Peasants into Frenchmen

From Peasants into Frenchmen tries to explain and show the massive amounts of change that brought the common man into the modern world and does so to a good extent. The book also shows that in bringing the common peasant into modern life, many injustices and sacrifices were forced on the French countryside. True, many people moved into the cities in search of better lives, but most stayed behind on their farms isolated to what was going on outside of their little world of the village.
In the introduction the author illustrates how different the two worlds of the city and countryside had been. Also, he begins to describe how divided France was and how it changed through modernization to within forty-four years becoming a unified European nation. Mr. Weber also informs his audience about his fascination with how there existed two cultures within France during this time period.

For the first part of the book, Mr. Weber illustrates in detail how daily life was prior to 1870, giving a good indication of how difficult creating a nation from these circumstances would be. Mr. Weber showed how afraid people were of disease, how most people did not travel far from the place of their birth for their entire lives, how difficult it was to just survive let alone prosper, how a significant portion of peasants couldn’t speak French and even those who could couldn’t read or write it, and how local currencies were maintained and how little currency mattered because of the more important use of bartering. These first chapters help illustrate the tiny amount of change had occurred from the time of feudalism to the middle of the nineteenth century. In chapters one and two Mr. Weber shows just how ignorant, superstitious, and depressed the average peasant was and how the French peasant wasn’t really French at all. One example of his opinion “The peasant did not reason; he was selfish and superstitious. He was insensitive to beauty, indifferent to his surroundings. He was envious and detested anyone who tried to better himself”(p.6). Also given is the city dwellers opinion of the peasant “Many people see little difference between this class of men and the animals they use to farm our lands; this manner of thinking is very old and it is likely that it will endure a very long time.”(p.7) In the second chapter Mr. Weber shows just how superstitious people were and how uneducated they were. And in contrast the less educated people are the less of a part of a nation they become. Overall, the first eleven chapters give a good explanation of what was going on before and helps give a more complete picture.

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The next nine chapters are the most important part of the book because it explains how peasants were made into Frenchmen by modernization. A focus is placed on the expansion and improvement of roads, military service, and education as the primary ways the change was made. There was always a good road system in France but there were still many isolated villages. New roads made for isolated areas to become more of a connected part of France. As more regions were better connected to France more peasant children attended school with the aid of educational reforms of Jules Ferry were implemented. As more peasants were educated the regional differences began to blur and eventually assimilate into a single French culture. As more people attended schools and moved to the city, they began to be much more involved with the politics of France instead of being left in the countryside to farm and scarcely care about what goes on other than war. The parents of these newly educated peasants still spoke their regional languages; they would eventually die out along with them. The onset of wars caused much more strict enforcement into military service and more drastic measures were taken by peasants to avoid military service such as biting of fingers and breaking out front teeth. Even with peasants trying ever harder to avoid military service, more men were conscripted and therefore more men learned French and interacted with people outside of their home region. As more people began to interact with each other the fear of outsiders dimmed and recognized them not as enemies but as partners. The old traditions had changed. The old oral tradition of the veilee, the time spent with the community between supper and bedtime working and keeping warm, died as the peasants moved into warmer homes and began to enjoy the privacy of the family. Instead of viewing themselves only as a part of a village, people began to think of themselves as part of an ethnic group.

In Weber’s conclusion, he uses his original thesis for broader implications. He rejects the arguments of anti-colonialists who protest against traditional civilizations. He sees the destruction of the old ways not as outdated but rather new ways becoming accepted. Then Mr. Weber switches his attention to third world nations. He wonders if there is any difference between what had occurred with the peasants during the first forty five years of the Third Republic and the attempts of Western imperialism to change the inhabitants of non-industrialized nations, yet he recognizes that French peasants were directly involved in the political process.
I enjoyed the book quite a bit; I found it to be very informative of the lives of the majority of the people and their daily struggles just to survive. Before reading this book, I didn’t know how many different dialects there were of a particular language and how difficult it was to have a conversation with someone only twenty miles away. It also brought to my attention how much differently people thought of themselves then than we do now. The only thing wrong with the book in my opinion is that Mr. Weber tends to ramble on into insignificant details while alluding to the main point. Also, by placing strict limits on time of when peasants were transformed to Frenchmen, he leaves himself open for criticism. I think that the areas near Paris would have become French much sooner than more distant places, such as Savoy, and less industrialized places. After reading his book he made it quite clear the enormity of the change in the French peasant. They no longer viewed their world as confined to their local village; they now saw the importance of the outside world.

The nationalism question is imposing one but I believe that the French government was somewhat justified in its methods because the peasants themselves were going to have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world. The ultimate goal of the French government was to create national pride but also to take the hatred away from city dwellers and place it on foreigners. The French government along with every other industrializing nation was going to have to unify their nations in the name of progress of their respective nations.
Bibliography:
Eugene Weber:
From Peasants into Frenchmen