‘Remembering Peasants’ by Patrick Joyce review

Remembering Peasants: A Personal History of a Vanished World by Patrick Joyce is a tender study of European rural life. But is this lost past closer than we think?

Seated Peasant Woman with Goats, by Camille Pissarro, c. 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

If like me you are a baby boomer of European extraction, then odds are that some of your grandparents were peasants. One of my grandmothers was born in a sod cabin of her father’s own construction on the Nebraska plains. One of my grandfathers made his living buying hides from peasants and selling them to leather makers in Slovakia. The English were the great exception; most of their peasants (if they ever had them – a point in dispute among historians) were wiped out by the agricultural revolution of the 18th century. But the Scottish and Welsh peasantries persisted longer, and the Irish longer still.

Patrick Joyce, a distinguished social historian (who will probably hate being called distinguished), is the son of just such Irish peasants, who left Counties Mayo and Wexford to seek work in England in the 1930s. Having paid tribute to them in his last book, Going to My Father’s House, he now offers an ‘homage’ to their kind, the European peasantry as a whole, and the ‘old world’ which is actually not that old at all. Even in France and Germany peasants comprised 40 per cent of the population at the time of the First World War, now only one or two per cent. Eastern Europe was 80 per cent peasant at the time of the First World War, now under ten per cent, except for Romania where nearly a quarter still cling, precariously and often part-time, to the soil. The rest of the world is belatedly following suit; in the 1980s half the world’s population was engaged in agriculture, now under a quarter.

Drawing on rich ethnographies of peasant life, principally from Ireland, Poland and Italy, Joyce paints a vivid picture of that life in all its particularities and hardships, but he doesn’t skimp on its everyday pleasures. Though work is not dwelt upon, the hard life in the home is, grimly illustrated with black-and-white photos that sometimes look almost Neolithic, sometimes very 20th-century, with the Irish men at rest dressed in their Sunday best. Family ties, family feuding and hostility to the state characterise peasants across the breadth of Europe. Joyce is particularly good on the thin partitions that divide nature, the supernatural and religion in peasant cosmologies, spirits of places, animals and humans moving easily from one realm to the other, including into Catholicism. Below the surface is always simmering anger, breaking out in violence against landowners, the state and urban elites, though Joyce tends to let the peasants off from blame for pogroms, acknowledging the ‘everyday aggression of Christian peasants against Jews’, but attributing pogroms to townspeople and the authorities.

Not much of this is original. How could it be, given that it draws on a treasure trove of ethnography dating back to the 19th century, and on more recent works that imprinted themselves on late 20th-century generations, especially the writings on the peasant by John Berger, to which Joyce pays tribute? But two things mark out Joyce’s early 21st-century contribution.

One is his great sensitivity to this layering of our memory of the peasant. His citations of ethnographies are also histories of those early efforts by urbanites to fathom the peasant. Always they are motivated by the sense of an imminent vanishing that needs to be recorded before it is complete – Joyce is rueful about the century-long search for ‘the last peasant’, currently being sighted in Basilicata, in southern Italy, and, more plausibly, in Belarus – and yet the peasant continues to linger, in reality but also in the imagination and in inherited custom.

The other is the humane tenderness with which Joyce records his researches and his own memories. It is fair to say that for much of his career Joyce was viewed as something of a ‘hard man’ of social history, contrarian, in one phase overloaded with French theory, dense and brambly in his prose. In a celebrated essay with the amusing title ‘More Secondary Modern than Postmodern’, Joyce embraced this identity, attributing it as much to his Irish and working-class origins – which made him an outsider to the educational establishments – as to his confessed admiration for ‘postmodern/poststructuralist’ theory. In his work on later-Victorian Lancashire factory workers, dialect poets and walkers of the urban streets, he strove to get behind the limiting constructions of class and power imposed upon them by others, to grasp at ways of thinking and being as yet unguessed-at by academic historians. Remembering Peasants is another effort of the same kind, applied not to English workers but Irish (and other) peasants, the people from whom he himself has sprung. With the exception of one passage the story is now told without the theoretical infrastructure, in limpid and lyrical prose, and so tenderly, as Joyce reconstructs his father’s family’s life on the Galway-Mayo borders – ‘Dúiche Seoighe’, or ‘Joyce Country’ in Irish – without too much sentimentality but with tremendous sensitivity, both to the things that all peasants seem to have in common and to those that distinguish Mayo from Basilicata from Galicia.

The one exception is when he gets to the present. Joyce hates the heritage industry and the way it has devoured the peasant, transmogrifying him or her into museum exhibits, plaster dummies, dead ‘folklore’ and, at worst, fodder for modern nationalism. For a brief spell – a matter of 20 pages or so – he reverts to spluttering against ‘the eternal now that manifests and disappears in the instant’ in the gnomic language of French theory. His fellow citizens don’t get the same tender treatment as his great-grandparents. Happily that is not where he ends, but, rather, with his parents and the emigrant generation, the only just ex-peasants, ‘how they had it hardest of all’, uprooted as they were, ‘and I remember the debt that is owed’. This book is a generous repayment.

  • Remembering Peasants: A Personal History of a Vanished World
    Patrick Joyce
    Allen Lane, 400pp, £25
    Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)


Peter Mandler teaches modern British history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. His latest book is The Crisis of the Meritocracy:  Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War (Oxford University Press, 2020).