✍ The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France [2000]

por Teoría de la historia

the-gift-in-sixteenth-century-franceThe last several years have seen the multiplication of books on Mauss and on gift giving. Inspired by Boas’s analysis of the Potlatch and Malinowski’s of the Kula, Marcel Mauss published, in 1924, his famous “Essai sur le don,” in which he alerted readers to the importance of gift giving in ancient and medieval societies in the West and to its vitality in non-Western, exotic societies at the dawn of the 20th century. Mauss was convinced that, with the expansion of the market, the economy based on gift giving was disappearing in the West and that the “generous” gift would gradually give way to the “cold calculation” of capitalist profiteering. But Mauss does not idealize gift giving. He regards giving is a self-interested form of generosity. One gives because giving creates an obligation. Mauss distinguishes two categories of gifts. Gifts followed by countergifts, which bind the partners by reciprocal ties without compromising their status, and gifts, as in potlatch, designed to capture a title, gain recognition of one’s rank or status, or show one’s superiority to the others. Beyond the theoretical importance of Mauss’s work, we see that what is at stake today is the social import of nonmarket relations in the context of globalization of the market economy and Western values. Will the world market kill the gift? It was probably after being inspired by this context and by the work in anthropology, with which she is well acquainted, that the renowned French history specialist Natalie Davis was moved to write a small book on the gift in 16th-century France. For a Frenchman and the author of various publications on both gift giving and Mauss, this book is a true pleasure. It teems with concrete facts that bring to life the French petty and high aristocracy, the provincial notables, the various master craftsmen of the towns, with their journeymen and apprentices, but also the wives of all these men, great or small. The book grows out of a few clearly formulated questions: Who presented what to whom, when and why, and what did it mean in France of the 16th century? What objects and services moved as gifts, when, and from whom to whom? What ties were established by these gifts? The analysis first follows a temporal axis: What is given in France for the New Year, for All Saints’ Day, gifts from the rich to the poor, from the living to the dead, from the laity to the clergy? What gifts were presented to mark the birth, life, and death of a person, from baptism to betrothal to marriage, to death, and so on? What gifts were given to the person’s children, parents, friends? Finally, turning from the individual to social groups, the author analyzes the gifts given between people of the same social rank. She shows how, in the village, peasants shared food on a daily basis and reminds us that, until the 18th century, France—indeed, all of Europe—was familiar with famine. She also shows how nobles were obliged to hold open table and to invite each other without counting, their liberality a token of both their rank and the reputation of their house. Of course the sense of the gifts changed when they circulated between inferiors and superiors, between the peasant and his lord, between bourgeois and nobles, between nobles and the king. For each of these, a present meant that one was seeking a favor or expressing gratitude for a service rendered. Such gifts were necessary in a society in which all functions were more a matter of favor than of merit. And these favors were gained through personal or pseudopersonal relationships. Although the author stresses that gifts “smooth” social relations, she nevertheless has little to say about the relations of domination and often of exploitation that existed between these social categories, relations which personal gifts could not abolish. Natalie Davis does however devote a fine chapter to gifts “gone wrong”: children to whom their father had given all his goods when he was alive and who refused to care for him in old age; the duke to whom the petty nobles regularly sent gifts of game and other presents, who turned a deaf ear to their many requests. Montaigne’s pained denunciation of a world in which one must depend for one’s life on the favor of others and not on the law is understandable. At the top of the social ladder were yet other gifts: those made by the French towns to the king on his coronation, with the secret hope that the new king would diminish the taxes levied by his predecessor. The 16th century was heading toward absolute monarchy, and the taxes, which at the start of the century still appeared as gifts freely made to the monarch by the representatives of all classes in society, soon turned into taxes exacted by the king for the needs of the state and its government. Natalie Davis goes on to show that, in the 16th century, an economy based on gift giving operated side by side with a market economy and that the two were complementary. Here she concurs with the conclusions of anthropologists, who have long observed that the development of the market in many Third World societies, far from leading to the disappearance of gift giving, on the contrary, often spurs it to new heights. But when land becomes privately owned, alienable, and marriages are concluded without bridewealth, the sphere of the gift constricts sharply and moves elsewhere. The book ends with a comparison between Calvinism and Catholicism in their practice of gift giving by Christians to their God. In the9780199242887 Protestants’ view, Catholics strive to place God under “obligation” by their prayers and their offerings. They indulge a sort of ongoing commerce with him. Mauss had this same view of sacrifice: one gives (little) to the gods in order to receive much in return. For Calvin, however, God is not obligated by the gifts of men, and God alone decides how and to whom he will dispense his grace. This debate goes beyond the clash between Catholicism and Protestantism. It concerns human relations with the divine. For either the gods are at an absolute distance from men and are therefore in no way bound by Mauss’s three obligations—to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. In a Christian form, this is Calvin’s position, in the name of the Lord’s omnipotence and the indelible character of original sin. Or the gods and the spirits are closer to men, who have the impression they can negotiate, make contracts with them, and even, from time to time, deceive them. Finally, in the last pages, the author describes how the Calvinist vision of God was transcribed in the institutions of Geneva, the first Protestant town. The city authorities gradually did away with celebrations and therefore with the gifts that went with the birth, betrothal, and death of individuals. They did away with the confraternities, but also with the tapers and incense that were burned at mass. And they did away with a good number of saint’s days, which were so many occasions during the year to exchange gifts. People began to work harder and to draw closer to God. With Protestantism, 16th-century Europe entered the Modern Age, and Max Weber was not entirely wrong.

[Maurice GODELIER. “The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France. By Natalie Zemon Davis. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. Pp. x185. $50.00 (cloth); $21.95 (paper)”, in American Journal of Sociology, vol. CVII, nº 1, julio de 2001, pp. 239-241]