Rural Society in Early Modern France Term Paper

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Rural Society in Early Modern France

The main purpose of this report is to demonstrate my ability to first understand and then analyze historical works. The historical works for this assignment each focused on the rural society of early modern French times. The report's second purpose is to compare how the two authors present French rural society in "The Return of Martin Guerre" by Natalie Zemon Davis and "After the Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe" by George Huppert.

The report uses comparison to see how the two authors emphasize similar features and traits of the rural world and where each authors show important differences in their works. Each author was attempting to present their version and characteristics of early modern French rural society. Each placed different emphasis on the essential traits of family life and marriage for the peasantry and how peasants were affected by the legal system of the time. And finally, the report narrows in on Natalie Zemon Davis's work to see how convincing she was while making her case regarding rural life. Davis' ability to use specific evidence helps bolster her arguments.

Both authors seem well read on the topic of the rural society of early modern France so I have tried to give my opinion on how important a contribution of these works are for us in modern times to understand the lives of the poor in the rural settings of France.

Information Availability

Authentic information regarding the early modern rural society is not easy to come by. The reasoning for this fact is that throughout history, actual accounts of events and personal lives is usually recorded in written form and historians just interpret what they find. "How do historians discover such things about anyone in the past? We look at letters and diaries, autobiographies, memoirs, family histories. We look at literary sources -- plays, lyric poems and stories - which, whatever the relation to the real lives of specific people, show us sentiment and reactions authors consider plausible for a given period." (Davis 1-2)

However, the poor of the early modern French society were usually illiterate and did not get detailed historical recognition from the oligarchy. Davis gathered her information from an account of a legal magistrate who retold a story about a particular case. Davis was able to expand upon the information to present the story in a novel layout. Huppert's work appeared to be based more on the views of the upper class' interpretation of the peasantry since the rich were the ones who recorded history.

Through these works, both authors provide a significant level of insight into the life of the individual peasantry including migration, landscape, marriage, family obligation, health, crime and the criminal justice system and even the politics of old France. The styles and approach to presenting the information by the authors was very different. Huppert uses a strict presentation as though he has lots of information and does not wish to waste any time while presenting it. He gets right to the point so to speak. Davis, on the other hand, uses a very colorful storyline where characters are developed and brought to life. The historical facts are presented as a part of the story and often are can overlooked as facts and seen simply as storyline filler.

Peasant Migration

Peasant migration is the first area where the two authors seem to have like opinions. In her novel like approach, Davis gives the reader an impression that migration was not a typical occurrence for whole families. Huppert on the other hand does not directly distinguish the migratory mentality of the rural peasant unless one considers the fact that the community village was an agriculturally-based society. Migration, therefore, would in turn affect productivity. "Rare was the village that could increase population without running the risk of famine." (Huppert, 67)

Prior to reading each of these works, I was always under the impression that peasants or serfs lived and died in the fields of their masters' land and migrated rarely. Rural societies are based on the fact that they became a group because they stayed together. My impression was that from birth to death, an individual peasant or family basically had no say over their legal concerns and issues or had little recourse for resolving issues of land ownership, sales, marital disputes and/or any other trivial legal matter. Of course my thinking was probably based on poorly researched television shows and movies about early modern French or European societies.

After reading these works, the impression I got from both authors was that peasant migration was an uncommon occurrence in rural society. "It was not the most unusual thing for a Basque to do. Not that the men of peasant men of Labourd were stay-at-homes, but when they traveled it was more likely out to sea, to trap whales on the Atlantic, even as far as Labrador." (Davis, 7)

Of course certain circumstance such as season, famine or disease dictated some individual or mass movements, but the typical peasants in rural France were most likely not hermits. "A peasant who owns no land but is a native of the village, owns a cottage, has a wife and children, takes care of a cow belonging to the bourgeois, may be a member of the community, even though he admits that he is a 'beggar' in the winter. Such a man can take to the road without forfeiting his membership." (Huppert, 70)


Although Huppert does not delve into this subject directly, it can be assumed from the fact that both authors support the village as an important aspect of rural life; it can be assumed that family was a necessary subset of the village. Life was precious in the times of old France in the sense that the family unit was an intricate part of rural society.

Through interpretation of Davis' work, young men and women were married solely to consummate and bear children. Although there were exceptions, the concepts of love and other romantic notions in a relationship in rural France were most likely luxuries for the urban rich. The need for strong workers was apparent so great stature was given to men and women who bore children. It can also be assumed that male children were thought to be more important to society than women due to the male dominated mentality of the era.

The legal system at the time-based many of its laws on the fact that women were dependent on men for the good of society. Although still active in the social order if unwed, women seemed to be almost a burden to the workings of the societal base. "Neither wife nor widow, she was under the same roof with her mother again. Neither wife nor widow, she had to face the other village women at the mill, the well, the tile works and at the harvest." (Davis, 33)

Legal system

The authors seem to have differing opinions when it comes to the legal system. In this remote time that was dominated by family obligations, official legal teams or police were rarely used to resolve disputes in the life of rural communities. Each of these works considers the economy and the notion of land equating to wealth in early modern France.

The authors also each touched upon the legal system of the time to examine the behavior, attitudes, and environment of the inhabitants. Davis points out that the families of the rural community in her story frequented the court system. "The court of Rieux was certainly not unknown to the families of Artigat." (Davis, 62)

But in Huppert's version of the times, one gets the flavor that only the rich frequent the courts and the poor were left with no challenge. Huppert also seems to be implying that during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, once a person was a land owner, that stature in the community led to certain legal rights and an elevation of social class.

When the legal system did intervene it left a measurable trail for historians to use to document occurrences of the times. It was almost a crime to be poor in early modern European society. "We know that only free men were admitted to membership in the urban commune, and we speak of personal freedom and city life in the same breath." (Huppert, 67) Like Huppert, Davis concurs that there was a benefit to landownership. When Davis describes the trial in her story, she points out that Importance of Davis' work

The more things change the more things stay the same. The story, "The Return of Martin Guerre" by Natalie Zemon Davis, is a well written historical fiction that definitely makes the author's case. The story provides insights into many facets of early modern French society. She directly touched upon the legal process of the time, the societal intricacies of the rural community, expectations of the female inhabitant, and many subjects that allow the reader to…[continue]

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