A Time for Every Purpose? The Seasonality of Forest Exploitation and its Political Implications in Eighteenth-Century France
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Although the French king's subjects encountered his forestry service in a variety of settings, historians have often focused on one form of interaction: disputes and litigation. That is because we commonly draw our evidence from the Old Regime's extensive records of judicial proceedings over woodlands and their resources. As a result our view is usually confined to aggrieved plaintiffs, evasive suspects, and equivocal witnesses. The records of such contacts highlight the law enforcement powers of France's royal foresters, the Eaux et Forêts, but that was just one aspect of the work they undertook on behalf of the crown. Only occasionally in these documents do we catch sight of the Eaux et Forêts in their other important role, as overseers of a national plan for woodland management.
Sometimes those glimpses are tantalizing. In 1764, for instance, Mme Marie Deveaux de Maupas admitted under oath that she was ignorant of the regulations requiring landowners to inform the royal foresters before cutting mature trees. Seven months earlier a neighbor had launched legal action against Mme de Maupas, objecting to her removal of two large elms and an oak tree that grew, he claimed, on his side of their property boundary in southwestern France. After initial proceedings in a local court, the case eventually reached the judicial authority of the Eaux et Forêts in Bordeaux, which ordered Mme de Maupas to present herself for questioning. The thirty-two-year-old widow was interrogated about the trees' ownership and the circumstances of their destruction, which she insisted was necessary because they were growing on the banks of a stream and impeded the flow of water to her mill. She was also questioned about her compliance with the forest administration's reporting requirements. Asked if she had obtained formal authorization to have these trees cut down, the noblewoman replied that she did not believe she was obliged to obtain permission to fell her own trees. She was then asked if she had ensured that the trees' exploitation occurred during the period prescribed by royal ordinance. No, she responded, she was not aware that there was any specified time for tree cutting. In fact, her domestic staff had carried out this work during August simply because the water level was lowest in summer, and the offending trees were more accessible. Besides, Mme de Maupas explained, the trees were all rotten. Surely they could be of no interest to the crown and its officials?
Of course, forest resources were crucial in a pre-industrial and predominantly rural society like eighteenth-century France. At this time hardwood timbers such as oak and elm were essential for a host of building and construction needs. The government was particularly concerned to ensure supplies for shipyards and public works projects. Together with charcoal, however, wood of lesser quality was important as fuel, not only for domestic hearths but also in major manufacturing industries. For inhabitants of the countryside there were even more advantages: all kinds of forest resources found a use in agriculture, as fences and vine-props, as animal fodder and barn litter, and as ash to enhance soil fertility. Finally, the woodland was a habitat for game animals and therefore offered opportunities for hunting, whether legally or illegally. Finding ways to accommodate these multiple interests was a major preoccupation of French forest policy under the Old Regime.
Historians seem to disagree, however, about the extent and purpose of government attempts to regulate natural resources during the early modern period. Some assume that state involvement in developing policies for resource management was a hallmark of political modernity. James C. Scott offered a general rationale for this view; in Seeing Like a State, he suggested that the rulers of early modern Europe had rather limited horizons when it came to controlling their subjects and the non-human resources of their territories. Political visions were usually confined to extracting tax revenues and military recruits while insisting on the ruler's political and judicial supremacy, often in association with the rhetoric of religious conformity. As Scott pointed out, though, the policies adopted to pursue these goals were often haphazard and arbitrary; governments were additionally hindered by a lack of professional intermediaries to gather information and enforce the state's priorities. Yet their own shortcomings were not the only problem early modern states faced. From the authorities' perspective, the pre-industrial countryside was particularly opaque because of its diversity and inconsistencies, most evident in the proliferation of regional differences in languages, systems of land tenure, inheritance practices, monetary units, and measurements. Precisely for those reasons nineteenth- and twentieth-century governments adopted a more purposeful stance: the countryside was to be rendered more "legible" by official efforts to simplify and standardize the complexities of the rural environment.
Recent studies of states like Renaissance Venice and early modern Württemberg argue, however, that many of these processes were under way long before the nineteenth century. The forest administration of Old Regime France offers a comparable illustration of how such state-centered visions were developed. Certainly the French revolutionaries had no doubt that the "absolute" monarchy and its agents had been too demanding and too intrusive, especially when it came to the regulation of at least some forest resources in France. In an effort to stem the tide of "anarchy" that was feared to be devastating publicly owned woodlands, the National Assembly replaced the Old Regime's Eaux et Forêts with a new forest administration in September 1791. Yet in phrases that Tocqueville would have recognized, the lawmakers decreed that private forests would henceforth be completely exempt from state regulation: "landowners will in future be free to manage [their woodlands] and to dispose of them as they see fit."
This measure is significant because private woodlands made up more than sixty percent of French forests on the eve of the Revolution. We also know that the Old Regime's need for construction timber intensified dramatically during the second half of the century, when the French navy doubled its capacity from fifty vessels in 1748 to a hundred by 1774. Examination of official efforts to oversee the exploitation of private woodlands during the eighteenth century will clarify how the Eaux et Forêts exercised its authority and enforced its regulatory requirements. This paper aims to clarify and assess the bureaucratic effectiveness of the forestry service using evidence from southwestern France, where most of the woodlands were private property.
From the perspective of Old Regime decision-makers, the forests were undoubtedly a priority. Starting in the 1660s Colbert oversaw the "reformation" of royal woodlands in order to assess their extent and capacity, establish a management plan, and assure their future productivity. This systematic approach was enshrined in Louis XIV's Ordinance of Waterways and Forests (1669), which significantly broadened the crown's authority by empowering its agents to monitor the exploitation of woodlands in the hands of others: the Church, rural communities, and individual landowners. During the long reign of Louis XV these legislative and administrative provisions were extended, and the personnel of the Eaux et Forêts became more numerous. Like many other public officials in Old Regime France, the royal foresters were venal office-holders who enjoyed both judicial and bureaucratic powers. Since their posts generated revenue as well as status, the Eaux et Forêts were vigorous in defending their judicial competence to deal with all matters relating to waterways and woodlands. Unfortunately we know less about their administrative activities in implementing the woodland management plans envisaged by the 1669 Ordinance.
In order to advance its own interests while overcoming disparities of regional custom and different forms of woodland ownership, the Old Regime sought to create a uniform system of reporting where the state's priorities for construction timber would take precedence. Given the importance in this period of naval power and maritime trade, the dockyards' demands were regarded as paramount. The first point of the provisions for private woodlands in the 1669 Ordinance was to ensure that some of the best trees were set aside from each harvest and allowed to attain full maturity. This policy aimed to assure future supplies of construction timber by curtailing landowners' property rights.
Another provision was the requirement that landholders inform the authorities about the existence of timber that might be suitable for naval construction. As a consequence, owners of mature woodlands who wished to fell trees were required to make a preliminary declaration of that intention. A declaration identified the type, extent, and location of privately owned woodlands that were proposed for cutting. It also established a timetable for exploitation: once a declaration was lodged the landowner could not fell the trees for six months. During that time naval shipwrights could visit the designated woodlands to determine which timber the state would compulsorily purchase. In addition, a ministerial directive of 1744 stipulated that declarations were valid only for one year. If the timber was not cut in the allotted six months, a new declaration was required.
The initial formulation in 1669 required a declaration to be filed for woodlands within ten leagues (forty kilometers) of the sea or within two leagues (eight kilometers) of navigable rivers. Water transport of construction timber was vastly more cost effective in this period than overland haulage. In 1700 these limits were extended to trees within fifteen leagues of the sea or six leagues of major waterways. By 1723 the geographical specifications disappeared: in principle, all mature woodlands in France were henceforth liable to the Ordinance's provisions. No private forest-owner was exempt from lodging a declaration prior to felling.
The surviving registers of declarations presented to the Eaux et Forêts in Bordeaux offer insights into the operation of this administrative system in the southwest. Tens of thousands of declarations survive in the departmental archives, although they are very unevenly distributed across the century.
My investigation focused on five, two-year periods at the beginning of each decade for which there are nearly complete data, from the 1740s to the 1780s. This strategy yielded an overall sample of about twenty percent of all declarations. A glance at these sample-data demonstrates the startling nature of the foresters' expanding authority in the southwest during the second half of the century. The Guyenne province generated nearly 1,000 declarations in the period 1751-1752, three times as many as a decade earlier, while the totals from two-year samples in subsequent decades were even greater: over 2,500 for 1761-1762 and almost 4,000 by the early 1780s.
The forest administration in the southwest was therefore successful in gaining greater rates of compliance from woodland owners whose ranks included great nobles and professionals like lawyers and doctors as well as artisans and peasants; several declarants were women, usually widows like Mme de Maupas. The reported properties ranged from vast forests to a mere handful of trees, although not all types of tree were included nor all forms of woodland. Construction, particularly in the naval dockyards, was the state's key objective, so the documents related only to old-growth timber (futaies) or reserve trees (baliveaux). The Eaux et Forêts had no authority to monitor the cutting of young trees or coppices (taillis), the predominant sources of fuel wood that fired the region's many forges and furnaces.
Measured by sheer numbers, however, the Eaux et Forêts seemed to be increasingly effective in the southwest. Yet when we investigate other features of the declarations as a uniform system for reporting the exploitation of private woodlands, that optimistic assessment requires revision. Various hints in the declarations suggest that woodland proprietors in the southwest did not necessarily welcome the foresters' regulations.
Take, for example, the requirement that trees be felled within the prescribed period: 15 October to 15 April. One French forestry official explained the point of this regulation, at least as applied to deciduous hardwoods: "timber cut when [the tree is] in sap has few applications and performs poorly." A legal commentary on the 1669 Ordinance reinforced this point, noting that if trees were felled while they were in sap the process of drying and seasoning resulted in excessive cracking and weakness. Historian Andrée Corvol found that commercial forestry operations in eighteenth-century Burgundy conformed overwhelmingly to this legislative requirement, presumably because the entrepreneurs involved were persuaded of its good sense in relation to construction timber. That belief remained strong in France throughout the eighteenth century. Between 1670 and 1690, some ninety-two percent of all commercial timber exploitation in Corvol's region cut trees during the prescribed time frame; by 1770-1790, the proportion was still ninety percent.
For the proprietors of private woodlands in the southwest and elsewhere, however, this regulation posed a problem. After lodging their declarations, landowners had to wait six months before legal timber cutting could get under way during which time the trees in question were liable to official inspection. Consider the plight of someone like the widow Marie Mathieu of Montpeyrou (department of the Dordogne). A declaration to cut 103 "mature oaks" was presented on her behalf on 16 October 1772. If she duly waited the required six months, until 16 April the following year, then the trees would be deemed to be in sap and felling was prohibited. Thus with a formal starting date for timber cutting on 15 October, Marie Mathieu's 103 oaks could not be felled for a year after her declaration. Since the minister had ruled that declarations were valid only for twelve months, this landowner would have had only a single day to cut her trees in conformity with the law before she would be obliged to renew her declaration.
By contrast, people who lodged their declarations on 15 April itself - like a M de Latour, with two hundred oaks in the neighboring parishes of St. Sauveur-Lalande and Beaupouyet (also department of the Dordogne) - were able to maximize the time available for legal felling by ensuring that the six-month moratorium for naval inspection coincided with the period when the trees were in sap. Thus, the seasonal distribution of declarations made by landowners offers an insight into the effectiveness with which the Eaux et Forêts enforced its management policies.
This part of the paper concentrates on a sample of nearly 450 declarations made by woodland proprietors from the Périgord, where almost all the woodlands were and remain in private hands. In the first place it is relatively straightforward to plot the monthly distribution of declarations during four of the five sample periods, from the 1750s to the 1780s.
Overall, there are only the hints of a pattern. A sizeable proportion of declarations were lodged in January, February, or March (for all four samples, they come to forty percent of the total), whereas there were relatively few declarations presented in May or June (less than one in twelve, or eight percent, for those two months together). But there were recurrent aberrations, such as the five out of twenty-two declarations in 1751-1752 that were presented during September or the ten out of sixty-four during October 1761 and 1762. Apart from the final sample period, which produced 294 declarations, the small numbers may explain the apparent randomness. Yet it is clear that even by the last decade of the Old Regime, few landowners in the Périgord were making strategic decisions about the "best" time to make a declaration, i.e., around April. In 1781-1783 only 7.8 percent of all declarations were presented during April, which is roughly equivalent to a chance distribution. Conversely, seventeen of these 294 declarations or 5.8 percent were lodged in October, the "worst" month, and a surprising total of sixty-one, more than twenty percent, during the "worst" three-month period from September to November.
Since the period of any declaration's validity depended on when it was initially presented, I calculated the distribution of declarations according to their legal duration. As Graph 2 demonstrates, the upsurge in the number of Périgord landowners who lodged declarations in 1781-1783 did not correspond to a sudden shift in their calculations about when to exploit their woodlands.
We are left to surmise that landowners in this region regarded presentation of a declaration as fulfilment of their legal and administrative obligations. Additional considerations about when to proceed to cut, trim, season, and process the timber on their properties were apparently viewed as a personal decision that did not need to involve the authority of the Eaux et Forêts.
From the forestry officials' perspective, however, declarations were being received in increasing numbers and their authority was apparently being extended. Yet while the Bordeaux foresters enjoyed some success in enforcing their reporting requirements, vast areas of mature woodland were being cut across the southwest, not to mention the extensive exploitation of coppices for fuel. Even the official priority for ship timbers was not being met, and the navy's attention turned increasingly to imports from the Baltic, Mediterranean, and Black Sea regions as well as the New World.
Evidence from the declarations highlights the inadequacies in both intent and execution of the Old Regime's forest administration. As overseers of a uniform system for monitoring the management of private woodlands, the Eaux et Forêts faced obvious constraints during the eighteenth century. Part of the explanation lies in the forestry service's own limitations of personnel. Difficulties of transport and communications meant that for most of the eighteenth century private woodlands in areas like the Périgord were largely an unknown quantity as far as the royal foresters were concerned.
This was an impression that the region's landowners did little to correct and a good deal to perpetuate. The failures of eighteenth-century approaches to resource management were therefore not all on the side of the decision-makers and forestry officials. While complying with some features of the state's reporting regime, landowners adopted various strategies in order to ensure that they were able to exploit their timber resources as they saw fit. Among French woodland proprietors Mme de Maupas was obviously not alone in seeking to resist the crown's demands for timber. Like the record of her judicial interrogation in 1764, therefore, even apparently mundane administrative documents such as the declarations can provide historians with "hidden transcripts" of popular resistance to the demands of the central state.
Archives départementales de la Gironde [hereafter ADG], 8B 167: Eaux et Forêts de Guyenne. Procédure. Auditions, informations et divers (1763-64). Unfortunately, as for so many woodland disputes of the period, files of the Eaux et Forêts did not record a resolution of this matter.
This summary draws on several works including Pierre Deffontaines, L'Homme et la forêt (Paris: Gallimard, 1969); Roland Bechmann, Trees and Man: The Forest in the Middle Ages, trans. K. Durham (New York: Paragon, 1990); Michel Devèze, La Vie de la forêt française au XVIe siècle, 2 vols. (Paris: SEVPEN, 1961); Louis Badré, Histoire de la forêt française (Paris: Arthaud, 1983); and Andrée Corvol, L'Homme aux bois: histoire des relations de l'homme et de la forêt, XVIIe-XXe siècle (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1987).
James C. Scott, Seeing like a State. How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), esp. 22-4. As an initial illustration of "modernist" projects to enhance government efficiency, Scott outlined a "parable:" the development and diffusion of "scientific" forestry in Enlightenment Germany (11-22).
Karl Appuhn, "Inventing Nature: Forests, Forestry and State Power in Renaissance Venice," Journal of Modern History 72 (2000): 861-89; and Paul Warde, "Law, the 'Commune' and the Distribution of Resources in Early Modern German State Formation," Continuity and Change 17 (2002): 183-211.
Jean Meyer and Martine Acerra, Histoire de la marine française (Rennes: Ouest-France, 1994), 101, 137. On naval timber demands: Jean Boudriot, "Chênes et vaisseaux royaux," in Forêt et Marine, ed. Andrée Corvol (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1999), 339-47; and Paul W. Bamford, Forests and French Sea Power, 1660-1789 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1956).
"Édit portant règlement général pour les Eaux et Forêts" (1669), in Recueil général des anciennes lois françaises, eds. Isambert, Decrusy, and Taillandier, 29 vols. (Paris: Belin-le-Prieur/Plon, 1821-33), 18:219-311; and Louis Bourgenot, "L'Administration des Eaux et Forêts du XVIe siècle à la fin de l'Ancien Régime," in Les Eaux et Forêts du 12e au 20e siècle, ed. Raymond Lefebvre et al. (Paris: CNRS, 1987), 131-64.
Bourgenot, 165-219; Badré, 80-99; Paul W. Bamford, "French Forest Legislation and Administration, 1660-1789," Agricultural History 29 (1955): 97-107; and Marcel Marion, Dictionnaire des institutions de la France aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (Paris: A. Picard, 1923), 194, 242.
Daniel Roche, France in the Enlightenment, trans. A. Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 222; cf. Henri de Coincy, La Grande-Maîtrise de Guyenne au XVIIIe siècle (Nancy: Berger-Levrault, 1928), 3-9.
Devèze, "Les forêts françaises," 266-7; Iain A. Cameron, "The Policing of Forests in Eighteenth-Century France," in Police and Policing: Past and Present Society Colloquium (Oxford: Past and Present Society, 1983), 1-27; and idem., "Forests and the End of the Ancien Régime," in Proceedings of the 5th George Rudé Seminar in French History, ed. Peter McPhee (Wellington, NZ: History Department, Victoria University, 1986): 298-309. On naval priorities: Bamford, Forests and French Sea Power, 10-29; and Christian Dugas de la Boissonny, "Sur la législation relative au bois de marine: synthèse historique," in Forêt et Marine, ed. Corvol, 409-17.
"Lettre de M de Baudry" (24 Nov. 1744), in Chailland, Dictionnaire raisonné des Eaux et Forêts 2 vols. (Paris: Ganeau/Knapen, 1769), 2:285-6; and Baudrillart, 1:315. Payment of a fee was required when lodging a declaration (initially ten sols, later fifteen): Chailland, 1:184.
On the first extension: "Arrêt du Conseil" (21 Sept. 1700), in Isambert et al. 20:369-71; Baudrillart, 1:141-2; and Bamford, Forests and French Sea Power, 25-7. On the second: "Arrêt du Conseil" (6 Sept. 1723), in Baudrillart, 1:236; and Dugas de la Boissonny, 412-3. This ruling was reconfirmed in 1757: "Arrêt du Conseil" (1 Mar. 1757) in Chailland, 2:567-8.
Data from declaration samples: ADG 8B 623-625, Eaux et Forêts de Guyenne. Déclarations de coupes de bois (Jan. 1741-Dec. 1742); ADG 8B 637-641 (Jan. 1751-Dec. 1752); ADG 8B 681-696 (Jan. 1761-Dec. 1762); ADG 8B 730-734 (Jan. 1771-Dec. 1772); and ADG 8B 755-764 (Aug. 1781-July 1783).
On forges in the southwest see René Pijassou, "L'ancienne industrie du fer dans le Périgord septentrional," Revue géographique des Pyrénées et du Sud-Ouest 27 (1956): 243-68; and Marie-Laure Lamy, Yvon Lamy, and Marcel Secondat, Forges en Périgord. 1: La vallée de la Dronne (Le Bugue [Dordogne]: PLB, 1992).
[Gallon], Conférence de l'Ordonnance de Louis XIV d'Août 1669 des Eaux et Forêts, 2 vols. (Paris: J. Rollin, 1752), 1:851. See also Jean Ballu, Bois de marine. Les bateaux naissent en forêt (Paris: Éditions Gerfaut, 2000), 103, 107.
Note that only the terminal date for tree cutting (15 Apr.) was clearly specified in the legislation. Henriquez, 1:65, defined the dates for legal felling between 15 Oct. and 15 Apr., but Duhamel du Monceau gave 1 Oct. as the starting point and indicated that the period for cutting deciduous timber was subject to official variation, depending on regional conditions: [Henri-Louis] Duhamel du Monceau, De l'Exploitation des bois, 2 vols. (Paris: Guerin/Delatour, 1764), 1:157. This variability may account for some inconsistency in Corvol's discussion; she stated that "felling normally started on 15 October" but also referred to 1 Oct. as the start of legal tree cutting in Burgundy: Corvol, L'Homme et l'arbre, 86 and 648. (I am grateful for the advice of M. Philippe Crémieu-Alcan on this point.) Compared with the felling process, subsequent forestry operations in Burgundy, especially the removal and trimming of trees, were less likely to conform to the regulatory timetable: Corvol, L'Homme et l'arbre, 648.