Bouton, Cynthia A.: Interpreting Social Violence in French Culture: Buzancais, 1847-2008.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Hare, J. Laurence
Pub Date: 09/22/2011
Publication: Name: International Social Science Review Publisher: Pi Gamma Mu Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Pi Gamma Mu ISSN: 0278-2308
Issue: Date: Fall-Winter, 2011 Source Volume: 86 Source Issue: 3-4
Topic: NamedWork: Interpreting Social Violence in French Culture: Buzancais, 1847-2008 (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Bouton, Cynthia A.
Accession Number: 279722818
Full Text: Bouton, Cynthia A. Interpreting Social Violence in French Culture: Buzanfais, 1847-2008. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2011. viii + 256 pages. Cloth, $39.95.

In the winter of 1847, a bread riot erupted in the provincial French town of Buzancais. Within a year, the entire country had slipped into revolution, and the rest, one might say, is history. Or, as historian Cynthia A. Bouton might say, the rest is memory. In Interpreting Social Violence in French Culture, 1874-2008 Bouton takes on the puzzling longevity of the Buzancais riot in French public consciousness. Scholars, of course, have slipped Buzancais into larger studies of French history for years, but Bouton is not interested in writing a new history of the riot. Instead, she focuses on how and why the tale of this relatively small-scale local disturbance became a persistent feature of French national memory in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At issue are the many narrative appropriations of the events in 1847, which played out across 150 years not only in historical scholarship, but also in literature, newspapers, dramatic plays, and ultimately in comic strips and on television. Along the way, the author reveals much about the ways in which these narratives, and the media through which they were transmitted, both reflected and transformed national culture.

The tale of Buzancais, we learn, developed through punctuated moments of discussion strung across long periods of dormancy. To connect these moments, Bouton identifies significant points in the story, such as the seizure of a grain shipment or the killing of a local elite. In so doing, she is able to trace a chain of memory by tracking the continuities in various renditions of these plot points. At the same time, Bouton highlights the ways in which the various narratives proceeded from their immediate contexts by systematically examining such themes as the role of women in the riot and the social tensions underlying scenes of violence. By studying the changing interpretations or omissions of gender and assessments of both the workers and peasants who took part in the riot and the bourgeois elites who responded (or failed to respond) to the crisis, Bouton is able to pull back the curtain on the dynamics of French culture at key moments in the country's history. Why has Buzancais drawn such attention? One reason is that its story has never been the handmaiden of any one ideological position. Because it involved the deeds (or misdeeds) of characters from across the social spectrum, the story of the riot has defied all attempts to control its narrative. It has been fodder for radicals and conservatives, for social commentators and entertainers, and for scholars and amateurs alike. As Bouton explains, "Buzancais has served different narrators as an object for political debate, a crime story, a morality play, or merely an engaging tale" (p. 205). Furthermore, Bouton might argue that the timing of the riot is significant. It occurred on the eve of 1848, but is often excluded from traditional accounts of the Revolution. It was, in other words, a peripheral event, which means that it has been able to stand apart as a bellwether of later revolutions or as a touchstone for a range of fears across modern France's anxiety-ridden history. Indeed, Bouton reveals how the riot makes its appearance on the margins of great crises: just before the Revolution of 1848 and just after the Paris Commune, the First World War, and the 1968 youth movements. In her epilogue, Bouton closes by pointing out that in 2008 the riot became a way of talking about the 2005 riots in the French banlieues (suburbs). The controversy, it would seem, is far from over, and the utility of this tale has by no means expired.

Bouton's book speaks to a wide audience. Historians of modern France will relish this well-crafted glimpse of the vagaries of national memory, while non-specialists will learn much about the ways in which collective memories evolve over time as both textual and visual artifacts. Of special interest here is the author's discussion of the impact of images and film, and the special power they hold for shaping memory. For teachers of modern European history, Bouton's crisp and accessible writing has great potential for helping students grasp the internal workings of France's most turbulent history through the telling and re-telling of this fascinating event. Some readers may complain that the author's studious avoidance of taking sides leaves her curiously unable to convey a sense of the "real" Buzancais, but most will surely agree that Bouton's account succeeds in delivering a deeper understanding of the larger pastiche of modern France.

J. Laurence Hare, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of History

University of Arkansas

Fayetteville, Arkansas
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