views updated May 23 2018




Identification. The southwest of France, or Aquitaine, is geographically and culturally diverse. It consists of the departments (political divisions) of the Gironde, Perigord, Lot et Garonne, Landes, and Pyrénées-Atlantiques. The southwest, however, should not be understood simply as a natural entity having eternal geographical boundaries: its specific identity has been socially and historically constructed, subject to continuous renegotiation. As a cultural area, the southwest reflects not only long-standing regional relations and inequalities but also a struggle for autonomy between a local region and a strong centralized state that since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has sought to construct and impose a French national identity. While the struggle for Regional identity is often experienced in political and economic terms, its quotidian dimension is also apparent in terms of dialect and pronunciationoften a subject of ridicule in Paris. A further complicating factor in the cultural identity of the southwest is the presence of immigrants from neighboring European countries and from former French colonies who have made the southwest their home since the Second World War. These groups have struggled to maintain their identities in the midst of changing regional, national, cultural, and Political dynamics.

Location. The southwest of France is bordered on the south by the Basque country, the Pyrenees Mountains, and Spain, on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, on the north by the regions of Poitou-Charentes and the Limousin, and on the east again by the Midi-Pyrenees. The capital of the Aquitaine, Bordeaux, is approximately on the same latitude as New York City. Geographically, the southwest is spread over 41,308 square kilometers incorporating mountains, rolling hills, and two important rivers in the Garonne and the Dordogne. It is also renowned for its caves, which were the homes of prehistoric peoples. The Aquitaine exhibits a strong cool and wet oceanic influence in the cold season and a Mediterranean climate in summer. Winters are mild and moist, Summers hot and dry. Average annual rainfall is 58.2 centimeters with average temperatures ranging from 5° C in January to 20° C in July.

Demography. The population of the Aquitaine is approximately 2,718,200. The largest upward trend in population has been since the Second World War. Immigrants account for roughly 8 percent of the population.

Linguistic Affiliation. The principal language spoken in the southwest is French. However, prior to the second half of the nineteenth century, numerous dialects were spoken. These included Provençal or Occitan, which is divided into North Occitan, Middle Occitan, and Gascon. These dialects only approximate ancient political boundaries. The French language itself spread first among the nobility and bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century and only appeared in the Countryside as an administrative language. The centralization of power, culture, and the economy in the French state served to suppress but not to eradicate regional dialects.

History and Cultural Relations

The history of the southwest of France, like that of France in general, is marked by a series of invasions and conquests. Apart from prehistoric peopleslargely in the Perigordthe earliest inhabitants of the southwest were Gauls, a Celtic people. The Gauls maintained control of the southwest until conquered by the Romans in 52 b.c. Rome controlled the Aquitaine until its capital and power shifted east to Constantinople, at which time the borders of Gaul were overrun by Germanic invaders who divided the land into small chiefdoms. While the territory of Gaul was reunified under the Frankish king Clovis, who ascended the throne in a.d. 481, a succession of French kingsincluding the emperor Charlemagne, who was a force in the revival of Latin culturestruggled with variable success until the period of Absolutism in the seventeenth century to bring France under unified rule. The southwest was characterized by fiercely independent landlords or seigneurs who used their feudal domains and local power over the peasantry with some success to hold at bay the French crown. They were gradually less able to resist assimilation as a national market took shape during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The twelfth to fifteenth centuries witnessed the occupation of the southwest by the English. This period was important for the growth of the southwest French wine trade as winegrowers found an eager clientele for claret among the English aristocracy. The importance of the wine trade can be recognized in the fact that English warships of this period were measured by the quantity of wine they could carry. The Aquitaine also served as a stronghold for the Protestant Huguenots during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who suffered persecution at the hands of the Catholic church. The Huguenots called upon the English crown for assistance against the Catholic Cardinal Richelieu. The profound cultural and economic ties of the southwest of France to England, beginning with the occupation and reinforced during the religious wars, persist today, as evidenced by the numerous English people who have settled in this region. From the period of French Absolutism onward through the French Revolution, which was well supported in the southwest, the Napoleonic empires, and now the Fifth Republic, the Aquitaine's historybut not its complete cultural identityconverges with that of the French nation-state. The southwest is ethnically diverse, especially in urban areas. Periods of recent economic hardship, however, have led to racial and ethnic tensions in the Aquitaine.


Until the later part of the nineteenth century, many people in the southwest lived in small villages. However, the twentieth century has initiated a progressive urbanization, with approximately 75 percent of the population now living in cities. This change has come from the industrialization of towns and mining areas, the destruction of many rural crafts, and the widespread modernization of agriculture, all leading to the destruction of communal lands and a general exodus to the cities. Villages today tend to consist of densely packed houses surrounded by farmland that is often dispersed. Tourism, ranging from specialized communities to independent homes, has also affected the settlement patterns.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Owing to the importance of the wine trade, capitalist agriculture coexisted with subsistence production throughout most of the nineteenth century. Today, virtually all segments of French agriculture have been thoroughly integrated into capitalist markets and social relations. The most important commercial activity continues to be wine making, which divides the southwest into areas of quality and ordinary production. Most areas of the southwest are regions of polyculture where the cultivation of cereals, fruits, vegetables, truffles, and tobacco and the raising of livestock are among the most Important activities. There is also some light industry. Many rural households earn a living through a combination of agricultural production and nonagricultural pursuits such as work in a local factory or domestic labor. The smallest farms are made viable through the numerous agricultural cooperatives that are prevalent in the southwest.

Industrial Arts. The southwest is home to many artists and to those who orient their production to the tourist trade.

Trade. The southwest has since the early Middle Ages been tied into international markets. Today, it is France's membership in the European Community (EC) that is most important for the Aquitaine. Membership in the EC has both highlighted aspects of development in the southwest and created problems with neighboring states, for example the importation of inexpensive Spanish and Italian wines. Membership in the EC has also revitalized regional consciousness and made it more difficult for the French government to intervene, as prices and guidelines for the circulation of agricultural goods and workers are often set at the international level.

Division of Labor. While a division of labor based on Gender has long existed in the countryside, the modernization of agriculture has established an almost exclusively domestic role for women. Although urban areas avowedly offer more opportunities for women, numerous inequalities in pay and opportunities for advancement reflect the sexual division of labor. The division of labor in manufacture and service industries is specialized and hierarchical.

Land Tenure. Although France is known for its preservation of the small family tenure, the average is actually larger than many other countries in the EC. The southwest has witnessed a consolidation of tenures as a result both of government planning and of the failure of small family farms. Nevertheless, it is still quite common to find small- and medium-sized farms whose tenures are divided into small units spread over a wide area. Private property is jealously guarded even by those farmers who are members of cooperatives.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. The nuclear family predominates in both rural and urban areas. Extended family units can be found in the countryside and among low-income groups in cities. Descent is recognized equally through both male and female lines.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms follow the Eskimo system.

Marriage. Men and women in the countryside typically marry in their early twenties; marriage in urban areas is often delayed until later because of the demands of education and career. Postmarital residence is almost exclusively neolocal. Marriage laws date from the Napoleonic era and tend to favor the rights of men. Divorce and remarriage have become common.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear household is the most Common domestic unit, although extended households can be found in rural and urban areas. Although many scholars argue that households in the past were large because of the need for agricultural labor, this is a topic of great debate.

Inheritance. In the past, it was common for men to inherit the family farm while daughters were given a dowry. Today, men and women have equal claims to the family estate.

Socialization. The primary means of socialization are the family, school, and peer groups. Elders no longer command the esteem and authority that they once did.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The southwest, like France in general, is class-stratified. While post-World War II economic development has produced new wealth, approximately 1.56 percent of households in France possess 25 percent of the nation's wealth. It is reported that 10 percent of households share 50 percent of the nation's wealth, while the poorest 25 percent share only 6 percent of the wealth. Consolidation of peasant tenures as well as marked differences in agricultural production within the Aquitaine make the southwest a mirror of class stratification in France.

Political Organization. France is a republic, or constitutional democracy, with a National Assembly consisting of 577 deputies elected by direct suffrage and a Senate consisting of 319 members elected by indirect suffrage. The President of the republic is elected every seven years and, besides appointing the prime minister, is responsible for protecting the constitution, the national independence, and the territorial sovereignty of France.

France is divided into communes, cantons, arrondissements, and departments, of which the first and the last are the most significant. All of these political divisions are represented in the southwest. The communes are local in focus and traditionally represented groupings of villages or agricultural settlements, whereas the departments serve principally as administrative arms of the state. Departments and communes have come under criticism for their inadequacy as spatial units of administration and for their arbitrary boundaries, respectively. Consequently, to facilitate administration and state planning, regions were introduced as a unit in three stages, in 1964, 1972, and 1982. Apart from being identifiable as a cultural area, the Aquitaine now serves as a region. Regions were partially decentralized by the socialist government in 1982 as a means of enhancing their autonomy.

Social Control. The French legal system at the local and national level serves as a primary instrument of social control. This is reinforced, especially in villages, by the power of gossip and public opinion.

Conflict. Regional identity periodically surfaces as a source of tension with the nation-state, in addition to differences that emerge within the region as a result of political and economic inequalities. More recently, the many immigrants who have settled in the southwest have served as a source of tension and debate among political parties and the general citizenry.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. France recognizes the separation of church and state, so there is no state religion. Catholicism and Protestantism are the two largest religions within France, although virtually all world religions are represented. The saints play an important role in certain parts of the southwest as guardians of the crops. Agricultural modernization has done much to eliminate traditional ceremonies associated with planting and the harvest. Periodically, these ceremonies reappear as orchestrated by local bureaus of tourism. Important holidays are Christmas, New Year's Day, Easter, May Day, Ascension Day, and Independence Day.

Religious Practitioners. Apart from the clergy of the established religions in France, there are numerous practitioners representative of pagan religions. Witchcraft, for example, is practiced in certain rural sectors of the Aquitaine. Arts. There is tremendous diversity within the southwest with respect to local arts. Today, the arts are dominated by artisans from all over France who have made the southwest their home. Some of the traditional arts are kept alive by local bureaus of tourism.

Medicine. France has a fully Westernized system of Medicine with excellent social services subsidized by the government. In the countryside, many traditional healers carry on their trades with explanations of illness in moral rather than exclusively medical terms.

Death and Afterlife. The Catholic and Protestant churches have done much to shape attitudes toward death and an afterlife. However, the rituals surrounding death and disposal of bodies have been thoroughly modernized and medicalized and are now largely carried out by undertakers.


Guiraud, Pierre (1968). Patois et dialectes français. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Herzfeld, Michael (1987). Anthropology through the Looking Glass: Critical Ethnography in the Margins of Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pinchemel, Philippe (1987). France: A Geographical, Social, and Economic Survey. Translated by Dorothy Elkins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Segalen, Martine (1986). Historical Anthropology of the Family. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ulin, Robert C. (1987). "Writing and Power: The Recovery of Winegrowing Histories in the Southwest of France." Anthropological Quarterly 60: 77-82.

Ulin, Robert C. (1988). "Cooperation or Cooptation: A Southwest French Wine Cooperative." Dialectical Anthropology 13: 253-267.



views updated Jun 11 2018

Aquitaine. Rich wine-producing region in the south-west of France. Originally a province in Roman Gaul, after the 9th cent. Aquitaine became a more or less independent duchy in the kingdom of France. In 1154 when Eleanor of Aquitaine's husband became King Henry II, the duchy became one of the king of England's dominions and remained so, though within fluctuating borders, until 1453. Until Edward III claimed the French throne for himself, the kings of England (as dukes of Aquitaine) owed homage to the kings of France. In 1202 King Philip Augustus pronounced the confiscation of all John's fiefs in France. While Eleanor of Aquitaine lived this had little effect in her duchy, but when she died in 1204 most of the lords and towns of inland Poitou (northern Aquitaine) transferred their allegiance to Philip. In 1224 Louis VIII conquered La Rochelle and the remainder of Plantagenet Poitou. This left a duchy of Aquitaine comprising little more than Gascony and from then on the two names were used interchangeably. Continuing Anglo-French disputes over the status of Aquitaine contributed to the outbreak of the Hundred Years War in the 1330s. By the treaty of Brétigny (1360) Edward III obtained Poitou and in consequence the Black Prince was briefly prince of a greater Aquitaine, but when war was renewed in 1369 these gains were soon lost. From then on the history of ‘English’ Aquitaine was essentially the history of Gascony.

John Gillingham


views updated Jun 08 2018

Aquitaine a region and former province of SW France, on the Bay of Biscay, centred on Bordeaux. A province of the Roman Empire and a medieval duchy, it became an English possession by the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry II, and remained so until 1453.

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