This article revisits the role that the concept of popular culture has played in Eugen Weber's Peasants Into Frenchmen and in the historiography of France. It delineates the contours of this field of study in the 1970s then traces its evolution, focusing on the nineteenth century. It also assesses Weber's contribution to this body of scholarship and considers future directions of research—and how his book may still prove helpful. The article proposes that, in terms of conceptualization, epistemological stance, and rhetorical voice, Peasants Into Frenchmen adopts two perspectives on popular culture, perspectives that are sometimes compatible but typically at odds. The first revolves around the confident discovery of a fixed traditional civilization in the French countryside; the second is a more conjectural search for fluctuating cultural processes. While commentators have focused on the first, the second foreshadowed later developments in the field and has more to offer us today.
Searching for Popular Culture in the French Countryside
From Haute-Frêne to Hautefaye
Alain Corbin is a historian of astonishing range.1 Two of his works, The Life of an Unknown and The Village of Cannibals, exemplify the breadth of his historical vision. The latter reconstructs a murder that takes place in the village of Hautefaye in 1870, while the former recovers the lost world of a forgotten man who, as it happens, died within a few years of that event. The Village is thus a study of what Corbin calls, in the preface to The Life, “a fortuitous event” that casts “a brief and lurid light on the myriads of the disappeared.” But such events were, as Corbin reminds us, “exceptional, products of a paroxysm offering momentary access to an underlying reality without telling us much about the torpor of ordinary existences.” The torpor of ordinary existences: the phrase is striking, and it is not only an apt description of the life of Louis-François Pinagot but also an important clue to what Corbin believed was missing from the reigning schools of French historiography.
War,” Times Literary Supplement , 16 June 2006, 3–4; Leonard V. Smith, “The ‘Culture de guerre’ and French Historiography of the Great War of 1914–1918,” History Compass 5/6 (2007): 1974–1975; Jean-Yves Le Naour, “Le champ de bataille des historiens