Bouton, Cynthia A.: Interpreting Social Violence in French Culture: Buzancais, 1847-2008.

Author:Hare, J. Laurence
Position:Book review

Bouton, Cynthia A. Interpreting Social Violence in French Culture: Buzanfais, 1847-2008. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2011. viii + 256 pages. Cloth, $39.95.

In the winter of 1847, a bread riot erupted in the provincial French town of Buzancais. Within a year, the entire country had slipped into revolution, and the rest, one might say, is history. Or, as historian Cynthia A. Bouton might say, the rest is memory. In Interpreting Social Violence in French Culture, 1874-2008 Bouton takes on the puzzling longevity of the Buzancais riot in French public consciousness. Scholars, of course, have slipped Buzancais into larger studies of French history for years, but Bouton is not interested in writing a new history of the riot. Instead, she focuses on how and why the tale of this relatively small-scale local disturbance became a persistent feature of French national memory in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At issue are the many narrative appropriations of the events in 1847, which played out across 150 years not only in historical scholarship, but also in literature, newspapers, dramatic plays, and ultimately in comic strips and on television. Along the way, the author reveals much about the ways in which these narratives, and the media through which they were transmitted, both reflected and transformed national culture.

The tale of Buzancais, we learn, developed through punctuated moments of discussion strung across long periods of dormancy. To connect these moments, Bouton identifies significant points in the story, such as the seizure of a grain shipment or the killing of a local elite. In so doing, she is able to trace a chain of memory by tracking the continuities in various renditions of these plot points. At the same time, Bouton highlights the ways in which the various narratives proceeded from their immediate contexts by systematically examining such themes as the role of women in the riot and the social tensions underlying scenes of violence. By studying the changing interpretations or omissions of gender and assessments of both the workers and peasants who took part in the riot and the bourgeois elites who responded (or failed to respond) to the crisis, Bouton is able to pull back the curtain on the dynamics of French culture at key moments in the country's history. Why has Buzancais drawn such attention? One reason is that its story has never been the handmaiden of any one ideological position. Because it...

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