In August 1870, during a fair in the isolated French village of Hautefaye, a gruesome murder was committed in broad daylight that aroused the indignation of the entire country. A young nobleman, falsely accused of shouting republican slogans, was savagely tortured for hours by a mob of peasants who later burned him alive. Rumors of cannibalism stirred public fascination, and the details of the case were dramatically recounted in the popular press. While the crime was rife with political significance, the official inquiry focused on its brutality. Justice was swift: the mob’s alleged ringleaders were guillotined at the scene of the crime the following winter.
The Village of Cannibals is a fascinating inquiry by historian Alain Corbin into the social and political ingredients of an alchemy that transformed ordinary people into executioners in nineteenth-century France. Corbin’s chronicle of the killing is significant for the new light it sheds on the final eruption of peasant rage in France to end in murder. No other author has investigated this harrowing event in such depth or brought to its study such a wealth of perspectives.
Corbin explores incidents of public violence during and after the French Revolution and illustrates how earlier episodes in France’s history provide insight into the mob’s methods and choice of victim. He describes in detail the peasants’ perception of the political landscape and the climate of fear that fueled their anxiety and ignited long-smoldering hatreds. Drawing on the minutes of court proceedings, accounts of contemporary journalists, and testimony of eyewitnesses, the author offers a precise chronology of the chain of events that unfolded on the fairground that summer afternoon. His detailed investigation into the murder at Hautefaye reveals the political motivations of the murderers and the gulf between their actions and the sensibilities of the majority of French citizens, who no longer tolerated violence as a viable form of political expression. The book will be welcomed by scholars, students, and general readers for its compelling insights into the nature of collective violence.