A Social and Cultural History of Early Modem France.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Author:||Holt, Mack P.|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Summer, 2011 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 4|
|Topic:||NamedWork: A Social and Cultural History of Early Modern France (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Beik, William|
A Social and Cultural History of Early Modem France. By William
Beik (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xviii plus 401 pp.
$85.00 hb, $29.99 pb).
Family, Gender, and Law in Early Modern France. Edited by Suzanne Desan and Jeffrey Merrick (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009. xxvi plus 277 pp. $55.00).
At first glance the titles of these two books might suggest a significant overlap in coverage. Not only was the family the basic social unit in early modern society, but some of the best social and cultural history of early modern France over the last two or three decades has been written on gender, women, and the family. In fact, there is very little overlap, not because the more general book of Beik has little to say about gender, women, and the family, but because of the two very different approaches of the authors in question. Indeed, the two books complement each other very nicely, as the book by Beik provides a very sound foundation as well as historical context for understanding the significance of the more narrowly focused essays in the volume edited by Desan and Merrick.
Bill Beik's volume is the kind of book that every doctoral student who ever took a comprehensive exam on early modern France wishes they had. As the author states in the introduction, the purpose of the book is "to explain how the social system operated in the period of royal rule" ca. 1400 to 1789 (xiv). The culture in the title is meant in the anthropological sense of behaviors, beliefs, and social practices. Thus, the book is essentially a primer in how the social system of the Old Regime worked from within and what kinds of meanings contemporaries constructed from the inner workings of this society. As such, Beik tends to view early modern society as a system, shaped, though not determined, by cultural habits, power relationships, economic forces, etc. Beik makes it clear from the outset that the book does not explicitly examine the institutions of the state or politics in early modem France. There are plenty of other books that do that: Gaston Zeller, Roger Doucet, Roland Mousnier, etc. He begins by analyzing the rural countryside and the seigneurial system that governed it, and here he stresses two of the most significant changes of the period in the way seigneurial power evolved. First, seigneurs abandoned seignuerial claims that were either not worth collecting or otherwise brought in little revenue and exchanged them for those that were potentially more valuable. "In the course of three centuries,' Beik notes, "the seigneurie had evolved from a personally ruled mini-state to an investment portfolio." (40) A good example is the vineyards of Bordeaux, where by 1789 most of the larger estates had been purchased by parkmentaire families and other urban elites, investments that created the great chateaux that still dominate this wine region today. The second major change in the seigneurie in the period was the increasing intervention of the crown, both to regulate and eliminate seigneurial abuses, as well as to maintain standards of justice.
What didn't change, however, was the dependence peasants still had on their seigneurs. Moreover, landed estates, as they had always done, still remained the foundation of fortune and power for French elites. In short, the nobility continued to dominate French society right up to the Revolution. But the nature of that domination, Beik notes, did change dramatically from the fifteenth to the late eighteenth century. Nobles transformed themselves from an elite that dominated agricultural production and military warfare to an elite that functioned as landlords, who relied more on rent collection than the forced labor of serfdom, and who succeeded more from marriage negotiations with newly enriched elite families and collaboration with the royal administration than from the prowess of their martial skills.
Beik then shifts his focus to urban life in the period, and this leads to an analysis of, among other things, new nobles, venality of office, and the church. One of the biggest changes in urban life from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century was the way that cities with sovereign courts were transformed. Governed and administered by wealthy merchants and guilds in the late Middle Ages, these cities and towns came to be dominated by judicial and financial officers by the middle of the seventeenth century due to the venal office system. Thus, manufacturing cities evolved into largely administrative cities dominated by wealthy robe and sword nobles. Even the artisans who made up the largest cohort of urban populations were affected by this growth of the officer class, as instead of continuing to make textiles and other basic commodities as they had done in the later Middle Ages, their work shifted to creating luxury goods and providing new services for the elites. These new elites, largely educated in humanist colleges often run by Jesuits, were using their growing wealth to acquire status. In his discussion of the church and the clergy, Beik emphasizes the great divide between the wealth and status of bishops (who were mostly nobles throughout the period) and cathedral cannons on the one hand and the more lowly sub-deacons, deacons, and ordinary priests on the other, most of whom served in menial positions and were, apart from their status as clerics, almost indistinguishable from the masses of the poor.
As one would expect form the author of a recent monograph on urban protest, Beik's chapter on "Social Bonds and Social Protest" is especially good. There is an excellent summary of the series of peasant revolts, tax riots, and other popular uprisings of the sixteenth century made so famous by the debate between Roland Mousnier and Boris Porchnev forty years ago. Beik moves beyond that sterile debate to stress that French society was built upon an unstable equilibrium between the traditional powers and forces of order and the subordinate groups who were constantly seeking to oppose tyranny and demand retribution. Thus, although they could never seriously encroach on the power of the elites, the popular classes' constant challenges and checks on the excesses of those in power were always reminders of the practical limits on royal authority. Although Beik does not say this in so many words, the absolute monarchy of the seventeenth century did not just negotiate and collaborate with the elites to maintain their feudal superiority in the Old Regime, the monarchy had to negotiate and collaborate with the popular classes as well.
There are so many good things in this book that there is not enough space to summarize them all. The cultural history of the book's title becomes explicitly visible in the chapters on "Traditional Attitudes and Identities" and "Emerging Identities--Education and the New Elites." And a chapter on the culture of the court and another on the forces of change and the beginnings of a consumer society in the eighteenth century complete Beik's survey. Invariably in a work of this sort one could quibble over things that are left out or given too little space in the book. As a primer on how French society worked in the Old Regime, however, this is now the best introduction we have.
The volume of essays on Family, Gender, and Law in Early Modern France is a different kind of book altogether. Consisting of seven specific case studies, the book offers a fresh survey of the many different kinds of work on marriage and the family that have been done over the last forty years. Most of this work has challenged and overturned the earlier conclusions of scholars such as Philippe Aries, Edward Shorter, and Lawrence Stone. The editors stress, however, that even though older verities are no longer accepted--such as the petceived distinction between early modern and modern marriage emphasized by Shorter and Stone, for example--no new paradigm has been able to replace them. For example, even though the works of Lyndal Roper, Sarah Hanley, and others have emphasized that the Protestant and Catholic reformations both reinforced patriarchy within the family and within the state, this did not mean that women, whether as wives or as daughters, were without choices or means of agency within this patriarchal system. All the articles here, in fact, do more to complicate rather than generate a new paradigm. Another feature of this excellent collection is that each author includes a translated document as an appendix to illustrate the main theme of each essay.
Suzanne Desan opens the volume with an overview of marriage in the Old Regime, which both summarizes recent literature and lays out the principal questions that now dominate the subject. Her focus is on the social practices of marriage, and she does an admirable job of summarizing marriage practices in the Old Regime and how these practices changed (or did not change) at the revolution. Dena Goodman asks whether marriages forged out of love and affection rather than primarily out of parental arrangement were likely to result in happier marriages. Goodman is not really interested in whether couples married for affection and chose their own partners, or whether their marriages were largely arranged by parents for financial security--clearly both were motives for early modern marriage. But she asks whether spouses who married for love had happier marriages than those whose marriages were arranged. And her conclusions are somewhat surprising; she argues that in order to achieve a happy marriage the motives for marriage mattered much less than how the husband wielded his power and authority once in the marriage and how the wife responded to that authority. Clare Crowston demonstrates in her essay that wives of many aristocratic women and some bourgeois women had significantly greater ability to spend money and acquire debts in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than previously thought. Although customary law forbade them to control most marital property, household expenses were the one exception that gave them significant revenues for the purchase of luxury goods. She thus questions the notion that the revolution significantly restricted women's options, as her study shows that there was no challenge to women's access to credit either before or after the Revolution.
Julie Hardwick's and Jeffrey Merrick's essays both demonstrate the need to revise certain assumptions about early modern marriage. Using the witness depositions in separation suits, Hardwick shows that witnesses were more likely to criticize or disapprove of undisciplined or adulterous male sexuality than female sexual disorder. Jeffrey Merrick examines records of marital separation cases in the early reign of Louis XVI and shows that the politicization of domestic relations in the period were hardly confined to a few causes celebres such as those Sarah Han-ley and Sarah Maza have analyzed. Moreover, he demonstrates that the flexible family-kingdom model--what Hanley has called the family-state compact--allowed and even encouraged criticism of misconduct by both husbands and wives. Thus, wives as well as their husbands and their husbands' lawyers often used the family/kingdom model for their own ends and their own purposes. The document accompanying this article is the longest in the volume at 20 pp., and it is a good illusttation of a wife doing exactly that.
Finally, the essays of Christopher Corley and Matthew Gerber shift the focus from marriage to parenthood. Corley examines guardianship cases and argues that a family's investment in their daughters' and sisters' lineage property encouraged them to support rather than weaken the influence of widowed mothers. Women used their kin, their knowledge of the law, and their own courtroom skills to defend their interests in court. Above all, he shows that extended kin played a significant role in the affairs of the early modern conjugal family unit, and that focusing on the nuclear family is very problematic. Matthew Gerber focuses on the ways that parents used royal letters of legitimation to legitimize children born out of wedlock. He shows that shifts in the practice and mentality of bastard children in the eighteenth century paved the way for Revolutionaries to give full civil rights to illegitimate children, including the right to inherit property. Indeed, he shows that illegitimacy had become de-stigmatized before the Revolution, not after.
If there is a common thread connecting Beik's volume to this volume of essays on marriage and the family, it is this: patriarchal authority in both the state and the family was absolute more in theory than in practice in the Old Regime. If kings had to collaborate with their subjects to maintain their political authority, fathers and husbands also had to collaborate with their daughters, wives, and kin in order to maintain their authority in the family.
Mack P. Holt
George Mason University
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