A rare moment of pause: Vincent van Gogh’s “The Siesta”. Image: Masterpics / Alamy

Not a one: the disappearance of the peasantry

Though they are vanishing as a class, many of us are still connected to them by bonds of memory. How long, however, until we forget entirely?
March 27, 2024

There is a wonderful picture by the Czech photographer Josef Koudelka entitled Pilgrimage. It shows three men kneeling among clouds and rocks, leaning on rough walking sticks, on the bleak summit of Ireland’s holy mountain Croagh Patrick. The men are unsmiling, eyes fixed beyond the frame, but the picture is full of intensity, urgency; its composition has clear echoes of the three crosses that stood on Golgotha. Pilgrims to Croagh Patrick ascended (and sometimes still do ascend) the mountain on their knees, an act of penance but also of hope. Koudelka took the photograph in 1972, but it depicts a world that would have been instantly recognisable to someone a century earlier. And now that world seems to have vanished quite suddenly. Who are these men in their threadbare suits, on their knees on the stony earth, in a gesture of supplication both vigorous and gentle?

Koudelka’s image begins the social historian Patrick Joyce’s fascinating, elegiac study of what used to be called “peasantry”, the class of people who, for millennia, underpinned and defined working rural life in Europe. It is a reflective history, concentrating on Ireland, Poland and Italy, threaded through with personal recollection: for the man on the left of the photograph is the author’s cousin Sean Joyce (Seán Seoighe), a bachelor farmer from the borderlands of Mayo and Galway. Patrick Joyce, who has spent his own working life as a distinguished academic, comes from Irish peasant stock on both sides of his family. At 78, he is among the last generation to have experienced first-hand the nature of European peasant life before what he calls “the vanishing”. He refers to this book as a “homage to my own.”

The retreat of the peasant (smallholder, small farmer, farm labourer—there seem to be infinite subcategories) is not just a feature of the recent history of Europe. Rural communities are collapsing everywhere. In 1950, somewhere between 20 and 30 per cent of the world’s population lived in cities or urban areas; that figure is now approaching 60 per cent. The march of industrialisation, with its attendant enclosures of common grazing and tillage, has been forcing people off the land for two centuries. But Joyce’s statistics demonstrate that the drop in small-scale, self-sufficient farming in the last 50 years has been vertiginous. In western Europe, between 1 and 5 per cent of the population are currently engaged in agricultural work of any kind. 

Global agribusiness now dominates the production of food. In 1996, the 10 biggest seed companies in the world had a market share of less than 30 per cent; today the three largest of them control more than 50 per cent of the market. Small producers buckle under vast corporate systemisations and ever-lengthening food supply chains. Peasants worked to eat and, as a result, they were conservative in their choices—they had to be. Industrial capitalism doesn’t favour the patient, long-term strategies of careful husbandry and cyclical, seasonal planning. As Joyce observes: survival, the high art and defining motivation of peasant life, is about “minimising risks rather than maximising gains”.

Perhaps it is this stoicism that makes it so difficult to pin down what it was like to live a peasant’s life. Or at least to pin it down on a page. Because, on the whole, written words are not the narrative method of choice for peasants. Theirs is an oral culture in which, Joyce writes, “agreements are often concluded without resort to writing or even speech, as in practices of tacit or automatic renewals of lease, or the hiring of a labourer or servant, the hand is spat upon and then grasping the other hand to seal the bargain.”

Those who evoke peasant life in print are almost always outsiders to it

It is notable, therefore, that those who evoke peasant life in print are almost always incomers (or outsiders) to it. John Berger, for example, who wrote in books such as Pig Earth about the people of his adopted village in the French Alps, was a London-born art critic; folklorists and Celtic revivalists such as Dubliner JM Synge tried to capture the particular music of peasant life by interpreting its words into his own.

Yet there is a prevailing silence at the centre when it comes to peasants. There are few records except the visible continuity of practice and culture—and that, too, has now almost disappeared. Peasants did not on the whole describe what they did because they were too busy doing it. “Similar to victims of racism,” writes Joyce, “they must work with the image of themselves created by others.” Even visual representations of peasants tend to depict them in either extreme misery or as bucolic fantasy. An exception to this is Jean-François Millet, the 19th-century French artist, whose pictures of gleaners, sowers and winnowers are an unsentimental window into agricultural labour. One of his many portrayals is reproduced in Remembering Peasants. It shows someone rooted in the soil by his hoe, an ancient tool used for generations, his expression impenetrable. But Millet was not an outsider: he was the son of a Normandy peasant family and had spent his childhood working in the fields.

Joyce does, however, quote this evocative passage from an essay by Robert Bernen, who in 1970 left his billet as a classics professor at Harvard to live in Donegal, “in search of the eternal peasant”. One night, he was walking along the road with a local man, Jimmy.

‘Not a light,’ [Jimmy] said. ‘Not a light.’ I was puzzled by the remark and didn’t answer. We walked on. ‘They’re all asleep,’ he went on. ‘Not a man up. And you see the way we haven’t met a one on the road. Not a one.’ I wondered who Jimmy expected to meet on the road at 3am, but I grunted a soft assent. We walked on along the ascending road, once more in silence. ‘Not a one,’ Jimmy repeated after a while. And then, as though he sensed my perplexity, he added, ‘I remember the time there be ones up and down this road all night, until dawn, until morning they be comin’ and goin’. Comin’ and goin’ you see, ramblin’, to the cards and the music and dancin’ and all. Piles of them. Always.’ ‘All night?’ ‘All night.’

Jimmy’s night, Joyce writes, “is that of the long past of peasant Europe”. And, in a sense, it is the long night of something more fundamental—our connection to land. The word human comes from humus, the Latin for earth. The disappearance of peasants and their knowledge takes with it the understanding, deepened over millennia, of our relationship with the natural world and our dependence on it: earth and body co-mingled. The denigrating language employed across all cultures to describe peasants (bumpkins, clodhoppers, bogmen and so on) often references the body. Rural life until mechanisation was inescapably physical. It was work that bound limbs to the landscape, like Sean Joyce on his knees on Croagh Patrick or Millet’s labourer leaning on his hoe. And because family was the most important and protective social unit of a peasant community, then reproduction was vital to its continuance—marriage, that insurance into the future, was sealed by six separate ceremonies, from betrothal to consummation. Joyce finds these marriage ceremonials echoed all over Catholic Europe—and death ones, too. The dying were sometimes placed on the floor so that they could feel the contact of holy earth. The crib of a dying child would be put halfway through the door—the easier to reach heaven.

Of the earth and soil: “Enclosed Wheat Field with Peasant” (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © INCAMERASTOCK/ALAMY Of the earth and soil: “Enclosed Wheat Field with Peasant” (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © INCAMERASTOCK/ALAMY

The purpose of work was food, and waste was therefore abomination. Berger observed that the peasants’ big meal in the middle of the day “is placed in the day’s stomach”. All through the grind of a peasant’s day was the reminder that the body, in all its physical suffering and struggle, is life—and life is both in the body and in the soil. In the fine categorical gradations of rural living, the peasant had land, and below him in the rankings sat the beggar (who had a kind of small status of his own, a legacy surely of the tradition of the mendicant). Below them both was the pauper, landless and destitute, a flimsy body belonging nowhere.

Peasants’ lives have become repositories of all kinds of romantic nostalgia

We’ve been watching the retreat of the peasants for long enough for their lives to have become repositories of all kinds of romantic nostalgia. As often as they were derided as clodhoppers, their silence and labour was seen to indicate mysterious wells of deep and untapped wisdom. “The ignorant peasant, without fault, is greater than the philosopher,” says the benevolent Reverend Primrose in Oliver Goldsmith’s 1776 novel The Vicar of Wakefield. Above all, peasant life was (and is) seen as authentic, retaining some ancient spark and ingredient lost to us today. This is one reason why the rudiments and handicrafts of peasant cultures are kept alive for tourists; “museumified” is how Joyce puts it. A top-dressing of authenticity for a modern holiday. But he points out, too, that peasant culture is not timeless and immutable—however it may be perceived—it is, in fact, full of examples of survival strategies and small changes. Opening up for tourists is just one of them—though, of course, if you do, then it isn’t long before you stop being a peasant and you become a business.

From the black-and-white photographs in this book, the peasants of the recent past stare out at us—by firesides, hay stooks and under thatched roofs. Joyce’s childhood in the mid-20th century overlapped with ways of living that had remained more or less unchanged for hundreds of years. At his mother’s family home in Wexford, a little more modern than a peasant cottage, he recalls that his grandmother saw no need for any mod cons; electricity only came to Wexford in the 1950s. His cousin Sean the farmer lived without it. In Poland, typically, there were two rooms in a peasant home: a black room, where the work of cooking and preparation went on, and a white room, rarely used, with a storage area in between. The fire, of turf or wood, was the most important feature in the home. Any depiction of real poverty will show a fire gone out. The houses, built of local stone or timber, emerged, like their communities, from the landscape and of it.

Remembering Peasants is a musing book, reflective rather than didactic. Questions are asked but answers are not demanded. “Can we talk of the lifestyle of a peasant?” Joyce wonders on a visit to a museum of rural life. The courtesy, a kind of “courtliness” which he sees in Catholic Europe in the peasants of Poland and Spain, leads him to ponder, “where does being civilised really reside?”

When all the peasants of Europe have vanished, it will be impossible to recapture the life and labour they’ve taken with them. But this book, a lovely, scholarly, feeling (though never sentimental) account of glimpses and fragments, lifts a corner of the curtain on a world that will soon, to almost everyone, seem unimaginably strange and distant.