The other side of life under the Ancien régime

Why are there so many stepmothers in French fairy tales, and why are they so mean?

Peasants hacking a knight to death during a “jacquerie,” or peasant revolt. Picture source:

Referring to the Ancien régime, the early modern French period of monarchy before the French Revolution of 1789, Talleyrand‘s autobiography contains the following:

Celui qui n’a pas vécu au dix-huitième siècle avant la Révolution ne connaît pas la douceur de vivre et ne peut imaginer ce qu’il peut y avoir de bonheur dans la vie.

One who did not live in the 18th century before the Revolution does not know the sweetness of life and cannot imagine what one can have in terms of happiness in life.  Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord: Mémoires du Prince de Talleyrand: La Confession de Talleyrand

This might be totally true for the aristocracy of the time, and perhaps also for the bourgeoisie–we’re talking powdered wigs, salons, and the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.  However, for the peasantry, life under the Ancien régime was horrible.  Malnutrition was rampant.  As Robert Darnton points out in his The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history, in the many French fairy tales in which someone is granted three wishes, it’s quite common for the person in question to wish for food, and often not particularly special food, but just bread, wine, and a little something else.  Many French folk tales involve parents getting rid of their children in one way or another due to not being able to feed them.  The first chapter of Darnton’s book is an extended analysis of French fairy tales of the period and what they can tell us about the French mind before the Revolution, and it’s not a pretty picture–“the world is cruel, the village nasty, and mankind infested with rogues…”  Despite the general suitability of France for farming, the agricultural techniques of the time failed to get as much out of the land as they could have:

…seigneuralism and the subsistence economy kept villagers bent over the soil, and primitive techniques of farming gave them no opportunity to unbend.  Grain yields remained at a ratio of about 5-to-1, a primitive return in contrast to modern farming, which produces fifteen or even thirty grains for every seed planted.  Farmers could not raise enough grain to feed large numbers of animals, and they did not have enough livestock to produce the manure to fertilize the fields to increase the yield.  This vicious circle kept them enclosed within a system of triennial or biennial crop rotation, which left a huge proportion of the land lying fallow.  They could not convert the fallow to the cultivation of crops like clover, with return nitrogen to the soil, because they lived too close to penury to risk the experiment, aside from the fact that no one had any notion of nitrogen. …The backyard garden often provided the margin of survival…For most peasants village life was a struggle for survival, and survival meant keeping above the line that divided the poor from the indigent…Ab0ut 45 per cent of the Frenchmen born in the eighteenth century died before the age of ten.   –Robert Darnton, The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history

Why are there so many stepmothers in fairy tales?  In France, marriages among the peasants ended by death, not divorce, and 20% of widowers remarried.  (In contrast, only 10% of widows remarried.)  This could be disastrous for his kids, as the stepmother might bring children of her own, meaning more mouths to feed and more people with whom to split any inheritance.  Taxes were incredible, as were the rents and cuts of the crop that were taken by the hereditary feudal lords –a pretty horrible life.

Here are some useful words for talking about peasants of the Ancien régime:

  • le croquant: peasant.  The word is in the first edition of the dictionary of the Académie Française, which appeared in 1694.
  • la jacquerie: peasant revolt.  There were a lot of these between 1358 and 1707.


2 thoughts on “The other side of life under the Ancien régime”

  1. At least in most parts of Europe, conditions today are so far removed from what you describe that it’s hard to imagine. The bit about step-mothers is interesting. If we ever think about their roles in fairy-tales, we probably only give a psychological-jealousy type of explanation for their being so nasty. I was lucky mine was a darling 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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