Through eyes that can see: Traditional agriculture, security and prosperity in the Allier, 1870--1914

Date of Completion

January 2001


Literature, Romance|History, European|Agriculture, General|Economics, Agricultural




In the wake of France's humiliating defeat in the 1870 war with Prussia there was a national soul searching to determine the reasons for the defeat and future directions. In addition to the obvious military and political analyses, no area of social and economic life escaped scrutiny. Economists contended that a second-rate industrial establishment was at fault. They blamed a backward rural society for the defeat and then for a subsequent decline in grain prices in the 1870s. Agronomists rebuked the paysans for their continuing insistence on self-sufficiency and their rejection of modern agriculture. Most twentieth-century historians of rural France echoed these sentiments. ^ Concerns about rural backwardness prompted not only an outpouring of commentary, but also several comprehensive government data collection efforts. Using data from small rural communities in the département of the Allier in the center of France, this dissertation views traditional agriculture and rural society from a different perspective. In its location, terrain and agricultural products the Allier is a good representation of the entire country. It is also the home of the novelist and social activist Émile Guillaumin (1873–1956). Using his work as a major source, we find that paysans had, by building self-sufficient and diversified household economies, greatly improved material conditions since 1870. They also mobilized the local governmental structure that the Great Revolution established to claim a more equitable share of the wealth they produced. They continued a tradition of independent agency that the great historian of the Middle Ages Marc Bloch found to be invisible to historians who ignored the complexities of farm work and the rural community. ^ Using Bloch's approach, this dissertation relies not only on Guillaumin's observations, but also on government statistics. Remarkably, these statistics actually validate Guillaumin's observations and support his reliability as a source. They reveal growth in cereal and livestock production and in commerce in agricultural products and consumer goods. I argue that the paysans' selective adaptation of modern techniques and the diversification of household enterprises made the countryside an engine of economic development not a drag on the national economy. This contributed to France's position since 1945 as Europe's preeminent agricultural power. ^