THE evolution of the French peasant is the history of modern France. In the genesis of Jacques Bonhomme must be sought the origin of the Third Republic.
By bourgeois agency, in a single night the ancien régime was swept into limbo, became the survival of an irrevocable past. The legislators of the two Assemblies and the Convention, with those of the present Palais Bourbon, belonged to the middle and professional classes.
It was by peasant-born commanders that newly acquired liberties were guaranteed, by recruits torn from the plough that the combined forces of Europe were held at bay. To talk of ” the French peasant ” is to express one’s self loosely. Not for a moment must we narrow the conception of Jacques Bonhomme to that of our own Hodge, still, as fifty years ago, earning a weekly pittance, and in old age depending on parish relief.
The French peasant possesses France. He may or may not be in easy circumstances, happy, enlightened ; he is neither the degraded being portrayed by Zola and De Maupassant, nor perhaps the ideal rustic of George Sand’s fascinating page. We must know him in order to get at the mean, to measure his qualities and aptitudes. To appreciate him as a social and political force personal acquaintance is not necessary ; so much the history of the salt thirty-five years teaches us. But for the invested savings of the thrifty countryman, Thiers’ task of liberating French territory from the Prussian invader might have been indefinitely prolonged. And since that terrible time, whenever the ship of State has been in deadly peril Jacques Bonhomme has acted the part of pilot bringing her safely to port, his rôle upon critical occasions saving the Republic.
Readers of ” La Terre ” who do not know rural France must ask themselves, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth ? ” The peasant-born rulers, legislators, scientists, and litterati of France, how are they to be accounted for ? History affords the clue.
Recent examination of provincial archives shows us the slow but steady evolution of the countryman. Rousseau’s well-known story of the peasant who, suspecting him to be a fiscal agent, affected direst neediness, and on discovering his error repaired it by open-hearted hospitality, was doubtless no exceptional case. Despite exorbitant taxation and unimaginable hindrances alike to material and moral advancement, here and there small owners and even labourers educated their sons, dowered their daughters, and laid by a little money.
In 1688 no less than forty-two sons of peasant proprietors and day labourers attended the upper classes of the college of Le Mans. In many communes, despite their fiscal and feudal burdens, the inhabitants subscribed among themselves in order to pay a schoolmaster. Many distinguished Frenchmen thus obtained their first instruction, among these the erudite Mabillon, Villars, the botanist of Dauphiné and Thénard, the eminent chemist, son of a poor peasant.* On this subject the testamentary documents and inventories preserved in provincial archives are very illuminating.
Among the belongings of one day labourer in 1776 we find a psalter and three books of ” L’Imitation de Jésus Christ ; ” of another, ” Une Vie des Saints ” and ” Les Évangiles ; ” whilst a third (Archives de l’Aube, 1772) was the possessor of two folios, viz. ” L’Anatomie de l’homme ” and ” Le véritable Chirurgien.” A fourth possessed a Latin dictionary, whilst musical instruments not infrequently figure in these inventories. It will thus be seen that anterior to the memorable Fourth of August the peasant was raising himself and was awake to the value of instruction. He might echo the refrain so popular in Auvergne–
Le pauvre laboureur Est toujours tourmente, Payant à la gabelle Et les deniers un roi ; Toujours devant sa porte, Garnison and sergent, Qui crieront sans cesse, Apportez de l’argent.”
But by dint of unimaginable thrift and laboriousness he contrived to have something worth willing away. Prerevolutionary wills show a catholicity of sentiment undreamed of in Zola’s philosophy. A labourer in 1752, for instance, after bequeathing the bulk of his little property to his children, leaves four argents t of cultivable land to the village church, thereby assuring perpetual masses for his soul, and that of his wife, and remembers his day-. labourers and woman servant by gifts of money and clothes (Archives de l’Aube).
Even dairymaids made their wills. Thus in 1685 a certain Edmée Lambert, in the employ of Jacques Lajesse, estant au liet malade, saine toutefois ois de bon propos, mémoirez, et entendement (” sick abed, but possessed of all her faculties “), bequeaths a plot of ground and a crown (value from three to six livres or francs) to her parish church, in order that perpetual masses may be said for her soul ; a panier à mouche to her master, ” for the trouble he had taken about her ; ” a second panier à mouche to a young fellow-servant of the other sex, as a token of friendship ; ” finally, the rest of her belongings, goods and money, to the wife of a neighbour, ” in consideration of her goodwill and amity.”
The testatrix being unable to write, the will was signed by the curé in presence of two witnesses. These wills were always drawn up by a notary and attested by two witnesses. ” In nomine .Domini, A men ” was the invariable formula with which these documents began.
Equally instructive are marriage contracts, In 1611, the brother of Jeanne Graveyron,on her marriage with a labourer, gives her as dowry, five livres t for the expenses of the wed-ding, thirty-five livres to keep, a bed, bedstead with hangings and bedclothes, sundry kitchen utensils, three new gowns, and a chest, fermant à clef (with lock and key), containing personal and household linen. The daughter of a labourer receives five measures of wine, four of wheat, and the sum of ninety livres en dot et chancère t pour tous ses droits paternels et maternels (” as a dowry, paternal and maternal “).
Such facts as these help us to understand the unique position of the French peasant, no other country in the world showing his compeer. From century to century, from generation to generation, the rural population of France has been materially and morally progressive. That at the present day sixty-three per cent. of the inhabitants of communes numbering two thousand souls and under should occupy houses of their own, bears out the first position ; that alike in statesmanship, arms, science, and letters sons of peasants have risen to the first rank supports the latter. Not all provinces show the same degree of intelligence and well-being. Climate, soil, means of communication, differences of tenure, affect the small farmer. Here we find comparative wealth, there a struggle with inadventitious circumstances. Thus the phylloxera brought about the temporary ruin of thousands, the sum-total of loss reaching that paid into Prussian coffers after the last war. There is indeed a gamut beginning with the humble métayer but yesterday a hired labourer, and ending with the wealthy owner of acres added to from year to year.
A contemporary novelist, in his sketches of rural life, draws the mean between ” La Terre ” and George Sand’s idylls. M. René Bazin, in his ” Terre qui meurt,” however, writes with a purpose ; characterization plays a secondary part. This writer evidently regards peasant property and peasant life as conditions on the wane. And another well-known writer asserts that certain districts of France are daily suffering more and more from depopulation.* Year by year emigration citywards increases, and individualism, too, is rather on the increase ‘than otherwise.
Interrogated on this point, a large landowner in central France thus lately expressed himself to me;
” I do not hold with M. René Bazin’s views. On the contrary, I rejoice that our young men show more initiative, more readiness to quit the paternal roof and make their way elsewhere, especially in the colonies ; France has too long fostered inertness and nostalgia. It is high time that our youth should manifest more enterprize and independence.”
The patriarchal order of things is not always ideal. Thrift, too often taking the form of avarice, and paternal feeling are among the peasant’s foremost characteristics. Laborious devotion to the patrimony of sons and successors is sometimes poorly rewarded. Neither among the opulent nor toiling masses do adulated children invariably prove dutiful. According to De Maupassant and other writers of his school, exaggerated parental fondness and self-sacrifice are frequently as pearls cast before swine. The hoarder-up for sons and daughters in his old age comes to be regarded as a burden. And in any case a burden imposed by law, La dette alimentaire, Art. 205, 207 of the Code Civil, not only obliges sons and daughters, but sons and daughters in law, to support their parents and those of their partners by marriage.
If Balzac, George Sand, and Zola have failed to portray the French peasant as he is, how can a foreigner hope for success ? According to M. Octave Uzanne, Balzac, though a seer, an observant genius, has here only partially succeeded ; Zola, in ” La Terre,” has given us mere pitiful caricatures ; George Sand, nineteenth-century pastorals, vague, fanciful, imaginative.
I can only summarize the impressions of twenty-five years, and speak of Jacque Bonhomme as I have found him.
It has been my good fortune and privilege to join hands with the peasant folk of Anjou in the round, old and young footing it merrily under the warm twilight heavens ; to crown the little lauréats, or prize-winners of communal schools ; to witness signatures and marriage registers in country churches ; and to sit out rustic wedding feasts, lasting four or five hours ! Many and many a time have I driven twenty miles across Breton solitudes, my driver and sole companion being a peasant in blue blouse, his bare feet thrust in sabots. Again and again has the small farmer, or métayer, quitted his work in order to show me his stock and answer my numerous and sometimes, I fear, indiscreet questions. Often, too, have I sat down to the midday table d’hôte of country towns on market days, the guests all belonging to one class. Their Sunday suits of broad cloth protected by the blue cotton Mouse, sparing of words, swiftly degustating the varied meal set before them, these farmers would put to and drive home as soon as buying and selling were over, the attractions of a fair proving no lure. And here, there, and everywhere on French soil have I enjoyed rural hospitality. On the borders of Spain, within a stone’s throw of the new Prussian frontier, in the vine-growing villages of Burgundy, and farmhouses of rich Normandy, in scattered Cévenol homesteads, on the banks of the Loire, the Marne, and many a beautiful river besides, in remote Breton hamlets have I ever found cheery welcome and an outspread board, humble or choice as the case might be, Whatever faults he may or may not possess, the French peasant is hospitality itself. I will here narrate a characteristic incident. A few years since I revisited a little Norman town, and was anxious to call upon a farmer and his wife living near who had shown me much kindness when first staying in the neighbourhood. Not wishing to surprise them at their midday meal, I lunched with my travelling companion at a little inn, afterwards sitting on a bench outside whilst our horse was being put to. A countrywoman, evidently a farmer’s wife, who was also awaiting her vehicle, sat near with her marketings.
” So you are going to see Madame C— ? ” she asked, after a little chat ; ” an old friend of mine. But how sorry she will be that you did not go to dinner!” she added ; ” that you should sit down to table in an inn when you were only a mile and a half off! ”
And true enough, our former hostess chided me with real chagrin.
“You would have been so welcome to what we had,” she said ; “not perhaps all that we should wish to set before friends, but,” she added gaily, ” when there is less to eat, one eats less, that is all.”
The less was here, of course, used numerically, not standing for a smaller quantity, but for fewer dishes.
A word here about the destitute and aged poor. Whilst in every French town we find handsome schools, generally a training college for teachers, and museum as well, one suburban building to which English eyes are accustomed is missing. The workhouse is unknown. Asiles, so-called, for homeless old people, and orphanages for waifs and strays abound ; these are the outcome of no poor-law, instead the organization of Catholic charity, and entirely under Catholic management, often mismanagement. Recent revelations concerning the homes of the Bon Pasteur bear out this assertion.
It must not be inferred that the State is indifferent to its least fortunate subjects.
Already in 1791 the care of the indigent and the infirm was proclaimed a national charge by the Constituent Assembly. The principle was not only upheld, but put into practice, by the Convention ; and, strange to say, many altruistic and hygienic measures were carried out during the violent Hebertist period, among these being the humane treatment of the insane, the teaching of the blind by means of raised letters, and the deaf and dumb by lip speech. In 1801 Napoleon, then First Consul, created a Conseil général de l’Assistance publique, or body charged with the administration of national relief. The budget devoted to this purpose in 1904 reached the sum of 140 millions of francs, the city of Paris alone spending fifty millions upon her sick, helpless, and abandoned poor. But help can never be claimed by those having children in a position to support them. In country places, when such is not the case, and the matter is proved past question, the commune acts the part of foster-parents, or, if a good Catholic, the unfortunate burden on his fellows finds harbourage in some orphanage of a religious .house. I was once staying in an Angevin village of a few hundred souls ; only one inhabitant depended upon communal aid. Peasant ownership and pauperism are quarrelsome bedfellows. The small farmer may have to put up with a shrewish daughter-in-law in his failing years. A thousand times more endurable to his proud independent spirit the Regan or Goneril of his own roof-tree than the soft-voiced sister of a charitable house !
Dignity I should set down as the leading, the quint-essential characteristic of the French peasants ; next to this quality, a purely mental one that of shrewdness, ofttimes carried to the point of cunning ; and thirdly must be put foresight, taking the form of thrift. He is unique, a type apart. Jacques Bonhomme has his faults and short-comings with the rest of mortal born. He may occasionally remind us of Zola’s caricatures or De Maupassant’s scathing portraiture, rarely may we encounter George Sand’s ideals. But as a moral, intellectual, and social type, he stands alone, in his person representing the homely virtues, the mental equilibrium, the civic stability which, if they do not make, at least maintain, the surpassing greatness of France.