French peasants in the early eighteenth century

On vacation in France one can see a lot of palaces, churches, castles and big farms. One can then wonder where the peasants lived. Well, the majority of the ancien regime French population were indeed peasants, and they lived in such abject conditions that nothing much is left of their dwellings. They often lived with their whole family in a single room cabin. The construction of those cabins was so perishable that not much has been preserved of them.

The methods of exploitation in the French feudal system

In the French feudal system the peasants who did not own land were those that worked on that part of the feudal land that was directly exploited by the seigneur (a nobleman who ultimately held the land from the king) or was the freehold of a civilian. Land in direct exploitation here means the part of his land that the holder had not given out as freehold and was exploited for his own risk and profit. This land could be leased to a peasant for money, and in such a case the peasant was a leaseholder we'll call tenant. In case this lease was a share of the produce the peasant was a sharecropper. This direct exploitation could also be a farm that was directed by a representative of the landlord. In such a case the peasant was an agricultural laborer.

The three classes of peasants

  • The tenant (leaseholder) or fermier
  • The sharecropper or métayer or colon parti
  • The agricultural laborer

The tenant

The tenant was a peasant who did not own the land he worked, but he did work for his own risk and profit1. A tenant contract was called 'Bail à ferme'. It was a contract by which a tenant got the right to exploit an area of land for a fixed duration. The price could be in money or in kind. When the bail à farm was payable in money I classify the peasant as a tenant. For those contract payable in kind I designate the peasant as a sharecropper2.

In general the maximum duration for a tenancy was no longer than nine years. In case the contracted duration was longer some coutumes would designate the tenancy as an alienation of the land by the lessor and Lots and Vents would be due. Therefore the contracted duration was generally no longer than 9 years. If the duration expired the contract could be renewed silently. This was called 'reconduction' and the new term depended on the contract or local custom. There were some regulations in place for tenancy, like that the tenant could make ameliorations with the lessors agreement. In such a case the worth of these ameliorations had to be reimbursed by the lessor at the end of the contract. There were also provisions for events like a war destructing part of the tenancy or a period of frost, but the contract could oblige the tenant to take these risks.

The absolute weakness of the tenant's position was the limited duration of the contract. In general the price also tended to be steep. There were always enough peasants who wanted to be tenants and the negotiation position of the tenant was weak. If the tenant was a good farmer he could however regulate his own life, he could determine to grow crops for his own consumption and he could make some profit. For the owner of the land the profit was not the highest possible profit, but it was stable and did not require much administration.

The sharecropper

Sharecropping was a variant of bail à ferme in which the payment was a payment in kind of a share of the crop. The sharecropper called métayer and the owner of the farm could be said to share the risk of profit and loss. The sharecropper did however not work for himself, because he was bound to plant a certain kind of crop. The sharecropper was not directing the farm, the owner did. He regularly inspected the farm and the progress of the work or had someone to do this for him. All this in order to ensure that he took his share of the crop, which was between 25 en 50% and the farm was not damaged.

The sharecropper had all the disadvantages that the fermier had. He had two small advantages over him in that he didn't need to invest much money and that in bad years the 'rent' for his farm was lower. The main disadvantage that the sharecropper had was the steep price of up to 50% of the crop that the owner took. After this had been paid the sharecropper still had to pay a lot of taxes and so not much was left for his own upkeep. Statistically one can note that in the good years for farmers the proportion of sharcroppers decreased while in bad years the number of sharecroppers increased.


1) Les loix civiles dans leur ordre naturel by Jean Domat Paris 1695, page 224 For an early and simple definition see
2) Le nouveau theatre d'agriculture et menage des champs by Liger Paris 1723, page 78Comme il est de plusieurs manieres d'affermer les terres, aussi y a-t-il des personnes qui les prennent sous different noms: tels sont le fermier & le métayer: Le fermier est celui qui prend un domain, ou autres terres à forfait, & dont il se charge à ses risques & fortunes; pour le métayer, il s'oblige seulement à cultiver les terres selon les conventions qu'il en a faites.