Remembering Peasants

Jeremy Harte at Literary Review: …peasants will soon be as extinct as the aurochs and Irish elk. In western Europe, the proportion of the population employed in agriculture now stands at something between 1 and 5 per cent. It is lowest in England, the first country to replace its land-holding agrarian workers with a wage-earning rural proletariat. The ‘ag labs’ of Victorian census entries might romantically be called peasants, but they lacked the two key features of that class: self-supporting work and rights in the land that is worked.

Wealth in a peasant society is accumulated produce. Nothing is sold, unless to pay rents and taxes or to buy a few necessary goods. The peasant economy is a subsistence one, though it does not necessarily provide a bare subsistence, for the good house, with butter in the churn and beer in the barrel, feeds itself from its own resources. But the bitch of poverty is never more than half-asleep. Always the thought of famine drives the man behind the plough team, and those who have no team have to be their own oxen, dragging the plough with ropes that cut their backs, for the land has to be tilled somehow. The endless labour takes its toll on the body, so that Gascons bitterly talk of a man being as straight as a sickle. The opposite of the good peasant is not the weak or thoughtless individual, but the one who gives up the struggle completely. A remote Joyce cousin was remembered as the man who drank away three farms. And for those who cannot afford drink, there is always the rope in the barn and the black well in the courtyard.

Peasants have never had much power, but they do have land, and they have stayed on the land because they have to: if the peasant lays down his hoe, everyone starves. The definition of good tenure is not low rent or profits, but inheritance. The land should pass unimpeded from father to son, if it can be said to pass at all, for the elders never quite die: they are buried not far away and live on in talk. The landless, who have no real home, stand outside peasant culture. Like ghosts trying to become men, they snatch at any opportunity, however arduous or precarious, to get a piece of land. More here.