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What if 25% of the French population were vagrants?

Published on 30 May 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

Unimaginable, right?

Well, this was the situation in the French rural areas under the Ancien Regime (things were no better in the stinking cities). Most people barely had enough to eat: at best it was 2kg of bread a day in water – or an equivalent fare. Meat was on the table a few holidays each year: that is why peasants feasted on frog legs and snails. In a village, people ate what they grew: they only bought food when the harvest was poor – and the prices extortionate. Debt led to peonage, or worse. When destitution loomed, in desperation people deserted their hovels to beg and steal on the road, croaking in the end in a bush. Alternatively, many would leave after harvest and sought day labor jobs to stave off hunger during a harsh winter. The road – the great alternative to staying put in the village, was at any one time the choice of one quarter of the French population.

Robert DARNTON describes the situation of the French peasants through the prism of fairy tales, which they told, and retold each other during the veillées, when men mending tools, and women spinning, sat around the warming hearth.[1] Village life, the life of the overwhelming majority of Frenchmen, was harsh and dangerous. Everyone faced endless, limitless labor, from early childhood until the day of death (without anesthetics). Hatred, jealousy, and conflicts of interest cleaved peasant society. History in the villages stood still – l’histoire immobile. There was no conception of things ever really changing. Only in a fairy tale, a cunning trickster may be able to outwit the powerful (if his sense of superiority blinded him).

235Life was quite different then – and it is difficult for us to relive their plight. Where did Napoleon get his Grande Armée? In part from such vagrants: they were more than happy to swap life on the road for life in a camp, companionship and loot – even though it meant a real chance of gruesome death on the battlefield.

I address my first reflection to all those who wax nostalgic for the past. “Where is the world coming to?” “Surely we are on the slippery slope toward doomsday!” Maybe so, but we’ll still be better off than our fore-parents were – by a long stretch. The highlight of most fairy tales was “manger à sa faim” – to eat one’s fill. Fairy tales were told to members of the family huddled around the fire the way we huddle around the TV. Sitcoms are the equivalent of fairy tales. Could eating one’s fill be the highlight of sitcoms?

The second reflection is that some fundamentals never seem to go away – like Proteus they just change their appearance. Francis FUKUYAMA proudly declared “the end of history”. Fernand BRAUDEL spoke of village time as “immobile history”. Vagrancy is now dubbed “commuting”. Food fare was monotonous then – our hurried choice has shrunk to pizza and hamburgers. Athletes already take in synthetic food – to max their power. In ten years’ time, we’ll imitate them. After 15 years, married life ends: divorce has replaced death as the main cause. The trickster of the fairy tale has become today’s celebrity: someone who has managed to work the system to his own advantage and flaunts it – without ever belonging to the establishment (even trophy wives are throwaway). Twitter has replaced village gossip – but gossip we do with abandon.

Nothing and everything is new under the sun – that is what keeps us warm and on the go…

[1] Robert DARNTON (1984): The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history. Basic Books, New York.

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