Recent generations of historians have shown that maybe more than half of all individuals and families moved away from their villages of birth in Old Regime France. Peasants constantly disappeared from the tax rolls. Yet because people migrated such short distances, the consensus is that French society cannot be considered mobile. Jeremy Hayhoe—having studied tax rolls and census data across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as testimonies in seigneurial courts about migration and new inhabitants, a source previously overlooked by demographers—argues in Strangers and Neighbours that mobility over short distances, though distances longer than generally realized, was widespread in the rural areas of northern Burgundy. Hayhoe does more than simply document mobility. By comparing the various sources, he explains why peasants moved to certain villages rather than to others. As commentators of the time suspected, the inconsistency of the fiscal rolls led people to move to villages that were relatively undertaxed. In fact, one of the reasons for the unevenness of the tax assessments was the tendency of wealthy farmers, no doubt often tenants of the lords, to acquire land or leases in communities where they contributed less. Since peasants bore collective responsibility for the fiscal quota assigned to their community, they frequently accepted these new members to reduce their own assessments even if they had to offer inordinately favorable terms to the in-migrants. Indeed, Hayhoe demonstrated in his previous book, Enlightened Feudalism: Seigneurial Justice and Village Society in Eighteenth-Century Northern Burgundy (2008), that the seigneurial regime weighed heavily on the lives of rural inhabitants. Similarly, in this latest book, on rural migration, Hayhoe shows that the inhabitants tended to not move out of villages subject to serfdom—the feudal prerogative of mainmorte, to be precise—because they would have then forfeited to the lord the right to inherit their plots. This feudal prerogative also discouraged people from settling in villages where they would become serfs. The land of Old Regime France was extremely fragmented. As one would expect, plowmen owning or renting a number of small properties migrated less than did the much larger group of their peers in possession of a single scrap of land. The bigger farming operations made moving more difficult. Peasants in the districts of Nuits-Saint-Georges, Beaune, and Chalon-sur-Saône who farmed valuable vineyards migrated relatively little. Mobility seems to have been less common where land was expensive and where income depended on specialized knowledge of local conditions. In contrast, cottagers who tended run-of-the-mill patches of vines migrated as often as did any other rural inhabitant. The core decision-makers in the villages often brought this largest group of migrants, the poor farmers of small parcels, before the seigneurial courts. The lawsuits did not involve poor relief nearly as often as they did the alleged non-payment of taxes and attempts to share in the use of the villagers’ common lands. The longer-standing residents described the in-migrants as strange people, bad subjects, and hordes of beggars, who refused to work and sent their children to beg or work for them. Hayhoe cautions against regarding such statements as evidence of a tendency of rule-abiding settled inhabitants to stick together against a counterculture of poor migrants. He suggests rather that such sentiments were inevitable given the extent of migration from one village to another in the eighteenth century. One could interpret the attitude toward the impoverished migrants as a portent of the Great Fear of the summer of 1789, when villagers across France armed themselves against what they worried were rootless brigands in the pay of the nobles, princes, and foreign monarchs. But Hayhoe refuses to make any such extrapolation. Indeed, he describes a Burgundy surprisingly free of tension and conflict given the waves of peasant revolts that spread across the province in 1789 and subsequent years. Yet maybe Hayhoe deserves credit for eschewing unwarranted inferences. As François Furet contended in Penser la Révolution française (1978), historians commit a teleological error in analyzing the eighteenth century in light of the Revolution at the end of it. Two other noteworthy findings concern the evolution of migration in a comparative context. First, when peasants moved, they nearly always went to other villages, not to the towns. Only in the second half of the nineteenth century did the rural population start to decline. The reason was not so much migration to the towns as it was the reversal of the fertility pattern. Deaths began to exceed births sometime after 1850. Thus, the rural exodus occurred much later than it did in other countries of Western Europe, and urban growth at the end of the nineteenth century must have resulted from foreign immigration rather than from the relocation of peasants to the cities. Second, although large numbers of French villagers moved at least once, and many several times, the table on page 60, presenting the findings of Hayhoe and other demographic historians, makes clear that the population was noticeably more mobile on the other side of the English Channel. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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