The encounter between Alain Corbin and François-Louis Pinagot was at one level fortuitous. The historian picked the dead peasant’s name from the register of births in a provincial archive. He set out to bring him back from oblivion by following the meagre traces left in the bureaucratic records of the French state when the most subordinate of its agents – mayors, foresters, tax collectors – made fleeting contact with, or more often narrowly missed, one of their humblest and least troublesome administrés.
The encounter, if fortuitous, was far from accidental, however. A biography of an unknown man, who left no deliberate record and never did anything that mattered, is a bold and original undertaking. Corbin has made bold originality his speciality. Most historians would be happy to write a single truly pioneering book; he manages one every few years. After a substantial monograph on peasants in the Limousin in the tradition of the three-decker thèse d’état, he began what amounts to a one-man campaign to extend the boundaries of what is thought of as history. His largescale study of prostitution, Women for Hire (1990), first published in France in 1978, was one of the first works by a professional historian to examine what was then not a subject of serious study. From there he began to develop a history of physical sensations. His best known book is The Foul and the Fragrant (1986), surely the first history of smells, and the way in which they have been experienced as signs of social and cultural change. Sorties on other fronts include a multi-layered analysis of the lynching of a nobleman by Dordogne peasants in 1870, The Village of Cannibals (1992); a study of The Lure of the Sea (1994); and his recent Village Bells, a study of the rural sound-world focusing on the meanings of church bells. Corbin’s aim is to demonstrate that the ways in which we experience our surroundings are culturally determined and subject to historical change.
Few historical oeuvres could be more central to contemporary debate about the origins of human behaviour. It might seem surprising, therefore, that Corbin’s work is not better known outside professional circles. Why no big literary prizes? Why no film starring Gérard Depardieu, whose lumpish features and taurine acting style would for once be wholly appropriate? Why academic presses rather than HarperCollins? This may be mere circumstance. Perhaps film rights are even now being auctioned. But I suspect not. Corbin’s work is not packaged for bookclubs or bestseller lists. He does not present picaresque narratives, inspiring characters or improving parables, but rather explores the ravelled complexity of past cultures, bringing powerfully home to us the distance between then and now.
Popular history, especially in novels or films, but also in many scholarly works, bridges that distance by projecting on to past peoples our own assumptions and ways of perceiving. We ‘identify’ with them not by understanding their difference, but by making them resemble us – the heroes most of all. This is the essence of sentimentalising the past, almost universal in popular representations. Corbin goes in precisely the opposite direction. He shows that even in the most basic sensory perceptions – smells, sounds, degrees of light and darkness, temperature, pain, desire, sensations of space and crowding, the passage of time, relations with inanimate nature and with living creatures – even our recent ancestors were not like us. His conclusions are not easy to reduce to handy formulas. He makes us realise how much we cannot know, or knowing, understand. ‘Psychological anachronism’ is his enemy.
He is consequently dismissive of what he calls ‘le dolorisme’, a term not yet in use among English historians, although the thing itself is all too familiar from any school textbook, television documentary or heritage museum. The constant dwelling on the awfulness, suffering and injustice of past lives, as if that were the only significant thing about them; the retrospective conscription of long-dead people into our own causes; and, worst of all, our pharisaical self-satisfaction at always being historically on the right side. Thus we adopt towards past people, our poor relations, an attitude of pity tinged with contempt, reserving praise for those ‘ahead of their time’ who, we think, were striving to be more like us. Corbin is impatient of this sentimental condescension. The crowning error, he writes in The Lure of the Sea, is ‘the satisfied, abusive and blind certainty of having understood the past’.
Some practitioners of cultural history eke out modest research with lashings of borrowed theory; Corbin omits ritual obeisance to fashionable theories, but is very long on research. He remarks at one point that he has been working for forty years in the archives. It shows. His work is painstaking and based on an unusual breadth of reading: what other Parisian professor would think of citing a seminar paper given at Loughborough University? His readiness to immerse himself in the archives and tease out the meaning of details reminds me of Richard Cobb, though perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be another famous archival mole, Jules Michelet, who also wrote about women and the sea, and tried to unravel the substance from which France was made. As Michelet put it in a famous passage, which Corbin would I imagine endorse: ‘without a geographical base, the people, the historic actor, seems to walk on air as in a Chinese painting ... As is the nest, so is the bird.’ But, at the same time, ‘history itself is an enormous, and too often underestimated, moral fact ... Thus goes each people, making itself, engendering itself, mixing, amalgamating the elements ... In human progress, the essential part is the living force, which we call mankind. Mankind is its own Prometheus.’
Unlike Michelet, Corbin does not preach; and unlike Cobb, he does not avoid theory. Perhaps his fundamental ambition is to break out of what he has called the ‘prison’ of the longue durée, and discard the ‘out-of-step rhythms of Braudelian temporality’, which he has described as ‘a virtually insurmountable obstacle to an authentic sociocultural history’. For Corbin, profound cultural change happens more quickly than Braudel or even Michelet would allow. Physical sensations, he seems to be saying, were connected in complex and subtle ways to the intellectual, political and socioeconomic changes familiar in conventional history. His aim parallels that of Michelet: to see how people mix and amalgamate their own characteristic ways not only of imagining and understanding but also of feeling, seeing, hearing and smelling their world. Much of his work has concentrated on the period from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, showing the enormous mental changes over a single century, and also, at least implicitly, suggesting how much more has changed since then.
Louis-François Pinagot is more than just a pretext for a historiographical jeu d’esprit or a display of professional virtuosity. Biographies even of ‘the people’ focus on the abnormal: on individuals who have done something extraordinary which made them noticed at the time, and makes them fascinating to us. Pierre Rivière, Martin Guerre and Menocchio seem to inhabit a Grimms’ fairy-tale world of Grand-Guignol violence, changelings and magic. What about all those who lived ordinary lives and hence are unknown, but who made up everyday reality? How can they be discovered? Pinagot becomes the silent point at which Corbin’s past writings and reflections can be brought together to show us how his world was constituted.
Pinagot is not a mere cipher, a perennial peasant Everyman, walking above the earth as in Michelet’s Chinese paintings. What is striking in the book is how we come to appreciate the specificity, even the uniqueness, of this ordinary life led within the labyrinth of woods, hedges and banks in one poor hamlet, Origny, one small forest, Bellême, one department, Orne in southeastern Normandy, a few miles from where the taste of a madeleine set Proust on a very different search for a lost time. It was an egalitarian society – equal in poverty – of nuclear families, without clan conflicts or family vendettas. People were sensitive to affronts to their reputations or rights, but got on with their neighbours through arrangements to exchange goods and services. Pinagot was a woodman, a clogmaker. Though poor – officially registered as indigent – he was never in trouble with the foresters who relentlessly guarded the state’s timber, even though several of his neighbours or relatives were nabbed for illegal grazing or thefts of wood. He married, had children, became a National Guard and an elector. He was desperately poor until the children could earn, then became somewhat less poor, even, aged 58, acquiring a house – a windowless masure and garden with a rateable value of seven francs. One of his sons became a local councillor.
Such fragments are exhaustively traced and expounded, and a picture builds up of what Pinagot did, how he would have spoken, and what he must have seen and heard. Beginning with the landscape, the trees, work and leisure (a few bottles of cider at the inn), Corbin ends with the chronological landmarks of Pinagot’s 77 years as they would have been witnessed or recounted in this remote corner. It was a time of great events: the Revolution, the Chouan revolt, war and invasion, political and economic change. For us to understand how Pinagot might have conceived it, a ‘deconstruction of our own historical knowledge’ is required. The landmarks of his adult life were terrible years of dearth, particularly severe in a forest region unable to grow its own food. Dearth meant market riots, barricades to stop grain convoys, and bands of beggars. The were 19 such years in his life, nine of them while he was trying to bring up a family. Only from the 1860s, when Pinagot was already an old man, did food shortages and their consequent ‘troubles’ cease to be a recurrent threat. The Second Empire, notes Corbin, marked ‘the end of a world’. A booming clog trade – demand expanded until about 1880 – and for Pinagot’s daughters the better-paid manufacture of gloves for the Paris fashion trade, rather than starvation wages for spinning hemp, meant an end to indigence. Other landmarks were the two Prussian invasions, in 1815 and 1870, when the region saw sporadic fighting. Yet the people of Origny were largely spectators: only one man volunteered for the Army in 1870.
The politics of the outside world seem to have had little impact. The only dramatic political incident was the removal in 1819 of the mayor (a witness at Louis-François’s wedding) for insanity. In this poor district there were few notables: Pinagot probably never heard a speech by an educated man. Given the vote in 1848, the woodmen used it far less than the neighbouring smallholders. The dominant political dispute for decades – in which Pinagot’s son eventually played a part – concerned maintenance of the road along the edge of the forest. The woodmen, who depended on it, wanted the costs to be borne by the commune; the smallholders did not.
In the broad debate – or at least the difference of emphasis – between those historians who see the peasant communities as being assimilated into national politics fairly early, and those who see them as dominated by their own concerns, there seems little doubt as to where Corbin would stand. He chides those who suppose that past peoples lived according to our ‘hierarchy of interests and curiosities; or only take an interest in those whom they assume did so’. In Village of Cannibals, he showed how peasant political sympathies depended on an understanding of events very different from that of the towns. But he does not bring Pinagot or his neighbours into this debate: politics seem to have passed them by. I would have liked to know who they voted for, and why – one of the few issues that Corbin does not pursue. All he tells us is that Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte attracted somewhat less support than in most places, and that many woodmen, including Pinagot, failed to vote at all until the late 1860s. This relative silence is doubdess a deliberate decision to reflect Pinagot’s priorities. This book is not trying to add to conventional political history but to establish the ‘conditions of possibility’ that determined whether the poor and illiterate could form opinions and ‘feel themselves authorised’ to take part in debate. As there were so few political events at village level – mainly royal feast days, when the National Guard, Pinagot among them, paraded – Corbin concludes that the people of Origny must have felt themselves more ‘parishioners’ than ‘citizens’. Their common struggle for decades was to persuade the authorities to reopen their church, and then to keep it going – a huge financial burden, but essential to their existence as a community.
The biography of a nobody, a silent and faceless figure, is perhaps as close as we can get to every historian’s fantasy: to observe the past ‘as it really was’. Pinagot, unlike the subjects of most biographies, does not address posterity, and has no notion of presenting himself for history. But for Corbin he is not merely a specimen to bepinned down and dissected. True historians are antiquarians at heart, fascinated by the past and its inhabitants irrespective of their present-day usefulness. This book is a tribute to forgotten lives, a modest attempt, says Corbin, who comes from Orne himself, to hold back the bulldozers at work in country cemeteries. It is a protest against oblivion on a far more human scale than the ‘top-down’ cultural archaeology orchestrated by Pierre Nora in Realms of Memory. In a rare moment of self-revelation, Corbin tells us of his emotion when, ‘after months of research and intimacy with the inscrutable personality of Louis-François’ he found his mark, a cross on an official document, and tried to ‘reconstitute the gesture that had inscribed it’ – perhaps the only physical trace he left.