Who are you calling ‘peasant’?
A sociolinguistic history of British peasants. Words by Katie Revell; Illustrations by Valerie Littlewood
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At the start of Ermanno Olmi’s hazy masterpiece, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, a priest informs a poor peasant couple that their child has been given the gift of intelligence by the Lord and that the boy should be sent to school. Dumbfounded, the man attempts to protest that the child is needed to work, but he is powerless against the knowledge embodied by the priest and the culture embedded into the church building itself; the architecture, the paintings, the altar, the icons. “What will they say” he worries to his wife “about a peasant’s child going to school?”
The film spends the next hour or so languishing around the the cascina, the communal compound that the peasants live in. Olmi shows how, in contrast to the opening scene, that the peasants do have knowledge, that they do have culture. They know how to harrow the land, to ready it for sowing, guiding horses carefully through the field; they know how to harvest corn, to dehusk it together while singing songs of sorrow, of joy; they know not to let the children disturb the new born foal in case is gets startled, how to calm an unruly horse; they know how to turn a meagre harvest into soup, how to mill flour, how to conserve for the next year. The cascina has the interdependent complexity of a factory operation; they know everything that keeps the town running.
Olmi is clear-eyed and unromantic about the peasants in his film. After half an hour of this, you start to wonder how long you could have lasted, how lucky you were to be born into an era of hot running water, washing machines and Magnum Double Caramels. Moreover, the film opens with subtitles explaining that despite the number of peasants in the cascina, the landlord owns it, owns the animals, owns the land, owns the harvest, owns everything. That this way of living was not Edenic, but fundamentally exploitative.
As Katie Revell explains in today’s newsletter, it’s hard to see a film like The Tree of Wooden Clogs get made in the UK. We are either scathing of our historical peasants, choosing to mock them, or we romanticise the life that goes on in other countries. The history of our peasantry explains some of it, the harrowing of being driven off the land and into factories, how this sowed distrust of the folk and the rural. But also, perhaps there’s something in the word itself. Maybe, as Katie says, it doesn’t matter who we’re calling peasants, as much as why, and who is doing the calling.
Who are you calling ‘peasant’?, by Katie Revell
a person who owns or rents a small piece of land and grows crops, keeps animals, etc. on it, especially one who has a low income, very little education, and a low social position. This is usually used of someone who lived in the past or of someone in a poor country.
a person who is not well educated or is rude and does not behave well: Joe’s a real peasant.
When I was about six, my family visited some friends on their smallholding outside Derry. They grew fruit and vegetables and kept ducks and chickens. I loved it. I was a precocious nerd of a child, and I’d recently learnt a new word. One evening, I seized the opportunity to try it out. ‘Are you peasants?’ I asked. There was laughter. I didn’t understand why.
Think of a peasant. What springs to mind? I’ll bet you a bushel of grain it’s something like this: a miserable Medieval wretch, toiling in a field, bent double under the weight of their exhaustion and poverty. In the UK, the word ‘peasant’ is associated with ignorance, primitiveness, and a lack of culture. In the British imagination, peasants are the butt of the joke, comical in their wretchedness. I refer you to Baldrick in early episodes of Blackadder, or the Belle and Sebastian album titled ‘Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant’ (apparently inspired by graffiti in a pub toilet), or the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which King Arthur chances upon some peasants gleefully harvesting mud (‘Dennis! There's some lovely filth down ’ere!’). Here the comically wretched trope is invoked, then subverted: Arthur is caught off-guard by the peasants’ radical politics (‘I didn't know we ’ad a king – I thought we were an autonomous collective!’).
We do recognise that such a thing as ‘peasant culture’ exists – but only elsewhere. Indeed, we might even hold that culture in high regard for what we perceive as its resourcefulness, its rusticity, its charming authenticity. This is the other peasant trope: romantic poverty. Think of peasant cuisine – food that’s seen as simple, hearty, honest. We use the term to refer to French cassoulet, Spanish migas, or Italian ‘cucina povera’ dishes (but not to haggis, or cawl, or pasties). In fashion, there’s the ‘peasant look’, characterised by billowy cuts and faux-handicraft details. This was given haute couture kudos by Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic 1976 collection – which he claimed was inspired by the clothing of Russian peasants – and has been rehashed by the British high street on a regular basis ever since. But there is, it seems, no trove of widely understood UK peasant culture to raid for inspiration. So how did the British peasant come to be so shorn of any sense of culture – and the word itself relegated to the status of an insult?
Late medieval/early modern
To subjugate someone as a peasant is subjugated
The word that was to become ‘peasant’ originally arrived in Britain with the Normans, when they conquered England in the eleventh century. The Old French ‘paisant’ appears to have been pretty straightforwardly descriptive, meaning ‘local inhabitant’ or ‘of the area’: someone from somewhere. Anthropologist Marc Edelman writes that ‘Earlier Latin and Latinate forms … date as far back as the sixth century and denoted a rural inhabitant, whether or not involved in agriculture’.
But by the time ‘peasant’ entered common usage in English – in the sixteenth century, according to historian J. V. Beckett – it had become ‘a term of abuse denoting low character, simplicity and rusticity’. Beckett continues: ‘Shakespeare also used the word in a detrimental sense. “Peasant” occurs twenty-nine times in his plays, usually coupled with words such as servant, dull, vulgar, worthless, base, slave, rogue and low’. In Act 2 Scene 2 of Hamlet, the Danish prince acts mad, lamenting ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’
It’s telling that the word ‘peasant’ wasn’t coined by peasants themselves; it was imposed on them from above. The Norman rulers who first introduced it were French-speaking; those to whom it referred spoke English (or one of numerous regional languages and dialects). Traces of this hierarchy are still evident in our language – terms related to working the land often have Saxon roots, and those related to consuming food often have French roots (perhaps the best-known case: we farm cows, but we eat beef). In short: ever since people have had cause to refer to ‘peasants’, it’s been to define them by their relationship to non-peasants – and from the outset, that relationship was unequal and exploitative.
Robin Grey is the founder of Three Acres and a Cow, a show that describes itself as ‘a history of land rights and protest in folk song and story’. He points out to me that England was the birthplace of agrarian capitalism, and the first country to invent the idea that an individual could have absolute ownership of a piece of land. The English peasantry was the first to be dispossessed through enclosures, as land previously held and used in common was taken into private control. This process began with the Norman conquest when William the Conqueror, keen to maintain control of England from afar, introduced a feudal system, parcelling up swathes of land and assigning them to a small number of loyal noblemen. Many peasants became serfs, bound in servitude to this new class of ‘landowners’.
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 saw a broad coalition of people – peasants, merchants and artisans – march on London to protest new economic policies, including a poll tax and maximum wage. With the Black Death having greatly reduced the working population, those that survived had increased leverage – or so they thought. King Richard II promised reforms, including the abolition of serfdom, but later rescinded those offers. (Grey notes that the Peasants’ Revolt was known at the time as the Great Revolt, but was later ‘rebranded’ by the ruling classes in an attempt to downplay its significance).
According to Grey, the aristocracy saw the Great Revolt as a sign that they needed to ‘break the power of the peasantry’. During the 1400s, merchants and the (albeit then tiny) middle class were persuaded to switch their allegiance from the peasantry to the ruling classes. As feudalism declined and capitalism developed, successive waves of enclosure continued to deprive peasants of their rights and access to land – and to render increasingly obsolete the culture that had developed with, and was dependent on, that land.
During the Tudor period, landowners looking to benefit from a boom in demand for wool converted arable land into pasture, replacing peasants with sheep. From 1700 to 1850, a series of parliamentary acts accelerated the pace and scale of enclosures – and, with them, the growth of urban slums, as peasants became factory workers. (Others emigrated to colonies, often violently displacing local indigenous and ‘peasant’ communities in the process). As the peasant way of life was made increasingly difficult and marginal, the stigma attached to it increased, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. Edelman points out that peasants were made a scapegoat for myriad economic and social problems: ‘These elite imaginings were typically espoused in order to promote policies aimed at pushing peasants off the land and turning them into laborers’.
The histories of the peasantry in other parts of (what is now) the UK differ in significant ways, but the trajectories, and the end results, are similar: the cultural lives of peasants – their cuisine, their dress, their relationships to the land, their community structures, their (often radical) politics – have been destroyed through ever-increasing material and social marginalisation. In other parts of the world, including other parts of western Europe, differing geographies, histories, inheritance laws and activist movements allowed remnants of peasant culture to survive far longer and, in some cases, to be preserved and celebrated even after they became detached from the conditions in which they had developed. In France, for example – where just 3% of the workforce is today engaged in any kind of agriculture – the peasant remains a potent political and cultural symbol. Journalist Lara Marlowe put it well when she wrote that ‘the French share a folk memory of a time when the vast majority of the population earned a living from the land’.
In the UK, though, any such folk memory has long been erased, and our understanding of what it means to be a peasant has been hollowed out. Can we fill it in again with new meaning – perhaps by drawing inspiration from elsewhere?
A peasant is a man or woman of the land, who has a direct and special relationship with the land and nature through the production of food and/or other agricultural products. Peasants work the land themselves, rely[ing] above all on family labour and other small-scale forms of organizing labour. Peasants are traditionally embedded in their local communities and they take care of local landscapes and of agro-ecological systems.
The term peasant can apply to any person engaged in agriculture, cattle-raising, pastoralism, handicrafts related to agriculture or a related occupation in a rural area. This includes Indigenous people working on the land.
The term peasant also applies to landless.
La Via Campesina
When Rupert Dunn set up Torth y Tir (‘Loaf of the Land’) bakery in south Wales in 2015, he chose to call himself a ‘peasant baker’. This is a direct translation of ‘paysan boulanger’, a term used in France for someone who not only bakes bread, but also grows the grain and mills the flour.
Dunn believes this multifacetedness is characteristic of the peasant existence (though he’s also careful to emphasise that he doesn’t claim to speak for ‘peasants’ generally). Talking to me from rural Lithuania, where he had been visiting his wife’s family, he explained that, in his view, as well as being a farmer, a ‘peasant’ might well also be a forager, herbalist, craftsperson, builder, entrepreneur and storyteller. Sure, the peasant life is physically hard, but it’s also varied and sociable – in contrast to the specialised, sometimes monotonous and often lonely work of industrial production. It is, you might say, profoundly cultured.
I think Dunn’s understanding of ‘peasant’ can be summarised in two concepts: embeddedness and embodiedness. In his view, peasants are embedded – in community, in their relationship with the land and the seasons, in an ongoing ‘conversation’, as he puts it, with their surroundings – and embodied, in the sense that they use their whole body and being on a daily basis, without the binary distinctions we’re conditioned to make between ‘work’ and ‘life’, ‘manual’ and ‘intellectual’ labour, or ‘present’ and ‘future plans’:
… what we’re taught at school is to become disembodied and to be able to project our lives into the future and to have a ‘career’, in inverted commas … [Here in rural Lithuania] it’s less of a mental existence and I find it far more nourishing … There’s also a relationship here with money that’s very different, and [with] time.
Dunn believes being disembodied is partly a product of being indebted. It’s debt that locks us ‘into this linear, monocultural idea of a career that will be able to pay back the debt, but also pay the cost of living in the grid of the system’. By contrast, while a peasant might well trade goods or services with others locally, they would not do so as a full-time occupation – and usually only to the point at which their needs are met. As Dunn acknowledges, however, the irony is that, in the UK, ‘you have to be pretty well-off to be able to live as a peasant’. Arguably, the choice of living a truly embodied life – a peasant life – is a privilege few people in this country currently have.
Dunn’s understanding of what it means to be a peasant is echoed in the definition developed by La Via Campesina (LVC), which describes itself as an international peasants’ movement. Established in 1993, it has member organisations in 73 countries – including the UK – and claims to represent more than 200 million peasants worldwide. If you’ve heard of LVC, it might be because they coined the term ‘food sovereignty’ as an expansion on, and challenge to, the far more limited concept of ‘food security’. In very basic terms, food sovereignty means control of the food system by those who produce, distribute and eat food, rather than corporations and market institutions.
La Via Campesina literally translates as ‘the peasant way’, but the organisation’s own understanding of ‘peasant’ is expansive, as the above definition indicates – arguably, this could apply equally well to a crofter in the Scottish Highlands, a cattle herder in Ethiopia, a small-scale fisherperson in Indonesia or a migrant farm worker in California. Of course, this catholic approach means more potential LVC supporters and allies, but I think there’s more to it than that: what it suggests is that (as Dunn also argues) being a peasant is about much more than just material reality.
Dorset-based agroecological smallholder Jyoti Fernandes shares this view – but she’s not so keen to embrace an explicitly ‘peasant’ identity. Fernandes is a founding member of the Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA), a union representing ‘farmers, growers, foresters and land-based workers’ – and one of the UK members of La Via Campesina. She explains to me that she avoids using the term ‘peasant’ in the UK precisely because, in colloquial use, it’s still so laden with negative connotations: ‘in our political work, if we went around calling ourselves a “peasant” organisation, I don’t think they’d take us very seriously’. ‘Landworkers’ was chosen instead as a word that encompasses the diversity of people and livelihoods the LWA aims to represent. (The one group not included, as Fernandes acknowledges, is fisherpeople – but then, the ‘Land-and-Seaworkers’ Alliance’ might have been a little clunky).
Fernandes also points out that categorising as ‘peasants’ those who live on (or, rather, with) the land – those who are ‘ecosystem-dependent’ in a more direct and obvious way than the rest of us – is often used as a way of justifying the colonisation and extraction of their resources. In Fernandes’ words, ‘It’s about legitimising power … If you give a negative connotation to a certain knowledge system or term or way of living, then it justifies accumulation of power in another sphere’. This is, after all, precisely what happened in this country – and is happening elsewhere today.
If ‘peasant’ is a slippery word, it’s even more crucial to take note of who is using it, and to interrogate what their motive might be in doing so. For producers like Rupert Dunn, ‘peasant’ denotes a way of being and relating to the world – to other people, and to the planet. By actively choosing to identify as a ‘peasant’ – by wearing what is still widely considered an insult as a badge of pride – this group are opening up a conversation about why the word means what it means, and about what it should mean, instead. Attempting to answer those questions forces us to reckon with our past – and, perhaps, to recognise that the processes that destroyed the peasantry, and peasant culture, in the UK (and arguably paved the way for all of us to become locked into disembodied, debt-driven lives) are ongoing globally. Enclosure of the commons on multiple fronts; insecurity of tenure and the belittling or plagiarising of ‘traditional’ knowledge: as La Via Campesina and the Landworkers’ Alliance make clear, these are challenges shared by peasants – whether or not they identify as such – in the UK and around the world.
Whatever word we use, what’s most important is that we recognise that peasants – or landworkers, or ecosystem-dependent people – in the UK and elsewhere, are not an anachronism, be it wretched or romantic. They don’t need help to ‘develop’ into industrial farmers or urban waged labourers. They have culture, and that culture is sophisticated, rich and valuable – in fact, it’s crucial to all of our wellbeing and survival. If Joe is, in fact, ‘a real peasant’, then I think we need more people like Joe.
Katie Revell is a Glasgow-based audio producer and (lapsed) filmmaker, with a particular interest in food and farming. You can find her quietly lurking on Instagram and Twitter, and hear and watch some of her work at katierevell.com
The illustrations are woodcut prints inspired by the illuminations of The Luttrell Psalter 1325-40 made by Valerie Littlewood, an illustrator, designer and printmaker for many years, currently living and working in Cambridgeshire UK. You can find her blog at pencilandleaf.valerielittlewood.uk
Many thanks to Sophie Whitehead for additional proof reading and edits.
Additional Reading and Listening
The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism by Ellen Meiksins Wood
On Enclosure Acts and the Commons by Ellen Rosenman