Forests in revolutionary France : conservation, community, and conflict 1669-1848

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ISBN Richard Keyser. New York: Cambridge University Press, ISBN: Matteson presents a detailed, fascinating history of social, intellectual, and political struggles over rights to French woodlands and their resources, which were a key part of traditional agro-ecosystems. Going beyond the dates of the title, Matteson traces the history of conflicts over and debates about forests across more than two centuries, from the seventeenth to the late nineteenth; an epilogue brings the story into the twenty-first century.

Yet she keeps the arguments clear by zeroing in on the key moments of crisis, administrative reform, and revolution that convulsed France across this period.

Matteson persuasively argues that local communities doggedly resisted the inexorable rise of centralized state control over woodlands. The story is in many ways a tragic one: villagers often seem to have been fighting a losing battle. She shows how rural people affected forest policy and resisted privatization by making their voices heard, continuing to use the woodland resources they needed, and sometimes violently rebelling against lords, foresters, and state officials.


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This book will be of great interest to modern historians of Europe, especially of France, as well as to rural and environmental historians more broadly. Forests in Revolutionary France complements these earlier works nicely by shifting the inquiry to the northern half of the country, by covering two centuries ca. This last topic will interest the broader scholarly community, given the significant role that French thinkers and administrators played in the development of modern Western conservation, and of forest conservation in particular.


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  8. As Matteson wryly notes in her epilogue, gesturing towards the global significance of her study, ecological understandings and cultural values have both recently shifted in ways that now positively appraise the practices that early French conservation fought for so long, including the mixed usage of woodlands with goals other than maximizing commercial profits pp.

    These interrelated problems arise, for example, when Matteson seems to accept without sufficient critical evaluation the many statements made in the primary sources that attribute the destruction or degradation of woodlands to ironworks and other fuel-using industries. As Matteson wryly notes in her epilogue, gesturing towards the global significance of her study, ecological understandings and cultural values have both recently shifted in ways that now positively appraise the practices that early French conservation fought for so long, including the mixed usage of woodlands with goals other than maximizing commercial profits pp.

    These interrelated problems arise, for example, when Matteson seems to accept without sufficient critical evaluation the many statements made in the primary sources that attribute the destruction or degradation of woodlands to ironworks and other fuel-using industries. While before about historians tended to take such complaints, which are found across Europe, more or less at face value, since then many scholars have shown that they must be treated with skepticism.

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    Yet Matteson does not discuss the related, widespread finding that strong demand from wood-burning industries raised wood prices, thereby tending not to destroy woodlands, but rather to preserve them as profitable investments—albeit in the altered form of coppice woods. Matteson recognizes that in some cases that the discourse of crisis might involve exaggeration pp.


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    4. Colvend: Castlepoint Press, , , But as in the case of industry, I felt that her analysis might have been even stronger had she problematized more clearly and consistently the discourse of decline itself—a discourse after all that she shows to have been astonishingly enduring. But how can we can determine the quality of woodlands so long ago, which of course depends on a combination of local ecological factors, species composition, age of the trees, and type of human management?

      I would like to hear more about what Matteson thinks such sources as financial accounts, estate and cadastral maps, and other fine-grained data concerning specific woodlands might be able to add. Perhaps most of all I am curious about her thoughts about the potential of landscape archeology and the paleo-sciences, 10 to which many scholars over the last generation or so have turned to address such challenges.

      In raising these questions about other approaches, however, I want to avoid unfairly asking Matteson to embark on what would be yet another book project. Instead, my questions are meant to elicit discussion of how her excellent book fits into woodland history considered more broadly.

      Matteson is to be congratulated for making such a stimulating contribution to the multiple historical fields that this book addresses.

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