Poverty in Auvergne

The difficulty of life in rural regions led some to leave home and seek a better life elsewhere, particularly in the growing cities. Such migration worried some observers, who feared villages would be emptied and no one would be left to work the land. In the excerpt below, a local government official in the Auvergne region comments on the causes and effects of emigration.


This land produces grain, but everything else is lacking. And even the sale of this produce is uncertain due to the variability of the harvest, which is reduced considerably by too much drought or too much rain. The sale of young cattle, which the inhabitants pursue with all possible industriousness, is the only sure source of income. And as it is insufficient to pay the taxes, they supplement it by annual emigration. They go to work on a part of the forests throughout France, to do road work, or to work in the carrying trade. After that, they go to do the harvest work in Languedoc and Burgundy and then return home for their own harvest, and to replant the land that their wives have cultivated during the good season.

Thus it is that with the greatest sobriety and the most arduous work these men bring back each year the money necessary to pay the taxes of their district and even of the valley, which they do to exchange part of the money earned outside the province for wine, hemp, iron, and other goods that they don't have at home and which the valley furnishes them either from its soil or through its trade.

Those who have the most intelligence or are accustomed to the work, hire others and make a profit from their labor. These entrepreneurs have some money left over each year after they have paid their taxes.

Because they have little property, they buy up one after another the fields cultivated by their families or others that are within their reach.

This picture shows to what extent emigration is necessary in all these districts and how villages pay more in taxes than their soil can produce. It is astonishing that this emigration is not total, and that need and the sight of misery does not destroy among the people the feeling that ties men to the place of their birth.

For a long time the inhabitants of the Cantal region have been engaged in the boilermaker's trade. The boiler factory established in Aurillac favors them in this kind of industry, which takes them even beyond the frontiers of the kingdom. The greatest number return each year and bring to the tax collectors and to their families the money they have earned. At last, repelled by these long trips, accustomed to an easier life, and disgusted with agriculture, they take their whole family and move to the place where they have spent their winters, either abandoning their land or giving it away at the lowest price.

The Limagne is the place where indigence is greatest. The inhabitants do not even have the cruel resource of seeking a living for their families elsewhere for part of the year, because the vines demand constant care. They cannot neglect them for one year without harming the harvests of following years. Some travelers who have crossed both the mountains and the valley have been struck by the external differences they see. In the mountains, especially to the west and south of the province, men are big and strong, their bearing and their confident air depict a well-developed character and seem to indicate that they know that there is no real difference between one man and another. In the Limagne, on the contrary, they are small, ugly, bent and present only the image of men ground down by slavery, threatened by the least illness that may happen to them to be forced to have recourse to beggary, pursued without respite by need. They seem even to be ignorant of their superiority over the animals. The observer cannot recover from his astonishment when he sees all the signs of poverty surrounding him in a country that is so pleasing to the eye on account of its varied forms and of the wealth that nature has lavished there. . . . He sees people live on bread made of rye mixed with barley whose bran has not even been removed. It is without any doubt the worst bread eaten in France. . . . Never does the peasant go to the butcher shop, and he eats a few pieces of salted pork four or five times a year only. He sells good grain and green beans he has raised in order to live on black beans, which are used elsewhere only as fodder for livestock.

He sells his wine and throws water on the residue of his vat to make his best drink. If nature has given him several daughters, he employs them to gather in grass in the grain fields and limits his ambition to having a cow so as to cut down his work by coupling it to the plow together with his neighbor's cow. The butter he gets from it is sold and his soup and his vegetables are seasoned only with the same walnut oil that feeds his lamp at night.

Source: Jeffry Kaplow, ed., France on the Eve of Revolution: A Book of Readings (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1971), 25–32. This material is used by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.