chapter  13
17 Pages

Collective Identities : Community and Religion

If the family marked the boundary between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’, for most people throughout our period the public was the small community in which they lived, moved and had their being. In 1846, 75.6 per cent of the population was defined as rural, which meant that they lived in a commune (the smallest administrative unit) whose main centre of population had fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. In 1.911, 55.8 per cent still fell into this category. Many of the 38,000 communes had very small populations indeed, and they got smaller as agriculture shed some of its labour force in the latenineteenth-century depression. Between 1876 and 1936 the number of communes with fewer than 200 inhabitants rose from 3,948 to 8,670. They also grew socially more homogenous as many notables, craftsmen and landless labourers left. Most people lived in communes with between 500 and 2,000 inhabitants; about as many lived in communes with under 500 as in large towns of over 100,000. Even these figures are misleading as to the actual size of communities, because a commune was an area, not a single village or parish: the commune of Mazieres-en-Gatine, for example, had some 900 inhabitants in the 1840s, but the village itself had only 200, the other 700 living in outlying hamlets and isolated farmsteads. Nationally, some 14 million people in 1880 lived in similar isolation. In small settlements, family and community tended to be synonymous. Social life was given, not chosen, for most people spent their lives in one place: even in the last years of the century, over 60 per cent of the whole population lived in the commune where they were born, and over 80 per cent in the same department. Simply because of the immobility of peasants, most marriages were within the local

community. Averaged over the century, over 60 per cent of married couples came from within the same commune, and in remote regions far more: in one district of Lozere in the 1810s, about a third of those marrying lived less than one kilometre apart; by 1900 it was still a quarter.2