Carnival, A People's Uprising at Romans

Olwen Hufton | Published in History Today

Le Roy Ladurie's latest work, Carnival is a meticulous dissection of a popular revolt – in national terms the relatively insignificant contest between the patriciate and the people of the town of Romans in the Dauphin – which occurred in February, 1580. He is particularly concerned with the ritual of popular protest and its heavy symbolism – sexual, political and religious – here noted down to the last phallic detail. Plague, rising prices, a century of stiff taxation in light of the Italian wars had created tensions far from unique to Romans. Protestantism infiltrated a sector of the ranks of the people and primed the pump of hostility. The middle classes led by Jean de Bourg, a 1awyer, were questioning noble immunities from taxation. The King, Henri III, was far from in control of the nobility and the existence of an establishment rent by dissent gave the menu peuple of Romans, led by one Paumier, the perfect ambiance for the expression of their discontent at a reynage (folk gathering) planned for Saint Blaise's day. The ritual of the festival was carefully designed to express their economic grievances over tax and food costs but, it was also mooted, Paumier, the master draper, chief of the reynage, and a number of his associates, planned the elimination of elements in the town's patriciate. Whether this was really intended or whether the threat was meant to convey to the patriciate the need for reform, is not known, because the latter, led by one Gudrin, responded with a counter reynage. This was the feast of the partridge, in which the people's values were derided in the same kind of ritual language (cheap foods like bread and herring were sold dearly; meat and exotic fruits cheaply). The leaders of the patriciate's festivities took the guise of eagles and roosters, symbolising virility and mastery over the 'capons', the castrated plebeians. The people got the message, but before their leaders could take action Gudrin's group managed to lure them away from their supporters and butchered them. Stripped of their leaders, confusion was total. Rumours were legion amongst the masses, and the most terrifying was that of the presence of a mighty repressive royal force at Lyons. Panic stricken, the people fled. Guhrin was ennobled for his efforts, acknowledged by the government to be the means of keeping order and the catholic faith in Romans, and he took as his coat of arms a felled apple tree (pommier, paumier). The region remained tense until the 1650s, but Romans did not try a repetition of the events of February.

The dissection of this unsuccessfui popular revolt brings out many of the problems confronting the historian over the subject of social control in early modern society. Before the nineteenth century when states began to concentrate upon building prisons and police forces to maintain law and order, just how an establishment enforced its demands needs complex considerations. The establishment of early modern France was multifaceted; monarchy, nobility, clergy, royal agents such as provincial governors, tax collectors, recruiting agents, etc., all had demands to make of the peasant or town dweller in the shape of money, allegiance and effort. Yet no single element of this establishment commanded reservoirs of men to serve as agents of coercion. True the state could, in time of peace, use the army if a particular problem grew out of hand as it did to quell the Rouergue in the 1640s. But such large-scale confrontations were to be avoided because even if the army won the day, as it invariably did, in the long run, to avoid repetition of strife, the state invariably curtailed its demands.

The issue of social control grows even more complicated if one takes account of the fact that the preparedness of peasant and town-dweller to be unquestioning purveyors of unlimited finance was not assured. There are enough revolts and rebellions in the early modern period to make this point abundantly clear and the study of court records wherein seigneur and community are in perpetual conflict or of the correspondence of military governors, even during the relatively peaceful eighteenth century, confirms a single point. In the words of the governor of Languedoc in 1750 le bas peuple est si mutin. In light of the wretchedness of their lifestyles, it is hardly surprising.

Social control was in fact maintained from above and below. Firstly, the differing elements in the establishment had to accept that their interests were one – which meant they must respect each other's position. The monarchy's financial claims could not impinge upon privileged exemptions nor place such burdens on the peasantry that the latter could not meet their dues to church and seigneur. (Failure to observe this guiding principle resulted in seigneur and peasant making common cause against the crown in 1648.) Secondly, the common man was prepared to recognise that the separate elements in the establishment each served some obvious social need. The crown kept external enemies out; provincial and town authorities checked royal demands; town patriciates kept a watchful eye on provincial demands, maintained guild monopolies and town provisioning; the seigneur still had a defensive role to play and controlled through his court the business of the community; the church's function was obvious. When any sector of the establishment became visibly redundant – the case of the seigneur by 1789 – or overstepped the mark in its demands as did the state between say 1550 and 1650, then trouble was imminent. At Romans in 1580, it was felt that the greed of both state and patriciate had gone too far.

The third consideration must be that the lower orders disposed of a whole series of warning signals to convey their dissatisfaction to their oppressors and cause them to take note and hence avoid further strife. Authority had to read the signs aright for its own good. For example, rising grain prices or attempts to evade the official markets would certainly provoke market disturbances if town authorities did not respond with price fixation and exemplary punishments of contravenors of established market practise. The earliest disturbances might be of a token ritualistic kind merely to remind authority (which doubtless included large land owners able to profit from rising prices) what its job was. Much more dangerously, conditions deteriorating in a more attenuated fashion might be drawn to the attention of these with local power at carnival time when people were allowed to let off steam in the rituals of inversion, feasts of fools, the election of mock kings and abbots. At carnival, 'misrule' prevailed and within its parameters the people's ritual could embody the people's dissatisfaction. But behaviour at carnival could overstep the mark acceptable to the establishment. Such was the state of affairs at Romans. The patriciate, reading the violent sign language of the people aright and fearing defeat and loss of life, office or prestige, responded with greater vehemence and bloodshed than might have been predicted.

On the whole, the experience of Romans is a kind of paradigm for popular revolt between 1550 and 1650. In the short term, authority closed ranks and effected both massacre and reprisal. The menu peuple were defeated. But, in the long term, the patriciate of Romans was less pressing in its financial demands, Moreover repeated urban and regional risings of this very nature between 1550 and 1650 eventually conveyed the message to a slow-to-learn monarchy that new tactics were needed. Louis XIV's government adopted a very changed attitude towards the localities. Attempts at extraordinary taxation by intrusive Parisian officials were abandoned and the mechanism for state taxation was implanted in the localities. Increasingly, intendent and subdelegate were used to survey what was going on, limiting the scope for patrician exploitation. In short, the people's efforts purchased dearly some long term limited alleviation.

The reduction in state demands and under- mining of the patriciates brought an end to the kind of rising seen at Romans and the church's austerely Jansenist condemnation and prohibition of carnival in the late seventeenth century severely weakened it as a vehicle of protest. Indeed disturbances of this kind (in contrast with the growth in bread riots after 1760) must have seemed a thing of the past in 1789. Then, for the first time, popular protest without ritual veils scored a visible and immediate success when the schism between nobility and monarchy undermined the cohesion of the establishment and the monarchy's ultimate weapon of social control, the army, defected to the people of Paris.

We have need of a continuous study of social control in France between the sixteenth-century carnival and the storming of the Bastille. Le Roy Ladurie's fascinating, social, political, anthropological and psychological approach to the revolt at Romans, sets us surefootedly on the journey.

Olwen Hufton is Professor of History at Reading University.

Carnival, A People's Uprising at Romans

Scolar, London, 1980; 426 pp.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week