|Recovering ‘The Social’: Rural-Urban Networks and Communal État Social in the French Revolution|
|In a 2003 review essay for American Historical Review, Rebecca Spang argues that the current focus on elite cultural discourses has privileged the French Revolution as a watershed of modernity, while neglecting the mentalities and experiences of the “poor and the powerless.” To “find the long-lost ‘social’,” Spang challenges us to “return to the archives,” to bring “the people…back into the history of the Revolution without collapsing them into static social categories and mechanistic explanations.”
It is thus surprising that in her review Spang gives little attention to three recent mammoth monographs by Philippe Grateau (2001), John Markoff (1996), and Gilbert Shapiro and Markoff (1998) which eschew elite printed texts in favor of exhaustive content analyzes of the richest archival source of late eighteenth century popular opinion: the cahiers des doléances or lists of grievances drawn up by the three estates prior to the convocation of the Estates General. Although these studies differ widely in their stated objectives, they share a similar analytical approach, in that they each assess the grievances and insurrectionary actions of peasants vis-à-vis the political action and cultural discourse of elites, whether it be the cahiers of the nobles and urban Third Estate (Shapiro and Markoff), the vocabulary of the philosophes (Grateau), or the anti-seigneurial legislation of revolutionary deputies in Paris (Markoff). In other words, peasant engagement in (or potential responsiveness to) the Revolution is measured by the extent to which the cahiers reveal a rural countryside acculturated into the Enlightenment and engaged in a common dialogue with the national body politic.
The center-periphery approach adopted by these studies succeeds admirably in reconnecting the peasantry, and thus “the people,” to the prevailing paradigm of the revolution as a modern crucible for national political culture and democratic nation-building. It does little, however, to break down the traditional, static social categories that continue to define our understandings of urban and rural experience in the late eighteenth century. Fortunately, the methodology of content analysis developed over the past 40 years by Shapiro and Markoff, (which is exhaustively detailed in their book Revolutionary Demands and its accompanying digital database FRAS:The French Revolution Analysis System) can easily be adapted to serve multiple purposes. This paper stems from a research project that expands upon Shapiro and Markoff’s methods of content analysis to “recover the social” in the French Revolution from a communal rather than class context. By systematically analyzing the rural cahiers des doléances in the province of the Forez (a region corresponding roughly to the current Loire Department) this project seeks to connect the rural countryside to the Revolution by exploring what Tocqueville termed the état social of the French rural community. Using the cahiers in connection with local archival sources, it explores the intercommunal networks among rural communities and the French “urban frontier,” that is, the modest market towns that dotted the Forez. This paper reassesses standard assumptions regarding urban versus rural mentalities, arguing that the French Revolution ushered in not only a new body politic in the form of the nation, but also a new rural civic order. In regions such as the Forez, this new civic order did not represent a straightforward rubber-stamping of the rural status quo, but a reconfiguration of local communal life in ways which had long term consequences for French political development after 1789.