Peasants, although probably the largest social group in most West European countries before 1900, more often appear as the objects of historical forces than as actors in the processes of economic, social and political change. They were defined by their unequal relationship to the landlord, the priest, and the state. Under the seigneurial regime they supported the landed elite, but no sooner had this been undone than they were being doomed to extinction by both socialists and free-marketeers, who believed they would be swept away by unstoppable economic and political modernisation (mechanisation, concentration, urbanisation, class and state formation…). More recently, social scientists have even doubted whether peasants, by some definitions, ever existed. Yet by other measures, European peasantries have been surprisingly resilient. This course follows peasant communities from seigneurialism through the revolutionary period, the impact of industrialisation and the development of a national and global agricultural markets in the late nineteenth century, to the protectionist reaction of the early twentieth century, to see how they have managed these changes. We will make use of the sources left to us by peasants (not nearly as rare as is alleged, if we extend our corpus beyond memoirs and letters to include oral literature and material culture) to investigate the ways that peasants were complicit in, perhaps even initiators of, historical change.
To achieve this we will be drawing on anthropological and sociological research on contemporary peasant societies, both in Europe and beyond. Anthropological expertise in the day-to-day operation of small scale, face-to-face communities will be particularly important in achieving a “peasant-eyed view” of historical change, though we will also be calling on historians’ knowledge of the institutions of mass society such as bureaucracies, trade unions, political parties, the media… Each session will concentrate on one of the dominant relationships in the peasant’s life – to the land, to the household, to the community, to the lord, to the market, to the State, to the Church, and to the social scientist. In addition to observing peasants, we will be observing the observers of peasants, and thus trying to understand the peasants’ place in the intellectual sphere.