• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

French History: The Case of the Wandering Eye

A glance at almost any criminology textbook5 or even at such untouchable journals as the Revue française de sociologie or the Annales could have helped Cobb untangle his figures on crime rates and might have put him on the track of the Comptes généraux de l’administration de la justice criminelle, which provide criminal statistics dating back to 1825. The Comptes have supplied material for social history since the time of A. M. Guerry and Adolphe Quetelet, early masters of sociology, who lived through the events Cobb describes and who studied criminality with a statistical sophistication that makes his work look primitive.6

Of course modern criminology cannot be applied indiscriminately to the past, because of the irregularity of criminal statistics before the nineteenth century. But criminology can suggest approaches, methods, and questions that might never occur to the asociological historian. It can show him how to measure criminality against demography; how to sort out factors such as age, trade, sex, and geography; and how to be sensitive to the attitudes (or mentalities) involved in the relations between those who break the law and those who enforce it. For crime provides a negative image of the sacred and a direct reflection of the taboo; and when studied over long periods, it can reveal shifts in a society’s value system. Analyses of sentencing show the sociologically significant moments when judges cease to apply laws that remain on the books but have passed out of the mores.

Robert Mandrou developed this approach successfully in his book on the persecution of witchcraft, Magistrats et sorciers en France au X VIIe siècle, and today’s newspapers are full of analogous cases: trials concerning abortion, homosexuality, and obscenity. Similarly, studies of the incidence of crimes may uncover changes in attitudes and behavior patterns. Thus Enrico Ferri postulated that as societies move into an urbanized and commercialized stage of development, they pass from a pattern of instinctual criminality to a pattern of calculated criminality, from crime against persons to crime against property.7 Although Ferri’s “law” may have been flogged to death, it has proved useful in comparing traditional and modern or rural and urban societies. The rate of violent crimes (murder, felonious assault) tends to be much higher in archaic, agrarian villages, where communal norms regulate conduct, except in its most explosive, impetuous moments, while economic crime (theft, fraud) predominates in modern cities, where uprooted, money-oriented individuals struggle anonymously to strike it rich or simply to survive.

This shift from passionate to commercial criminality seems to have occurred throughout the West during the early modern period (the present wave of muggings represents a change of tide), and so does the rise of the underworld, despite the gangland subculture (mostly mythical) that surrounded Robin Hood and Cartouche. Cobb treats rural, urban, and organized crime as expressions of the same deviant mentality; but criminology suggests that pitchfork murderers, city shoplifters, and mafiosi belong to different species.

Such differences can only emerge by comparative analysis, another genre that Cobb dislikes and that could have helped him to put his material in perspective. Do his four murders in the Department of the Rhône during the Year VI represent a high level of violence? Assuming the Rhône had a population of approximately 200,000, it had a murder rate of two per 100,000, which is about that of France today. So the area around Lyon, which Cobb describes as a gigantic chamber of horrors, might have passed into a phase of fairly bloodless criminality by 1789, and Cobb’s penchant for the violent anecdote may have made him misrepresent reality. The obscene, ritualistic killings in the remoter regions he studies suggest a more primitive pattern, like that of Colombia, Burma, or Indonesia today.8

Cross-cultural comparisons on a global scale may have little practical value, but Cobb might have compared his findings with those of other historians studying the criminality of eighteenth-century France. Teams of them have been plowing through archives in Lille, Caen, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Aix, and Paris; and they already have produced significant results, as may be appreciated by the works-in-progress reports published by the groups working with François Billacois in Paris and with Pierre Deyon in Lille.9

The Parisian group found that theft accounted for 87 percent of reported crimes from 1755 to 1785—a figure that puts prerevolutionary Paris in a class with the metropolises of modern Europe (99 percent of the crimes in Paris today are thefts), in contrast to eighteenth-century French villages, where theft represented only a third or so of recorded crimes. The homicide rate was low (about one per 100,000), and all the evidence suggests that the criminal underworld had not yet come into existence. Even if one allows for considerable discrepancy between real and reported crime, the capital of the Revolution would look like a haven of nonviolence to anyone who lives in New York.

But it was hell for the criminals, who mostly stole to stay alive. Analysis of their origins, trades, domiciles, and family status shows that they belonged to France’s miserable “floating population,” which lived on the road between temporary jobs and stayed in squalid rooming houses. These “criminals” were the victims of poverty; their own victims were often semi-indigent also, and their oppressors showed one dominant attitude: protect property. The judges in the criminal courts of Paris had thieves hanged and tortured throughout the age of Enlightenment, but they showed indulgence for crimes that seemed less threatening to them: felonious assault, rape, and adultery.

The same pattern emerges from the research historians have done in Lille. It shows that criminal violence decreased dramatically during the entire revolutionary decade and that the rate of crimes against persons declined throughout the eighteenth century, while crimes against property increased. Judges ceased to enforce punishments for sacrilege, showed more leniency toward private immorality, decreased the use of torture (but continued to use it against thieves, if they were poor and ill-born), and suppressed even petty theft with great severity—greatest in the case of servants, beggars, and laborers. Criminal justice, as practiced in Paris and Lille, had abandoned the defense of traditional values and had become essentially an attempt to protect property against the propertyless.

That bottom category of poverty did not include the Parisian sans-culottes. They had regular jobs, fixed addresses, families, and “bread in the house”—even if there was not always enough of it to keep their stomachs full. The criminal population was densest in the very center of Paris, where the cheapest boarding houses were located, not in the faubourgs that supplied the sans-culottes. It therefore seems that criminal and revolutionary violence were unrelated, that the Bastille-storming and purse-snatching impulses had little in common, and that even seen from “below” the Revolution took place above the heads of France’s bread-and-butter criminals.

Historical criminology therefore has revealed realities of behavior and psychology that could not be reached by Cobb’s methods. The point is not that Cobb was wrong (his kind of history is too subjective to be classified as “right” or “wrong”) but that his historical impressionism does not lead anywhere. The comparison of his work on criminality and that of the social scientists suggests that the history of mentalities ought to ally itself with sociology, not fight it to the death.


The sciences humaines, as practiced in France, contain so much diversity that the study of mentalité stands in little danger of succumbing to some party line. Its variety and richness may be appreciated by sampling the work of two sociological historians who have examined attitudes toward death and the afterlife in early modern France.

It is only recently, thanks to the breakthrough in historical demography, that historians have learned how much the basic life-and-death experiences have varied over time. Today we deal with death by remote control—by telephone, intraflorist, “nursing” homes, and “morticians,” a whole profession that we have invented (and pay extravagantly) to handle death for us, keeping it out of sight or dressing it up for one brief appearance, when cosmetics, candle light, and organ music soften its sting. In the time of Hobbes life really was nasty, brutish and short; and death, as Pierre Goubert has remarked, was at the center of life, just as the graveyard lay in the middle of the village. Who among the peasants of seventeenth-century France did not know the stench of death? Who had not carried a corpse? Who did not regard the death of a horse as a greater calamity than the death of a baby? Goubert, a master historian and demographer, first raised these questions and showed how a deeply human history of mentalities could be built upon a base of vital statistics. And it is just that combination of demography and mentality that makes the work of François Lebrun so remarkable.10

First Lebrun set out to discover the actual toll of mortality in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Anjou. By laborious research in parish registers, using the classic techniques of historical demography, he was able to show how death decimated the population of the province for two centuries. At every point when a famine or an epidemic struck, the lines of his graphs cross, showing catastrophic increases in deaths and decreases in births, as if some inexorable “Malthusian scissors” kept slicing through the population, except for some respite in the mid-eighteenth century, right up to the Revolution. How did the Angevins cope with such brutal facts of life? How did they meet death mentally? That problem sent Lebrun through a wide variety of sources: folklore, popular literature, medical records, sermons, religious tracts, reports of burial practices, references to the social use of cemeteries, and examinations of their physical layout. In the end, he concluded that early modern man in Anjou was as much a prisoner of archaic attitudes—a combination of primitive religion and an austerely “doloriste” Catholicism—as of Malthusian circumstances beyond his comprehension and control.

Lebrun’s work is complemented by Gaby and Michel Vovelle’s fascinating study of popular conceptions of death and the afterlife in Provence. 11 The Vovelles used statistics, iconography, art history, and the sociology of religion to trace the representations of purgatory in Provençal churches during the last five centuries. After making an exhaustive inventory of church decorations, they discovered that purgatory did not become a motif until the Counter Reformation, that it became remarkably widespead by the end of the seventeenth century, and that it continued to dominate church iconography until World War I.

Since it seems valid to assume a correlation between the common man’s view of the afterlife and the representations of it that he saw in the painting and sculpture of his church, the Vovelles managed to sketch a history of popular cosmology. They gave a convincing account of the evolution of eschatological attitudes from the Middle Ages, when purgatory did not exist in the popular consciousness, when Last Judgments showed souls caught between the tragic alternative of heaven and hell, to recent times, when plaques to the war dead and patriotic statues of Jeanne d’Arc came to fill niches where the dread St. Michael once stood, and when the fiery pits were covered over by pictures of a vacuous “beyond.” The Vovelles thus caught glimpses of some remote corners in the mental universe of persons whose thoughts and lives had seemed irretrievably lost:

This attempt to make contact with the mental life of history’s forgotten men and women distinguishes the history of mentalities from the common varieties of intellectual history. Such contact as can be made usually concerns the fundamentals of the human condition, the way people conceived of the facts of life and death. But historians of mentality also are studying popular culture, folklore, vagrancy, the family, sexuality, and prostitution. They have attacked these subjects by a variety of methods: statistics, demography, economics, anthropology, social psychology, whatever seems most appropriate. Although it is too early to make judgments on this new historical genre, the best examples of it suggest one methodological imperative: rather than relying on intuition in an attempt to conjure up some vague climate of opinion, one ought to seize on at least one firm discipline of the social sciences and use it to relate mental experience to social and economic realities.

That is not the method of Richard Cobb, prophet of the past, poète maudit, and, despite the inadequacies of his recent work, one of the finest historians we have. His latest pursuit of popular mentality has taken him through an intriguing variety of topics, but the subject has run away with him. He has galloped over fields that have been cultivated for years and that the younger French scholars are about to harvest. But few of them can have the quality that makes Cobb unique: an intensely personal vision of history. It does not do justice to the man or his work to fault him in methodology and to pick at the loose stitches of his analysis. Cobb is a visionary. It is the peculiarity of his angle of vision that makes it so penetrating. His books will take you on an extraordinary intellectual and emotional journey—provided that you suspend your disbelief, provided that you do not read them critically as you would read Soboul, but spiritually as you would read Gogol: in search of dead souls.

  1. 5

    For example, Leon Radzinowicz and Marvin E. Wolfgang, eds., Crime and Justice: vol. I, The Criminal in Society (Basic Books, 1971), and Hermann Manheim, Comparative Criminology (Houghton Mifflin, 1965).

  2. 6

    A. M. Guerry, Essai sur la statistique morale de la France (1833) and Adolphe Quetelet, Sur l’homme et le développment de ses facultés, ou Essai de physique sociale (1836).

  3. 7

    Enrico Ferri, La Sociologie criminelle, 3rd ed. (1893), chapter 2.

  4. 8

    In 1960, Colombia reportedly had 34.0 murders per 100,000 population; the United States had 4.5; and France had 1.7: Marvin E. Wolfgang and Franco Ferracuti, The Subculture of Violence (Tavistock, 1967).

  5. 9

    Crimes et criminalité en France: 17e-18e siècles, pp. 187-261, and Deyon, cited above.

  6. 10

    Lebrun, Les hommes et la mort en Anjou. See also Philippe Ariès, “La mort inversée. Le changement des attitudes devant la mort dans les sociétés occidentales,” Archives européennes de sociologie (1967), pp. 169-195.

  7. 11

    Gaby and Michel Vovelle, Vision de la mort et de l’au-delà en Provence.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print