By Dean Alexander
“The Burgundian patois, to use Sainte-Beuve’s picturesque expression — “a eu des malheurs” (has had misfortunes); it has never become a living language as the Breton and the Provencal have, and is therefore doomed, I suppose, to early destruction; as its older devotees die off, and the young peasant, versed in the language of towns, learns to despise his father’s tongue.” Burgundy: The Splendid Duchy, Allen Percy, 1872
A difficult question to answer: Why were the peasantry diminishing in number?
In particular, among those who lived in outlying rural areas and spoke patois Bourguignon
This, the third in a series about the linguistic, and the consequential cultural changes in Burgundy, had begun with the premise that many rural peasants across Burgundy had economically been squeezed from the region (Weir 1976). These were the paysans whose families had survived on the margins of success and failure for centuries, working, often in misery, small tenured seigneurial plots. With the limited fruits of their labor, they paid their local lord their cens and seigneurial tailles, the tax collector their taille royale, and the church their tithing. Whatever the cost, this system gave them protection from bandits and armies, a secure place to farm that could never be taken away from them, and belief that there was something better out there, if not in this life, then the next. Following the French Revolution much of that security would be taken away. Although now free from seigneurial and church obligation, this class of rural paysan would now face the dawning 19th century with the distinct possibility they could lose what little they had always been assured of before.
Because villages were built as self-sufficient communities long before a well-established road system was designed, not all villages would find themselves near a road upon which significant trade would pass nearby. So while growing industry, trade, and commerce was introducing connectivity and an interdependence of communities across France, and fostering significant socioeconomic change elsewhere, the peasants from these small, more isolated communities continued to farm their modest plots of grains and grapes just as their ancestors had before them. It would be this hyper-localized peasantry, with limited external inputs, who would be the last to speak the patois de Bourguignon in any significant numbers.
The population numbers of these rural villages were falling however, and with their dwindling numbers, the patois was being lost as well. The traditional explanation has been that these farmers were part of a rural exodus, leaving either voluntarily for the promise of a better life in industrial centers or having been forced off of their lands, either by losses due to harvest failures and famine or by other economic pressures. However, a close examination of the presumed pressures, opens up a myriad of other economic factors which were greatly reshaping of the financial economies and culture of the French peasantry. Furthermore, closer examination reveals that the explanation of rural exodus has had close associations with Marxist historicism, which while it does not discredit the concept of exodux, it advances the need for particularly careful research.
To answer what happened to these people, requires a deeper understanding
The heading here is an understatement. The historical record is so intertwined with the political, theoretical, and philosophical memes of the 19th century, (and of those of historians since) that they are difficult to separate. To answer this question will require a journey, that while long and seemingly circuitous, at least to me, it is revelatory in understanding what life was like for most people in Europe in the 19th century. I also implore you to read this history with a sense intimacy, this span of two hundred years is far more separated by technology, than it is by time. These are histories of people who were not so unlike ourselves, with concerns and stress for family, security, and livelihood. From the radical attending clandestine socialist meeting in a basement of Paris, to the peasant farmer whose only concern is feeding his family from the yield of a small plot, come so many economic, political, and social parallels between those lives of yesteryear and our own lives today.
There are so many priorities for this paper (which approaching the size of a short book) that its ties to the original linguistic series are tenuous, almost dubious; yet what is gained is so much greater than the promise of original mission. Many of the questions which I seek to answer, I list as a road-map to the writing that is to come, and I believe it paves a fairly good understanding of the situation who the vignerons of Burgundy of yesteryear where, and how that has imprinted their descendants today.
The questions I will address are these: Click Here to read the road map of inquiry for Part 3 (series).
This story must begin with the storytellers themselves.
As much as diving into the plight of the peasantry is appealing, it has become apparent the story must begin with the storytellers themselves. Traditionally, those who tell history would be the historians, but for French history, there is something of a reversal of roles: figures in history who’s political, economic and philosophical analysis are so so closely associated with the history itself, that their influence upon both the events of history and the viewpoint of the historian is indisputable. As I mentioned earlier, the main historical figure in question is Karl Marx, although other leftist thinkers have made contributions to France’s historical dialogue as well. The fact that Marx was, unintentionally, a remarkably good storyteller, makes his imprint on history that much more significant. Because of this, the understanding the relationship between the historical figure and the historian becomes important.
The challenge of historical honesty
The themes and meaning of histories have proved to be greatly colored by the theoretical context that each scholar carries with them, even before writing the first word. With the following statement, Marc Bloch, of the most influential scholars of modern French history, challenges himself, and his fellow academics, to approach and analyze their subjects as accurately, and impassively as possible.
“The historian is, by definition, absolutely incapable of observing the facts which he examines.” Marc Bloch
Bloch’s quote is but the tip of the iceberg on the challenges of accounting and the understanding of history. Professor Kaya Yılmaz of Marmara University in Istanbul writes: “The discipline of history refers not only to what happened in the past but also to the act of writing about the past”. This is distinctly true. The moment the pen hits the paper, the historian himself becomes indivisible from that history. Yilmaz continues, “The nature and function of historical writing is shaped by the theoretical presuppositions, by means of which the historian reflects on and writes about the past.” As such, the body of work which encapsulates the “history” of France, has been dominated by a handful of academic lenses, those histories are distinctly colored by each approach. The two schools of thought that dominate much of the body of the history of France, and thus this paper, those of the Annales School, and those who identify themselves as Marxists. It is important to note that both dominant schools of historian appraised history through an analytic, sociological lens, inspecting small data out of the lives of ordinary people, to come up with larger themes within society. So, as any good history should be, it is rarely obvious which intellectual stance of a particular writer.
Marx, historical stages, and posthumous academic acceptance
“History is being invented in vast quantities […]. It’s more important to have historians, especially skeptical historians, than ever before.” Socialist Historian Eric Hobsbawm, in an interview with the Daily Observer, 2002.
Marx’s text came out of a remarkably fertile time of philosophical/theoretical thinking, and like other philosophies of its age, it inspected, dissected, pondered and reshaped every aspect of the human condition and thought. But more than other philosophers, Marx’s writings were politically charged. He literally called on his readers to ‘wake up’ (to use a modern colloquialism), to have as Marx encouraged, “class consciousness”, to see that “labor” was “power” and as a class, they must “struggle”. He then packaged these words into seemingly sensible, but heterodox, economic models. This was very different from the writings of other philosophers who wrote for their peers; the approach Marx used was accessible and applicable to the non-academic. The educated lay-person could easily apply Marx’s work to virtually any western European “capitalist-industrial” system. In a final distancing of his work from other philosophical thinkers, Marx subscribed to moments of written crescendo, in which he would splay out words of incitement like “exploitation”, “oppressed”and “human labor”, with distinct intonations of anger. Given his unorthodox style, it is not surprising that he was ignored by those whom he perceived to be his academic peers. (Kreis 2008).
In a 2014 column in ‘Philosophy Now’ magazine, Robert Caldwell, wrote that many of the manuscripts that Karl Marx had been laboriously working on over the course of his lifetime, remained unfinished when he died in 1883. We must consider that there is a difference between simply not finishing, and not being capable of finishing. These incomplete manuscripts suggest that Marx was both unable to intellectually wrap up all of those vague details which dangled from the theories contained within the Communist Manifesto and Kapital, nor was he able to explain why communism seemed no closer to reality than when its concept was first conjured up.
Although these ideas are incomplete, and published five decades after his death without his consent, they have given scholars an addendum work that gave them a far deeper understanding of the thinking of Marx. But perhaps more important to us the lay reader, is the fact these extensive writings lack conclusions. This in itself suggests that Marx had difficulty explaining the inconsistencies theories which he had ceaselessly promoted throughout his life. This picture of unsureness, and perhaps even doubt, is in stark contrast to the intellectually salient figure that we picture today, whom was so sure of his call to the proletariat to come to action.
Political satirist comte Amédée de Noé, was well-known for mocking the many leading socialist thinkers and politicians of the day, for borrowing their “original” ideas and peddling them as “new”(Hart 2014). Marx himself was influenced by idealist philosopher, and fellow German, Georg Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), in that “history is a progressive march from epoch to epoch”(Caldwell 2014). From this Hegelian historicism, in which man moves in successive stages toward freedom, Marx based his “Theory of History” where society moved forward toward communism in delineated economic stages ending in a Utopian community where, work was equally shared and no class was subservient to another. But where Hegel’s society is ever improving, Marx’s had a more uneven trajectory, based on the development and break down of successive class-based economic structures. Marx’s history began with an utopian-like origin, painting a fabrication of simple tribal communism, a of sharing of labor and resources. In Marx’s telling, this would not would not last however. The development of personal property, Marx claimed, created class structures, and from this, the world had become a far, far, more depraved and oppressive place. Yet Marx provided hope that things would get better again; that society will return communism, albeit in a much more advanced, and complex form. The stages of history, which Marx almost casually explains in The Communist Manifesto, are present to varying degrees in many of his works, are:
- primitive communism
- slave society (ie. the Roman Empire)
The final stage of history, which was yet to happen, is Communism.
Marx explains how this will occur in The Communist Manifesto, writing: “Capitalism is its own grave-digger; its fall and the victory of the proletariat are alike, inevitable.”
Despite the importance Marx and Engels lay upon historicism and historical materialism, they never wrote a definitive explanation of the “theory of history” (Green and Troup, 1999) This, I suggest, ties directly back Marx’s unfinished manuscripts I mentioned earlier. It would seem that his many vague statements made in his early works, were based on his sureness that he could work out the details later. But it was precisely his inability to encapsulate the physical world into neat, compartmentalized, philosophical structures, that made finishing his works impossible, even after a lifetime of contemplation.
It was not until a decade or two after his death, that with a Marxist-communist movement that was truly sweeping Europe, did scholars begin to give an appraisal of Marx’s work. For some, such as Russian mathematical economist V. K. Dmitriev 1898, and fellow Russian economist and statistician Ladislaus von Bortkiewicz, 1907, argued that, as author Henry Epps paraphrases, “Marx drew conclusions that actually do not follow from his theoretical premises”. But I suspect that Marx himself, at some level, had already come to that conclusion.
The ancient question of predestination vs. freewill
Marx would write in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte part I, 1852, that “men make their own history;” To be sure, this strong statement of self-determination. Yet, later in Brumaire, he would write that men’s actions are confined, and driven by “circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” This “circumstances existing already” quote defines entire the basis for both his theory of historical materialism and his theory of history. I find it ironic that Marx, a staunch atheist, should grapple with the same age-old question of predestination vs freewill that believers of faith have pondered for more than two millennia.
The bible teaches in John 12:27 of God’s predestination: ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Conversely from the old testament comes to this verse of freewill from Hebrews 5:14: “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” For the modern reader, this verse has been much more loosely translated as “God gave us the ability to think, weigh matters, make decisions, and know right from wrong” (jw.org 1986)
For the Marxist, the balancing of these two ideas is crucial, for if communism is to happen, there must be predestination, but conversely for it to happen, as the communist writer Mick Brooks writes (2002), that “We” (the Marxist activist) “need to understand how society is developing in order to intervene in the process.”
Marx’s ideas were evolutionary but seemed to be equally subject to frustration.
Over his lifetime, Marx’s ideas and approach could be said was in a state of evolution. However, I feel the word metastatic, would be more accurate, and denoting that the work was changing, but not finding the improvement that ‘evolution’ implies. This is a topic which the famed American political scientist, Noam Chomsky touches on briefly in his 2004 book, Language, and Politics.
My impression, for what it is worth, is that the early Marx was very much a figure of the late Enlightenment, and the later Marx was a highly authoritarian activist, and a critical analyst of capitalism, who had little to say about socialist alternatives.” Noam Chomsky.
Marx’s earlier writings, which Chomsky here describes as stemming from the Late Enlightenment, which put in the social historian’s vernacular, was “socialism from below”. This philosophical stance requires that the application of socialism be done by the people themselves, not by some state or party apparatus, which itself formed class division. For many in the 19th century was, what socialist writer David McNally called, “the dream of freedom,” and this was a concept that was front and center within the work of Marx. McNally wrote in 1984 that “Marx was the first major socialist thinker who came to socialism through the struggle for democratic rights.”
In later years however, Marx increasingly lets suggestions that proletariat would need to be led, creep into his work. This approach is defined as “socialism from above,” and was a guiding concept that earlier socialist thinkers such as Gracchus Babeuf 1760-1797 and Adolphe Blanqui 1798-1854 had already embraced. Blanqui, was well established in Paris leftist circles when Marx arrived in 1843, believed that most Frenchmen, of whom fifty percent were farmers, sought only to be left alone to farm, and have legal protections to retain their personal property. They almost universally had no interest in the kind of wholesale economic change urban leftists proposed. Any revolution, they reasoned must be by the workers, and led by a socialist elite, and it would have to occur in Paris. Blanqui would not see the ultimate test of this theory, as he had died in 1854, but the social elite did lead the massive Paris uprising of 1871, which yielded disastrous results.
One has to wonder whether these changes in Marx’s outlook were due to a gradual acceptance of this far earlier position taken by Babeuf and Blanqui, which Marx had rejected earlier in his life, or that he was more simply vacillating on the mode with which, at least intellectually, to move forward. But even more than the fact that most French did not seem to support a socioeconomic revolution, the even greater problem was that the proletariat themselves seemed no closer to ushering out the stage of capitalism at the end of Marx’s life than it had at the beginning.
Dictatorship of the proletariat
The term, “the dictatorship of the proletariat” was the fruit of one of Marx’s followers, Joseph Weydemeyer, who used the expression in 1852 for the title of an article he wrote for a communist German language paper, Turn-Zeitung. In a supportive response, Marx, in turn, used the phase in a letter to Weydemyer, saying that “class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat.” and “that this dictatorship, itself, constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”
It seems the phrase had resonance, which along with the term “vanguard of the proletariat”, are closely associated a later time and place; that of Lenin and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Marx himself would not use the phase “dictatorship of the proletariat” in his own work, until 1877, when he wrote in “Critique of the Gotha Programme, part IV. In ‘Gotha Programme’, he suggests briefly that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a transitional (socialist) stage between a capitalism and communism.
For a true communist, Marx’s veering from his linear, predestined “theory of history“, would surely have been a troubling concept. The entire idea that a vanguard of revolutionaries should direct “socialism from above” is itself antithetical to the very idea of communism to which Marx had originally subscribed. It is, after all, a primary tenant of communism that any existence of a state (socialist or otherwise) represents the subjugation of one class over another. As mentioned, Marx saw this dictatorship as a temporary, transitional phase, necessary to implement the stage communism.
As if rushing to address this dichotomy to communism presented by Marx, Frederic Engels would write within “Anti-Dühring part III in 1877, that “the state is not abolished, that it dies out”*, due to its lack of necessity. He expands on this later in the paper with the following excerpt:
“As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection; as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon our present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from these, are removed, nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a state, is no longer necessary.” Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring part III , 1877
(*) dies or “withers away” depending on translation.
Meet me in Paris:
Marx and the French leftists
Following his expulsion from the Prussian Empire for his political writings and criticism of that government, Marx would live in Paris for only two years, from 1843 until the end of 1844.
No doubt, the robust activity of socialist worker organizations and secret communist societies in Paris of 1843, were as large a draw for Marx, as the job offer waiting there for him as a journal editor. The radical lawyer, Étienne Cabet, a utopian socialist, and the former Cote d’Or representative to the Chamber of Deputies, was there. Cabet had just returned from a five-year exile to England after being banished for his outspoken criticisms of the Louis-Philippe government. The even more radical, and anti-clerical, Théodore Dézamy was in Paris too, having just published in 1842 what historians Sirot, Cordillot, Lemarquis and Pennetierin, have called “the most advanced theoretical work of French communism of the period”.
It was in Paris that Marx would meet and initially befriend leading anarchists Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin. While all three shared a vehement distaste for capitalism, the anarchist position had equal disdain for democracy. This would prove to be a major stumbling block to their friendships, as democracy was a pillar of Marx’s socialism from below. Ultimately Marx would have tempestuous, and then adversarial relations with both men.
Their inevitable conflicts were indicative of the competition and rivalries which were common between leftists of the 1800’s. They battled on another for the type of change to implemented, for the loyalty of followers, and just as likely, they fought due to the hubris which dictated their desire to lead. Historian Ann Robertson wrote of the later Marx-Bakunin conflict, “As co-members of the International Working Men’s Association, they seem to have devoted as much energy battling one another as their common enemy, the capitalist system, culminating in Marx’s successful campaign to expel Bakunin from the organization” (2003). But this was to come later, long after Paris.
The “grinding poverty” of Paris
This level of socialist activism in Paris was in direct response to what Louis Patsouras describes as the “grinding poverty” which existed there. Within the city walls, there was a permanent force of “the unemployed”, which in 1842 numbered 150,000, men, women, and children (Sirot, Cordillot, Lemarquis & Pennetierin, undated). Marx refers to this massive number of what might have bee a potential workforce as the “industrial reserve army”, whose existence, claimed Marx, put a downward pressure on wages (Marx, Kapital Vol. 1, 1867).
But at best, this “reserve army” an unfit workforce, rendered physically weak by the squalid conditions and inadequate food available to unemployed French of working age. As a measure of this, ninety percent military-age men who applied to join the French Army were unable to pass its physical entrance exams (Patsouras 2005).
Urban crime in the 19th century was exceptionally high, with an estimated ten percent of the population resorting to criminality. Crime’s economic stablemate, prostitution, employed 50,000 women in Paris alone (Patsouras 2005). At that time, an estimated one-third of all children were illegitimate (Patsouras 2005, cites Langer 1969) indicating a breakdown of the family unit within a city 940,000. Sewage and water systems did not exist until Paris was rebuilt in the 1860’s, and human waste was thrown into the street to be collected. Cholera and other infectious diseases took their toll on these working and non-working classes, with 18,400 dying in Paris during the cholera outbreak of 1832. Indicating the breadth of class division, infant mortality in among the working class and the unemployed was twice that of the upper classes (Patsouras 2005).
It is against this backdrop that Marx worked as the editor of Vorwärts!, a Paris-based, German language, communist paper, where Marx established his idea that “class consciousness” was the “fertilizer” of revolution (Wheen 2008). His time in Paris came to an end when the Prussian government insisted the French authorities shut down Vorwärts! and once again expel Marx. King Louis-Philip’s interior minister, François Guizot, a conservative-liberal, was only too happy to comply. While it was ultimately inconsequential that Marx should leave Paris, as French radicals were largely not responding to, or even aware of his work (Chretien 2013), Marx clearly harbors some resentment toward them, as made evident by the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto, which was printed in 1848.
“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”
To the Marxist, the many peasant and worker uprisings of this period of French history (1775, 1789, 1815, 1830, 1832, 1848, and most fatefully, the Paris commune of 1871) well-illustrated that desperate, angry people could, and did repeatedly take to defensive barricades. To those who witnessed these grim times (particularly in England), Marx was a reassuring voice, that at some point, the capitalist-industrial age, and the oppression would be over. Marx envisioned that, as capitalism collapsed under its own negligence and illegitimacy, it would be replaced by shared-worker responsibility. In turn, each man would gain an equitable share in the rewards of their labor. He, like others, adopted a word that (John) Goodwyn Barmby, a utopian-socialist, claimed to have coined in 1840: “communism”.
The peasant uprisings of 1789, which may have been confused as “revolutionary” acts at the time, were short-lived and in retrospect, seemingly apolitical. This was a major stumbling block for Marxist ideology, which had to be explained. James Blaut, an American social anthropologist, wrote (undated) that during Engels’ flight across France following the February Revolution 1848 and the abdication of King Louis-Philippe, that Engels “bitterly, bitterly, denounces the peasants in the regions he went through for not supporting the revolutionary process.”
Marx was ultimately forced to address the lack of revolutionary spirit among the peasantry, and was conclusory when he would famously write: “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented” (Marx The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte part VII, 1852). Marx reasons within that text, that the act of agricultural production in itself presented an insurmountable isolation for the peasantry. The peasantry simply could not develop a larger, shared, social (class) consciousness. His frustration, and ultimate resignation to this fact is on display, with this backhanded comparison of both peasantry and France to a sack of potatoes.
“A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant, and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.” Karl Marx, 1852
Next Up: dominant schools of thought: the historians
References for Part 3 (series)
- The Splendid Duchy Allen Percy, 1872
- The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-century History and Theory. edited by Anna Green, Kathleen Troup, Manchester University Press, 1999
- Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography Francis Wheen, Grove Press, 2008
Marx in Context, Louis Patsouras iUniverse, 2005
- The Philosophical Roots of the Marx-Bakunin Conflict, Ann Robertson, What’s Next, 2003
- The German Ideology Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook, Idealism and Materialism, Karl Marx, 1845
- The Revolutionary Role of the Peasants, Nigel Harris, Debate, International Socialism (1st series), No.41,December 1969
- Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, By Karl Marx, Loyd David Easton, Kurt H. Guddat, Hackett Publishing, 1997
The poverty of Proudhon’s anarchism, Todd Chretien, socialistworker.org, 2013
- Ethics Volume II, Henry Epps, Lulu.com, undated
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- Language and Politics, Noam Chomsky, AK Press, 2004
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- Socialism: Collectivist Solutions, Gregory Brown, UNLV, undated
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- Histoire et mémoire des immigrations en région Bourgogne, Pierre-Jacques Derainne, Université de Bourgogne, 2006
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Sur Les Fluctuations du Climat de la France Septentrionale et Centrale Depuis le XVIIE Siècle, (speech) Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Collège de France, Académie des sciences morales et politiques, 2003
- France, Financial Crisis and the 1848 Revolutions, Hubert Bonin, Université Michel de Montaigne-Bordeaux, France, Undated
- For a review of the nineteenth century economic crises in France, Nadine Vivier, History & measurement (online) University of Maine, Western Historical Research Centre
- Agriculture and economic development in Europe 1870-1939 French studies, Nadine Vivier, IEHC 2006 Helsinki Session 60
- French Economic Situation 1847-1852. Yvonne, Crewbow, University of Lille, France, undated
- The Emergence of Modern Business Enterprise in France, 1800-1930 Michael Stephen Smith, Harvard University Press, 2006
- The Culture of the Mulberry Silkworm, Henrietta Aiken Kelly, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Division of Entomology, 1903
- Annual Report of the Bureau of Animal Industry for the Year, Volume 27,United States. Bureau of Animal Industry 1912
- The European subsistence crisis of 1845-1850: a comparative perspective, Eric Vanhaute, Richard Paping, Cormac Ó Grada, IEHC 2006 Helsinki Session 123
- The Myth of Free-Trade Britain and Fortress France: Tariffs and Trade in the Nineteenth Century, John Vincent Nye Source: The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Mar., 1991
- Litigation and the policing of communal faming in northern Burgundy, 1750–1790″ by Jeremy D. Hayhoe , The British Agricultural History Society
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- Les vignerons de la Côte-d’Or au XIXe siècle. Robert Laurent, Year 1955 Volume 19 Issue 5 pp. 209-211, L’Information Géographique