Advanced Paper synopsis
Peasant economies, societies and polities: Western Europe, c.1750-c.1950
David Hopkin

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.


1) Problems of definitions

  • definitions by landholding
  • definitions by labour input
  • definitions relating to social hierarchy
  • definitions derived from art and literature
  • Rural stratification and relationship to class
  • What about rural industry?
  • Peasant self-definitions

2) The household economy

  • reproduction and production
  • household identities -- family strategies
  • courtship and marriage as a guide to the socio-economic system

3) The World of Limited Good

  • longue durée v. growth
  • hunger and the peasant imagination
  • The moral economy
  • winners and losers in the peasant community
  • limits on communitarianism

4) The peasant community and its lords:

  • relationship to seigneur
  • relationship to crown
  • peasant politics/ peasant violence
  • what brought down the seigneurial regime?

5) ‘agrarian individualism’ v. the ‘peasant communitarian vision’ in the C19

  • Definitions of community: the anthropologists’ contribution
  • economic developments in the countryside
  • breakdown of communal controls
  • new relationships to the market
  • Prosperous peasants and the ‘golden age’ of rural culture
  • The reinvention of communal life

6) The peasant and the State

  • Ministers to mayors
  • Teachers
  • Police/gendarmes
  • acculturation ‘peasants into Frenchmen’ debate
  • What about the Church?

7) Peasant populists v. class

  • A sack of potatoes?  Where do peasants fit into mass politics?
  • patronage politics
  • Peasants relationship to right and left
  • Where did socialists succeed and why?
  • The mobilisation of sectional interests.  Who gains from protectionism?

8) Vanishing peasants?

  • Depopulation and urbanisation, but why the limits on concentration?
  • Homogenisation and peasant politics.
  • social scientists in the countryside

things to include?

peasants and environment

peasants imagined: the use made by ‘peasant’ discourse in art, literature and politics