The Coastal History Blog 13: “Gérard Le Bouedec’s sociétés littorales”

Le-Bouedec-Gerard-Activites-Maritimes-Et-Societes-Littorales-Atlantique-Livre-895471449_MLThis weekend, I broke out the French dictionary and made my way—slowly—through an impressive article that belongs alongside Michael Pearson’s “Littoral Society: The Concept and the Problems,” and Danny Vickers’ book Young Men and the Sea. [1]

At the Port Towns and Urban Cultures conference this past July, Oliver Le Gouic wrote down a name for me: Gérard Le Bouedec.  I owe Oliver a big, if belated, merci. Le Bouedec’s work on sociétés littorales has appeared almost exclusively in French.  In this week’s blog, I’ll be discussing his article “La pluriactivité dans les sociétés littorales XVIIe-XIXe siècle,” which appeared in 2002 in a regional history journal, Annales de Bretagne et des Pays de l’Ouest. [2] Those of you who read French will find an open-access pdf here.

A glance over Le Bouedec’s vocabulary will immediately give you a sense of why he’s a good fit for this blog.  His focus is on men who held multiple jobs (pluriactivité) or simply two jobs (bi-activité), such as fisherman-farmer or sailor-blacksmith.  There were a lot of them in Brittany!  He’s interested in reciprocal relationships and blurred boundaries (espace d’interface, he urges, rather than a maritime community pure et dure). [3] He even deploys some terms I haven’t come across before in any language, ruro-maritime (for the agricultural-maritime relationship) and paramaritime (for watery trades that aren’t truly oceanic).  I had a little trouble with what is, for English speakers, a counterintuitive term for coastal dwellers: riverains. Rive refers to a bank (as in Paris’ Rive Gauche), and a riverain(e) lives by the waterside, so a riverain de mer is literally a coastal resident.  Conventionally, they seem to omit “de mer” where the ocean setting is self-evident.

Le Bouedec’s source material is what one might expect: parish records, cahiers de doléances, lawsuits, and government documents pertaining to the registry for naval conscription.  There are some entertaining asides about wrecking (pillages de navires naufragés sounds much more cool, but that’s French for you) and also seaweed litigation.  The question about seaweed (goémon) was whether it was fair game for anyone to harvest, or whether harvesting rights belonged exclusively to that parish or village.  (If the seaweed was visibly attached to the rocks, the law said it counted as a production of the land and was not mere flotsam.)  [4]

The picture of littoral society that emerges from Le Bouedec’s sources is emphatically one of fractional or mingled identities.  Many watery pursuits were seasonal, so by definition people had to make a living in some other way the rest of the time.  He found a bewildering array of hyphenated occupations in the parish records.  Sailors and fishermen doubled as butchers, bakers, shopkeepers, coopers, carpenters, innkeepers, tailors, and weavers—or perhaps we should say that men in those occupations took to the water, and often enough that a dual occupation seemed justifiable to a clerk. [5] Le Bouedec also dissects fractions within the maritime realm: many mixed fishing with cabotage (short trips down the coast), piloting ships into harbor, and so forth.  Thus, pêcheur-caboteur is another dual-activity combination.  As others have noted, the lengthy voyages celebrated in song and story are only part of the maritime picture; according to Le Bouedec, the men who practiced only cabotage could have spent about half of their time at home with their families.[6]

There are some other ways to slice and dice the evidence.  For example, Le Bouedec notes that in many Breton communities it was normal for a sailor (un marin) to marry a woman who worked the land (une cultivatrice).  Thus, the ruro-maritime interface found expression within the family itself. [7] To consider this another way, a fair number of men who went to sea had fathers who had done the same, but an equally large proportion had fathers whose work had been agricultural. [8] Finally, the fishing industry simply could not have functioned without the pool of reserve, seasonal labor made available by the farming communities. [9] Watery pursuits were more like an alternate face of the terrestrial community than a world apart.

None of this surprises me especially—it sounds a lot like what was going on in Cornwall and the Isle of Man in the same period, for example.  Where Le Bouedec takes things to the next level is his insistence that we take pluriactivity as an essential and distinctive trait of a littoral landscape or a littoral culture.  His focus is narrowly on the countable and the economic, but he offers a tantalizing glimpse of the wider implications of his findings.  Here are two sentences in French that could take us all in some interesting directions:

La pluriactivité reflète l’originalité du territoire.  L’espace littoral est un territoire d’interface. [10]

This might be translated: “The pluriactivity is an expression of the unique character of the landscape itself.  Littoral space is a territory of interface.”  I suspect for French readers there is a resonance in Le Bouedec’s first sentence between territoire / terroir; an alternate rendering into English might be this: “It is impossible to understand what makes the coast special as a human environment without coming to grips with this betwixt-and-betweenness and the fractional or hyphenated identities of those who inhabit it.”



[1] Michael Pearson, “Littoral Society: The Concept and the Problems,” Journal of World History 17, no. 4 (2006), 353-373; Daniel Vickers, Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers and the Age of Sail (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[2] Gérard Le Bouedec, “La pluriactivité dans les sociétés littorales XVIIe-XIXe siècle,” Annales de Bretagne et des Pays de l’Ouest 109, no. 1 (2002), 61-90.

[3] Le Bouedec, “Pluriactivité,” 62.

[4] Le Bouedec, “Pluriactivité,” 71.

[5] Le Bouedec, “Pluriactivité,” 63.

[6] Le Bouedec, “Pluriactivité,” 87.

[7] Le Bouedec, “Pluriactivité,” 68.

[8] Le Bouedec, “Pluriactivité,” 74.

[9] Le Bouedec, “Pluriactivité,” 75.

[10] Le Bouedec, “Pluriactivité,” 88.



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