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Published by EH.NET (June 2010)

Noelle Plack, Common Land, Wine and the French Revolution: Rural Society and Economy in Southern France, c. 1789-1820.? Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009. xiv + 215 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-6728-5.

Reviewed by Jonathan J. Liebowitz, Department of History, University of Massachusetts Lowell.


Since Arthur Young and the physiocrats, common land has been regarded as a burden on agriculture.[1]? Because no individual had a property right to the commons, all villagers would pasture more animals than it could sustain and overuse it.? In Young?s eyes, common lands were a sorry sight, run down and desolate, a picture that Garrett Hardin?s famous article, ?The Tragedy of the Commons.? has helped transform into a stylized fact of modern economics.[2]

From social history comes the other widely accepted fact about common land, that poor peasants needed it for survival — grazing for their animals, wood for fires — and resisted enclosure. The loss of the commons is said to have doomed them to proletarianization.?

Recently these conclusions have been challenged.? Historians have discovered that early modern farmers were as smart as modern economists and understood the dangers of an unregulated commons.? To avoid overgrazing, villages limited how many animals could be pastured.? And rather than the poor, it was often the wealthy, with large herds of animals, who benefited from the unenclosed commons.

Noelle Plack, senior lecturer at Newman University College in Birmingham, UK, accepts the conclusions of the last group of scholars.? Her thesis it is that the privatization of the commons begun during the Revolution gave peasants in southern France, specifically in the department of the Gard, land for the vineyards that transformed wine production in nineteenth century France.? Though this argument calls for an emphasis on the connection between privatization and wine production, the actual focus of the book is on the privatization process itself.? For a brief volume of 159 pages of text, it is unfortunate that the author felt the need to cover both national legislation and its local consequences.? She could have made a greater contribution had she focused on the latter topic, which, as she herself writes, is where research is needed.

Instead, the bulk of the book is a detailed narration of the legislative activity that affected the status of the commons from the start of the Revolution through the early post-Napoleonic years.? Plack begins just after 1789 when the revolutionaries set about to put into practice their belief that common lands should be eliminated because they were a drag on agriculture.? The revolutionaries wanted to privatize them, but how much to give each family or individual proved contentious.? The radical Jacobins decreed in the law of June 10, 1793 that all inhabitants of a commune should share the land equally, but it remains uncertain how much the law was put into practice.? Plack?s evidence shows that only 18 out of 361 communes in the Gard actually carried out the division of the commons (p. 83).

When the conservatives and then Napoleon took power, further division of the commons was halted because of property holders? concern that their rights were threatened by the 1793 decree.? Those who had gained land under that decree and even so-called usurpers (who occupied land without following official procedures) were able to keep it.? Further decrees of the Napoleonic and early Restoration eras moved additional land to private ownership.

Plack?s history of the French Revolution and common land is mostly told from the perspective of the various Parisian legislative and administrative organs.? It follows closely and adds little to Nadine Vivier?s presentation in Propri?t? collective et identit? communale: Les biens communaux en France 1750-1914 (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1998), which she frequently cites.

The original feature of the book is its focus on privatization in a single department, the Gard, which Plack introduces at the start in best Annales fashion.? Situated on the Mediterranean coast just west of the Rhone River, its territory included the marshy Camargue, near the sea; a fertile plain inland from that; bushy scrub known as garrigues; and the rugged C?vennes Mountains.? With the diverse terrain came diversity in the regional economy.? Not only wheat, but grapes, olives, and in the C?vennes chestnuts were grown.? Silk had been important, but it, along with livestock, was declining in the late eighteenth century.? ?Almost everyone? owned some land, but there were considerable divisions between the owners of tiny plots (0-1 hectares) at one extreme and those whose properties exceeded 40 hectares at the other (p. 28). The land that no one owned, that is the commons, was mostly used for pasture.? It comprised about 14% of the total area of the department in 1846 when it was first measured.? Access to the commons was determined by the amount of taxes paid, but the landless were allowed to pasture a few beasts.? Because of its central role in animal husbandry, the commons was vital to the functioning of the agricultural economy.? Plack provides the reader with a well crafted sketch of the Gard landscape as it appeared on the eve of the Revolutionary changes.?? Where there are gaps, like the important absence of data on the extent of pre-Revolution common land, these derive from gaps in the sources themselves

Plack returns to rural economy and society in her conclusions.? Since a significant portion of the Gard?s villages (42%) were affected by privatization and much of the former commons (about half), especially the garrigues, was converted to vineyards, she believes it legitimate to conclude that ?the origins of the ?viticultural revolution? that occurred in the mid-nineteenth century in southern France can be traced back to the Revolution of 1789 and its legislation to privatize common land? (pp. 150-151).??

She may well be right.? Certainly the understanding of the department she has gained from her deep immersion in its archives and other sources is impressive.? Yet evidence of the link she posits is sparse.? There is room for her in future work to study vineyards in the Gard and the even more productive neighboring H?rault to determine whether the privatized commons did lead the way in the expansion of viticulture.


1. Note that Plack and therefore the present discussion is about land held undivided, not about common rights over property otherwise used individually (as in open fields).

2. Garrett Hardin, ?The Tragedy of the Commons,? Science, Vol. 162, No. 3859 (13 December 1968), 1243-1248


Jonathan J. Liebowitz is professor of history at the University of Massachusetts — Lowell.? His research interest is French agriculture during the late nineteenth century with an emphasis on responses to the crisis of that time and on land tenure.