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Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914
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30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on May 25, 2000
Format: Paperback
"Eric Hobsbawm recently asked", writes the author, "whether the `nation' might be `an attempt to fill the void left by the dismantling of earlier community and social structures'. This actually reverses the order of events, at least in regard to France. In France the political nation of the Ancien Regime functioned side by side with traditional community and social structures. The ideological nation of the Revolution had to compete with these. It was not invented upon their dismantling; its invention implied their dismantling." This process, as Weber's book richly demonstrates, lasted until the early 20th century. In the meantime, linguistic and cultural parochialism lived on outside the cities. In the Third Republic, the author estimates, "French was a foreign language for half the citizens", the half who spoke the patois of the province within which they spent their entire lives. A French national identity existed only among the middle and upper classes, most strongly among government employees, including administrators, bureaucrats, teachers, and military officers. But the relentless efforts of mandatory schooling gradually took effect, which tried to instill an awareness of of being "French" and belonging to the nation-state of "France" rather than to one's own province. To be educated was synonymous with speaking standard French and adopting French high culture. Additionally, the advance of industrialization, improvements in transportation and infrastructure, and military service increased mobility in the population so that groups from different parts of the country had to move away from home and interact with each other. People saw and experienced life in different regions, and the use of standard French became necessary as a lingua franca. "Most Frenchmen", Weber writes, "for a long time did not think to describe France as their pays [homeland] - until what they were taught came to coincide with experience." Weber draws from an extraordinary variety of source material to give us a vivid idea of every aspect of life in the provinces: folklore, health, nutrition, housing, clothing, language, family life, money and the economy, and religion are all covered. The narrative is so rich in data and anecdotal detail that his argument - that most of rural France remained pre-modern until the 20th century - emerges on its own and hardly needs to be stated. The book makes us aware of what we have gained, and lost, by modernization.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon March 9, 2001
Format: Paperback
This superb book traces the modernization of rural France in the last quarter of the 19th century. The book is divided into 3 parts; descriptions of traditional rural France, analysis of the agents of change, and discussion of how changes took place. This book is about both material changes and the parallel changes in psychology that were part of and the result of modernization in France. The emphasis is not primarily on economic statistics but on the day to day life and psychology of rural France. This book provides real insight into the mentality of French peasants and how this mentality was transformed from parochial self-conceptions and accompanying insular social organization to conceptions of French nationality and conscious membership in French society. For example, in the mid-19th century, a large number of Frenchmen did not speak French but rather a variety of regional languages. Expansion of the national economy, mandatory primary education, and other forces would eventually destroy local languages and produce a more homogenous French speaking nation. Weber demonstrates convincingly that this process took place relatively rapidly, focused in the years between the Franco-Prussian War and WWI. While this is a very thick and scholarly book, the quality of writing is excellent and the book is packed with entertaining and revealing anecdotal information.
It is clear that the process of modernization was accompanied by loss of regional cultural distinctions and languages. This cultural homogenization is perhaps regrettable but was an inevitable part of a process that resulted also in higher standards of living, greater individual freedom, and several other benefits. For example, Weber reminds us that in much of traditional rural France, seasonal hunger was common and famine a real possibility. By the end of the 19th century, famine was a vague memory and seasonal hunger largely banished. Similarly, modernization was accompanied by a fall in violence against persons, less child abuse, and weakening of overbearing patriarchial family structure.
This book has a couple of interesting resonances. The period covered by this book is also the height of European Imperialism. As Weber points out, the processes of modernization in rural France were identical to the processes of colonialization. Indeed, the modernization of rural France in the late 19th century can been seen as the final phase of the conquest of France by the region around Paris, a process that began with the Albigensian crusade in the 13th century. Ii is conventional today to depict European Imperialism as the result of the tremendous racism of that time. Yet, the modernization of rural France was essentially the same process carried out against fellow Frenchmen. This fact points out that the relationship between racism and imperialism is more complicated than commonly depicted.
Another interesting resonance relates to the recent tendency of French intellectuals and politicians to denounce the creeping 'Americanization' of French culture. These individuals like to present themselves as guardians as ancient cultural traditions. Yet, many, if not all of these traditions originate in the 19th century. Hardly ancient, and you can argue that American traditions are at least as old. Further, where modern French culture was to a large extent imposed by the coercive acts of the French government, 'Americanization' is the result of free consumer choice.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2002
Format: Paperback
Wonderful reading, but this is a lengthy book. . .adressing so many important aspects about French peasant society. It was written in a time when advanced students were expected to know French, so it may present some difficulty to those without the knowledge or a dictionary handy, assuming one wants to understand the quotations, samples of poetry, song, or colloquial dialogue. It is not of major consequence to understand the book, but it might be a little annoying to someone without an intimate grasp of French.
Since there are great content reviews already, I will not add anything more than the tips above. Overall, this is a book rich in facts and will certainly prove a welcome addition to the library of any advanced student or scholar in this subject area.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 2008
Format: Paperback
While he offers all sorts information about rural life, Eugen Weber homogenizes rural French culture, which was not all as bleak and backward as he suggests. In fact, each region of rural France had its own political, cultural, and economic dynamics, rich traditions, and internal conflicts. Economic modernization and prosperity came to small town and rural areas of France before the 1880s (which were in fact a time of agricultural downturn), and there were rich as well as poor Frenchmen outside the metropole. The problem is that Weber uses his own familiar modern categories to explain rural 19th-century French life; and he finds these categories in the observations of bourgeois city-dwellers. He is not wrong that language, shared experiences (like military service), and collective frameworks (from common education) are essential to national consciousness; but he does not do justice to the starting material of non-Parisian France.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 30, 2000
Format: Paperback
Eugen Weber has given us an excellent account of the rural countryside of France, 1870-1914. He gives plenty of detail and clearly shows how France has leaped into the modern world. It is a well written and provides the reader with a comprehensive picture of the early stages of modern France. The title is excellently chosen and reflects the true essence of the work. I would suggest this book to anyone who is interested in demographics, sociology, or history in general. It is a nice read! :)
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on August 30, 2009
Format: Paperback
Eugen Weber's Peasants into Frenchmen identified the years between 1880 and 1910 when fundamental changes were the fastest and most significant in rural France. The advent of roads, schools and military service turned peasants into Frenchmen by revolutionizing the peasants' core beliefs. The book explores the effects of urbanization on the peasants as they confronted `new expectations and new frustrations when they were not met; desires that became needs; the fading of the ages-old resignation and passivity.'

Rural particularism was `the strongest in the most sufficient region' - usually south and southwest France. These communities strove to `preserve the economy of household and community' since for them, `agriculture was a way of life, not a profit-making enterprise like farmers.' They distrusted the educated and `scotched official initiatives' by means such as refusing to transition to money economy and `making most basic consumer goods difficult to buy.' For the peasants, most were illiterate and spoke patois and not French. Concept of France as a nation had to be learned.

The Freycinet Plan to link isolated regions by roads and railroad helped percolate industrialization into rural areas and gravely undermined particularism. `Viable and accessible roads and rails opened possibilities' such as increased fluidity of the workforce and crops and other industrial goods. The plan extinguished many small, local enterprises, destroyed entire industries (river trade, carters and bargemen) and availed new technologies to the peasants. The dogged adherence to thatched roofs finally gave way to mass-produced tiles. The local economies that `throve in isolation' withered - the local tanneries giving way to the espadrilles industry, textile mills cotton drove out flax and putting women and children out of work. However, the rate of changes differed between regions and `the shift to money economy only began slowly after 1870s.'

The other part of ideological revolution took place at school and compulsory military service with both affixing the concept of France as a nation. Francois Guizot's law on school under the July Monarch educated many of the teachers of the 1880s. Coinciding with the Freycinet Plan, Jules Ferry in 1881 developed upon Guizot's foundation by waiving all fees and tuition charges in elementary school and made enrollment compulsory. The growing interaction with urban centers and more catholic personal experiences gradually convinced the `people the usefulness of education.' Schools indoctrinated patriotism and national identity in children by way of songs and literature. Military reform and compulsory service similarly inculcated national consciousness and elevated French as the primary medium for communication. The Great War simply ushered an even more complete and quicker assimilation.

The peasant ideological transformation marked a new preference for material comfort and `exhaustion of beliefs.' Wet nurses accustomed to Paris came back home with new expectations for food and accommodation - pork consumption, modish home furnishings. More bittersweet was the twin impact of mechanization and government suppression rendering traditional festivals meaningless. Fetes and feasts, such as the autumn arrachages, marking the end of backbreaking haying, threshing and harvesting were `abandoned or became hollow rituals.' Fear of linking `political protest or subversive activity' to popular traditional rejoicing brought government clampdowns and clerical complicity from cockfighting to bloody affrays like the struggle for the saint's banner in the Breton pardon of Saint Herve. Government-sponsored holidays, such as Bastille Day, eventually won over local ones as peasants began to relegate celebrations such as the May Queens, Epiphany to children, marking the fading of beliefs and mysticism. Curiously, urban culture after `succeeded in suppressing popular rituals' reinvented popular cults, such as Carnival, with `publicity floats and artificial distractions' - no longer fetes, just shows.

The transformation of peasants was a piecemeal colonization from the urban centers, by usurping traditional economic lifeline, and then introducing the urban national consciousness that elevated homogenization and diminished regionalism. Weber sharply depicts the effects of modernity on the peasants and charted their swift and occasionally bittersweet ideological transformation to conform with the national ethos.
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on July 27, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Eugene Weber’s “Peasants into Frenchmen” examines the transformation of the French peasantry during the Third Republic. Challenging the notion that the French were a united people throughout the nineteenth-century, he writes “it is clear that France around 1870 did not conform to…[the] model of a nation. It was neither morally nor materially integrated” (p. 485). Weber argues persuasively that the peasantry did not nationalize until the 1880s and 1890s. Before the Third Republic, a tremendous cultural difference existed between urban dwellers and rural folk. Weber highlights these differences in three separate sections. The first part focuses on the several backwards elements of peasant culture before 1870, the second section examines the various technological, economic, and cultural agents that transformed the countryside, and the conclusion examines the decline, if not the destruction, of rural cultural peculiarities.

Weber’s book is a monumental achievement. His thesis that modernization did not occur until the late nineteenth-century and the early twentieth-century is supported by well-documented facts and almost one-hundred pages of footnotes. He uses a variety of sources, ranging from the novels of Emile Zola and Gustave Flaubert to archival work. The majority of his secondary sources are in French. Despite his tremendous volume of detail, Weber’s prose is elegant, clear, and, at times, witty. He balances general facts with quirky and amusing stories. He shows that there can be a joy to studying history. Overall, the depth of Weber’s knowledge and erudition exemplifies how historical scholarship ought to be done.
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on September 6, 2013
Format: Paperback
Reading this book totally changed the way I saw peasants and increased my understanding of how modernity and revolution turned rural communities upside down to create an ongoing transformation for good and for ill. Eugen Weber's colossal work is based on the most thorough scholarship which he is able to present in a coherent fashion. Until the late nineteenth century, French peasants were living pretty much the way they had always lived since the Middle Ages. Weber shows how the Republican government intervened to make the peasants into citizens. This work belongs in every historical library.
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on July 24, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This book is everything it that deserved the French award. I understand the French language so this was not a problem for me.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 26, 2006
Format: Paperback
This is a masterfully compiled study of the emergence of nationalism and national identity in nineteenth century France. Painstakingly researched and beautifully writen, Weber has done a near-perfect job of tracking the processes of modernization that helped pave the way for France becoming one of the most culturally cohesive nations in Europe.
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