Sunday, January 7, 2007

Farmers and bandits

As I've pointed out in an earlier blog, I'm a particularly small-time (and unofficial) sheep farmer, even by French standards. If my animals were to wander back to Gamone from my neighbor's slopes (where nobody has sighted them for a fortnight), I believe that my current flock would normally be five head. So Aussie and Kiwi lamb exporters shouldn't see me as a threat to their commerce.

I like sheep, both in the fields and on my dinner table, and I've always been amused by the simple explanation about why the meat of a sheep is called mutton. After the Normans invaded England in 1066, they established a new social order that was reflected in the language of the land. Out in the fields, animals were still looked after by the defeated Saxon shepherds, whose word sceap gave rise to the term sheep. But, at the dinner tables of the Norman landlords, the French word mouton ended up being pronounced as mutton.

I mentioned the confusion that can arise in the minds of Australians when they hear the word farm. From an etymological viewpoint, farm looks like a simple Saxon-based word of the same kind as sheep, ox or pig, but this is an illusion. The sense of our English verb to farm, meaning to grow crops or raise animals, hardly even existed yet in the English language, for example, when my ancestor Charles Walker [1807-1860] arrived in Australia as a steward aboard the vessel Caroline, in 1833, with vague hopes of becoming a sheep farmer. He might have said that he wanted to graze sheep (an old English verb derived from grass), but he probably wouldn't have spoken of farming his land.

The origins of this far-from-simple word farm are in fact French, and they're linked to our English adjective firm, meaning fixed. As early as the Middle Ages, there was a system in France that enabled rural folk to rent land from the local lord at a fixed annual rent, and this came to be known as the ferme (firm) system. Later, in the decades preceding the French Revolution, the men whose job consisted of collecting such annual rents were known as fermiers (farmers). In other words, the original farmers were not at all the men and women who toiled on the land, but a body of immensely wealthy rent collectors.

It was in this context that a flamboyant bandit named Louis Mandrin, of the Robin Hood kind, became a hero in the Dauphiné region of France where I now live. He was born in 1725 in the village of Saint-Étienne de Geoirs, which is now the site of Grenoble's airport. As a young man, he signed a lucrative contract with the tax collectors of the so-called General Farm, which consisted of crossing the Alps with a convoy of about a hundred mules carrying supplies for French troops fighting in Italy. On the return journey, most of Mandrin's mules died, and then the General Farm refused to pay him. To add insult to injury, the General Farmers had Mandrin's brother arrested for a minor matter of counterfeit coins. He himself got mixed up in a bloody brawl and had to go into hiding to avoid being executed. And that was how Louis Mandrin came to declare war upon the General Farmers and became France's most illustrious outlaw.

He recruited hundreds of brigands, forming a band of mounted soldiers, and he organized military campaigns throughout the region in order to acquire tobacco and other merchandise which he then sold to the rural folk in what might be termed "duty free" conditions, thereby making a lot of money, which he then distributed generously.

Alas, in 1755, thirty-year-old Mandrin was cornered by the authorities, and rapidly executed in public in nearby Valence. The bones of his body and members were broken by an executioner with a steel crowbar, and then Mandrin was tied to a coach wheel and hoisted up into the warm May air, so that the crowds of onlookers could witness his agony.

Overnight, Louis Mandrin became a posthumous hero for all the French people who suffered at the hands of the ruthless tax collectors of the General Farm, and this dashing outlaw is considered as a forerunner of the French revolutionaries of 1789.

Today, two and a half centuries after his execution, Louis Mandrin remains an immensely popular figure, and there are touristic references to his tale from one end of the vast Dauphiné region to the other. There's a restaurant up the road from my place called Mandrin's Tavern, and even my neighbor's donkey is named Mandrin. (Mine is Moses.) To compare Mandrin's case with that of Australian bushrangers (such as my ancestor William Hickey), the French bandit is generally considered as an intelligent fighter for a noble political cause rather than as an egoistic and brutal delinquent.

Back in Paris in the '70s and '80s, when I used to play guitar and sing in bars in the Marais, the traditional highlight of a rowdy beer evening was the moment at which we would all break into the celebrated dirge known as Mandrin's Lament (often led by the raucous voice of the poet André Laude), whose nostalgic words—addressed to his companions—are supposed to flow from the scaffold as he is about to be executed.

It sounds silly to say so (and maybe it is), but I get a thrill out of thinking that I live here in the land of Louis Mandrin. When I was out in Australia a few months ago, I would have liked to compare this sentiment with the possible excitement of visiting the ancestral bushranger territory of Braidwood, but I didn't manage to get that far, since the train doesn't stop there yet.

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