Colonization within France Weber, Eugen. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press. 1976. The nineteenth century witnessed a massive amount of change on almost all levels.
The birth of liberal democracy during the French Revolution continued to expand as the growing middle classes demanded more political power to be equal with the economic clout. Nationalism began to play a significant role in the way people and countries viewed themselves. The flourishing Industrial Revolution is what gave rise to the middle class as they were about to use the technological advances in transportation, communications, and the production of energy to enhance their position in society. While a growing number of people flocked to the cities in search of a better life, a substantial portion of the population remained in the countryside and isolated to the changes of the century. Eugen Weber states in his introduction how he had always been fascinated with how there existed two cultures within France during the last part of the nineteenth century, and the works which piqued this interest.
In 1944 Roger Thabault wrote about the changes in culture and politics which occurred in several French villages from 1848 until 1914. Four years later Andr Varagnac, a folklorist, shifted the emphasis from the villages to the countryside when he wrote about how the traditions of the peasants died and were not replaced during this same period. Eugen Weber attempts to combine the methodology of these two studies to illustrate how disconnected France was and through the modernization which occurred during the first forty-five years of the Third Republic that France truly became a unified nation. In the first section of the book Weber describes “the way things were” prior to 1870. Within these first eleven chapters Weber illustrates how these peasants did not speak French, were not aware of the metric system, still maintained their local currencies, and had little access to the world outside their village due to poor roads. Without such a commonality of language or systems Weber believes that it would be impossible to think that France, particularly the country side, had a national consciousness.
For those city-dwellers who did venture into the hinterlands they looked at themselves as an explorer or missionary trying to tame a “country of savages”. They were dismayed to find that there were still large parts of the country where French was not understood. It was widely believed that the peasants needed to become French. The next nine chapters contains the most important section of the book; Weber aims to show how the peasants were made into Frenchmen through modernization. Weber focuses on the triumvirate of expansion and improvement of roads, military service, and compulsory education as the primary “agencies of change”. An extensive system had been in existence in France for quite some time, but in the period under study Weber explains that many of these roads did not reach the hinterlands.
The new by-roads allowed for formally isolated areas, e.g. Brittany, to become physically connected with France. The humiliating defeat to the Prussians compelled the stricter enforcement of conscription into military service forced young men to learn French and come into contact with people from outside his region. As peasant children’s attendance at school started to improve after the improvement of roads and the educational reforms of Jules Ferry were implemented during the 1880’s they began to ! learn the French language of Paris and what it was to be French. While their parents would speak their patois, these regional languages would eventually diminish with them. In the final section of the book states that these regional languages and several other elements of peasant popular culture would become “changed and assimilated” into a greater French culture.
The old traditions had changed. No longer was there an inherent fear of outsiders as the peasants began to see in the utility of them in aiding them with trade and industry. The old oral tradition of the veile–the time spent with the community between supper and bedtime working and keeping warm–died as the peasants moved into warmer homes and began to enjoy the privacy of the family. In his conclusion, Weber attempts to use his thesis for broader implications. Weber rejects, so far as France is concerned, the arguments of anti-colonialists who protest against the destruction of traditional civilizations.
In France change was often emancipation. The demise of the old ways was not lamented, but rather the new ways had become accepted. What the Paris-based politicians and officials had to offer the peasants appealed to them. Through his research Weber proves how the newly modernized Frenchman eat better, live in better houses, and move more freely. After stating this Weber switches his attention to the underdeveloped nations of the Third World.
He ponders if there is any difference between what had occurred with the peasants during the first forty-five years of the Third Republic and the attempts of Western imperialism–political, economic, and cultural–to change the inhabitants of non-industrialized nations. While acknowledging the fact that unlike! the subjects of colonies, the French peasants were directly involved in the political process Weber sees striking similarities between the two circumstances. An impressive amount of research makes this truly a remarkable work of scholarship. Weber concentrates his research in the west, central, and southwest of France, but does not avoid the areas of Savoy, Alsace-Lorraine, Corsica, and Flanders in his aim of displaying the regional variances of the traditional hexagon of France. In addition to a wide geographic range, Weber uses several different sources ranging from literature, folklore, religion, and economics to prove his aim that modernization made peasants into Frenchmen. In many ways this is a highly readable book, but there are some flaws.
The style allows for the reader to smoothly read page after page with little difficulty. Weber the uses of abstract terms and theories sparingly which might confuse some of his readers, yet the length of the book could intimidate and limit his audience. There are sections of the text which overload the reader with too much minute detail. The organization of the three parts is not strictly maintained. This is especially true with the third section which constantly leaves its aim of depicting the assimilation of the peasants by reiterating the difference of the peasants described in the first section. Weber does a more than convincing job of destroying the myth of the bucolic bliss of rural France, but at times appears to romanticize the progression brought with modernization.
The difficult and brutish life of a peasant is clearly demonstrated by the numerous sources used by Weber. The idea that modernization is comprised of only better roads and more comforts can seem too idealized when recalling the loss of connection with a community or with one’s work prevalent in the modernized world. The transition from peasant to modern civilization should not necessarily be as progress but rather as moving from one culture to another distinct culture. By placing strict time and spatial limits of the occurrence when peasants transformed into Frenchmen, Weber opens himself to easily criticisms. The peasants of the north and east sections of France surely must have become French before the area studied by Weber due to their proximity to Paris and their early involvement in the Industrial Revolution.
Perhaps a better title for his work would be the completion of Peasants into Frenchmen. The thesis put forth by Weber that a country or class would need to perform a colonization within its own country to promote unity has been influential. Social anthropolgists, Jonas Frykman and Orvar Lfgren use the thesis in Culture Builders to show how middle class Swedes during the same time period studied by Weber forced their values onto the peasants to create a model Swedish culture. In Love and Toil, Ellen Ross describes how middle class Edwardian English women insructed working class women on the proper way to raise children for England. In addition to the thesis’ influence, it is also convincing. After digesting all the information presented by Weber, it is quite clear that during this time period that a dramatic change had occurred to French peasant.
No longer did they only view their world as confined to their village; the importance of the outside world had entered into the peasant mindset.