Bad Blood and Village Feuds – can villagers even remember what their feuds are about? Emma Quarrington poses the question and seeks some answers.
Sometimes I wonder whether my observations about village life here in France could be made elsewhere in the world. What’s certain is that the more rural the location, the more layers of tension exist, sometimes going back generations. On the one hand, village life is characterised by support and cooperation – in stark contrast to city life – but on the other, it produces intense relationships that can generate deep divisions.
When I first arrived, I was blissfully unaware of this. Gascon people are really friendly, and we interpreted the invitations for drinks or dinner as testimony that everyone loved each other. As a ‘foreigner’, you’re not really dug into village life, and you never will be. Even if your French is pretty good, you still miss the inflections in people’s language and some of the subtle details being communicated.
However, in our case, the more we became involved in village life, the more we began to sense something going on beneath the surface as factions appeared between families and neighbours. Bad blood and village feuds were starting to be noticed.
Living in a remote location, you depend on your neighbours in times of need. But familiarity can breed contempt – petty differences can turn into gigantic feuds. The relative anonymity characterising city life means that if someone upsets you, there is always the option of walking away and probably never seeing them again. In a rural community, this is impossible as relationships are just much more intense – you cannot shrug your shoulders and walk away. Then there is the gossip, on which some people thrive, exacerbating the situation. Here in a village, when people fall out, they fall out big style!
Once we got to know our neighbours a bit better, they began to share their views on other villagers, many of whom I didn’t even know. But on probing further and attempting to understand, we generally met a wall of silence, or at best gained a mere hint of the real ‘problem’. Clearly, bad blood and village feuds were not openly discussed.
However, we soon found that the subject of the World Wars caused tempers to rise, giving the impression that any ‘misdemeanour’ happened only yesterday. Given that one of the beautiful things about living in the French countryside is that families are firmly rooted here, it makes sense that the descendants of these families seem to carry on the same ancestral feuds as their forebears. It may seem extreme, but I guess it makes sense. If my grandfather or great grandfather had been shot by Nazis during the war because they’d been informed on, I too would feel angry; to be nice to ‘that family’ would be to condone what had happened.
I’m reminded of a story in Brittany about 20 years ago when a local mayor put on an exhibition about life in the village during the German occupation. He retrieved from the archives letters that had been sent to the then mayor informing on friends and neighbours – not for ideological or political reasons but because of petty jealousies or in an attempt to gain an advantage, whether land or money. The names in the letters had to be redacted in order to go ahead with the exhibition. It’s understandable: imagine your outrage on discovering that your relative was killed or put in a prison camp because of someone else in the village. That would obviously lead to bad blood and village feuds.
I sometimes wonder whether collective memory goes back further to the days of the Revolution or even the Middle Ages. Our village boasts a medieval tower, connected to the Salle des Fetes. Beautiful, historical, even romantic, the tower is also the village’s regular meeting room, and yet a large part of the village refuse to go the tower. The lady who manages it told me it was because the tower was for the ‘seigneur’ – the nobility – an ‘us and them’ mentality here in our little village.
In general, I try and stay clear of it all. I’m not French, not ‘du pays’, so I’ll never fully understand why these tensions exist, and I can simply enjoy the fact that people are generally very friendly and supportive. As one neighbouring mayor said: ‘Plus c’est petit, plus c’est compliqué’.