At the turn of the 20th century, the world of agricultural labour in France was a patchwork of different métiers and social positions. Wherever you were on the social hierarchy, your life was governed by the tasks associated with the different seasons.
The mechanisation of agriculture and rural depopulation had begun, but a wide variety of agricultural tasks were still carried out manually or required manual labour. The principle of s’entraider, or mutual self-help, between neighbours remained strong.
The size of landholdings varied greatly, depending on the part of the country you lived in and its topography. In mountainous areas, subsistence agriculture was still practised, whereas in lower-lying regions, improvements in transport were favouring specialisation.
How were labourers hired?
Countryfolk without land of their own either rented from a landowner on a sharecropping system or hired themselves out as manual labour on a daily basis or for a season.
Hiring fairs were held twice a year, on 24th June (St Jean) and 11th November (St Martin). Hopeful labourers of both sexes turned up, modestly dressed but keen to show their aptitude for hard work and their calloused hands. Farmers and their wives came to scrutinise the labour on offer, sometimes feeling their muscles to gauge their robustness.
According to the type of work you were looking for, you wore a symbol on your hat or your bodice: an ear of wheat for a reaper; a twist of wool for a shepherd; a whip draped around the neck for a carter; an oak leaf for a male farm labourer; a hen’s feather for a female farm labourer; and a rose for a chamber maid.
What work did women do?
I was particularly interested to research what happened to women who were constrained to sell their labour. Two characters in my latest novel, Overture, which begins in rural SW France in 1897, are obliged to do so.
The female farm servant had perhaps the hardest time of all. In addition to working in the fields, she was required to help with the housework and the washing, feed the pigs, milk the cows, fetch water from the well, prepare the vegetables for the meal and clear up afterwards. Sunday was a free day, but she still had to milk the cows in the evening. The working day was nine hours in winter and 12-14 hours in summer.
Working and living conditions varied enormously. However, the food was usually good and copious, and the farmer and his wife shared their table with the farmhands.
How much did they earn?
What did she earn for all this? I was unable to find exact figures for Aveyron, but figures for Loiret, a département of central France, indicate that the annual wage for a female farm servant in 1900 was 250 to 400 francs plus board and lodging. For a carter it was 600 to 800 francs and a shepherd could expect 400 to 600 francs. So she was at the bottom of the pile.
The future was always uncertain, though. If you fell ill, you would be without work. And, in the absence of pensions, a destitute old age potentially loomed ahead.
In 1900, France was at the very end of a way of life that had lasted for centuries. World War I hastened its demise. In some places, the old customs and lifestyles continued. For example, our friend Claude, who is now in his early 70s, told us that his parents still ploughed with oxen in the 1950s. Even so, over the 20th century, rural France changed out of all recognition.
Overture, book 1 in L’Alouette Trilogy, is available in e-book and paperback formats from Amazon and is also in Kindle Unlimited.
Further reading: Célestine: Voices from a French Village, by Gillian Tindall.
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