Sahlins, Peter 1957–

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Sahlins, Peter 1957–


Born 1957. Education: Harvard University, B.A., (magna cum laude), 1980; Princeton University, Ph.D., 1986.


Office—History Department, University of California, 3229 Dwinelle Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-2550. E-mail—[email protected].


Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, instructor, 1985-86; Center for Advanced Study, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, research assistant, 1986-87; Maison des Science de L'Homme, Paris, France, visiting lecturer, 1986; Columbia University, New York, NY, lecturer, 1987-88; Yale University, assistant professor, 1988-89; Maastricht University, Maastricht, Netherlands, visiting professor, 1996-2002; École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France, visiting professor, 1999; University of California, Berkeley, assistant professor, 1989-92, associate professor, 1992-97, professor, 1997—.


Phi Beta Kappa.


Fellowships from Alliance Française, New York, 1982; French American Foundation, 1982-84; Social Science Research Council, 1982-84; Princeton University, 1980-84; Columbia University, 1987-88; National Endowment for the Humanities, 1991-92, summer stipend, 1987; University of California, 1994-95, 1999-2000; John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, 1994-95; doctoral dissertation research grant, Social Science Research Council, 1982-84; Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres conferred by the French Republic, 1996.


Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1989.

Forest Rites: The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1994.

(With Jean-François Dubost) Et Si On Faisait Payer Les Étrangers? Louis XIV, Les Immigrés et Quelques Autres, Flammarion (Paris, France), 1999.

Unnaturally French: Foreign Citizens in the Old Regime and After, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 2004.


In Forest Rites: The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France, historian Peter Sahlins considers the conflict in nineteenth-century France between rival views of private property rights. The demoiselles were peasants in the Ariege Mountains who had traditionally grazed their livestock in forests and who, in 1829, began a protest against restrictions on these rights set by private entrepreneurs. The demoiselles, disguised as women, harassed forest guards, charcoal burners, and other workers in the region, but did not kill anyone or take prisoners. The event, writes Sahlins, has been interpreted in utilitarian terms but is better understood from a perspective that, in the words of Canadian Journal ofHistory contributor Christopher English, acknowledges the "folkloric constructs and historic experience of the participants." Such a perspective, English went on to say, "indicates that the disguises represented a self-conscious caricature" that allowed the participants to remain masculine while identifying their cause with the traditional feminine mythology of the forest.

Writing in the Journal of Social History, James R. Lehning praised Forest Rites as a "fascinating" book that makes a convincing point about "the specificity of uses of rural culture." But the critic added that this specificity "limits [Sahlins's] ability to make large statements about rural history." Edward Berenson, in a Journal of Interdisciplinary History review, observed that "Sahlins' incisive cultural analysis is compelling and, for the most part, convincing."

In Unnaturally French: Foreign Citizens in the Old Regime and After, which H-France Review contributor Thomas E. Kaiser deemed "a book of major significance," Sahlins examines the practice of naturalization from the sixteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century. As Sahlins shows, foreigners living in France during this period were subjected to higher taxes and were not allowed to hold administrative positions in politics or the church. What is more, the droit d'aubaine prohibited immigrants living in France from leaving their estates to designated heirs except those heirs who were born in France. Instead, the king had the right to seize the estates of political aliens for the use of the royal treasury. Droit d'aubaine also prohibited foreigners from inheriting property belonging to French natives. Sahlins explains that droit d'aubaine did not bring much money into the royal coffers, but was nevertheless significant. It threatened the economic viability of immigrant families in France, a condition that led to numerous appeals to the crown to grant naturalized citizen status.

Analyzing 6,732 such petitions filed between 1660 and 1789, as well as a list of some 8,000 foreigners forcibly naturalized in 1697, Sahlins sheds light on the process of naturalization and on the individual circumstances of those who sought it. He finds that a relatively small number of naturalizations occurred annually, and that the process was so expensive as to preclude petitions from ordinary people. Naturalization could also be granted in acknowledgement of merit or service. In addition, Sahlins finds, almost half of all naturalizations were granted to immigrants from northern Europe, including Britain; approximately one-third were granted to southern Europeans, and about one-sixth to central Europeans. "This extremely rich body of data easily could have been a book by itself," observed Charlotte C. Wells in the Journal of Modern History. "Documented here is everything from immigrants' role in France's economic development to the knowledge French bureaucrats had of the world beyond their borders."

Droit d'aubaine, Sahlins argues, gave the French king an authority distinct from that of other European monarchs of that time. It also demonstrated that the royal administration held significant power and scope. As well, it strengthened the authority of the king to determine the legal status of people under his jurisdiction and to clearly categorize those subjects as French nationals or not. "Putting a fresh twist on the commonplace idea that national identity is constructed ‘against’ those of other nations," commented Kaiser, "Sahlins shows how citizenship was defined in opposition to the legal status of aliens living under the jurisdiction of the king." Kaiser particularly praised Sahlins's discussion of factors relating to the decline of the droit d'aubaine, which was phased out by 1789 as a result of various treaties between France and foreign governments. "The main reason for its suppression," observed Kaiser, "appears to be a growing recognition among economic reformers associated with the Enlightenment that the droit d'aubaine retarded commercial enterprise at a time when the government was trying to restructure and re-energize the economy as a means to increase tax yields. Whatever its de facto economic benefits, Sahlins argues that the suppression of the droit d'aubaine constituted a narrowing of the monarchy's de jure legitimacy."

Kaiser concluded by describing Unnaturally French as "wide in scope, thoroughly researched, brilliantly argued, and lucidly written," adding that it "tells the story better than it has ever been told before and constitutes the most substantial integral history of early modern French naturalization and citizenship to date." Wells, in the Journal of Modern History, observed: "This is a fine piece of scholarship. Sahlins's main thesis leaves room for fruitful argument, and he raises questions likely to stimulate others' research." Linda Frey, writing in History: Review of New Books, asserted that Unnaturally French is "destined to be a classic."

In his previous book Et Si On Faisait Payer Les Étrangers? Louis XIV, Les Immigrés et Quelques Autres, Sahlins and coauthor Jean-Francois Dubost analyze tax records affecting foreigners living in France, and their descendants, since 1600. As Jennifer Heuer observed in a Journal of Modern History review of the book, "Dubost and Sahlins … contend that the [new tax on foreigners] provides a rare window onto both the social and geographic profiles of immigrants and the functioning of the absolutist state during a difficult moment." Their research, Heuer went on to note, "combines aspects of political, social, and legal history" to present a wealth of detail about the socioeconomic dynamics of immigration to France. But, she added, "the book's subtitle is deliberately provocative. The word ‘immigrés’ or immigrants was not part of the lexicon of absolutist France; indeed, it was not used regularly until the twentieth century. Sahlins and Dubost chose it to suggest a dialogue between 1700 and 2000. But although they self-consciously invite this dialogue, they do not develop it." Heuer also expressed disappointment that the book does not satisfactorily emphasize the connections or contrasts between its themes and subjects of more recent relevance.

In 1996, the French Republic named Sahlins a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. He is a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley.



Sahlins, Peter, Unnaturally French: Foreign Citizens in the Old Regime and After, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 2004.


American Anthropologist, September 1, 1996, Susan Carol Rogers, review of Forest Rites: The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France, p. 688.

American Ethnologist, August 1, 1991, Gary W. McDonogh, review of Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees, p. 609.

American Historical Review, June 1, 1991, Charles Tilly, review of Boundaries, p. 863; February 1, 1996, Eugen Weber, review of Forest Rites, p. 192; February 1, 2005, Sophia Rosenfeld, review of Unnaturally French, p. 230.

American Journal of Legal History, July 1, 2005, Michael Kwass, review of Unnaturally French, p. 326.

American Journal of Sociology, May 1, 2005, Genevieve Zubrzycki, review of Unnaturally French, p. 1828.

Canadian Journal of History, December 1, 1990, Charles J. Jago, review of Boundaries, p. 411; December 1, 1995, Christopher English, review of Forest Rites, p. 509; March 22, 2006, Stephen A. Toth, review of Unnaturally French, p. 116.

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, March 1, 1995, review of Forest Rites, p. 1192; November 1, 2004, D.A. Harvey, review of Unnaturally French, p. 555.

Contemporary Sociology, July 1, 1991, Hank Johnston, review of Boundaries, p. 545; November 1, 1992, Montserrat Guibernau, review of Boundaries, p. 795.

European History Quarterly, April 1, 1992, J.H.M. Salmon, review of Boundaries, p. 289; October 1, 2006, Martyn Lyons, review of Unnaturally French, p. 649.

French Historical Studies, March 22, 1997, Gail Bossenga, review of Boundaries, p. 217.

Historical Journal, December 1, 1996, Robert Tombs, review of Forest Rites, p. 1117.

History: Review of New Books, June 22, 2004, Linda Frey, review of Unnaturally French, p. 151.

International History Review, August 1, 1990, review of Boundaries, p. 577.

Journal of Interdisciplinary History, March 22, 1992, Oriol Pi-Sunyer, review of Boundaries, p. 736; June 22, 1996, Edward Berenson, review of Forest Rites, p. 134.

Journal of Modern History, March 1, 1994, J.K.J. Thomson, review of Boundaries, p. 122; March 1, 1996, review of Boundaries, p. 84; September 1, 1996, Kathleen Kete, review of Forest Rites, p. 699; March 1, 2003, Jennifer Heuer, review of Et Si On Faisait Payer Les Étrangers? Louis XIV, Les Immigrés et Quelques Autres, p. 157; December 1, 2005, Charlotte C. Wells, review of Unnaturally French, p. 1094.

Journal of Social History, June 22, 1991, Richard Maddox, review of Boundaries, p. 898; March 22, 1996, James R. Lehning, review of Forest Rites, p. 710.

Social History, May 1, 1991, M.G. Broers, review of Boundaries, p. 239.

Times Literary Supplement, April 13, 1990, Henry Kamen, review of Boundaries, p. 400; April 17, 1992, review of Boundaries, p. 28.


H-France Review, (April 19, 2008), Thomas E. Kaiser, review of Unnaturally French; Peter McPhee, "Frontiers, Ethnicity and Identity in the French Revolution."

Social Science Research Council Web site, (April 19, 2008), author profile.

University of California, Berkeley, Department of History Web site, (April 19, 2008), faculty profile.