Andrew Smith on Sheep and the Larzac Protest

In the latest post for our ‘Hors d’Oeuvre’ series on the new special issue of French History on material culture, we caught up with Andrew Smith to talk about his new article.

Andrew is a historian of modern France interested particularly in ideologies and strategies of resistance, and how identities are shaped by interaction with the state. This has led him to look at wartime resistance, protest movements, and decolonization spanning the Second World War and Cold War. He is currently writing a book called Make Cheese Not War: Transnational Resistance in the Larzac Protest (MUP, forthcoming 2025)

Hi Andrew, thanks for joining us to talk about your new article. What do you think will most surprise readers in what you have to say?

In all honesty, this article is one of the more unusual things I’ve written, dealing as it does with non-human agency and putting sheep at the centre of the analysis. I think that is one of the more surprising elements, though I’m also aware blurring the lines of ‘object’ to include an animal seems provocative, though I hope that my explanations for that conceptual conceit helps convince people of its utility.

Do you have a favourite example or anecdote you came across in this work?

I am particularly fond of the courtroom invasion and was pleased that I could include the image of a courtroom drawing. During a trial of some of the protesters, supporters herded trucked sheep into central Millau, then drive them up the stairs and through the front door of the palais de justice. After that, all hell broke loose as the calm legal environment was disrupted the sound and smells of the invading animals. The descriptions in contemporary accounts of the sheep going up to say hello to the judge cracked me up when I read them, yet they also related strongly to the initial example about the Belgian cows which I include in the article. When that got covered in Le Monde, the columnist asked, why shouldn’t the natural world be allowed to call to account those who would reshape it in the council chambers and courtrooms of the modern world?

What’s the thing you most regret having to leave out of this piece?

When I spoke to my Mum to ask if we had any photos of me as a kid helping with sheep (see next question), I stumbled over a series of photos I’d taken on an old camera as a kid. I was trying to get my photography badge at cub scouts, and took a lot of photos of waterfalls and landscape around Kintail. One of the photos features a lot of sheep in front of a house, which my Gran identified as her friend Murdy Cairn’s house. She then told me about a story about his grandfather which made legal headlines as ‘the case of the pet lamb’. It was essentially a court case taken by a crofter who had let a pet lamb graze on the pasture owned by millionaire absentee landowner (named Winans and based in the USA). This made it all the way to the Court of Sessions in Edinburgh and the judge eventually ruled in favour of the humble crofter and his pet lamb. There were interesting parallels (broadly framed) to the Larzac struggle, and I also loved seeing the connection through my own family engagement. Including it in a piece like this, however, blurs the focus of the article, and it is something I may return to in a more reflective piece for Paper Trails (see Q12).

Can we talk about the backstory to the article? How did you first get interested in this topic?
One of the unusual things the peer reviewer asked me to do was to retrieve a personal story from a footnote and include it above the line in the article. Despite being a little embarrassed to do so, I think some of the family connections help explain my interest. My maternal grandmother is from Kintail in the highlands, and we spent a lot of time up there during childhood summers, inevitably helping my (great) uncle Donnie when it came to feeding his sheep. So, in a sense, that family experience helped to spark my interest in the sheep side of things, after I was already knee-deep in documents relating to the Larzac struggle.

My interest in the Lazrac struggle grew out of my PhD thesis and first book on the winegrowers of the Languedoc, during a broadly similar period and not a million miles away. Their struggle was shot through with many of the same issues (agriculture in a modernising state, minority nationalism and regionalism, memories of historic conflicts) yet also very distinct in its aims and methods to those of the Larzaciens (in attitudes to violent protest, to begin with). I skimmed over the Larzac in my first book (so as not to get lost in another topic), but in returning to it in this project, I found myself fascinated by the international connections to the movement and have enjoyed tracing these out in the book.

Are you a ‘plan it all in detail’ writer, or a ‘start writing and see where it goes’ person?

I usually have key ideas or events in mind for the main sections of an article, but in all honesty I am much more likely to start writing and see where it goes. I find structure can (and often does) change as the force of an argument emerges, and as you start to understand the balance and flow of a piece, which can modify those initial assumptions about the ‘main points’

Do you have a cure for writer’s block? We ask everyone this question because we live in hope.

My best tool against writer’s block has always been productive procrastination: taking a few things on at once, so there is always something else you can turn to if something stalls. That way, I find if I am not able to get things going on one project, there is always something else I can turn to in the meantime that seems more appealing.

Whose writing do you most admire and why?

Foremost, I’d say my former PhD supervisor Julian Jackson. I find his work readable and robust, and he wears his considerable erudition lightly in his prose, communicating the complexity of historical processes with clarity and concision.

Who did you get feedback from on the article? Did you give talks on this topic or share drafts with colleagues or non-specialists?

I gave the paper firstly at the SSFH annual conference, then started to try and develop it from there, after some really good audience feedback. Next, I was lucky enough to be invited to give a paper to the University of Strathclyde History Seminar, which featured some specialists on animal history who gave me some great suggestions for supportive reading on aspects of non-human agency. I am also really grateful to Will Pooley and Ludivine Broch – my co-editors of this special issue – for their comments on the article draft, as well as the anonymous reviewers and Editors of French History for their input and guidance. In the final stages of submission, I also had a really good conversation with Rhodri Hayward at QMUL about sheep and concepts of non-human agency which helped me clarify my thoughts on things.

What do you think helpful feedback on writing involves?

I think it involves specific actionable points and it always involves critical engagement. I’m always suspicious rather than gratified when something I write for a journal comes back without critical suggestions (and usually ask a friend to tear it apart in that case).

How did your ideas change? Was there an epiphany?

One of the things that really helped me was finding the editorial in Le Monde about the Belgian cows protest. Seeing complex ideas I’d read about non-human agency, new materialism, and so on expressed in a straightforward and compelling way helped to convince me that this was something I could communicate effectively and directly (ducking some of the jargon that can accrete around the concepts).

What’s the word you can never type right?

Floccinaucinihilipilification, and getting it wrong makes me feel worthless.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently editing the next update of Paper Trails, an open-access publication that explores the social lives of archives and collections with UCL Press. We have a special update coming up on ‘Creative Histories of COVID-19’ and I’m really impressed by the material we’ve had coming in, and am hugely grateful to some great colleagues at the University of Stirling (Stephen Bowman and Rosie Al-Mulla) who have done brilliant work helping steer that ship. Moreover, the whole Paper Trails editorial board (which features my co-editors of this special edition, alongside Sarah Aitchison, Erika Delbecque, Laura Sangha, Alice Stevenson, and Tabitha Tuckett) has been really inspirational.

My next publication out after that will likely be my chapter in the Routledge Handbook of French History edited by Dave Andress. I wrote a chapter length survey history of the Fifth Republic, which I naively thought would be easy but was one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. I was proud of finishing it, and I hope it will be useful for people when teaching.

Otherwise, my big focus is finishing up the manuscript for Make cheese not war: Transnational resistance in the Larzac protest (MUP, forthcoming 2025), which is due in summer 2024. The book retells the story of the Larzac struggle while analysing a transnational resistance movement in the 1970s which challenged dominant visions of modernity and became a wellspring of radical alternatives. Exploring previously unconsulted archives on the struggle, this study offers an in-depth analysis of the decade long peasant movement and its aftermath. This approach repositions the Larzac struggle within a wider network of French and international solidarities from the USA to the UK, Germany, Burkina Faso, New Caledonia, Japan, and elsewhere. The book retraces political networks of pacifist activism, as well as environmental movements, and anti-nuclear protest, showing how the peasant campaign on the Larzac plateau became both a platform and a model for popular engagement.

If you could see one change in academia in the next five years, what would it be?

Obliquely, less marketisation: in specifics, measures like caps on executive pay and a reintroduction of numbers capping to progressively de-risk the sector (reducing sterile competition for fixed units of resource and sparking productive cooperation between HEIs).

Éclair or saucisson?
I’m a savoury man, so it’ll have to be saucisson, but I wouldn’t be true to this article if I didn’t also demand a little Roquefort alongside it.


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