Arthur Young Views the Countryside

Arthur Young, an Englishman, traveled across France on the eve of the Revolution recording his impressions of life there, particularly those aspects that seemed to him to compare unfavorably with his native land. In the excerpt below, he comments on the peasantry’s landholdings, remarking on the multiple arrangements of land tenure and on the small size of peasant farms, all of which seemed strange to him, because, in England at this time, most of the arable land belonged to absentee landlords who hired others to work their large farms for them.


I. The small properties of the peasants are found every where, to a degree we have no idea of in England; they are found in every part of the kingdom, even in those provinces where other tenures prevail; but in Quercy, Languedoc, the whole district of the Pyrenées, Béarn, Gascogne, part of Guienne, Alsace, Flanders, and Lorraine, they abound to a greater degree than common. In Flanders, Alsace, on the Garonne, the Béarn, I found many in comfortable circumstances, such as might rather be called small farmers than cottagers, and in Basse Bretagne, many are reputed rich, but in general they are poor and miserable, much arising from the minute division of their little farms among all the children. In Lorraine, and the part of Champagne that joins it, they are quite wretched. I have, more than once, seen division carried to such excess, that a single fruit tree, standing in about ten perch of ground, has constituted a farm, and the local situation of a family decided by the possession.

II. Hiring at money rent is the general practice in Picardy, Artois, part of Flanders, Normandy (except the Pays de Caux), Isle of France, and Pays de Beauce; and I found some in Béarn and about Navarre. Such tenures are found also in most parts of France, scattered among those which are different and predominant; but, upon a moderate estimate, they have not yet made their way through more than a sixth or seventh of the kingdom.

III. Feudal tenures—These are fiefs granted by the seigneurs of parishes, under a reservation of fines, quit rents, forfeitures, services, etc., I found them abounding most of Bretagne, Limousin, Berry, La Manche, etc. where they spread through whole provinces; but they are scattered very much in every part of the kingdom. About Verson, Vatan, etc., in Berry, they complained so heavily of these burdens, that the mode of levying and enforcing them must constitute much of the evil; they are every where much more burdensome than apparent, from the amount which I attribute to that circumstance. Legal adjudications, they assert, are very severe against the tenant, in favour of the seigneur.

IV. Monopoly—This is commonly practised in various of the provinces where métaying is known; men of some substance hire great tracts of land, at a money rent, and re-let it in small divisions to métayers, who pay half the produce. I heard many complaints of it in La Manche, Berry, Poitou, and Angoumois, and it is met with in other provinces; it appears to flow from the difficulties inherent in the métaying system, but is itself a mischievous practice, well known in Ireland, where these middle men are almost banished.

V. Métayers—This is the tenure under which, perhaps, seven-eigths of the lands of France are held. In Champagne there are many at tier franc, which is the third of the produce, but in general it is half. The landlord commonly finds half the cattle and half the feed; and the métayer labour, implements, and taxes; but in some districts the landlord bears a share of these.

At the first blush, the great disadvantage of the métaying system is to landlords; but, on a nearer examination, the tenants are found in the lowest state of poverty, and some of them in misery. At Vatan, in Berry, I was assured that the Métayers almost every year borrowed their bread of the landlord before the harvest came round, yet hardly worth borrowing, for it was made of rye and barley mixed; I tasted enough of it to pity sincerely the poor people; but no common person there eats wheaten bread; with all this misery among the farmers, the landlord's situation may be estimated by the rents he receives. At Salbris, in Sologne, for a sheep-walk that feeds 700 sheep, and 200 English acres of other land, paid the landlord, for his half, about 331. sterling; the whole rent, for land and stock too, did not, therefore, amount to 1s. per head on the sheep! In Limousin, the métayers are considered as little better than menial servants, removable at pleasure, and obliged to conform in all things to the will of the landlords; it is commonly computed that half the tenantry are deeply in debt to the proprietor, so that he is often obliged to turn them off with the loss of these debts, in order to save his land from running waste.

In all the modes of occupying land, the great evil is the smallness of farms. There are large ones in Picardy, the Ile of France, the Pays de Beauce, Artois, and Normandy; but, in the rest of the kingdom, such are not general. The division of the farms and population is so great, that the misery flowing from it is in many places extreme; the idleness of the people is seen the moment you enter a town on market-day; the swarms of people are incredible. At Landivisiau, in Bretagne, I saw a man who walked seven miles to bring two chickens, which would not sell for 24s. the couple, as he told me himself. At Avranches men attending each a horse, with a pannier load of sea ooze, not more than four bushels. Near Issenheim, in Alsace, a rich country, women, in the midst of harvest, where their labour is nearly as valuable as that of men, reaping grass by the road side to carry home to their cows.

Source: Arthur Young, Travels during the Years 1787, 1788, and 1789, vol. 1 (Bury St. Edmunds: J. Rackham, 1792), 402–17