In the year 1783, lightning killed 121 French bell ringers, each of them struck down as he was pulling desperately on a belfry rope. French peasants believed that church bells frightened away the evil spirits that bring hail, so bell ringers put themselves in lightning's way whenever a storm appeared. They kept it up long after the government and the church told them to stop.
Eugen Weber tells that story in his marvellous book, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914, published in 1976. Weber, who will be in Canada on Tuesday to give the Barbara Frum Lecture at Hart House on the University of Toronto campus, is a historian with an eager eye for detail. He doesn't ignore major events, but he insists that history is the ordering of an infinite number of details.
Peasants into Frenchmen describes the generations-long effort to transform isolated and dirt-poor peasants into citizens of a nation. Old France had been a cluster of many societies, speaking many languages, and in the 1860s a fifth of the citizens couldn't speak French. Not all peasants cheered the government's efforts: experience had taught them that anyone from Paris was likely a tax collector, a judge, or a recruiting sergeant. Some saw the rule against ringing bells in a storm as galling interference. The church called the peasants' belief superstitious--but, as Weber sympathetically writes, "Superstition is the religion of others."
Weber discusses everything from the introduction of the bicycle ("that incomparable harbinger of progress") to early birth control: in 1867 Redemptorist missionaries in the Somme reported that parish after parish was "ravaged by onanism," meaning coitus interruptus. Weber shows standardized education dissolving ancient local communities, but he's not nostalgic. "Many grieved over the death of yesterday, but few who grieved were peasants." Modernity brought them unexpected comfort and hope. Meanwhile, elites in the cities were obsessing about despair and decadence. Weber dealt with that in his book France, Fin de Siècle, and later wrote The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s.
History is an art form to Weber, and he's as much literary man as researcher. "Given imagination and the talent, I would have been a writer of fiction." He thinks the historian functions like a playwright in reverse: he knows the last act but must discover what led to it. Weber connects scholarship with his personal history in My France: Politics, Culture, Myth (1991), a collection of essays. The introduction describes his childhood in Rumania (where he was born in 1923), his schooling, war service and university in Britain, and his move to the University of California at Los Angeles, his home since the 1950s.
He's been a Rumanian, an Englishman and an American, but France is clearly his passion. He thinks France is to historians what Rome is to Catholics; its attractions are infinite. In France the past remains a vivid force in current life, so anything written on French history will be criticized, commended, berated--but rarely ignored.
His new book, Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages (Random House, 294 pages, $29.95), a generously expanded version of the Frum lecture, is a learned tour of this timely subject, from Biblical times to 1999. It's typically Weberian in its marshalling of quirky characters and remarkable facts. John Napier (1550-1617), who invented logarithms and the decimal point, chiefly valued mathematics because it helped him work out the date of the Last Judgement; he predicted either 1688 or 1700. Columbus, in 1492, believed his voyage would lead to the conversion of India and thus prepare the way for the end of the world.
A few years ago, in an essay called "Doing History," Weber analyzed Henry Ford's famous remark, "History is bunk." Since Ford was a bigot and a tyrant, that's usually quoted as an example of ignorance. But Weber used it to demonstrate that we can understand nothing except through context. Ford actually said "History is more or less bunk," which is slightly different, and he said it in 1916, in the middle of the First World War.
Ford thought that devotion to the past prevents us from grappling with the present and may encourage us to make war out of historical grievance. In 1914 all the European leaders knew history, Ford said, yet they blundered into the worst war ever.
On another occasion Ford recalled looking in American history books "to learn how our forefathers harrowed the land"; he discovered that historians barely mentioned harrows, the iron-toothed rakes essential to modern farming. Harrows, Ford argued, meant more in history than guns and speeches. When history "excludes harrows, and all the rest of daily life," then history is bunk.
Maybe Ford felt strongly about harrows because he manufactured them, Weber says; even so, he was right when he argued that history should tell how ordinary people lived. And Ford won. The rise of social history began in the 1920s with the Annales movement in France, and has spread ever since. As Weber says, "The sort of history that Ford wanted is pretty much the history that we do today." No one does it better than Eugen Weber.