I have just started on a book by Gillian Tindal, The Journey of Martin Nadaud, A Life and Turbulent Times, about a French mason’s life in the 19th century.
He was from the Creuse area, a very poor, mountainous region, from where thousands of men left each year to work as builders, especially masons, in Paris, but unlike most people heading for the capital, they returned each autumn when the days became too short and cold. They would spend their winters repairing the farms, meeting their newborn children, and renewing their bonds with neighbours and the land.
It is a fascinating reminder of how our notions of settled family life is quite modern one. In the past there were many professions that moved around, and men such as soldiers and sailors who often left for long periods, if they ever returned at all, so the life of villages were far more dependent on women and old men than we might imagine. With men away for long periods, it also meant that children were all born within certain months, which would put a lot of women out of work during the summer, so reduced the labour available for harvesting, which probably added to the backwardness and poverty of their farms. Btu the men’s absence may also have reduced the amount of domestic strife, as they were not together all year round. .
The region has no written history until the mid 19th century, and like much of rural France, was long isolated from the outside world, so the life of Nadaud is truly an exceptional one, as he became not just a successful master builder, but also a revolutionary and MP who campaigned for public health, better buildings and sanitation, especially for the poor. But after the failure of the revolution of 1848 he fled to become a schoolmaster in Wimbledon, London, under an assumed name. He returned to his homeland in 1870, to write his journal and die in his home village, but is now forgotten.
Tindall notes how geography makes France very different to Britain: here we have our mountains mostly a long way from the capital, and from the prime farmland, ie in the North of England, also the central parts of Wales and of Scotland, which has allowed the vast majority of people to have reasonably easy access to the capital, and, also, for invaders to have easy pickings of settlements.
But France has its mountains in the centre, so the country effectively has to work around this region, making unity a much harder thing to establish and control. This helps to explain why, despite being so advanced in the arts and sciences in the 17th and 18th centuries, France lagged behind in building proper communication networks, such as road and rail.
Tindall cites several writers who describe Nadaud’s origins, which could apply to any country person.
“Numberless generations of obscure peasant farmers have lived there without taking any part in our national uprisings. The passing centuries have not touched them. When the Revolution came it swept away the tithe-system and the clergy lands were sold, but the ordinary inhabitants do not seem to have been better off for this.” – Leonce de Lavergne, 19th century economist
“The written history of these regions is very odd. It opens extremely late: there is very little, it seems, till the late 19th century. The country people who lived there, far from towns and main roads, remained for a long time without a voice of their own or anyone to speak for them. They were nevertheless there; they did things, cared about things, and thus had their effect, without anyone realising it, on their heart and soul of the nation. “ Daniel Halevy, Visites aus Paysand du Centre 1907- 1934