabbages before the caterpillars have been through.”

There’s much here on morality, and it’s clear that there was far more nuance, and far more variation, than you might expect. There might be little surprise in this from Provence: “A girl who loses face, a bailiff who loses his legs, and a clerk who has to ask the day of the month, it goes ill with them all three.” That sounds like traditional Christian, repressive morality. But in Savoy at the same time they were saying “Never has a girl who has had her petticoats lifted brought dishonor on a house.” In Picardy it was: “A man spinning and a woman leading the horses make an absurd household.”

Segolen has an interesting, and certainly coherent explanation for the hugely varying moral attitudes towards premarital sex. It was in strongly social stratified areas, where some families in the village had a lot of land and resources, and others had little, that the control of youthful sexuality was strongest:

"In societies such as Brittany, where contraception arrived fairly later, in the nineteenth century, a girl would not be allowed to become pregnant, since this would ruin all chance of her marrying, and would condemn her to raising her child alone, depriving her of her rights to the farm, even making it impossible for her to work as a servant for a married brother or sister, who would themselves now hold the farm One sees these 'unmarried mothers' … taking up the only work available to them – washerwoman, seamstress, laundress – and the reputation for easy virtue attached to these callings is perhaps due to this recruitment of female misfortune. In a particular Breton village in Finistere, the hierarchy was so deeply entrenched that, even in the 1930s, the young men preferred to remain unwed on the farms rather than marry the daughters of agricultural day labourers, who had become factory girls, and might, equally, have refused the offer.”

There’s much here too on the physical structure of households. As she explains, well into the 20th century it was not uncommon for all of the living and the sleeping, of family, servants and livestock, to be done in the one common room, which was also the workroom. In 1945 in Hautes-Alpes, researchers found a couple, seven children, three curtained beds, the hens living in a cage slung from the ceiling, the cows and ass at the end of the room. The inhabitants explained that they liked this arrangement – for warmth, and for convenience, if there a need to tend to the livestock during the night. Yet in the relatively wealthy, and warm, Seine-Maritime, even in quite modest households from the 18th-century onwards separate sleeping arrangements had become the norm (for people and livestock!)

This is a book that very firmly supports the conclusion of Graham Robb’s more recent The Discovery of France, that the nation was, until very recently, a collection of huge numbers of tiny, and largely self-contained “payes.” So it was that although I found this book fascinating, it didn’t deliver much on one of my primary purposes in reading it – to understand more about the cultural background of the Morvan region of Burgundy, where I sit now in my holiday home in a traditional village.

I asked a neighbor, who was born here and spent nearly all of his 70-plus years here, if man and beast had shared quarters here. “No, that’s in the Alps,” he said, when I showed him a picture of a shared arrangement, turning up his nose in contempt. “Not in the Morvan.” It’s cold here in winter, and it was famously a very poor area, but clearly I’m going to have to read further to understand the cultural factors at work here. Segolen, however, has given my so very good tools to try to understand what I learn.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.