History of the Vigneron: Part 3.1, Philosophy, Perception, and the Historian



By Dean Alexander


This, the third in a series about the linguistic and cultural changes in Burgundy during the 19th-century, began with the premise that many Burgundians had been economically squeezed from the region (Weir 1976). These exiles, we are told, were the paysans, the peasant-farmers, whose families had survived on the margins of success and failure for centuries. This analysis conforms closely to the long-held assumption that in France, like in other countries, there had been a “rural exodus” of peasants leaving their farms in search of a better life in cities.  Certainly, French cities were growing at an exponential rate, but there is considerable evidence to suggest that this model may be incorrect.

For centuries before the Revolution, the peasants worked, often in misery, small tenured seignorial plots. These were essentially irrevocable leases between the lord and the peasant which typically were passed from one next generation of one peasant to the next. Under the feudal system, they had survived on the limited fruits of their labor, while paying their local lord his cens (essentially a lease payment) and seigneurial tailles (regional tax to the lord), to the king, they paid their taille royale, and to the church, their tithing. For several centuries, however great the cost, this system gave them protection from bandits and mercenaries and secured their right to farm a defined area which could never be taken away from them. With their support of the church and the local priests, the peasantry held on with the belief that something better was out there, if not in this life, then the next.

After 1660’s however, the security that the peasantry gained through the seignorial system, especially along unruly borderlands such as the Franche-Comte, was no longer necessary. The protection once provided by the local nobles (noblesse d’épée) were henceforth secured by the armies of King Louis XIV. This dramatic change in the social and political organization came about after a series of military engagements between the forces employed by renegade French nobility, and those of Louis XIV with engagements which ensued across France as part of the Franco-Spanish – Thirty Years War continuum. Often written as a separate action was known as the Fronde, this was a civil war which played out within a continental embroilment. For reasons of political and existential survival, notable players, such as Louis II, Prince of Condé, Duc d’Enghien, who ruled Burgundy, Berry, and Lorraine, found themselves often changing allegiances through negotiation, as the balance of power dictated. In the end, Louis XIV was able to centralize his authority bringing the nobility to heel.

In doing so, he secured France’s eastern borders, but in turn, unintentionally reduced much of the value the peasantry had gained in their seignorial arrangement with their local lords. Despite the fact that the lords were no longer responsible for duties of regional protection, did not cause a renegotiation of the terms of the seignorial arrangement, and with time this caused a great deal of hostility among the peasantry. The terms of tenure remained enforced until the eve of the Revolution, when peasants across France, rose up against the nobles and allowing enough distraction for actions in the Paris to unfold.

While the collapse of the seigniorial system during the First Republic came about largely due to the refusal of the peasants to pay their seignorial dues and taxes, also lost was the security gained by the seignorial system that their land could never be taken away due to financial forfeiture. The future of this new class of free rural paysan was far less certain with the realities of a capitalist system.

La Pay des Moissonneurs Léon-Augustin l'Hermitte (1844 - 1925)
La Pay des Moissonneurs Léon-Augustin l’Hermitte (1844 – 1925)

Because villages were built as self-sufficient communities long before a well-established road system had been designed, not all villages would find themselves near a road upon which significant trade would pass.  So while growing industry, trade, and commerce were 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 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

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. At the same time, the population of French city centers was expanding at an exponential rate. However, a close examination of the rural exodus, causes us to question presumed pressures upon the rural peasant and its connection to the urban population growth which was occurring simultaneously. It is entirely possible as some writers have accused that the “rural exodus” can be attributed with Marxist historicism. As closely as it resembles the Marxist exodus conceptualization, there were a myriad of other social and economic factors at play. These influences greatly reshaped the financial economies and culture of the French peasantry, all of which were independent of the Marxist stages of history.   Although France was moving from feudalism to capitalism, Marx’s industrialization which Marxists saw as pushing the peasants from rural farming to become urban industrial workers was not particularly accurate. France was only incrementally becoming industrialized. Similarly, as Weir wrote in 1976, the peasantry was being “squeezed out” the realities of this have their own Marxist overtones. There are points where economic forces may have conspired against the peasantry, but there are periods during which the Burgundian peasantry, particularly for the two decades between 1860 and 1880, probably faired pretty well.

To answer what happened to these people requires a deeper understanding than simply developing a historical timeline. The historical record of the 19th-century 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.

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 the 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 roadmap 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 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”. 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.


Karl Marx and Jenny von Westphalen were married in 1836
Karl Marx and Jenny von Westphalen were married in 1836

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 use a modern colloquialism, to “wake up.” Marx vehemently encouraged “class consciousness”, that workers should understand 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 academic 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 such as 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, who was so sure of his call to the proletariat to come to action.


Prince Louis borrows all his cast-off clothess from his uncle, Amédée de Noé 1848
Prince Louis borrows all his cast-off clothes from his uncle, Amédée de Noé 1848. Marx himself would mock the Bonaparte’s rise to power in the 18th Brumaire, “The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Political satirist, Comté 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 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 sharing of labor and resources. In Marx’s telling, this 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:

  1. primitive communism
  2. slave society (ie. the Roman Empire)
  3. feudalism
  4. capitalism
  5. The final stage of history, which was yet to happen, is Communism.

Marx explains how capitalism will captitulate to communism 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.


Read (here) deleted sections on Marx’s theory of History and Historical Materialism which were edited out for the sake of relative brevity

The ancient question of predestination vs. free will

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.

prolateriateMarx’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 the existence of formed its own class division. For many who lived during the 19th-century, they lived in what socialist writer David McNally called, “the dream of freedom,” and this was precisely the 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, who was well-established in Parisian leftist circles when Marx arrived in 1843, believed that the French farmer sought only to be left alone; that their only real desire of the government was to 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, Blanqui reasoned, must be by the workers and led by a socialist elite. Moreover, 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, the result of 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 phrase “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 the translation.

The Pont Neuf, Giuseppe Canella 1832, source Wikipedia
The Pont Neuf, Giuseppe Canella 1832, source Wikipedia

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.

Petit-patriots. Source unknown via tineye.
Petit-patriots. Original source unknown (via tineye)

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 among 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). 

Child laborers from the movie Oliver Twist, 2005
Child laborers from the movie Oliver Twist, 2005

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).

marx and englesIt 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-Philippe’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.”


False revolutionaries

The Peasant War-Assembling Constantin Meunier -1875
The Peasant War-Assembling Constantin Meunier, 1875

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

Executed National Guards following the communard surrender of Paris 1871
Executed National Guards following the communard surrender of Paris 18

Next Up: dominant schools of thought: the historians

References for Part 3 (series)

  1. The Splendid Duchy Allen Percy, 1872
  2. The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-century History and Theory. edited by Anna Green, Kathleen Troup, Manchester University Press, 1999
  3. Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography Francis Wheen, Grove Press, 2008
  4. Marx in ContextLouis Patsouras iUniverse, 2005

  5. The Philosophical Roots of the Marx-Bakunin Conflict, Ann Robertson, What’s Next, 2003
  6. The German Ideology Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook, Idealism and Materialism, Karl Marx, 1845
  7. The Revolutionary Role of the Peasants, Nigel Harris,  Debate, International Socialism (1st series), No.41,December 1969
  8. Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, By Karl Marx, Loyd David Easton, Kurt H. Guddat, Hackett Publishing, 1997
  9. The poverty of Proudhon’s anarchism, Todd Chretien, socialistworker.org, 2013

  10. Ethics Volume II, Henry Epps, Lulu.com, undated
  11. Chronologie indicative de l’histoire du mouvement ouvrier français, de 1789 à 1863, Stéphane Sirot, Michel Cordillot, René Lemarquis & Claude Pennetier, biosoc.univ-paris (undated)

  12. Language and PoliticsNoam Chomsky, AK Press, 2004
  13. “New” Socialist Ideas in the 1848 Revolution, David M. Hart, professor George Mason University, blog, 2014
  14. Socialism: Collectivist Solutions, Gregory Brown, UNLV, undated
  15. The History Guide, Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History, Steven Kreis, historyguide.org, 2000, 2008
  16. Socialism From Below, David McNally, International Socialists, Canada, 1984
  17. Logics of History, Social Theory and Social Transformation, William Sewell Jr., University of Chicago Press, 2005
  18. The Contemporary Review, Volume 41   Alexander Strahan, Isbister and Company L, 1882
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History of the Vigneron: Languages Part 2: the war on patois, and linguistic changes in Burgundy

1789-1914: the war on patois

Tho bourgeoise
The bourgeoisie

The a war on patois began shortly after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1789. Some saw a national language as one of the great tools which could unify the country. In the spirit of The Enlightenment, some in the new government fervently believed that the installment of a national language would bring égalité* to all men. Further, it was felt that the inability of a majority of a country’s citizens to be unable to understand political debate was undemocratic.

It is somewhat ironic that the choice for a national language should be the king’s tongue; but it is not all that surprising. After all, the new power base would ultimately belong the to the français speaking Bourgeoisie who controlled both the merchant shipping, and France’s industrial capacity. Under the monarchy, these wealthy businessmen had always pursued equality their own with the nobility.** That they spoke français, was the result of one such failed effort at parity. But despite their superior education, their great social refinement, their powerful positions in business, and sometimes extravagant wealth, they would always be a lesser man than the titled noble. It would take bloodshed to tear down social structure of birthright.

France was hopelessly behind both England and Germany in terms of the industrial development and output, being so deeply invested, both economically and philosophically, in its feudal agricultural economy. But where France did lead was in thought. France was, far and above, the world’s intellectual giant. France’s post revolution urban elite, developed a culture of scholarship that was producing thinkers who were making groundbreaking strides in science, medicine, philosophy, as well as the arenas of political and economic theory. Education, which these men held dear, was seen as the tool which would simultaneously and seamlessly spread both égalité and français as France.

(*) Égalité was a new term and concept thought to be first used in 1774. (Britannica) Although the leader of the Jacobins Maximilien de Robespierre was known to have said this in December 1790: “On their uniforms engraved these words: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. The same words are inscribed on flags which bear the three colors of the nation.”  The notion of  judicial égalité was set into French law in Article 6 of the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen de 1789 (the rights of man). It pronounced that law “must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, shall be equally eligible to all high offices, public positions and employments, according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.“ (frenchmoments.eu/)  More on the French motto can be learned here.

(**) Like most men throughout history, equality is rarely sought for all men. The past has taught us that the definition of the term word ‘men’ can be endlessly manipulated, or complicated by exceptions. What they had sought was their own ability to stand as equals with the nobility and king. Taking this idea one step further, it would not be a stretch to assume that many of these very wealthy, proud, educated, refined men felt socially and morally superior. They likely did not common, and no doubt resented their ‘commoner’ moniker. In their new empire, they would not speak some lowly country patois. There was really only one choice for a national language. It would be français.


The stigmatization of patois

peasants and cart
A picking crew at the turn of the 20th century,

So, with great intention, the use of patois across France was stigmatized and societally degraded. In the south of France, those who spoke Occitan languages were acutely affected by the French governmental assault on its patois. There it was called Vergonha, or the “shame”. Linguists, Jean Léo Léonard & Gilles Barot wrote in 2012, wrote that “to be considered as a ‘patois’ is one of the worse curses that may happen to a language.”

The first and most famous leader in this fight was the cardinal Henri Grégoire, who wrote a report to the revolutionary government calling not only for the institution of français but the “annihilation” of regional patois. For those in Grégoire’s camp, patois was considered to be a force of obscurantism. Obscurantism was an interesting concept, that an obscurantist was an “enemy of intellectual enlightenment” and worked against the “diffusion of knowledge” (Wikipedia). The idea was the existence of patois was preventing information from being passed, and thus obscuring facts and details from being known.

Grégoire’s position was clearly extreme, as was many aspects of those revolutionary times, going as far to write that patois languages were “barbaric jargons and those coarse lingos that can only serve fanatics and counter-revolutionaries now!” However, among those who that sought to institute français, came to the task with varying viewpoints regarding these dialects. There were those who were overly passionate like Grégoire, that considered patois vulgar, with the “expression of ignorance, archaic prejudice, and obscenity”(Forrest 1991). But others described it as only capable of expressing simple emotion; be it “anger, hate, or love”. This was a significant slight by those men who cherished intellectual thought. Still, there were others viewed it with a bit more kindness,“believing it expressed a pastoral simplicity and closeness to nature” (Forrest 1991). To paraphrase Forrest, it was the language that the paysan spoke to his oxen and his dog.

The early 1800’s: turbulent politics and war makes a national language impossible

But the reality was that the First Republic’s national assembly was deeply divided and had limited time or attention to pursuing Grégoire’s linguistic passions. To this point, the events of the revolution had not disposed of Louis XVI. The king was now sharing power in a constitutional monarchy with the national assembly.

In what seems more of an urgent need a display of decisive revolutionary change, rather than having instituted a well-conceived plan, the fledgling government restructured the country into 83 new départements in 1791. These new departments were drawn to disrupt as many of the traditional, regional, and ethnic associations as possible, and this included patois.  The most highly cited example of separating a major city from its historical homeland is Toulouse. In 1793, Toulouse had a population of 52,612 and was one of France’s largest cities. It was decided break up the Languedoc, by splitting Toulouse off, in order to force new Haute-Garonne centric governmental and trade associations. While these did not sever the natural routes of trade from Toulouse to the Mediterranean coast, it would divide the old political interests that these regions had historically shared. As mentioned earlier, it was these Occitan speakers (langues d’Oc) who would feel the most victimized, by these kinds of actions by Paris. But there is little doubt that Paris did make special efforts to bring the sometimes defiant south, into the national fold.

Eugène Delecroix' famous painting of "Liberty leading the People" which depicts the July revolution of 1848
Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting of “Liberty leading the People” which depicts the July revolution of 1848

The attention of the reformers in Paris was intermittent at best, as upheaval was commonplace in the France the first half the 1800’s. France, from this time forward, would find itself at the center conflicts involving many nations. War, which many within the national assembly felt would unify a divided France, would now be entered into as a member of an alliance, but what unfolded was a new type of war with an unlimited battlefield. This kind of warfare had its battles spilling outside of Europe, across the open oceans, and in far-flung colonies, intended to disrupt and deprive the enemy of wealth and matériel needed to continue the conflict. The war between the major powers of Europe had taken on a new face, one that would define conflicts for the next 150 years. The term for this kind of battle was total war.

1830-1851: education as a political battlefield

Education, the sword with which Cardinal Grégoire’s war on patois was to have been waged, had already been badly neglected for several decades by the 1830’s. It is estimated that in 1835, only one person out of every four hundred thirty-five, attended any kind of school within France (Theis, guizot.com). Because of this, the use of patois went along unfettered. But beginning in 1830, with the reign of king Louis-Philippe, attention would be paid to restoring public education in France. Two men, working under two successive monarchies, would institute an expansive system of schools across France. François Guizot would begin the work in 1832, slowly breaking down many political barriers to the establishment of education. The second man, Frédéric-Alfred-Pierre, who is better known by his noble title comté de Falloux du Coudray, would finish re-instituting an educational system in 1849. Although at this juncture, there was no pointed assault on patois, the establishment of a robust system of schools meant that students all across France were now learning and spreading the langues français into their communities.

It was Guizot who did the heavy lifting in the redevelopment of schools in France. Guizot’s significant reputation as a great professor and statesman, eventually allowed him to negotiate the deep political divides between the conservative monarchist and the secular Republicans. Both groups were equally intransigent in their positions regarding the role of the church in education, and success of the implementation of any educational system was the result of years of mediation and compromise. In the end, a level of Church’s involvement in education was grudgingly agreed accepted by the Republicans in the assembly. Guizot’s accomplishment of instituting instruction for boys in communities with over 500 inhabitants, whether it was in the form of free secular or a private catholic institution, was a hard-fought victory (Theis, guizot.com).

The Black Stain, by Albert Bettanier (1887).


For the conservative right, who viewed secular education as nothing more than socialist indoctrination, the church’s limited presence in schools was not a settled issue. So in the wake of the Revolution of 1848, the newly formed, conservative-dominated assembly of the Second Republic quickly passed a new series education laws. Written by the comté de Falloux, who was the Minister of Public Instruction and Worship, these loi Falloux would greatly expand the role of the church in education. The laws also expanded education to include primary schooling for girls. Communities of over 800 inhabitants would now be required to build schools for girls as well, in addition to those that had been already been constructed under Guizot, for boys (in communities of over 500). The ease with which the loi Falloux had passed was made possible both because of the work was done by Guizot, as well as the anti-clerical Republicans were now had a minority representation in the Assembly.*

(*) This was the political backlash in the wake collapse of the financial systems across Europe, and the Revolution of 1848, allowing a conservative coalition of monarchists and Bonapartists to power. The short-lived Second Republic 1848-1852 was headed by president Louis-Napoléon.  Napoléon, the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, would lead a coup d’etat in 1852, when the assembly tried to block his re-election as president and would pronounce himself as Emperor Napoléon III.


1871: the political fallout of the Prussian’s defeat of Napoléon III

While francais was widely spoken in Burgundy by 1863, we know that clearly click to enlarge
The 1863 survey indicates that francais was in dual use with patois throughout most of Burgundy. It acknowledges that at the national level, the ministry of Instruction was at a minimum at least monitoring the spread Francais if not actively promoting it. click to enlarge

The defeat and capture of Emperor Napoléon III by the Prussians in 1870, and the ensuing siege and surrender of Paris in 1871 left the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate (appointed by Louis-Napoleon) and the National Assembly, with the duty of re-establishing a government. All had assumed that France would return to a constitutional monarchy, as aside from short twelve-year rule of the First Republic, and the four years under the Second Republic, France had only known a history filled with monarchs and emperors. Three factions sought their heir to take the throne: the Legitimists (supporters of a Bourbon king), the Orléanists (supporters of the Carpets – descendants of Louis-Philip), and the Bonapartists. The return of a Bourbon to the throne was accepted as the most “legitimate” claim to the throne. Charles X’s grandson, Henri d’Artois, Comté de Chambord had been poised to do so for many years. He had been the “pretender to the throne”, with every regime change, waiting, usually in exile, to be called to his duty. And in 1872 he had come so close to becoming the king of France. Yet his refusal to rule under the tri-colored flag would ultimately cost him the throne (Bicknell 1884). Because, while Henri de Chambord saw the tri-color as a bitter symbol of the fall of his family and of the revolution, to most Frenchmen the flag was a symbol of immense pride and a symbol of French military glory. They would not give up the tri-color, and Henri de Chambord would not be king.

With Chambord out of the picture, a panic set in amongst the Legitimists. In a masterful series of political maneuvers, Adolphe Thiers used the mutual fears of the Legitimists and Bonapartists regarding a successful Orléanists bid for the monarchy. Thiers positioned himself as a preferable pseudo-conservative alternative to an Orléanists usurping power. Despite Thiers longstanding Republican party affiliations, the Legitimists supported his bid for power as prime minister of the new Third Republic. Certainly, his brutal suppression of the socialists in the Paris Commune cemented his reputation as an authoritarian, and as a stalwart anti-communist, they allied their fears that they were not putting a staunch liberal into power.

The Third Republic proved successful at maintaining power for the next seventy years. Within the ensuing decade, the secular Republicans party would dominate in their legislative control of the Third Republic. Jules Ferry would come into party leadership, and ultimately as serve as prime minister for two short stints 1880-1881, and 1883-1885, yet he would play a pivotal role in the story of français overtaking the many patois as the primary language used in France.

Author’s commentary: Impressive, is despite all of the violent revolutions, and major traumas, both war and political, which have occurred in France, the constitutional government never fell regardless of some of the regime collapses which it was forced to deal with. The military too never forced a coup, and seemingly remained obedient to the National Assembly in times of transition. The country never fell into total chaos (depending on your judgment of the ‘Reign of Terror) which can occur with the fall of a primary ruler or a dominant government leader. The National Assembly was always there to maintain order as an “interim government” until it could be decided who would come to power next.

The 1880’s: renewed calls for national unity, and new attacks on patois

13th November 1936: A youth parade of Spanish schoolchildren makes its way along the road wearing the black shirts of the Fascists and carrying dummy rifles. Their home of Irun has been taken over by Rebel troops during the Spanish Civil War, and they have been converted to the Fascist cause. (Photo by Maeers/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
The Third Republic’s attempts to indoctrinate school children with nationalism and patriotic zeal during the 1880’s, were done with similar methods demonstration by Spanish fascists during the Spanish civil war. (Photo by Maeers/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

In addition to holding the position of the President of the Council of Ministers (prime minister), Ferry simultaneously held the position of Minister of Public Instruction and Fine Arts.  It is believed by most historians, that Ferry and others in France were so alarmed by France’s defeat at the hands of the Prussians, that it was considered imperative that every measure possible must be taken to strengthen and unify the country. A dramatic example of France’s fear of the future was that during this period, French school children were patriotically marched, made to carry wooden guns with fixed bayonets (Gaulupeau 2000).

So it was with this fear of again being conquered, that Ferry pushed through a series of strong educational laws in 1882. which along with making public instruction free and mandatory, divested France of the churches participation in public, primary education.

Republican leadership had always viewed the Church and its teachings as an organ of “superstition and regression” (Zantedeschi undated), but now their desire to rectify this perceived national weakness, gave them sufficient justification to pursue a stricter form of laïcité (the absence of religious involvement in the state). That it took ten years for the Republicans, to undo the Ferry laws of 1848, probably gives us a good idea of how long it took Republicans to gain majority control over the National Assembly.

Also important was the Ferry laws tightened requirements regarding the size of communities which were required to provide education for their children. From 1882 onward, any village with more than twenty children must provide a primary school education (Zantedeschi, undated). This dramatically spread the reach of education and the teaching of français, far more deeply into the sparsely populated rural regions, where patois still flourished.

As part of Ferry’s political objective of national unity, the education laws reportedly forbade the speaking patois on school grounds. According to Wikipedia: “Art. 30 of Loi d’éducation française: states that “It is strictly forbidden to speak patois during classes or breaks.”  I have not been able to locate any additional references to this, or any other the legal prohibition of patois on school grounds. However, Witold Tulasiewicz and Anthony Adams write in their 2005 book, ‘Teaching the Mother Tongue in a Multilingual Europe’, that Ferry published an open letter to primary school teachers in 1883, calling for the need to eradicate all “local forms of speech, whether languages, dialects or patois.” In Ferry’s words “…each school had to become a French-speaking colony in a conquered country” (Convey 2005).

"Speak Francais, Be Clean" painted on a school wall, photo wikipedia
“Speak Francais, Be Clean” painted on a school wall, photo Wikipedia

This was a letter that Ferry wrote on the eve of his leaving his first ministership in 1881, but the primary focus of the letter apparently was not on patois. Rather Ferry wrote of teaching both moral education and civic education in the enlightenment spirit of laïcité. Once again, among the scholarly writings of Ferry’s open letter of 1883, which there are plenty, I can find no other which mention his addressing patois. There is simply a stunning absence of information on this subject.

Shaming, may, or may not have been an “official” governmental policy, but it is more than evident that shaming existed on a systemic level, within the educational system, and elsewhere. There are hundreds of personal accounts of shaming and corporal punishment of students, by both teachers and other school officials. These many accounts readily contradict any lack of official record or scholarly study of the subject.

Wikipedia maintains two pages which cover the repression of patois. One is titled Vergonha and the other Language Policy in France.  Vergonha is the Occitan (Langue d’Oc) term referring to the “shaming” of the patois speaking population. It should be noted that the lack of scholarly work on the subject causes the Vergonha page to be noted for its need of citations. While a lack citation is not unusual in Wikipedia, since it is a relatively young resource, I suspect citations in this area will not be forthcoming.  After all, as the Vergonha page states, “shaming” is still largely a taboo subject in France.

How long shaming existed in schools, may significantly predate the Ferry laws.  Vergonha page on Wikipedia shows evidence of this. It cites a 2007 book written by professor and historian Georges Labouysse*, “Histoire de France, l’Imposture: The Lies and Manipulations of Official History“.  According to this text, in 1845, thirty-six years before the Ferry law, a Breton administrator charging his teachers to put a halt to patois in their schools.  “And remember, Gents” the administrator instructed, “you were given your position in order to kill the Breton language.” A second example given by Labouysse happened a year later in the Basque country. Here an administrator reportedly told his teachers: “Our schools in the Basque Country are particularly meant to substitute the Basque language with French…”

(*) Labouysse’s book title does raise a red flag to a partisan agenda. Although his name appears often in a google search, a Curriculum Vitae does not come up. But neither do I find any accusations of having a particular political leaning, an ax to grind, or having espoused any crazy conspiratorial theories.


Tying this all back to Burgundy: Bourguignon in atrophy

Modern day distribution of Languages of the Bourguignon. The Morvan is indicated by in green. The clumping of rural locations where the dialect is spoken at home, is often surrounded by locations where only the elderly speak patois. This suggests that the peasants are becoming "assimilated" into French language and culture, and the patois is being lost.
Modern day distribution of Languages of the Bourguignon. The Morvan is indicated by in green. The clumping of rural locations where the dialect is spoken at home is often surrounded by locations where only the elderly speak patois. This suggests that the peasants are becoming “assimilated” into French language and culture, and the patois is being lost.

So with the implementation of the Ferry laws of 1881, which in conjunction with the systemic use of the shaming and punishment of students by school officials, there was significant pressure across the country not to publically speak in the local patois. It would take less than two generations to cement français as the one language which was spoken almost universally across France. The final nail in patois coffin would be the four years that France’s men would spend hunkered down in trenches of World War I. To paraphrase Eugen Weber, they left for the war as peasants, and came back Frenchmen.

The penetration of français into the more isolated interiors of the country may have been a far slower where communities had fewer than 20 school aged children. However, there were other factors which were putting significant pressures on these regional languages.

The success of a language is all a numbers game, and small rural villages were quickly losing residents for various reasons. The first began around 1820 when birthrates everywhere across Europe began to decline.* This when coupled with a rural exodus which began around the same time meant that these communities were taking a big hit in population. This does not even factor in other rural economic hardships which occurred, only one of which was phylloxera. People were leaving these rural agricultural areas leaving fewer and fewer people to speak these languages. By 1988, out of a total population of the 1.6 million people who were spread across the four Burgundian departments, only 50,000 people (estimated) had some knowledge of Bourguignon (languesdoil.org).

In a 2010 survey done by Les Langues & Vous** revealed the information on the map to the right regarding the geographic locations where surveyors recorded patois to be spoken.  The darkest spots indicate patois spoken at home, and the red spots indicate that patois was only spoken by elders in that location. The open circles were areas where only français remained (map source: Léonard and Barot 2012)

Léonard and Barot write in their 2012 paper, ‘Language or Dialect Shift? Shifting, Fading and Revival of Burgundian Gallo-Romance Varieties’, that français had infiltrated the Côte more quickly than other provincial regions. This, they claim was for two reasons, the first of which was the region was covered by a dense network of monasteries. This is at odds with the history given by the University of Ottawa’s Site for Language Management’s position that the church’s teachings in Latin had actually hindered the spread of français.*** The contradictions in the analyses and interpretations of history are what make the study so consuming. The answers are rarely as they first appear.

Léonard and Barot cite a second factor, the abundance of closely spaced “mid-sized urban centers” from which français infiltrated the countryside between. This may have been a factor. If you look again at the map on the right and trace a line from Auxerre to Dijon, then down through Beaune, you will notice that there are very few remnants of patois.

(*) This is a complicated issue, especially when looking at small villages across Burgundy which saw population losses of 50% from 1793. This will be the subject of the next article. 

(**) I have found no Google reference to Les Langues & Vous, but this is apparently an educational NGO based out of Dijon.

(***) The Site for Language Management, however, did not give a time range for this position, and the period discussed may have been earlier, in the 16th and 17th centuries. Historians do know that one of the major reasons behind 1539, ordinance of Villers Cotterêts was to restrict the use of Latin, thus the influence of the Church. Thus, intendants and provincial administrators (the noblesse de robe) all spoke in French, and all official business of the state was performed in French. The development of French language (which I had originally planned to lead this article on patois, was moved to the end and will be discussed in an upcoming article. For better or worse, it keeps getting pushed back as I delve into new issues of how patois was affected by the national economic crisis, demographics, and how they both affected the people of Burgundy.


In Burgundy, français spread along the wine routes

A conclusion missed by Léonard and Barot is that this path between cities, is precisely the route first established by the old Roman Via Agrippa from Auxerre to Mâcon. Where Léonard and Barot’s idea falters is that along the road from Beaune, near Cluny, and again near Mâcon, there are still concentrations of patois speakersThis indicates, not so much that they are wrong, but that there are other factors involved. I believe the major contributor to the growth of français in this area, was the influx of money and people involved in the wine trade.

The economics of the region suggests that the transition to français along the escarpment of the Côte d’Or occurred as a natural developmentJust as I believe the wine trade had previously spread the patois of chalonnais along the same route, I believe it was the economics of wine which now hastened the spread of français. During the 18th century, with new roads open to the port cities, the wines of Burgundy had quickly gained great demand in Holland, Germany, England, and elsewhere.  With such demand, prices escalated quickly, many times higher than they had historically been. Wine was now big business in Burgundy. Trade now required communication and contract negotiations with both domestic and international partners, and these deals involved large sums of money. Fluency in français had become critical.

The wine industry was bringing considerable wealth into to the renown villages of the Côte, and it buoyed the fortunes of those who controlled plots in desirable locations, regardless of their social status. Their grapes were now worth more, and because of that, their land was worth more. For these plot holders, there was an incentive to learn to communicate with Francophones, particularly as more and more speakers of français were being drawn into the area, by both the money to be made, and the prestige that association with these vineyards brought. For those peasants who farmed the better plots of Gevrey, Vosne, Volnay, Meursault or Puligny, they would have suddenly found themselves with an economic incentive to learn this language that brought them financial success. A natural decline in of the use patois Bourguignon within these villages was inevitable.

But I believe there were other economic factors that were brewing, which when combined, would push patois out of the Côte. The old bourguignon dialect of chalonnais would virtually cease to exist with the exodus of the people who spoke it.

Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise by Camille Pissaro 1882
Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise by Camille Pissaro 1882


Coming up: The effects of the economic crises of 1840, Phylloxera 1850, rural exodus, and the declining birthrate on patois.




The Pretenders to the Throne of France, A. Bicknell, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine November 1883 to April 1884

Vernacular culture as a religious rampart: Roussillon clergy and the defense of Catalan language in the 1880s, Francesca Zantedeschi, http://spinnet.eu/

Le Monde de l’éducation, Yves Gaulupeau, 2000, cited in From the Schoolroom to the Trenches: Laïcité and its Critics, Ian Birchall, paper given to London Historical Materialism Conference November 2015

Teaching the Mother Tongue in a Multilingual Europe, by Witold Tulasiewicz, Anthony Adams, A&C Black,  2005

Economic, Social and Demographic Thought in the XIXth Century: The Population Debate from Malthus to Marx, Yves Charbit, Springer Science & Business Media, 2009

The European subsistence crisis of 1845-1850: a comparative perspective Eric VanHaute,  Richard Paping, Cormac Ó Gráda, IEHC Helsinki, 2006

The Ideological Polarization of Europe in 1792, professor William Patch, Washington and Lee University, http://home.wlu.edu/

Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914. Eugen Weber, Stanford Univ. Press. 1976.

Schooling in Western Europe: A Social History, Mary Jo Maynes, Suny Press 1985

Teaching the Mother Tongue in France, Francoise Convey, Teaching the Mother Tongue in a Multilingual Europe, edited by Witold Tulasiewicz, Anthony Adams, A&C Black,June 9, 2005

Regional Dynamics Burgundian Landscapes in Historical Perspectiveedited by Carole Crumle

Languages and the Military: Alliances, Occupation and Peace Building, edited by H. Footitt, M. Kelly, Springer, 2016

Collective Action in Winegrowing Regions: A Comparison of Burgundy and the Midi – David R. Weir July 1976

Language or Dialect Shift? Shifting, Fading and Revival of Burgundian Gallo-Romance Varieties, Jean Léo Léonard  & Gilles Barot, 2012

End or invention of Terroirs? Regionalism  in the marketing of French luxury goods: the example of Burgundy wines in the inter‐war years, working paper Gilles Laferté Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique

Negotiating Territoriality: Spatial Dialogues Between State and Tradition, Allan Charles Dawson, Laura Zanotti, Ismael Vaccaro, Routledge 2014

‘Insofar as the ruby wine seduces them’: Cultural Strategies for Selling Wines in Interwar Burgundy,” Philip Whalen, 2009

The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism, Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, University of California Press, 2005

From Savage to Citizen: The Invention of the Peasant in the French Enlightenment, Amy S. Wyngaard, University of Delaware Press, 2004

Reshaping France: Town, Country, and Region During the French Revolution, Alan I. Forrest, Manchester University Press, 1991

Le patois bourguignon, patrimoine en danger, Arnaud Racapé, France Bleu Bourgogne, 2015

History of the Vigneron: Languages Part I: Patois de bourguignon

View of Paris by Pieter Casteels II (fl. 1673–1700)
View of Paris by Pieter Casteels II (fl. 1673–1700)

A thousand years of patois

by Dean Alexander

It is ironic that history speaks so little about language, because other than extreme weather, the issues of communication, miscommunication, and the lack of communication, have likely shaped history more any other single factor. Indeed, these issues of communication are often difficult to pinpoint and their consequences are often lost to history. However, this does not excuse histories which take slight note that on the eve of 1789’s French Revolution, eighty-eight percent of the population of France could not hold a conversation in French, nor did not know any French at all (slmc.uottawa.ca). Nor is it sufficiently impressed that there were dozens of different patois spoken across France.

Tower of BabelMany histories gloss over the issue of language with no more than an occasional reference to ‘terms’ which were “in the patois of the region. This leaves the impression that patois was no more than a colorful piece of slang, rather than itself being a distinct language or dialect. Such casual references do not convey any difficulty of communication within a population which had spoken an estimated six to seven hundred dialects (10th century), derived from three distinct mother tongues (slmc.uottawa.ca). Another (rather poor) estimate, was provided in a 1794 report by the revolutionary bishop of Blois, Henri Grégoire. He wrote that with “thirty different patois, we are still, as far as language goes, at the Tower of Babel“.  That the bishop underestimated the number of dialects so grievously, suggests how little he really knew about these languages and the people who spoke them. Some modern scholars estimate there were as many as fourteen patois in Burgundy alone.

Whatever the number of patois, it is staggering that percentage of the population which did not speak French, and it invites a number of questions when considering the history of the vigneron. What was the history of language within Burgundy, and why was the French language so slow to be adopted there (and across the country)? How did the monarchy effectively overcome linguist differences? When did the français language arrive in the Côte d’Or, and what was its societal impact? What do we know about the regional Burgundian language; and lastly, does the Burgundian patois survive today? 

Note: for the remainder of this article, I will refer to the language of French by its French name, français. The primary reason for this is français was simply just one of many languages spoken in France.  A secondary reason for this spelling is all of the other language names have no English equivalent, it seems natural that the French language should be represented in the same format. I reserve the right to use the word ‘French’ to represent the language, when refers to its current day usage, or it allows me to avoid an awkward sentence construction. Also challenging was the decision whether or not to capitalize all of the languages and titles. In English we capitalize everything, but not-so-much in French. I opted for the later if the term was in français, but I did capitalize if it was an English usage. I’m sure I did plenty wrong on this account. Editing is not a strength of mine.

Part three of this article will deal with the development and history of français – it is integral to the French story, but secondary to the story of Burgundy. 


Language and the Côte d’Or during the ancien régime and beyond

The patois of Burgundy has traditionally been referred to by French writers as“bourguignon-morvandiau”.  That bourguignon comes from the same mother tongue as français, the langue d’oïl, does not mean that communication was easy between those who were purely bourguignophones, and those who were purely Francophones.  How difficult was this communication? An indication may lie in the fact that someone who spoke both français and a patois was said to be bi-lingual.

Along with hundreds of words which were decidedly different from français, some of which can be viewed here, the pronunciation of the words common to both français and bourguignon-morvandiau could itself cause one to have to listen carefully. Speakers of bourguignon rolled their “r“s liberally when compared to that of the French speaker, and the “a”, “eu”, and “to” sounds are very marked, or exaggerated, in their pronunciation. The patios spoken from the Burgundy border north of Dijon, down through Nuits, and Beaune to the southernmost vineyard area of the Côte d’Or was a bourguignon dialect called chalonnaise (Léonard and Barot 2012).



The Morvan

Patois bourguignon-morvandiau

The name “bourguignon-morvandiau” suggests that the language originated in the hills Morvan Massif, lies roughly 40 kilometers west of the Côte d’Or. This implication can be quite misleading, but the Morvan is really not a such a bad place to begin this story.

It is a rugged region of wooded peaks and high valleys. With the quasi-isolation, the terrain presented in terms of accessibility, in both communication and trade in and out of the Morvan, has always suffered. This has meant that the population, in addition to being quite poor, has been correspondingly under-educated. These factors have made this one of the last places where the ancient patois of Burgundy is still being spoken.

The Dorsale boisée is in brown, with Chateau Chinon pop. in 1876 was 2668, today pop. 2086.
The Dorsale boisée is in brown, with Chateau Chinon pop. in 1876 was 2668, today pop. 2086.

The Morvan’s quaint villages and small farms dot the region’s meadows or were cut from its forests in an era of uneven logging regulation. As logging intensified to meet the nations demands for lumber, the population of various villages swelled by as much as forty percent between the years of 1840 and 1900.* The region’s resources, which included cheap, unskilled labor, were, as vividly described by Jean-Léo Léonard & Gilles Barot, absorbed “ruthlessly by the belly of Paris”.

It was from this poor and bloated population, which identified itself by its humble patois, that the daughters of the Morvan were sent to Paris to work as nannies and nursemaids. And over the decades, as thousands of young Morvan girls had worked in the capital’s wealthiest homes, awareness of the patois bourguignon-morvandiau grew outside of the region. It was only a matter of time before bourguignon-morvandiau would become synonymous with the patois of burgundy.

Over the centuries, it has been abundantly clear that the peasants of the Morvan have clung to their language as an integral part of their identity. And although morvandiau has been a long-established written language, only a minority of its speakers ever learned to read or write it. That français has finally supplanted the regional patois as the primary language was spoken is significant, but it is representative of the regression of patois all across France.

The biggest threat to morvandiau is the Morvan’s increasingly diminishing population. In some of its larger villages, the population is a third or less in number than its 19th-century levels. Because of this, it is impossible for “morvandiau” to retain the dynamic vibrancy which it displayed in the past.

(*) from levels established by the census of 1793

(**) 1793 was the first census by the new revolutionary government

(***) The population change shows the boom and bust economy during this period. Moux-en-Morvan in 1793 population was 1089, in 1872 the population swelled to 1688, and today (2013) Moux-en-Morvan has 564 people who live there.  Montreuillon lies along a feeder canal to the Canal du Niverais, allowed good transport for logging operations.  In 1793 had a population of 855, and it grew to a peak population of 1272 in 1976, while today it has shrunk to only 286 inhabitants in 2013.


ijon skyline, source planetware.com
The Dijon skyline. photo: planetware.com

Dijon and the wine villages of the Côte d’Or

Approximately 40 kilometers east of the Morvan, lies the Burgundian provincial capital of Dijon. As the provincial seat of government, and as a major ecclesiastical and intellectual center, it was necessary to speak français by anyone of social position during the ancien régime. This was also true for commoners who aspired to gain wealth, or rise to a position of prominence.* As such, by the early 18th century (if not before), the bourgeoisie of Gevrey, Vosne, Nuits, and Beaune, would have all spoken français. This was a nécessité in order to conduct business with the right people in Dijon, Paris, or to meet with merchants of the great trading cities along the Atlantic coast.

The arrival of the français along the route des grand cru indicated that a new stratification was occurring at a societal level. There had always been a class difference between the nobility and the common man, but now, the knowledge of français created a new and important social demarcation between members within the third estate (Forrest 1991). There were now two major classes of commoner, a group which includes peasants, laborers, and artisans on one side and the educated bourgeoisie on the other. One could easily tell them apart, if not by the clothes that they wore, but by the language they spoke.

 (*) This timing would coincide with the drive by Versailles to subdue the nobility and attain an absolute monarchy.


Across the Saône River: the Gallo-Romance language of Franco-Provençal 

Franco-Provençal or Arpitan. Difficult intelligibility among dialects was noted in the early 18th century. Wikpedia
Franco-Provençal or Arpitan. Difficult intelligibility among dialects was noted in the early 18th century. Wikipedia

For centuries, the Côte d’Or sat at a crossroads of two mother languages of patois: Langue d’oïl and Franco-Provençal (also known as Arpitan). In much of the three Burgundian departments of Yonne, Nièvre, and the Côte d’Or, patois in which the langue d’oïl was primarily dominant. But as one moved south and within Nièvre, and east within the Côte d’Or, the words and pronunciation typical of franco-provençaux became increasingly strong.  This was particularly true along the banks of the Saône River, which bordered the department of FrancheComté.

In the department of SaôneetLoire, which is home to the vineyards of Rully, Bouzeron, Mâcon, and Pouilly-Fuissé, the patois there are said to be transitional, conveying varying degrees of both the Langue d’oïl and Franco-Provençal. Nearby, just across the Saône River, in the Franche-Comté, Franco-Provençal was the primary tongue.   In 1807, one French linguist, Jean-Louis Grillet, wrote that communication between various Franco-Provençal dialects was “difficult” (Wikipedia). This comment instructs us on other linguistic challenges that at one time certainly existed within Burgundy, and across the realm.

Dissecting the ‘langues des bourguignons’

To study the dialects of a century ago requires that patois were literate, meaning there was a written version of them. As  James R. Lehning writes that the patois of the Loire had “apparently deteriorated in the course of the nineteenth century.” And in the arrondissement of Roanne,” patois existed in only an “attenuated” form (Lehning 1995). This is to be expected, as the use of français extended its reach into rural communities. But if this was already happening in the 1800’s, it is relatively impossible for us to know the extent of the changes which had already been made to patios by this period, and how much communication had already improved.

References to the patois of Burgundy is typically viewed as a single dialect. An example of this is found on the website of a group self-titled as Défense et promotion des langues d’oïl, – which interprets Burgundian patois as being bourguignon-borvandiau.

The English language pages of Wikipedia names the Burgundian patois bifurcates Burgundian patois into two dialects. The first is morvandiau which they define as a base of the “d’oïl of central France, but with stronger Germanic influences than standard français” and is peppered with hollandaise terms. These were no doubt picked up in trading wine with the Dutch. The second regional patois identified by the French language Wikipedia is a hybrid oïl-franco-provençaux language, which it terms charolais-brionnais. This is the patois the SaôneetLoire, which lies on the southern border of Chassagne-Montrachet. While this is a more complete explanation, the reality is yet more complicated.

However, the French language version of Wikipedia (fr.wikipedia.com) breaks down the languages of the Morvan Massif itself as four dialects.*  Dialect breaks between areas of the Morvan show in pronunciations such as “ç’ost” vs. “y’ost” to say “there is”.  Other differences: in the northern part of the Morvan water is pronounced as “gaujer,” while in the south it becomes “gauyer.”  For a speaker of français, who would say“prendre l’eau”, either pronunciation would be unintelligible.

This is not the only explanation, however, as linguists often do not necessarily agree. Some regional sociolinguists have replaced the overarching morvandiau designation with 13 distinct regional dialects, that stretch across the four departments of Burgundy (Léonard, Barot 2012). The northern and western patois are primarily oïl with varying amounts of franco-provençaux influences, but as one moves southward, particularly into the department of SaôneetLoire, the langue franco-provençaux becomes increasingly dominate.

A less obvious, due to its distance from Burgundy, are the influences of the Occitan languages, once called lenga d’òc (or langue d’oc in French). Occitan, along with the langues d’oïl and franco-provençaux, are France’s holy trinity of Gallo-Romance languages. This Gallic-Roman mother tongue forms the basis of many patois stretching from Spain’s Pyrenean Val d’Aran in the west, across the Languedoc, to Calabria Italy in the east. Although its area of use is separated from Burgundy by the Central Massif and the Limousin forest, there are numerous occitan words and inflections present in several of the southern bourguignon patois.

(*) No additional information is given regarding these divisions, however.

map adapted from: Jean Léo Léonard & Gilles Barot (Langues de Bourgogne)
map adapted from: Jean Léo Léonard & Gilles Barot (Langues de Bourgogne)

The following are the fourteen patois of Burgundy

  • Morvan-Autunois was the dialect spoken in north-western Morvan.
  • DB is the label given to long diagonal swath through the length of the province, running through the heart of the Morvan, and extending down into the department of Allier. This swath seems to run right through what is referred to as La Dorsale Boisée, the ‘Wooded Dorsal’ of the Morvan massif. This is a line of heavily wooded peaks (500m-900m) which makes up the spine of the mountain range (fr.wikipedia). To this day, there are very few roads through this region, and it is likely to be very sparsely populated. Léonard  & Barot give no other reference is given to DB in the text. Is DB an abbreviation for something, possibly “base de dispersion“? Basic dispersion, refers to is the measurement of the variability in the data. Or “base de données” meaning database? I can find no answer to this.
  • Bresse, BL and RV: Sitting along the banks of the Saône, these patois are primarily francoprovençal in nature. Each patois sits with very tight areas of use suggesting a rural, immobile peasant population, with little trade into or out of these regions. Like DB, there is no explanation for these apparently abbreviated BL and RV languages.  The nearby region of Savoy in the Franche-Comté has significantly influenced the coloring the Bressan character. These were patois which were retained longer than in other areas, probably due to an immobile peasantry. Despite the long history of these dialects, these patois have been strictly oral in use, with no written bresse language ever having been developed.  A phonetic version was sketched out in 2006 to attempt to record and retain the dialect. Bressian speakers today are accused to overemphasizing the uniqueness of their patois, in regards to others. Pronunciation shifts when moving from savoyard bresse in the north, to bresse louhannaise in the south, although the variance is not considered to be enough to “hinder mutual comprehension” (fr.wikipedia).
  • Bresse-chalonnaise was spoken east of Dijon. The name and regional position suggest this is a hybrid of Bresse patois and that of the chalonnaise.
  • Chalonnaise was spoken from the northern department of Haut Marnes, south through Dijon, and all through the Côte de Nuits into the Côte de Beaune. Perhaps somewhere near Chassagne,* the dialect was morphing to clunisois. 
  • Clunisois takes its name from the ancient Roman city, which lies on the southern-most portion of this patois‘ linguistic reach. The Patois is significantly francoprovençal in nature, the language which is spoken just across the Saône River. 
  • Mâconnais is the dialect that picks up south of Cluny, and to some extenis still being spoken within homes, in and around the city of Mâcon. Mâconnaise, like the Bressan areas which lie directly above it, is heavily influenced by the neighboring franco-provençaux. Mâcon, a city of 35,000, straddles both sides of the Saône River sits half in Saône-et-Loire, and half in Franche-Comté. Like chalonnaise, this is a patois with a long north-south area of use.  This is likely because a number good roads that ran parallel to the river, coupled with with river traffic, would have created continuity in the patois, over this elongated area. The shape of the area affected is determined by the direction of the movement of people and goods along these thoroughfares. 
  • Charolais dialect sits in a wide swath along south-eastern Burgundy east of the wine regions of the southern Côte Chalonnaise, and the dialects adjacent to the Mâconnais spoken there.  Charolais, according to charolais-brionnais.fr, is a language with a structure similar to the Oïl language yet laced with hints of Occitan (langue d’oc also lenga d’òc) and Latin. For example, the «a» sound replaces «e», while the «ts» is used instead of «ch». This region is noted for its massive coal mining operations in Montceau-les-Mines which pulled 2,000,000 tons from the ground per year, as well as its large iron, and steel industries based in the commune of Creusot. This industry was made possible by the opening of the Canal du Charollais (now known as Canal du Centre) in 1792.)
  • Brionnaise is typically associated with Charolais but is separated in the listing by Léonard and Barot.  The regional marketing efforts by charolais-brionnais.fr say that “efforts to promote the dialect are championed by local celebrities like Professor Mario Rossi, who in 2004 published an Etymological and Ethnological Dictionary of Brionnais dialects.” Note, that it is titled “Brionnais dialects“; plural.
  • Matour is named after a village which is in the hills south and a little west of Cluny. Termed as being in ‘Upper Cluny‘, Matour sits at crossroads between Charolais, Beaujolais, Cluny, and Macon. Like the other patois of nearby regions, this langue is transitional, part Oïl and part franco-provençaux.
  • Bourbonnaise: To the west and south of the Morvan, bourbonnaise was once spoken around the city of Nièvre (with a population today of 35,000). This area although technically part of Burgundy, it is separated from the Côte and Dijon by the Morvan. It a region which is influenced by nearby Allier, and patois of Langue d’oïl than the more Germanic franco-provençaux.
  • Roannais sit in the gap between the Morvan and the Central Massif, north of Lyon, along the southern Burgundian border with the departments of the Loire and the Rhone. Named for the department Roanne department of the Loire.
The roads across Burgundy in 1771. The map, which is labeled as "Carte itinéraire du duché de Bourgogne" is held by the National Library of France
The roads across Burgundy in 1771. The map, which is labeled as “Carte itinéraire du duché de Bourgogne” is held by the National Library of France

That there were multiple dialects, some of which were used within a very tight area, suggests that peasantry in these areas were relatively immobile. Intriguingly, a couple of patois had very long, vertical, north-south area of use, such as that of chalonnaise, which covered much of the department of the Côte d’Or. It is not a coincidence that this area of use should follow the path of the Burgundian wine trade, as it moves from Chassagne, up the path of the ancient the Via Agrippapast Dijon. The use of chalonnaise continued to the department’s northern border but is not clear if the dialect extended very far into the neighboring department of Haut Marnes.

MaconnaisThe economic situation of the chalonnaise speaking peasantry of the Côte d’Or, was not at all uniform. The very poor were likely to be immobile, while those with one or more holdings, particularly if one was in a renown cru, were likely wealthy enough to own a horse, and were able to travel to neighboring towns, perhaps to do business with their négociant, or their tonnelier (barrel maker), or to seek any other service or product that was not available in their own village. Those peasants who were able to travel, spread their sub-regional terms and pronunciations to other villages while bringing new ones back home. This process would have developed a uniform patois, that over time spread over a larger area of use.

The patois spoken within the SaôneetLoire are much more confined in their areas of use. The fact that patois of chalonnaise stops near the SaôneetLoire border, likely means that there was limited trade between these regions, both of which lay immediately south of Chassagne. Patois with such small regional footprint such as the industrial Charlolais and rural matour, suggests there was little trade done with the peasantry there. Again, any lack of trade suggests two things: that the region was quite poor, and that they lacked mobility. Despite the Canal du Centre (then known as the Canal du Charollais) having been built through these regions, the local paysans had little use for a commercial waterway. Even collectively, these small farmers had little or nothing to trade.  We also know that much of these areas south of the Côte d’Or was dominated by large farm properties, either capitalized, or private, which were controlled by less than one percent of the population, and this too created a population that was compartmentalized, as the small communities were separated from one another by very large farming estates.

(*) Unfortunately as is common with drawn maps, the two maps used are not of the same origin, and not accurate in configuration, lacking cities and other clearly identifiable markers. This makes precise identification of where these languages impossible. This imperfection of maps may be somewhat intentional since the authors of them might not want to be pinned down to a precise statement that ‘X’ language is spoken in ‘X’ location.


Up next: Part II, The war on Patois



References for  Français and patois Bourguignon, Parts I, II, & III


History of the French Language, https://slmc.uottawa.ca/?q=french_history

The Original Grand Crus of Burgundy, Charles Curtis, MW, Wine Alpha, 2014

Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914. Eugen Weber, Stanford Univ. Press. 1976.

Schooling in Western Europe: A Social History, Mary Jo Maynes, Suny Press 1985

Regional Dynamics Burgundian Landscapes in Historical Perspectiveedited by Carole Crumle

Languages and the Military: Alliances, Occupation and Peace Building, edited by H. Footitt, M. Kelly, Springer, 2016

Collective Action in Winegrowing Regions: A Comparison of Burgundy and the Midi – David R. Weir July 1976

Language or Dialect Shift? Shifting, Fading and Revival of Burgundian Gallo-Romance Varieties, Jean Léo Léonard  & Gilles Barot, 2012

End or invention of Terroirs? Regionalism  in the marketing of French luxury goods: the example of Burgundy wines in the inter‐war years, working paper Gilles Laferté Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique

Negotiating Territoriality: Spatial Dialogues Between State and Tradition, Allan Charles Dawson, Laura Zanotti, Ismael Vaccaro, Routledge 2014

‘Insofar as the ruby wine seduces them’: Cultural Strategies for Selling Wines in Interwar Burgundy,” Philip Whalen, 2009

The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism, Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, University of California Press, 2005

From Savage to Citizen: The Invention of the Peasant in the French Enlightenment, Amy S. Wyngaard, University of Delaware Press, 2004

Reshaping France: Town, Country, and Region During the French Revolution, Alan I. Forrest, Manchester University Press, 1991

Le patois bourguignon, patrimoine en danger, Arnaud Racapé, France Bleu Bourgogne, 2015

Peasant and French: Cultural Contact in Rural France During the Nineteenth Century, James R. Lehning, Cambridge University Press, 1995


Burgundy: History of the Vignerons: part 2, roads less traveled

Via Agrippa
Via Agrippa, the Roman system of roads that were built throughout Gaul early in the first century.


Roads less traveled

By Dean Alexander

Villa Agrippa along the Lyon-Saintes roadway in west-central France. http://www.st-martin-de-jussac.fr/
The ancient Roman Via Agrippa along the Lyon-Saintes in west-central France. http://www.st-martin-de-jussac.fr/

Throughout history, the four departments of Burgundy have existed in various states geographical isolation; partitioned from western France, by the mountain ranges of the Central Massif and the Morvan. For twelve centuries, only three woefully inadequate roads linked Burgundy to western France, and those, having been built by the Romans in around the year 20 BC, were in a state of disintegration. Whether lost to flooding or landslide, or its materials having been scavenged for new construction, in places, these roads ceased to exist altogether. Travel to and from Burgundy became increasingly slow, difficult, and dangerous.

This road system was never intended to support an independent France, and as such, their route selection, and the intellectual philosophy behind their design were ill-suited for reliance that the Gauls would place upon them.  Each aspect of their design would leave a lasting impact on the of future development of trade, communication, and ultimately the economy of France. This underdeveloped and crumbling infrastructure would leave Burgundy in a state of quasi-isolation, forcing it to develop independently for centuries, and delay the unification for France for a millennium.

To some readers, this ancient topic will seem unimportant, and seemingly unrelated to winemakers of today, but the geopolitical separation of Burgundy from central France was quite significant on both a regional and national level, and significantly shaped the identity of the winemakers of the 18th and 19th century. For the wine scholar, these are roads less traveled.

(*) This is true of the areas of the Rhone Valley and Provence as well.

Haut-Folin is tallest of the Morvan's three highet peaks, at 902 meters. Against this backdrop, only a few poor roads penetrated the densely wooded Morvan Massif. Lying directly between Paris and Beaune, the Morvan is a northern extension of the Central Massif. Although not terrible tall at its peak 900 meters, the 70 kilometers long Morvan has a 35 kilometers girth, which provided more than enough deterrent to easy trade and travel to or from western France. photo: wikipedia
Haut-Folin is tallest of the Morvan’s three highest peaks, at 902 meters. Against this backdrop, only a few poor roads penetrated the densely wooded Morvan Massif. Lying directly between Paris and Beaune, the Morvan is a northern extension of the Central Massif. Although not terribly tall at its peak 900 meters, the 70 kilometers long Morvan has a 35 kilometers girth, which provided more than enough deterrent to easy trade and travel to or from western France. photo: Wikipedia

Natural trade barriers: massifs, and valleys

While good roads and bridges cut with seeming ease through these regions today, the Central Massif and the Morvan, divided eastern and western France for centuries. Moving northward along the backside of the 1020 kilometer long Central Massif, sits Lyon; and just beyond the city, as the northern tip of the Central Massif falls away, a gap between the mountains develops before Morvan rises up again in the north. Because this area is hilly, defined its boundaries is not straight forward but is the gap is a fairly wide area of at least 50 to 75 square kilometers, .

Militarily, these are the kinds of gaps that armies seek to strike their enemy, but in the past two thousand years, no major advances seemed to have launched by any army through this gap. Why was this? A possible explanation is that this gap is covered by irregular hills and multi-directional valleys, through which the headwaters of the Loire and other rivers form.  Many of these headwaters are rivers in their own right, including the Allier, Arroux, Dore, Loire, Nievre, and Sioule Rivers, and each would have created their own fording challenges. Secondly, the valleys may have been swampy until they were drained in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This would have made the movement of equipment substantially difficult.

Northward from this gap, one will encounter the heavily wooded hills of Morvan Massif. This too stood as yet another obstacle to travel. Although the total elevation of the Morvan is not overly high, with its highest peaks being roughly 1000 meters, it can be rugged, densely wooded, and has an imposing breadth of 35 kilometers. Along the eastern foothills of the Morvan, is where the vineyards of the Côte d’Or are located.


For a more than twelve hundred years, since the times of Roman Gaul, the road system of France decayed more than it improved. The major routes remained those of Roman origin. It wasn’t until the early 1700’s, that road construction was given any priority, and that the natural barriers of trade to the west were finally lifted.


Via Agrippa: the first well-established roads in Eastern France

The first Roman routes, out of simplicity, skirted the Central Massif.  To the Massif’s south, the road hugged the Mediterranean coastline as it moves westward. At Arelate (Arles), which became an important Roman port and trading city, the Via Domita ran toward the Iberian Penisula, where it met with the Via Aquitania, which drove northwest toward Burdigala (Bordeaux) on the Atlantic coast. To move northward from Arelate, the road system of the Via Agrippa began.  Constructed for movement of legions to conqueror and control the unsettled regions east of the Central Massif, Roman leaders decided to establish Lugdunum (Lyon) as the hub of the expansive Via Agrippa road network. Archaeologists Ulrich Erdmann writes that the “geography of Burgundy was advantageous to the development of a strong infrastructure with busy roads from Lyon, the capital of the province, to Paris and the Channel ports, and to the Rhine.” (Ulrich Erdmann 2004) Because of this well-constructed road system, this was certainly the case during Roman times. And much later, the better sections of the road would continue to serve the basic economic needs of the region, right up until the revolution.

The Rise of Lugdunum

That the Roman engineers decided that Via Agrippa should radiate from Lugdunum (Lyon), made the city a very important trading hub. Lyon would link Rome to nearly all of its European provinces, including those in Switzerland, Germany, Northern France, as well as being the most direct route to its most far-flung northern European possessions, including the Netherlands, Belgium, and Britain. It is important to note, that the decision to choose Lyon as the hub of this road system, would impact Burgundy for centuries after the fall of Rome. This road was economic thoroughfare Burgundy would require to maintain its independence over such a long period of time.

In the best of conditions, trade in ancient times was slow, moving at the pace of a draft horse under a heavy load. Couriers and unburdened travelers and may have moved more swiftly, but these long distances required patience. To ease these troubles, Romans built small, well-appointed towns along the route to act as rest stations along the way, catering to the needs of the well-heeled traveler, and others.

Roman Gaul was generally peaceful and stable for centuries, and in fact, legions were generally not stationed there after 15 BC. (Woolf 2000)  Around 300 years after Gaul’s submission to Rome, every freeman of Gaul was offered citizenship (212 AD). This was not a special dispensation since it was granted to all lands within the empire, but Gaul was widely considered to be the most acquiescent and accepting of Roman rule.(Erdmann 2004)

The most important route, at least in regards to Burgundy’s connectivity to the rest of Europe, was the main, north-south artery of the Via Agrippa. This road headed north to Dijon, through Langres, and ultimately to the port city of Cologne on the Belgian coast. This was the road which would become instrumental in Burgundy’s wine trade, forever onward.

Peutinger map: the only map of the Roman roads in Gaul
Peutinger map: the only map of the Roman roads in Gaul

The conclusion that Lyon-Cologne was the most vital route is based partially on the fact that this road is one we know the most about. It appears far more frequently in literature than any of the other Burgundian roads, and that is true of writings from antiquity, until well after the French revolution. This repeated appearance in writings may have to do with its being the road to Langres, which even today remains an important religious center.  Langres had the distinction of being the seat of the Bishop of Roman Catholic church, as well as home to several Catholic religious orders. But this road also appears often this road as a major trading artery. That this can not be said about any other regional road, leads one to draw the conclusion that it was the primary route in and out of Burgundy. We might also assume it was the best-maintained road within Burgundy.

Two other, presumably important roads headed directly westward from Lyon. The first was a route that zigzagged over barren sections the Massif. This spur of the Via Agrippa eventually made its way to Clermont-Ferrand on the reverse side of the Central Massif, then ultimately on to Saintes in southwestern France. This route has been somewhat chronicled over the past two thousand years, but principally as part of the pilgrimage of le Chemin Saint-Jacques. Little of this Roman roadway remains, and its exact route is uncertain. A second spur of the Via Agrippa departed westward from Chalon. This route is referred to as the Lyon-Boulogne, although once it arrives in the Loire Valley it bifurcated, with one branch heading to Saintes, and the other to Boulogne. Unfortunately, we know very little about its route, as much of its roadway has been lost. Over the centuries, the stone, and other road building materials were removed for other uses, and dirt has covered much of the rest. Additionally, little is written about the Lyon-Boulogne, and most our knowledge regarding its existence comes from an ancient Roman map which was discovered in a library in Wormes, Germany in the late 1400’s.

Roman route selection

Agger Road
Since this road traveled through a forest, the high, raised roadway was likely built as a defensive platform to help legionnaires defend against ambush. This raised roadway would give a stretched out column of soldiers a chance to survive against a more concentrated force attacking from their flank.

Roman roads were as part of a larger military conquest strategy. As such, upland routes were chosen for the defensive advantage hills provided, and whenever possible track was selected which were devoid of forestation. Roman columns traveling along these routes were more able to repulse attacks where sight lines were longer. Along these highland routes, way stations were situated on hilltops, as they were far easier to defend.

Conversely, Roman roads avoided valleys, and dense forests, (Planhol, Claval 1994) as both of these terrains presented a tactical disadvantage of not being able to bring the “cohorts to bear.” (Heather 2010) While these overland routes provided security for columns of soldiers and their baggage trains, these overland Roman military roads may have proved difficult enough to deter less disciplined travelers.

But avoiding forested routes may have been more challenging than one might imagine. While today one fifth of France is timber land, consisting of roughly 25% oak trees, when Caesar arrived with his legions in Gaul in 58 BC, it is estimated that two-thirds of France were covered in forests, primarily of oak trees interspersed with thickets. (Thirgood 1971) Wide belts of sacred forests created the natural “frontier zones” which separated the various Gaulish tribes, which only the Druids were allowed to enter. According to  J. V. Thirgood, a professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia, the forests held a “psychological dread” for the legionnaires, involving forest warfare and mysticism.

Building roads in Britain, artist unknown, 1956
Building roads in Britain, artist unknown, 1956

Additionally, the need to find solid ground upon which to build roads was of equal importance. Before the construction of drainage systems, provided by the construction of France’s innumerable canals (ie. Canal du Centre opened in 1792), many of France’s valleys and plains were riddled with marshes. (Grabmayer 2009) This may have made these valley areas between the larger Loire and Saône Valleys unsuited for road construction, not to mention it was likely to have been covered in dense forests. Further, the many rivers that traverse the region would have required the construction several of large and costly bridges.

As much as road construction’s primary purpose was to allow Rome to project its power, its ability to facilitate trade was an expected byproduct of great importance. The roads were an artery of wealth, raw materials, and other valuables, which would economically feed Rome. Both legions and merchants traversed the roads from Gaul to the Italian peninsula, carrying with them all manner of treasure and goods. Caravans were loaded with from gold and silver to less glamorous ores such as lead and tin. They were loaded prized wines from Burgundy which were said to rival the best of the legendary Falernian wines, as well as casks (a Gallic invention) of wine the Rhone, as well as material goods, such prized Samian pottery. There was also a significant movement of grain, which included wheat, barley, and rye, all being transported from France to the Apennine peninsula.

Confusingly, the generic word for ‘grain’ in Latin the is the word “corn”. However, because in English “corn” only refers the vegetable which is indigenous the Americas, some writers have mistakenly understood that corn was grown in Gaul, and traded to the Romans. It obviously was not, since it was not ‘discovered’ by Europeans until sometime after 1492.

Roads dictated by geometrical theorem 

Ordered, but inefficient for trade? 

Examples of calculatiing distances by trianglation and Tales Theorem as used by the Romans. Drawings: Giovanni Pomodoro 1603
Examples of calculating distances by triangulation and Thales Theorem as used by the Romans. Drawings: Giovanni Pomodoro 1603

Historian Greg Woolf, argues that efficiency and connectivity of these roads were undermined by the Roman’s limited geographical knowledge of France, and that centering its hub on the city of Ludunum (Lyon) was somewhat arbitrary. (Woolf 2000)

This may have been true, but there was at least one other factor at play: the Roman ideology that the intellect must triumph over the random vagaries of nature. As such, the incorporation of Euclidean and Pythagorean theories was widely employed in many aspects of Roman construction, including roads.

Pythagorean theories were widely employed in many aspects of Roman construction.
Pythagorean theories were widely employed in many aspects of Roman construction.

The Roman designers conceptualized their roads as a Euclidean geometric equation: thus a road was “a surface is that which has length and breadth only”. The design of any “solid“, is matrix of point, line, and surface, and differs significantly the “solid” object it represents. (de Laguna 1922) Whatever difficulties of these theoretical ideals posed in applying to the actual, physical geography, was left for the on-site surveyors and builders to resolve. Surmounting the peaks, rivers, gorges, as well as marshy valleys, forced those who managed the construction to adjust as necessary. (Legion VIII Augusta)  Doubtlessly, there was pressure to complete the job as it was designed, and this may have led to the Roman reputation for overcoming obstacles, rather than building around them.

Having dedicated themselves to build roads to a Euclidean planar, rectilinear model, there are many examples of this in their road construction across the Roman Empire. Stretches of the road will persist for dozens of kilometers, in an unflinchingly straight line. These roads hold straight and true, over a variety of terrains, even when no direct line-of-sight was possible. The most extreme example of this is the Roman road from Bavay to Tongeren (in Belgium), which continues uninterrupted in its straight path for 70 kilometers or 43.5 miles (Gallo, Bishop 2006).  This, reasoned the Romans, would allow columns of legionnaires to arrive at a far-flung location in the most expedient, and least exhausted fashion.

To accomplish this feat of building long, dead straight stretches of road, Roman surveyors made visual sightings (of up to six miles) at night, by using fires. Where line-of-sight was not possible, surveyors attained sighting from hilltop to hilltop and utilizing theorems of similar triangles, enabling them to maintain their road’s undeviating course, with remarkable precision (Gallo, Bishop 2006).

No doubt, the Romans over thought their roads, in that  It is easy to see how this might prove problematic, in bypassing cities, or not connecting cities with did not fit into their intellectual sense of organization, and might delay a Roman legion’s arrival to a strategic location.

The consequence of Roman road design on a post-Roman France

Just as Gaulish tribes did not coalesce as a single body until the Romans artificially did so by force, once the Romans were gone, France once again splintered into its regional tribes once the Rome fell. No doubt, regional rulers, such as the Frankish King Clovis I, who triumphed over the last Roman military commander in Gaul, would have found the organizational structure of these roads frustrating. It is clear they inhibited movement of goods and communication in almost any direction that wasn’t en route to Rome. For this reason, Roman roads greatly dictated the regional trading partners. For example, travel from Reims, north of Paris to points southwest of Paris, such as Chartes, was extremely circuitous and would have discouraged trading and communication between these two areas within central France. One has to wonder if this de facto subdivision of France, was actually by Roman design, with the intent of keeping populations divergent, and unable to unify, thus making possible rebellions less viable.

By the Middle Ages, the roads of the Via Agrippa were in poor condition despite their immaculate construction. The efficient infrastructure necessary to maintain them had been lost well before the fall of the Roman Empire, which had been in a long period of decline.**

*King Clovis I, who would triumph over Syagrius, the last Roman military command in Gaul, who had held out a decade after Rome itself had fallen. (**) This would finally happen when Rome’s own mercenary armies, consisting largely soldiers of the Germanic Visigoth tribes, breached the walls of Rome in 476 A.D.

I have overlaid the Morvan and Central Massif on a map of the Via Agrippa derived from The Tabula Peutingeriana, also known as the Peutinger map. Peutinger is a medieval copy of a Roman road map from about the year 300 CE. The mapping was done mainly utilizing the research of Richard Talbert. To see the original map http://www.omnesviae.org/
I have overlaid the Morvan and Central Massif on a map of the Via Agrippa derived from The Tabula Peutingeriana, also known as the Peutinger map. Peutinger is a medieval copy of a Roman road map from about the year 300 CE. The mapping was done mainly utilizing the research of Richard Talbert. To see the original map http://www.omnesviae.org/

Roads and travel in the Middles Ages

carriage in mudTo write so extensively of the design and construction of the Via Agrippa is not to imply that roads were not built during the Middle Ages. But many of these roads were poorly constructed and degraded quickly. This meant that travel upon them became difficult not long after they were built, due to the marginal effort and low-grade materials generally committed to European road construction during the Middle Ages. Too often, little more technique was employed than clearing enough of the brush and trees so that carts could pass. Dust was a problem in the summer, and with periods of heavy rainfall, these rutted roads become deeply muddied, and often becoming impassable.

carriage crashMore important roads, perhaps as those which linked important holdings of the crown, cities with Duchés, or within Comtés, were built to higher standards. For these roads, workers used lime-infused dirts, like marl or fullers’ earth. (Friedman, Figg 2013) Lime (calcium) can have the capacity to stabilize wet earth by disrupting the alignment of the platelets in clay. This change in soil structure allows the soil to drain better.

These calcium-rich materials were apparently valuable, however, and were sometimes pilfered right from the center of the roadway. The result was that thieves created very large potholes, which, depending on their size and location, could seriously impede travel. Worse, after heavy rains, these pits would fill with water. With murky water obscuring their depth, these potholes became traps for the unaware traveler. Drownings did occur. (Friedman, Figg 2013)

Road fatalities were fairly common over the centuries, occurring when wagons or carts crashed or overturned. (Grabmayer 2009)  The Encyclopedia of “Trade, Travel, and Exploration in the Middle Ages”, almost humorously refers to these as “traffic accidents”, and both Friedman & Figg’s text, and Grabmayer’s paper note that numerous such deaths appear in “coroner” records.

Accidents were caused by the carts being flipped, spooked draft animals as the Friedman & Figg cite. Without a  doubt, poor cart construction, wear, and fatigue of the cart or wagon, in conjunction with overloading and poor weight distribution, also played a part in these accidents. But they would have been compounded exponentially by travel on these poor roads.

Roads of cultures

How roads were built, and how they were used, both represented a vast difference in culture between the Romans and the Gallic people. Paved Roman roads* were slippery for animals when it rained, and in general were hard on the hoofs of unshod animals. The Roman response was to find a solution. Their answer was fit horses and oxen with what was referred to as a hipposandal: special sandals were constructed from iron plates, and these plates were tied to the animals hooves by leather straps (Bakels 2009),  Of course, the medieval Frenchman had no such sandals, and may not have even been interested in obtaining them. As a habit, Gallic travelers tended to avoid these sections of road, particularly when utilizing hoofed animals. So instead of using the roads as intended, the Gauls drove their carts on the footpaths which ran parallel to the center roadway. (Grabmayer 2000) This caused other traffic, particularly those on foot, to create new impromptu paths, which also ran parallel to the Roman road. The practice of using multiple parallel paths to the old Roman roads expanded considerably as the Via Agrippa continued to deteriorate. and becoming increasingly difficult to navigate even for those on foot.

Christian Pilgrimage began well before the fall of Rome, and continues even today. Many of these routes are still used. More about pilgrimage and to see the original map, goto dappledthings.org/
Christian Pilgrimage began well before the fall of Rome and continues even today. Many of these routes are still used. More about pilgrimage and to see the original map, goto dappledthings.org/

Johann Grabmeyer writes that across a plain on which a Roman road traversed, as many as one hundred, more or less parallel paths might exist. Grabmayer does not cite this source, but the awareness that ancient historians and authors were prone to exaggeration, might be appropriate to keep in mind here. In any case, the point is clear, where the citizens of Ancient Rome had been ordered, purposeful, and methodical, the Frenchmen of the middle ages often sought their own road.

In another point of distinction, the Roman approach to road construction was to tackle obstacles head-on. By utilizing their superior engineering skills, and probably with the heavy use of slave labor, Roman road builders, built over, or removed impediments, whereas their Gallic counterparts of medieval France typically chose to avoid obstacles altogether. For instance, as Roman bridges eventually washed away due to a combination of neglect and flooding, the medieval nobleman rarely concluded that the bridge should be rebuilt, which would incur a major expense. Instead, it was typically decided that the road would perform a detour to an easier crossing point. (Grabmayer 2000) Unlike the Roman roads which had been built a prescribed width, and constructed in a specific manner to withstand both heavy traffic and inclement weather,

Also pointing to these cultural differences, as medieval roads were forced to cross overland routes, where obstacles are many and options to deviate are few, the many paths created ad hoc by travelers often become one path which became narrow, deeply rutted and increasingly risky. This was very different from the Roman roads which moved over similar terrain, as all Roman roads were built a prescribed width and constructed a specific manner to withstand both heavy traffic and inclement weather over a long period of time, with minimal maintenance being required.

*only some Roman roads were paved.

Travelers attacked by Brigands 1670, Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem
Travelers attacked by Brigands 1670, Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem

The rise of brigands

The dangers of travel in the 14th and 15th centuries were elevated substantially due to the marked increase in banditry.  Dmitry Shlapentokh writes that earlier in the Middle Ages, weapons, warfare, and violence had been the exclusive domain of the nobles. This was by design, the entire existence of the noblesse de l’épée (nobles of the sword) was predicated on the protection of his lands, and thus his people.  But it was precisely this long association of violence with social superiority and a higher social standing, which would prove to have very negative consequences.

As the Middle Ages came to a close, major socio-economic changes were occurring, not the least of which was that The Hundred Years War had democratized warfare. Violence was no longer the strict domaine of the nobles.  Weapons, which not only had the common man been prohibited from owning, but were far too expensive to procure, widely now available and inexpensive after generations of war. The sword, the weapon most equated to that of the noble, accordingly became the preferred weapon the bandit. Not only was the sword effective, but it symbolized both power and social prestige, as did, unfortunately, the weapon’s use. (Shlapentokh 2008)

Chronic war, the weak ineffective authority of the nobility, unreliable law enforcement, all led to a lack of security and a period of extreme uncertainty. For over three centuries, bandits robbed and murdered in a widespread fashion, making both travel and trade very dangerous. Still, merchants and travelers persisted. Banding together in caravans, they either armed themselves, or would hire armed escorts, to attempts to discourage attacks and make safe passage.

Aviary Photo_130982962587254885
Corduroy Roads have been constructed for thousands of years, to make wet marshy valleys passable. The period of time that they are serviceable depends on the environmental conditions the rows logs (which lay horizontally across the roadway) encounter, and the weight and frequency of traffic that the road experiences. Archaeologists have unearthed corduroy roads that are 1000 years old.

Deterrents to road construction

While one might assume that centuries of living under Roman rule might have instilled the idea that good roads were a key factor in the projection of power, Gallic rulers never appeared to grasp this concept. The was little effort to improve the connectivity of their cities and points of trade and create the ability to travel in all but the worst weather conditions. According to Hugh Chisholm’s surprisingly in-depth 1910 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, that, although various Gallic monarchs in post Roman-Gaul attempted to maintain the “administrative machinery of the Romans”, that it proved to be “too delicate to be handled by the barbarians”.  This statement, however, rings somewhat hollow in its dismissive nature, as many of the administrative and municipal positions had been held by upper-class Gaulish people, for at least a century or more. As such, it is assumed by many historians that Roman thought, and Roman tradition had been interwoven into at least the upper class of Roman-Gallo society. These were not barbarians.

Louis-François-Armand de Vignerot du Plessis was famed for his debauchery. He controlled multiple Duchies, Marquis, and other land holdings making him very powerful during the 1700s. Each of the following titles represents a land that he "owned". Duke of Fronsac then Duc de Richelieu (1715), Prince of Mortagne, Pont-Courlay marquis, earl of Cosnac, Baron Barbezieux, Baron Cozes and baron of Saujon, marshal and peer of France
Louis-François-Armand de Vignerot du Plessis (1696-1788) was famed for his debauchery. Each of the following titles represents lands and people which were “his”. Duke of Fronsac then Duc de Richelieu (1715), Prince of Mortagne, Pont-Courlay marquis, earl of Cosnac, Baron Barbezieux, Baron Cozes and baron of Saujon, marshal, and peer of France. A powerful man such as this factionalized the power base and had to be controlled by the crown.

It is likely that the greatest obstacle to systematic road construction was the divisive nature of the noblesse de l’épée (Nobles of the Sword). From the time Viking invasions in the 9th and 10th centuries, power in France would be decentralized, with the king and kingdom playing a weak economic and political role. The ducs and comtés would preside quite independently, as sovereigns over their own lands. The farther from Paris the locale, the more the nobles were apt to chaff at the authority of the king. Rivalries between nobles could be fierce, and open warfare occasionally occurred between what were essentially small countries.*

Antagonism between neighboring nobles could create impassible trade barriers for merchants. Even the borders between etats (estates) were open, the nobility presented substantial financial deterrents to trade. High tolls were imposed upon merchants by each Comté (County) or Duché along their route. Other deterrents included the right of preemption, meaning a noble had the first right to buy the trader’s wares at a “beneficial” price, (Middleton 2005), as well as taxes which may have been imposed by nobles upon the final sale.

For those who understood the economic and political benefits of an effective road system, the decentralized power base within France created a complex, three-part chicken or the egg scenario. In order to build a national road system, the king needed enough economic and political clout to strengthen and centralize the government.  To fill the treasury, and gain that political and economic power, robust trade would be required. Yet the lack of lack of cooperation between provincial nobles derailed both trade any hope of constructing a national road system.

(*) National borders were not as they are today. While technically the King of France presided over all of the various lands within France, the actual extent of this unity can be seen in the fact that some powerful nobles controlled Duchés and Comtés within the King’s area of control, and as well as one or more Duché and Comté outside of France. Marriages were arranged for the consolidation of regional power, forging alliances, or even truces, with neighboring Duchés or Comtés. This was done en lieu of having any ability to accomplish any substantive diplomacy.

Did France’s agricultural underpinnings lead to nobles to derail trade?

France’s struggle with encouraging trade may have had its roots in the country’s agricultural underpinnings. For the entirety of Gallic history, up until the 1700’s, farming had been the engine of the economy. Seigneurial agricultural lands had provided the food for the cities and employed its rural population, which may have numbered as many 20 million peasants by the end of the 18th century.* While this may not have been a success story, the nobles, even those who had only nominal wealth, were both economically and socially tied to this system. For them, this system was very successful.

The noble classes were completely centrist in their focus. Their own activities of generating income from their estates, and achieving military glory on the battlefield.  Whereas they looked upon Bourgeoisie activity of trade with “disdain”. (Stilwell 2005) As such, Nobles would heavily toll the trade which crossed their lands and tax those who traded there. Whether the activities of social-climbing Bourgeoisie and their economic activities were regarded as a threat to the nobles way of life is not clear, but nobles did not allow overland trade to be easy.

French kings, who were essentially the penultimate noble, seemed to share the attitude that trade was definitively not noble. If one were to extend that premise, undoubtedly it would have been viewed as being beneath the needs of France.


Jean-Baptiste Colbert: one hundred years too soon

Jean-Baptiste Colbert presents his plans to le roi, Louis XIV
Jean-Baptiste Colbert presents his plans to le roi, Louis XIV

As the first true theories of economics would be developed until the le Siècle des Lumières (the Enlightenment), few at the time realized the positive impact trade would have on both economic, and political power for those that held it. But Jean-Baptiste Colbert, king Louis XIV’s powerful minister of finances, harnessing trade for the power and glory of France was a nearly singular focus. While some have written that Colbert was was not an innovator, borrowing his ideas from other men, but he was one of the first to employ what amounted to an economic plan, and to do it on a vast scale. Colbert worked in concert with the king in the attempt to wrestle power from the nobility and to centralize the government into an absolutist monarchy. One aspect this was to subjugate the nobles by forcing them to rescind tolls on road travel from industrial regions to the ports. He reduced taxes upon the Third Estate (most notably the bourgeoisie) who owned much of France’s industry as well as this merchant shipping. Far from aiming to slashing and nearly eliminating taxes like modern fiscal conservatives, he aimed at ultimately maximizing them. He is famed for his quote about determining the perfect level of taxation. He said:

“The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing”. 

In order to actually get goods from the industrial centers to the ports, Colbert recognized that the roads within central France were in desperate need improvement. Being a fiscally conservative, however, this was to done with the least possible expense to the treasury; so Colbert revived the feudal compulsory requirement of the corvée. The corvée had traditionally required the peasantry to give their time for civic construction projects as part of their seigneurial dues, but Colbert now instituted this on a national level.  The journée de travail, or “days of work” were deeply resented by the peasantry for obvious reasons, but in addition the corvée took them out of their fields at critical harvest times. Trade did increase, however, as goods flowed to the ships and harbors.**

Although Colbert presided over his trade policies for over 27 years, and he did truly make a meaningful improvement to France’s road system, as well as accelerate Frances development as a colonial power, economist  writes that his trade reforms were only partially successful.  Before his death, Colbert would advocate that France make a ‘quick’, military strike against Holland, in order to break that countries dominance on international trade. As this Rumsfeldian debacle dragged into full on war, Colbert would lose the ear of the King. The war was quickly draining the treasury, pressuring, once again, for the king to raise taxes.  Although the sequence & timing regarding the repeal of Colbert’s signature trade reforms is not clear, tolls and regional trade tariffs were being re-instituted in the years surrounding his death in 1683.

Further, criticisms of Colbert were that his infrastructure improvements were limited in their scope, linking only the port cities to industrial centers. None of these new roads, nor relief of the tolls on trade extended outside the center of France. Whether this was an issue of Colbert only attempting what he felt could be accomplished, considering all of the provincial nobility had not yet been subjugated by the king, or if his sole interest in the export of French goods in the international area, is not entirely clear. But the limited programs France did not in any way encourage internal communication or trade. Moreover, he failed to establish any lasting culture trade within France. At the end of Louis XIV’s reign, 30 years after Colbert’s death, not only had all tolls re-established, but they had doubled.

(*) The earliest census at the end of the 17th century were more estimates than counts, but the entire country was judged to be 19 million to 19.5 million people. Some estimates of rural population are given at 80%, but I have not found supporting documentation for this. By the time of the revolution, population had grown substantially to around 27 million.  (D. B. Grigg 1980)  (**) Colbert, was so successful and so driven, King Louis gave him many state positions, including the Secretary of Naval Affairs. From this pulpit, he ordered harbors and shipyards, and a massive program to build a powerful navy to project France’s power, half a world away.

Breaking the 1,200-year cycle

A Seaport, detail from port of Marseille, 1754, Claude-Joseph Vernet
A Seaport, detail from port of Marseille, 1754, Claude-Joseph Vernet

Unlike overland trade routes which were constricted by heavy tolls and taxes, sea trade had no restrictions beyond the number of merchant ships that could be built. The merchant elites* the need for lumber was extraordinary.  So much so, that for many years the proceeds from the royal forests amounted to a full a quarter of the income gained by the royal treasury.(Thirgood 1971) The bourgeoisie, with their seaborne trade, allowed France to flourished as a colonial power, and because France was able to grow as a colonial power, sea trade could continue to expand. Colonial cotton and sugar trade, along with the trader’s French involvement in the triangular African slave trade, was extremely lucrative, and “grew at twice the rate of other external commerce”. (Boulle 1972)

The growth of seaborne merchant trade achieved a successful formula in resolving the “chicken or the egg” dilemma that plagued overland trade. Its success came because at no point did it directly involve the nobility.

Ironically the economic power gained by the expanding sea trade would ultimately release the shackles that had bound trade within the French interior. This happened because it accelerated the French economy enough that it would finally give the French kings the economic and political power necessary to achieve an absolutist state. This, in turn, would loosen the bonds which had restricted overland trade for more than a thousand years. Tolls would be lifted, and road building would finally commence in the early years of the 1700’s.

(*) The term bourgeoisie (the french term for the business class) is handled gently by historians, given usurpation of the term by Karl Marx in the 19th century. Historians who write about the revolution do use the word bourgeoisie, but those writing about bourgeoisie in the sea trade are called merchant elite, in order to not give their writings the appearance of having a political bent.


Up Next: Isolation part 2.1 The Birth of Modern Burgundy: Road Construction after 1715


Reference Sources for Burgundy: History of the Vignerons: The Villages parts I – IV

New sources for Part 2

The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History, Peter Heather, Pan Macmillan2010

Encyclopedia Britannica Eleventh Edition Vol XXVI ed. Hugh Chisholm, Encyclopedia Britannica Company, 1910

Burgundy  as part of the Roman empire, Ulrich Erdmann, http://artbourgogne.free.fr/romanburgundy/ 2004

A Historical Geography of France, Xavier de Planhol, Paul Claval, Cambridge University Press, 1994

Roman Surveying, originally published as Elementos de Ingenieria Romana, Isaac Moreno Gallo, Terragona 2004, translated by Brian R. Bishop, Traianvs 2006

The Historical Significance of Oak, J. V. Thirgood, paper, Faculty of Forestry, University of British Columbia

The Western European Loess Belt: Agrarian History, 5300 BC – AD 1000, Corrie C. Bakels, Springer Science & Business Media, 2009

Societal Breakdown and the Rise of the Early Modern State in Europe,  Dmitry Shlapentokh, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

Pilgrimage, Streets, and Traffic from a Cultural Historical Point of View,  Johannes Grabmayer (University of Klagenfurt) June 2009

Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul, Greg Woolf Cambridge University Press, 2000

Trade, Travel, and Exploration in the Middle Ages: An EncyclopediaJohn Block Friedman, Kristen Mossler Figg,  Routledge,  2013

Point, Line, and Surface, as Sets of Solids, Theodore de Laguna The Journal of Philosophy, 1922

Histoire du vin de Bourgogne, Jean-François Bazin, Editions Jean-paul Gisserot 2002

Economic and Social Conditions in France During the Eighteenth Century, Henri Sée Professor, University of Rennes 1927

Early medieval port customs, tolls and controls on foreign trade, Neil Middleton, Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2005

Population Growth and Agrarian Change: A Historical Perspective D.B. Grigg, CUP Archive, 1980

Jean Baptiste Colbert, 1619-1683, Gonçalo L. Fonseca, New School for Social ResearchThe Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis

Slave Trade, Commercial Organization and Industrial Growth in Eighteenth-Century Nantes, Revue française d’histoire d’outre-mer  PH Boulle – ‎1972


    *    *    *   *   *

La Côte-d’Or à vol d’oiseau: lettres écrites à M.L. Havin, après la récolte, Auguste Luchet 1858

Gevrey-Chambertin: notice historique, topographique et statistique, suivie de promenade à Fixin, by Henri Vienne 1850

Journal of a Tour through some of the vineyards of Spain and France, James Busby, Sydney 1833

Peasant Proprietors and other selected essays,  Lady Frances Parthenope Verney Longmans, Green, 1885 –

L’état de la recherche sur la vigne, le vin et les vignerons en Bourgogne au XVIIIe siècle, Benoit Garnot,  2008

The Peasants and the King in Burgundy, Hilton Root, University of California Press, 1992

Evolution du Métayage en France, L. Durousseau-Dugontie, Impr. Crauffon, 1905

Centre d’Histoire de la Vigne et du Vin, Charlotte Glain-Fromont,  Bulletin de liaison Bulletin 30 janv-fev 2012.pdf

 LES Climats du vignoble de Bourgogne Dossier de candidature à L’INSCRIPTION SUR LA LISTE DU PATRIMOINE MONDIAL DE L’UNESCO Janvier 2012

Communities of Grain: Rural Rebellion in Comparative Perspective Victor V. Magagna Cornell University Press 1991

Infant and Child Mortality in Eighteenth Century France: A Function of Income? Hajime Hadeishi,  Bureau of Economics Federal Trade Commission, cliometrics.org 2010

Harvest Failures, Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson, 2015 Alphahistory.com

Cattle and Dairy Farming Part 1 United States. Bureau of Foreign Commerce  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1888 –

The Peasantry in the French Revolution P. M. Jones, Cambridge University Press, 1988

The Vile and the Noble: On the Relation between Natural and Social Classifications in the French Wine World, Marion Fourcade,  Sociological Quarterly 2012

Aristocracy, Antiquity, and History: An Essay on Classicism in Political ThoughtA. A. M. Kinneging Transaction Publishers, 1997

Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment By Michel Delon, Routledge 2013

Provincial Power and Absolute Monarchy: The Estates General of Burgundy 1661–1790 Julian Swann, Cambridge University Press  2003

History and Climate: Memories of the Future? Phil D. Jones, A.E.J. Ogilvie, T.D. Davies, K.R. Briffa Springer Science & Business Media, Apr 17, 2013

The Decline of Childhood Mortality Kenneth Hill. Department of Population Dynamics School of Hygiene and Public Health Johns Hopkins University 1990

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography Graham Robb W. W. Norton & Company2008

The Story of French Jean-Benoît Nadeau, ‎Julie Barlow, Macmillan 2008