French Peasant Proprietorship Under the Open Field System of Husbandry

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French Peasant Proprietorship Under the Open Field System of Husbandry  (1891) 
by Frederic Seebohm


Even since the publication by M. de Tocqueville of his France before the Revolution[1] it has been recognized that the prevalence of peasant holdings in France dates back from a much earlier period than the Revolution.

There never was in France at any epoch a peasantry of labourers working for wages like that of England. The peasantry of France were occupiers of land before they were owners, and their peasant proprietorship is in the main the result rather of the abolition or redemption of seignorial dues and rights to which their old holdings were subject than of the purchase of holdings de novo by the peasantry. No doubt there were times in French history when owing to political causes demesne lands of the noblesse were confiscated and put up for sale, and some of these were purchased by the peasantry and added to their holdings. It would not be wrong perhaps to look upon the typical French peasant in earlier times as a sort of copyholder, with a customary holding, like that of the tenant on a mediæval English manor. The difference in experience between the French peasantry and English copyholders has been that the latter from peculiar causes became gradually divorced from the land, while the former stuck to their holdings with much greater tenacity. The French Revolution thus found the land of France in the hands of peasant occupiers and owners. It freed them from the remnants of seignorial control and a multitude of vexatious payments and dues, which were survivals of an ancient manorial system, based, like that of England, anciently upon serfdom. These, long ago obsolete in their motive, were all the more irritating because of their uselessness and their contrariety to the spirit of the times.

The transfer, by the legislation of the Revolution, to the commune of the seignorial rights which were not abolished, was no doubt a popular measure. It was a measure of political freedom. The Revolution left the peasantry theoretically and politically free. That may have been nearly all that was aimed at. But it is remarkable how little change it accomplished for the peasant in the direction of individual freedom. It did not break up the solidarity of the peasant communities, because it did not succeed in setting free the individual peasant from the powerful restraints upon individual action imposed upon the whole body of the peasantry of each commune by the system of agriculture which had come down from ancient times and was perpetuated by the powerful sanction of immemorial custom.

I am not sure how far it has been recognized by either French or English economic students since Arthur Young, that the morcellement of which they complain, and which has no doubt been greatly increased by the division of holdings among heirs, had its root in the open field system of husbandry once so widely spread over Europe. I doubt whether any historian has ever seriously set himself to examine whether it was so. It may therefore be of some economic interest and importance to show, if it can be shown, that the typical French peasant holding, like the virgate or yardland of the English villanus, was from time immemorial a bundle of scattered acres, that the greater part of French arable land has always been tilled, and is tilled now, under substantially the same open field system as that which so long subsisted in England as the shell of the village community in serfdom, and that the exaggerated morcellement of modern times grew out of the scattered ownership which was one of the traits of the system.

The legislation of the French Revolution, it is true, recognized the open field system, and at the same time gave to every holder the right to sell or exchange his strips and to enclose them at his pleasure. It gave to the holder, in other words, the power to withdraw his strips from the open field system, and to till his land at his pleasure as his own absolute property should he choose to enclose it. But so long as he abstained from doing so his land—his scattered strips—remained subject to the usages locaux of the open field system. These had come down from time immemorial as ancient custom. They were not abolished, though the door of escape from them was thus opened wide to the peasant. They were, in fact, so deeply engrained in the minds and habits of the peasant communities, and supported by so powerful a sanction of common feeling in each community, that the liberty given to the individual by the open door has not to any very great extent been used.

The English traveller has no sooner crossed the Channel than he sees evidence of this all around him. On both sides of the line to Amiens he will see far more of open field husbandry and of the characteristic terraced strips called in England 'linces' than can be seen anywhere together in England. If he climb the tower of Amiens or Chartres Cathedral, he will recognize how each is the centre of a vast tract of open field husbandry. The Chartrain is the greatest corn-growing district of France, and Chartres is the centre of this district. Its market is the greatest corn market in France, and nearly all the corn is still grown, or was till recently, on the open field system. So intermixed and interlocked are the holdings on this vast plain that, although the power to enclose the strips was given to the holders a hundred years ago, except close by the town the enclosures are few and far between. And such is the solidarity of the system secured by the intermixture of the strips and the force of custom, and the power of the community by fair means or foul to enforce its will against individual action, that, to this day, the peasant proprietor of strips, having harvested his corn, dares not to put his own cattle to graze upon his own stubbles till the day when by custom the flocks and herds of the whole community resume the right to pasture over the whole area.

The key to the secret of the strength of the open field system wherever it is found lies in the solidarity thus secured by its two main features, viz. the intermixture of the strips, and the right of common pasture over them after the removal of the crops.

I cannot pretend in this short article to give evidence in detail of the generality and wide diffusion of survivals of these two main traits of the ancient system. I can only point to the nature of the French evidence, which is open to the economic inquirer.

1. Every commune, I believe, in France has its public map of its own territory preserved at the mairie, and generally, so far as I have had experience, dating from the early decades of this century. By examination of these maps in corn-growing districts, plenty of evidence may be found of the division into strips. And a comparison of the lists of owners accompanying the maps will soon give ample proof of the intermixture of the strips.

2. Every department and sometimes every commune has its own printed Usages Locaux, to be purchased generally at the cost of a franc or two of the local bookseller. From these may be obtained information how far the common right of pasture over the strips when not under crop has been or is still in force in each locality. I have obtained and examined a great many of these Usages Locaux from different parts of France, and have been surprised to find how widely spread and general are the traces of this common right of pasture over the arable land. It is known throughout France as le droit de vaine pâture, or, when extending beyond the limits of the commune and intercommunal between neighbouring communes from belfry to belfry, as le droit de parcours.

I am content for the purpose in hand to rest the wide prevalence of the open field system in France upon this local and irrefragable evidence, open to all inquirers.

Starting then from the wide prevalence of the open field system in France, and its close resemblance to the English system, the next point which strikes the inquirer is its historical connection, in France as in England, with the village community in serfdom, and the very close resemblance between the manorial systems of the two countries. We have in England no general surveys of estates earlier than the Domesday records. It is only by such documents as the Rectitudines, a few passages in the Saxon codes, and one or two charters of the time of King Alfred, that we get a direct and distinct view of the manorial system in England during the Saxon period. The evidence contained in the boundaries appended to Saxon charters and in the Laws of Ine is much more plentiful for the existence of the open field system in England than for the details of Saxon manorial management and serfdom. But in France the case is reversed. As regards the serfdom and manorial management the evidence goes back in great detail to the ninth century. The surveys of monastic estates of the ninth century are nearly as full and complete as those for the eleventh century in England. The evidence of the Polyptique of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés at Paris, and that of St. Bertin near St. Omer, might be described as nearly as full for the great corn-growing district of France in the ninth century as we should possess for the central counties of England if the surveys of manors contained in the Hundred Rolls had belonged to the time of King Alfred's father. King Alfred on his way to Rome lodged at the Abbey of St. Bertin, and the survey of the estates of the abbey which has been preserved belongs to about that period. The Polyptique of the estates of the Abbey of St.-Germain-des-Prés at Paris, so ably edited by M. Guérard, was compiled by the Abbot Irminon early in the ninth century, and completed by another hand later in the same century.

The late M. Fustel de Coulanges, whose death has cut short a series of remarkably able historical studies, had no difficulty in tracing the growth of the manorial system by working back from these and other records from different parts of France, through the indirect evidence of still earlier documents, into the Merovingian epoch, and back from it to Roman times, whilst of the early prevalence of the open field system M. de Coulanges declared himself to me unable to find distinct traces in the documents.

I propose to inquire how it is that there is this apparent silence of the documents as to the open field system, and to show that, after all, this silence is by no means conclusive negative evidence.

Let us take the Chartrain as the central and typical corn-growing district in France. The communal maps and their terriers show that the holdings on the vast plain were bundles of scattered strips early in the century, as they are to a great extent still. The Usages Locaux of commune after commune testify to the immemorial prevalence till recent periods if not till the present time of the vaine pâture and hi some districts of the droit de parcours.[2] In the light of this evidence of the former prevalence of the open field system in the Chartrain let us turn to the surveys of the ninth century.

The Abbey of St. Germain at Paris was possessed of, inter alia, estates scattered over the Chartrain. For the purpose of management and the collection of the revenues these scattered estates were arranged in separate groups under proper officers, who had to make official returns.

The record of one group may be taken as a specimen:—

Polypticum Irminonis Abbatis.

XIII.—Breve de Buxido.

De Dorgasino.

A. He [the abbot] has in Buxido (Boissy-en-Drouais, to the north of Chartres), a mansus dominicatus with house (casa), and other buildings (casticiæ) in plenty. He has there of domain land, 10 'culturæ majores' and 2 'minores' which have 192 bunuaria and can be sown with 480 modii of corn: 82 aripenni of meadow, in which 100 loads (carra) of hay can be grown. He has there 7 mills, six old and one that my lord abbot Irmino made: which pay 350 modii de multura (of flour). These five pay 5 pigs, and the one that my lord abbot made 12 denarii, and these four pay 5 solidi and 4 denarii. Of wood, according to reckoning, 5 leagues altogether in circumference, in which 200 pigs can find mast. He has 'in Pertico' (le Perche) of wood, according to valuation, altogether 10 leagues in circumference, in which 800 pigs can find mast.

B. He [the abbot] has in Boissy 2 churches well built, and other buildings (casticia) in plenty. There belong to the church itself (ad ipsam ecclesiam) 11¼ bunuaria of arable, 5 aripenni of meadow, ½ bunuarium of underwood. There belong there 5 mansi, having amongst them all 34½ bunuaria of arable and 11½ aripenni of meadow. They pay altogether 'de hostilicio' (to the army) 9 muttones (sheep) and one of them pays 12 denarii: 'de capatico' (poll tax) 3 solidi and 9 denarii: of spelt 9 modii, 50 shingles (for roofing), 36 hens with eggs, 36 staves and a like number of hoops (for barrels). They do 2 carryings at vintage: and likewise at (?) May-time (ad magiscam). They do 'curvadæ' (compulsory work: modern French 'corvée,') and plough 'perticæ.' They makes fences, to the garden (ortum), to the court (curtis), to the crops (messes); they do also day's works. He gives thence a horse.

C. He [the abbot] has in Bisan (Bizon: c. 30 miles from Boissy) a church and other buildings. There belong to the church itself 6 bunuaria of arable land. He pays 5 solidi.

The above is the description of the central manor and churches of this group. Next come the various groups of tenants in the scattered hamlets of the Chartrain and surrounding country. The first-mentioned is that of Combres near Nogent le Rotron, to the south-west of Chartres. The tenants are grouped together in mansi, and each mansus renders such and such services, &c. Here is the description of the first of these mansi and the services:—

Hildegaudus, a colonus of St. Germain, and his wife, a 'libera' named Franhildis; Hildegaus their son. And Nadalinus, a colonus of St. Germain, his 'socius,' and his wife, a 'libera.' These are their children, Ulfardus, Droitoldus, Erlemundus, Franhildis, Alberta. And Bainlandus, a colonus. These three 'manent in Cumbis.' They hold one mansus ingenuilis, which has xvii bunuaria of arable, iv aripenni of meadow, ii bunuaria of underwood. They pay 'ad hostem' every year 3 solidi. De lignaricia (right of cutting wood in the forest) 4 denarii. De capite suo, each 4 denarii. Of spelt all who hold anything in the mensus itself and are ingenui 2 modii. And from every hearth ½ a modius de viva annona (unground corn). And amongst all who hold this mansus, 100 rods, 100 shingles, 12 staves, 6 hoops, and each man 3 hens and 10 eggs. They plough, at winter ploughing 4 perticæ, and at spring ploughing 4 perticæ, and 'ad proscendendum' 4 perticæ. And at every sowing 3 curvadæ (compulsory labours = corvée) and a 4th and 5th with bread and drink. And when they do not do curvadæ three days in every week they do hand labour. And when they do curvadæ they do no labour on the domain except in extreme necessity. And they fence of tunini (hedging) one pertica in the curtes of the domain, and they fence of crops (ad messes) 8 perticæ. They do carrying service of wine in Angers with two animals from the mansus, and they carry it as far as Senonne (30 miles from Angers). And in May they do carrying work to Paris with rods, likewise with two animals.

After this description of the typical mansus and its services, follows a list of the tenants of other mansi in the same and other hamlets, with the addition faciunt similiter or solvunt similiter. The mansi are not of the same area, but they render equal services. In twenty-seven cases coloni are grouped in mansi, and in nine others in 'half-mansi,' and these solvunt medietatem de integro manso.

Then follows a similar list of twenty-five sets of lidi, each set holding a mansus lidilis. Each mansus pays two solidi instead of three ad hostem, but in other respects they render the same services as the mansi ingenuiles. Next is a list of mansi serviles, beginning with the typical instance as before:—

Autlemarus, a servus, and his wife, a colona named Adalberta, homines of St. Germain. Ragenulfus is their son. Manet in Nova Villa. He holds a ½ mansus servilis having 3 bunuaria arable, 2 aripenni of meadow. He pays ad hostem one sheep and 4d. de capiti suo, 100 libra of iron, 50 shingles, 50 rods, 6 staves, 3 hoops. Of hops 2 sesters, 7 torches. He ploughs per year 6 perticæ. He does carrying service. He fences in curte dominica of hedging 1 fence, of crops 4 perticæ, 3 hens, 15 eggs. De conjecto (as contribution) ½ modius of corn. He watches in curte dominica, or does whatever else is necessary.

There are nine of these half mansi serviles, who with slight exceptions named solvunt similiter, and nineteen whole mansi. Also eight partes with special services, i.e. 25½ mansi serviles in all.

I need hardly point out how closely these lists resemble the lists in the English Hundred Rolls of villani and servi holding virgates and half-virgates, and how very closely the services of the mansi and half-mansi resemble the services attached to the virgates and half-virgates, and the services of the Saxon gebur as described in the Rectitudines.

In the Chartrain the classes of tenants are not yet in the ninth century merged into the common class of villani as two hundred yeers later in the Domesday survey. The mansi ingenuiles and the mansi lidiles (with the exception of the payment ad hostem) form one class paying similar services, and the mansi serviles form another class with another set of services. The week-work of three days a week was attached to the mansi ingenuiles, whilst the mansi serviles 'do whatever else is necessary.'

However close the resemblance to later English services, it is no closer or less remarkable than the resemblance to the earlier services described in the Bavarian and Allamannic laws of the seventh century, and I have elsewhere endeavoured to show that there was a close historical connection between the latter and those of the later Roman colonate. I shall hardly do wrong in referring to the recent works of M. Fustel de Coulanges and to Professor Henry Pelham's valuable inaugural lecture on 'The Imperial Domains and the Colonate,' as having successfully traced the continuity between the later Roman colonate and the system adopted on the Imperial domains of the early Empire. Professor Pelham points out that in the inscription of the Saltus Burunitanus there is a clear example of the time of Hadrian of coloni on an Imperial estate bound for ever to the soil under a perpetual agreement, liable to pay certain fixed portions of the produce of their holdings, and to render certain services with their own hands as well as with their teams on the 'demesne,' including not more than two days' ploughings, two days' sowings, and two days' reapings, besides the labour with teams, the details of which are not given.

The continuity which M. Fustel de Coulanges has traced so carefully through the documents of Gaul from Roman to Merovingian times in his L'Alleu et le Domaine Rural pendant l'Époque Mérovingienne, was not broken in the next period, and it resulted in the condition of things described in the Polyptique d'Irminon, an example of which has been given.

But I can hardly think that it is enough to recognize continuity on what I may call the manorial side of the question, i.e. in the management of the estate and the services of the tenants, unless we also recognize the still wider and economically more important continuity in the open field system of husbandry. Are we to recognize the close resemblance in the services between the French mansi and half-mansi and the English virgates and half-virgates, and fail to recognize that both were bundles of mattered strips in the common fields, and subject after removal of the crops to the common right of pasture which the French call the vaine pâture?

The corn-growing districts of Gaul produced corn before the Roman conquest. This corn was grown under a tribal system which, if we may rely on the comparative evidence of the Germania of Tacitus on the one side and the Brehon tracts and Welsh laws on the other side of Gaul, employed the open field system of husbandry. This system had its origin probably in the agricultural arrangements of the tribes during the pastoral stage of their evolution. Pasture being their main point, they obtained their corn by ploughing up each year a portion of their pasture lands, letting it go back into pasture when the crop was removed, thus, as Tacitus puts it, 'changing their arable area every year.' The Welsh laws speak of this method as 'co-aration of the waste,' and also testify to the rotation in which the ploughed strips were taken by the tribesmen. This arrangement of pastoral tribes, so simple and so widely spread, produced the two main characteristics of the open field system, viz. the intermixture of the strips and the vaine pâture over them. We see this both in Germany and Wales, and it seems to me to be probable that this system was the one used by the Gallic tribes. If so the system may well have survived the gradual changes of ownership and management, and the growth of the manorial system upon it, all through the Roman, Merovingian, and later periods.

But still the fact has to be accounted for, that M. Fustel de Coulauges as already said, unrivalled in his intimate knowledge of the texts, was able to find little or no evidence of the existence of the open field system in the early documents of French history. In a letter written in 1885, he stated to me that he had found in France no trace, or hardly any trace, of the open field system to which the English documents witnessed so clearly, and that he was even inclined to attribute it to a German origin. His most recent volumes, including L'Alleu et le Domaine Rural, do not testify to any change in his views. His opinion must therefore carry with it unusual weight.

But so careful and so faithful is his analysis and description of what he finds in the documents, that it is not needful, I think, to go outside his own pages for the facts and the proofs that are needed of the omnipresence of the open field system.

It is, I think, only when we carry with us the key which the main traits of the open field system afford to the meaning of the Saxon documents, and apply it to the French documents, that we recognize the practical identity between the Saxon 'yardlands' and the French 'mansi.' Not that they were necessarily exactly alike in all respects, but that they both were open field and scattered holdings.

In the Domesday survey and in the Rectitudines we find England divided into estates or manors, and the manors consisting of demesne land and land occupied mainly by villani holding virgates or yardlands. The boundaries of the territory of a manor are easily and generally given in the Saxon charters, but the yardlands cannot be described by boundaries because they are bundles of strips scattered over the common lands of the manor. Therefore in the Manor Rolls they are generally and sufficiently described as the virgate of so and so, without any other addition.

The two main points which M. de Coulanges discovers to be widely prevalent in Merovingian Gaul as described in the texts are:—

1. The country is divided into estates or villæ.

2. The estates are divided into demesne land and the mansi of the tenants.

Further, he finds the villa or estate to be an indivisible unit. When it becomes for instance subject, according to Roman law and custom, to division among heirs, he finds that each heir takes a portio, but this portio is not a slice or division of the villa or estate, all in a ring fence and with its separate boundaries. It is sometimes an undivided portio—a joint interest in the revenues of the estate—or in other cases it is a certain number of the mansi of the estate, described as the mansi of such and such coloni. Thus Vigilius, who made his will in A.D. 670, possessed five entire villæ, and portions in twenty-seven others, and yet each villa was an indivisible unit.[3]

So if the owner of a villa wished to make a sale of part of his villa, he could sell an isolated vineyard or a field of his demesne land, but by far the most usual subject of a transfer was so many mansi.

The grants to the abbeys were of the same character, sometimes of whole villæ, sometimes of so many mansi in a villa. So the abbeys obtained scattered estates such as we find in the Polyptiques of the ninth century.

M. de Coulanges writes:—

'The domain or the villa was divided for the purposes of culture into "manses" of tenants and this permanently, in such a way that the proprietor was all but obliged in making any transfers to respect this division. It was difficult to sell an isolated field, it was easy to sell the various pieces of land which a serf occupied.'[4]

Turning to the mansus itself he writes:—

'It is clear that the manse hardly ever formed a compact whole. The vineland was seldom close by the arable. It is even doubtful whether the arable of each mansus was in one single holding.'[5]

This is very near to a recognition that the mansus embraced a bundle of strips. He comes still nearer when he identities the mansus of Gaul with the hoba of the Rhenish districts,[6] because these were very nearly allied to the English yardlands, and clearly were holdings under the open field system.

If the mansi of Gaul were not so originally, at what time was the open field system introduced into Gaul? How otherwise than by very ancient usage can the wide prevalence of the ancient traditional right of vaine pâture over the strips be accounted for? It cannot have been introduced all over France at a particular moment. It was a primitive Celtic no less than German incident to the open field system, and why should it be supposed that the Romans abolished it all over Gaul, and that it was reintroduced by the Franks, who in most other matters, according to M. de Coulanges, adopted Roman institutions in Gaul. Why should they break the continuity in agriculture alone? Is it likely that the Franks adopted the villa and the mansus and the system of services, but changed the character of the mansus from a more or less continuous area of two or three kinds of land into a bundle of strips?

If, on the contrary, we recognize that from the beginning the open field system was the prevalent system of husbandry in Gaul as in Germany and Britain, it is perfectly natural that the manorial system superimposed upon it should adopt and continue it. If this were so, it becomes also natural that the conveyancers, who knew perfectly well, as the Formulæ show, how to describe a vineyard or a field by boundaries, or by its neighbours on each side, should never describe a mansus in the same way, but only by the name of the colonus or other occupant or occupants of the mansus, just as the virgates were described in English legal documents. If the mansus were composed of two or three blocks of land, their boundaries could easily be given. But if it were, as it surely must have been, composed, like the holding of the English villanus, of a messuage and scattered acres, then it obviously could not, any more than the English yardland, be described by boundaries, and the methods of the mediæval conveyancers were the only methods that could well be adopted.

Again, to return to the Chartrain, and the holdings of the Abbey of St. Germain. described in the Breve de Buxido, there was here, as we have seen, a central manor house, with its demesne lands and with its mansi on the same estate, but the rest of the mansi contained in this document, and clustered for the purpose of supervision and management were scattered in various places twenty, thirty, or forty miles away from the manor house. Yet the tenants do weekly and other work on the demesne. On what demesne? Are we to imagine them toiling with their oxen and their ploughs twenty or forty miles away across the Chartrain to do their work or plough their perticæ or ansingæ on the demesne at headquarters? Certainly not. M. de Coulanges has recognized that the villa was an indivisible unit. The heirs of a holder, following old Roman usages, might take undivided portiones in the villa, or the owner might grant his portio, consisting of so many or such and such mansi to the Abbey of St. Germain, but the villa remained through all an undivided unit. The tenants did service on the demesne as before. The owner of a portio of the villa took in some way a portion of the net revenue or profits of the villa, including the tenants' payments and the produce of their work on the demesne. When, instead of an undivided portio of a villa, an abbey became the owner of this and that mansus, another course may have been adopted. Each manor house (mansus indominicatus), which formed a centre of a group of mansi scattered over a large or small district on this or that villa or estate, had its set of officials who were responsible for the collection of the payments, whether in money or in kind, from the scattered mansi belonging to the abbey. The produce of the perticæ and ansingæ or other areas ploughed and sown and reaped by the tenants for the abbey on strips belonging to their own holdings or set apart always for the abbey must somehow or other have been either garnered and kept for the abbey, or carried to the barns of the central manor, or sold and converted into money and accounted for to the abbey. The chapters devoted by M. Guérard to the consideration of these officials do not inform us exactly how this collection was managed, nor does the Polyptique itself afford the information. But the use of the word ansingæ over and over again in the Polyptique for the strip to be ploughed and sown and reaped for the Lord connects the method of payment of what in Saxon phraseology was called gafol-yrth, with the andecena of the Bavarian laws of the seventh century. So the mappa or napatica of the district round Rheims, which was another variety of the same thing, affords another connection, inasmuch as the mappa of Rheims and the andecena of the Bavarian laws were each 4 by 40 perticæ in area—the same shape, though not of the same size, as the English acre, thus again connecting and almost identifying the methods of Continental manors with the Saxon gafol-yrth, and the Saxon method of taking the tithe in the produce of every tenth acre strip in the open field 'as it was traversed by the plough.' The constantly mentioned service of fencing in the crops (messes) is another incidental mark of open field husbandry.

To my own mind, therefore, the documents of early French history are not wholly silent as to the prevalence of the open field system. They seem to me to imply by their uniform phraseology, whether in charters or Formulæ, that the open field system was prevalent. The phraseology to my mind finds its best explanation in the existing remains of the open field system, in the scattered ownership shown upon the communal maps, and in the wide prevalence of the vaine pâture, of which the Usages Locaux of each district from Amiens to Brittany and elsewhere in France bear such ample witness.

Had M. de Coulanges added to his intimate knowledge of the texts an equally intimate knowledge of French husbandry, had he himself studied the communal maps, walked over the Chartrain or the still more primitive open fields of the coast communes of Brittany—had he in fact approached the texts from the point of view thus gained—I think he would have come to the same conclusion, and have recognized continuity, not only on the manorial side, but also in the methods of husbandry.

I must not dwell upon the importance of this continuity as a main factor in the economic history of the French peasant. I need hardly point out how the pictures of the peasant painter Millet breathe the very atmosphere of the open field, how his 'Sower' is sowing one of his own scattered strips in the wide plain far off from his homestead; how his 'Shepherdess' is leading the communal dock grazing over the stubbles of the open field in exercise of the vaine pâture; how his 'Gleaners' are gleaning on the same open field during the short interval between the removal of the last load of the harvest and the commencement of the vaine pâture; how in his 'Angelus' the potato diggers are working again on the same open field far away from the town, when the evening bell recalls them from their work. He is true to French peasant life, even in the recognition how completely the Church had made itself the centre of the open field husbandry. These pictures show how completely the open field husbandry forms even still the framework and environment of the peasant's whole life; whilst in the faces and attitude of his peasants there is touching evidence of how care is added to toil when the peasant is working on his own land, under a system which allows him no room for free and independent action, which subjects his nominal proprietorship to constant communal control, and his husbandry to the jealous oversight of neighbours whose strips of land are intermixed with his own and whose cattle have common rights over it during part of the year. He still lives on in a sort of serfdom to immemorial usage enforced by sanctions the penalties of which he dare not brave. He lacks the spirit and the independence of the typical peasant proprietor, and therefore remains what he is from generation to generation.

Bearing this in mind, the question is not, I think, an unimportant one in French economic history. To what factor is mainly to be attributed the strange tenacity of feeling and of purpose which binds together the French peasantry in each commune in a solidarity so perfect that it has survived for a hundred years the legislation of the French Revolution?

Was it the long-continued manorial control, which, when abolished, left the peasantry free only in name, and still subject in habit and feeling to the restraints of what once had been serfdom? Or was it not much more the result of the open field system of husbandry, which, arising out of the peculiar needs and methods of earlier tribal life, was adopted under Roman and Frankish manorial management, and perpetuated itself in spite of the removal a hundred years ago of surviving manorial elements?

Surely the answer to this question must mainly rest upon another question, viz. to which system did these elements belong which have survived?

The answer is, the two elements which survive, and which to this day are perpetuated by the custom and common feeling of the peasant communities, are the two main elements of the ancient open field system, viz. the scattered ownership in the strips forming a holding and the vaine pâture over them after the removal of the crops, to the prevalence of which the communal maps and the Usages Locaux of the corn-growing districts of France so generally testify.

F. Seebohm


  1. Probably the text On the State of Society in France before the Revolution of 1789, and on the Causes which led to that event (transl. by Henry Reeve), London 1856 is meant - db, 2014-12-25
  2. Usages Locaux du Département d'Eure-et-Loir, Chartres, 1889.
  3. L'Alleu, chap. viii. and xiii.
  4. Ibid. p. 162.
  5. Ibid. p. 369.
  6. L'Alleu, p. 370.