The peasant condition

The peasant condition

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Title: "Born for the sake". The Village Man.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

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Storage location: Carnavalet museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bulloz

Picture reference: 01-022553

"Born for the sake". The Village Man.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bulloz

Publication date: February 2013

Professor of modern history at Blaise-Pascal University (Clermont 2) and director of the Center for History "Spaces and Cultures.

Historical context

A metaphor for the peasant condition that runs through the 18th centurye century

The dating and signature of this colored etching, entitled Born for the sake of it. The Village Man, are most uncertain. We know of several variations with tiny variations (different dimensions; addition of a sky, blue or, as here, stormy; accentuation of the tricolor feathers of the rooster, due to the individualization of the colorization by the stencil technique). A first version, in black and white, from the very beginning of the 18th centurye century, is due to Guérard, engraver rue Saint-Jacques, who produced a series of plates on society in the time of Louis XIV; there is no sky (Hennin collection, National Library). The following appear to come from his colleague Basset, also established in rue Saint-Jacques, and date from the end of the 18th century.e century, even of the Revolution.

These re-uses of patterns are frequent in the field of engraving, over the successions and takeovers of presses; they familiarize the buyers of these flying images, which were sold in particular by hawkers until at least the 1850s, with recurring motifs and themes. In any case, we have here a metaphor on the work and the days of the peasants (four fifths of the French), whose production is essential to the life and growth of the country - while food shortages still regularly weaken it - , but who are overwhelmed by the tax burden.

Image Analysis

Poor like Job

As often in these engravings which borrow directly from the art of Dutch caricature, the image is not sufficient on its own, and the text helps give it its transgressive force. The main title refers to a quote from the book of Job: "Man is born to waste, like a bird to fly. The legendary poem reminds us how much the fruits of hard work, in all weathers, can disappear in the purse of the collector, confusedly represented by a collector of sizes who seems to be receiving his due in a granting house. While it insists little on the family universe, the engraving reminds us of how peasant life is organized in parish communities, meeting weekly in the church, the bell tower of which can be seen. It declines the work of the land (from seeds to the maintenance of hedges and fruit trees) and livestock, insisting on the nature of the instruments (the plow, and not the plow; in wood, and not in metal), and especially on those which are used for the culture of wheat, so essential to the food. The animals represented respond to a gradation established according to their utility, from poultry or "honey flies", which anyone can acquire and breed, to cattle, which remain the privilege of the wealthy, including pigs. If the latter provides essential meat, blood sausages and cured meats, it is also considered unclean, dirty and greedy, and most of its pieces have been banned from the king's table since Louis XIV - the Duke of Orleans shocked by its persistent taste for pig ears.


Immutability and contestation

The crisp breeches, the heavy clogs, the immaculate shirt tucked into the breeches, would be more reminiscent of a rural notable if one did not take into account the tears in the jacket and the bumps in the large felt - an outfit that borrows as much from Brittany than in the Paris Basin. The reuse of the same motif over a whole century leads to ignoring the technical developments that took place during this period: at the end of the 18th centurye century, large farmers have the necessary couplings to pull plows, hire many farm laborers and bring their production into the market economy. But self-sufficient agriculture often forces peasants to relegate, for the sake of productivity, their poor stockbreeding to communal property. This practice, which remains the rule in many campaigns, makes it all the more difficult to pay taxes on an individual basis. The image only evokes the size (weighing on the person), not the indirect taxes (such as gabelle, on salt) and heavy seignorial rights. It is indeed the king that she calls out. By calling for social recognition of the most important part of the Third Estate, it resonates with the famous work published by Sieyès in 1789, What is the third state ?, whose answer is final ("Everything") and legitimizes revolutionary demands.

  • peasants
  • campaign
  • absolute monarchy
  • granting
  • tax
  • tax
  • Louis XIV
  • agricultural work
  • closed


Annie DUPRAT, History of France through caricature, Paris, Larousse, 1999.

Pierre-Yves BEAUREPAIRE, The France of the Enlightenment (1715-1789), Paris, Belin, 2011.

Pierre GOUBERT and Daniel ROCHE, The French and the Ancien Régime, Paris, Armand Colin, 1984.

George DUBY and Armand WALLON (dir.), History of rural France, volume III "The Classical Age", Paris, Le Seuil, 1975.

To cite this article

Philippe BOURDIN, "The peasant condition"

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