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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Displays of Authenticity (19)—Thanksgiving

One year ago on Round and Square (22 November 2011)—Fieldnotes From History: Opinion
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Displays of Authenticity"
[a] Thanksgiving RF
In the fifty united states, and among American expatriates all over the world, this is a special day—the day we set aside to give thanks for all that we have (and, if we are smart, to think about and do something for those who have less). Here, one day is turned over to thanks-giving for the other 364.25 days in the year. And we are not alone. Canadians celebrate about six weeks earlier (or we celebrate six weeks later, depending on one's perspective), and similar displays of "gratitudinal" authenticity dot the globe and the calendar. 

It is not, to be sure, only a celebration observed in post-industrial nation-states, either. As readers of Round and Square well know, I spend a good deal of my time thinking about cultural issues from all over the world. When it occurred to me to write a post about Thanksgiving, my thoughts immediately turned to Roy Rappaport's anthropological classic, Pigs for the Ancestors. From there, I started thinking about post-dusk Ramadan meals, lunar new year celebrations in South and East Asia, and festive meals throughout European, Latin American, and African history.
[b] Tangles RF

People give thanks, and then they eat.

Afternoon football is only occasionally a part of it, but games—watching and playing—have a larger role in these celebrations than you might have thought while coming down from a Tryptophan high and seeing tangles of Lions, and Cowboys and Bears (oh, my)

And let's not forget the parades.

So, in appreciation of giving thanks, eating a bit too much food, and watching both parades and sporting contests, I bring you a selection from one of the best books of history written in the last half-century. If only historians appreciated their classics the way that anthropologists do, people would still read Eugen Weber's Peasants Into Frenchmen just as thoroughly as they do Edmund Leach's Political Systems of Highland Burma and  E.E. Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. Are these last two books without problem, fifty years after their writing (or more)? Nope. But anthropologists still read them. In fact, I am not sure that there is a cultural anthropologist in the country who hasn't.

If only it were the same in the field of history. There, we toss our would-be classics overboard as soon as the pages begin to yellow or the dustjackets start to fray. And on that note, I will add that more than a few historians have quibbled over the past year when I have extolled the wonders of Eugen Weber's beautiful work of modern French historiography. Even the title is magical: Peasants Into Frenchmen.

[c] Layered RF

It is "flawed." It has "gaps." Or so I have been told.

Really? What is wrong with us? Tell me how it is possible for a decades-old book not to have a few issues.

I see it in quite a different light—as a tour de force of historical research and blended, layered analysis. I get goose-bumps reading it, even today. My rather stingy field (at least when it comes to admiration of older works) gives few thanks for great writers of its past. I choose today to show hearty gratitude for a historian such as Weber, who has devoted his scholarship to a significant question (how did France become France?) that matters to this very day

The problem with historians is that we tend to rush to the next book—the shiny new object—that has uncovered one or two more sources, leaving in the dust the decades of work produced by great thinkers and researchers who have covered their topics much more thoroughly, and often with far more literary flair and archival depth. It seems sometimes that we'd rather read the latest piece of garbled dissertationese than master the works of the  masters.

Am I being too harsh? 

Many of my colleagues in the history profession would surely think so. I think not. Having spent a significant amount of time in the textual hallways of anthropology, I admire the way that field both critiques and admires its classical masters. I think the lack of a parallel has weakened the modern, academic study of history in ways that the field has not even begun to acknowledge. I plan to tackle a little of that on these pages in the coming months

Fur will fly; it will not be smooth-going.
[d] Fertility RF

For now, though, I wish to give positive thanks to a thirty-six year-old book that is as fresh and vibrant (and dense...but in a good way) as the day it was written. Thank you, Eugen Weber. You will help us point the way to appreciating the great historians in our midst, as well as in our past. If you take even a quick read of the selection below, you will likely notice the robustness of Weber's prose, as well as his loving attention to detail. 

Even more, you will probably notice a parallel or two to feasts of thanksgiving that matter to this day. You will sense the ways they intersect with love, fertility, competition, and economic activity. Just think about how Thursday's feasts (and awkward "meeting the family" relationships) turn to Friday's shopping (some beginning on Thursday night, alas), and Saturday's football games. I see a few themes, and am sure that you will, too. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Eugen Weber
Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914
Chapter Twenty-oneThe Way of All Feasts
We have surveyed the agencies of change at work. Now it is time to look at some direct effects of their conjunction. Since we have just left the realm of religion, as good a place as any to start is with a related one—that of feasts.
[e] Differing RF

It is not every day that there's a feast, says the French proverb; but at one time, almost every other day was a feast—fête, assemblée, ballade, frairie, vogue, apport, rapport, préveil, or riotée—in some place or for some trade. The diversity of land, crops, weather, and interests made for vast variety, in details and in dates. Thus in Savoy, where every valley lived under different conditions, rituals and celebrations similar in kind differed in nature from village to village. On the other hand, we have seen that saints venerated in many communities might perform differing functions...Everywhere, however, feasts carried religious overtones: ducasse in the north (from dédicace), pardon in Brittany (from the indulgences attached to a pilgrimage), bénéiçon or bénichon in the Jura and Vosges (from benediction); roumavage, romerage, or roumeyrage (from roumieu, the pilgrim who went to Rome); voto, or boto, for the votive saints' feasts from the southwest, kermesse from the Flemish kerk-misse.

Even the profane terms relate to saints' festivals, for no rejoicing, jubilee, or merrymaking would have arisen without supernatural sanction. And everywhere great feasts shared a magic character: the ashes of the Christmas log or of the midsummer pyre were prophylactic, destroyed vermin, ensured fertility; the reed or fern blessed on Palm Sunday preserved from fire or lightning...Midsummer fires (among other things) brought marriage and fertility. Almost everywhere the lass who jumped over the embers expected to find a husband before the year was out; and the men and women who did so sought fertility for themselves or their property.
[f] Reflective RF

Naturally enough, especially when fertility was concerned, the festivities were highly convivial. There was more and better food than usual. And there was also generally a  fair, a tradition that continued in many places even during the Revolutionary period when patron saints' feasts and pilgrimages were banned. Benoît Malon remembered how the September feast at Prétieux in Forez meant mutton, pie, and wine, sous for the children to buy little sugared dolls, the intoxicating music of two bugles and a drum, lads all dressed up parading past on horses with beribboned girls riding a pillion, a horse race with rich prizes, and dancing into the night...

Above all, the annual feast, with its parade, horses, costumes, band or bands, ringing church bells, cannon shots, gunfire, and exploding crackers and fireworks, was the high point of the small town's year—"focus of personal emulation and point of honor of civic pride" for rich and poor, as in the Carnival of Rio today. Villagers streamed from in from roundabout to see the procession, splendid as an army with banners, to join in the rich mix of religion and profanity, to drink, eat, and dance and combine business with pleasure. Not even the suspension of Church festivals during the Revolution could stop this. In Osséja and in a great many other places, the dances in the village square continued to be held on Saint Peter's day without the customary mass beforehand: the magic, social, and economic functions embodied in the festival were too great to drop. As Paul-Louis Courier wrote in 1822, in his Petition for Villagers Who Are Prevented from Dancing, feasts were not just for fun: "Many a cow is sold that hadn't been sold at the fair," and many a marriage made.[1]
[g] Gourd tidings RF
[1] Eugen Weber, Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976), 377-379.

Weber, Eugen. Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976. 

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