By Caroline Hackett
Early in 2022, in the Departmental Archives of Hérault, among the ink splotched records and paleographic headaches, I came across an artifact unlike the others: a pocket-sized almanac gifted to Henri Ramond de Peyrotte, Baron of Soubès, as a New Year’s present in 1787. I have always sought out ways to prioritize the lived experiences of my historical subjects; what better way to get at that than by considering their belongings and the cultural contexts and practices that surround them, such as the practice of New Year’s gift giving in Old Regime France? While the study of this tradition is inherently interesting, it can also demonstrate how material culture is extremely useful in studying and relaying history.
The study of material culture is not trivial, even when examining an item that its original owner may have considered commonplace. In recent years, scholars have made the case for the study of art, objects, and fashion alongside history. The study of objects allows us to interact with the everyday lives of our historical subjects; we can contemplate the historical subject as relatable, understand how personal belongings reveal priorities and desires, and benefit intellectually from the material objects that humans leave behind.
Henri Ramond de Peyrotte’s miniature almanac was a type of étrenne mignon – a New Year’s gift in Old Regime France. The word étrenne is derived from the Latin strena, and refers to both the ritual act of gift giving and the gift itself. These useful and portable booklets advised the recipient on the upcoming year. This particular étrenne mignon outlines religious feast days, lists the zodiac signs, mentions important historical dates, contains directories of French nobility, and provides helpful demographic, monetary, and political information about France and other countries. It is the size of my palm, printed in black script without illuminated flourishing, and has held up fairly well for its age. Such an object could have been carried on one’s person in order to be routinely consulted. Thus, it was simultaneously novel and practical.
A page from an almanac containing exchange rates for various currencies. Source: The Author.
This almanac was just one of many kinds of small New Year’s gifts that were popular in Old Regime France. Interestingly, the gifting of manuscripts usually signified an asymmetric relationship, whereas gifts between socioeconomic peers tended to be more hefty objects like drinking vessels, engravings, ornaments, adornments, and hats, most of which were gold-plated and bejeweled. As a Baron, Henri Raymond de Peyrotte likely received this small, unassuming pocket almanac from someone who ranked below him.
From this small booklet, we can learn many things about this individual who otherwise only appears to us in official records such as notarial ledgers. He likely found its contents useful, or otherwise valued the object, since he kept it and passed it down to his descendants, who ultimately bequeathed it to the Departmental Archive alongside the rest of the Peyrotte family papers. The object also raises questions that we may never be able to answer: Who gifted this book to the Baron of Soubès? Did he use it routinely, or simply keep it as a novel reminder of a bygone fête du Nouvel An? What we do not, or cannot, know is just as important as the many insights that material objects reveal to us.
The custom of New Year’s gifting originated in Roman antiquity, and reflects a broader influence of Roman law and tradition in France, especially in the south. In her biography of Louis Charles, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Catherine Welch writes that the dauphin received a set of dominoes made from the ruins of the Bastille as a New Year’s gift in 1790. This practice was as common in regional culture as it was in the court at Versailles. In the Bordeaux region, people of various socioeconomic ranks gifted foodstuffs- wine, pies, ham, sugar, and turkeys- to one another for New Year’s as a way to support family, strengthen social and professional networks, and gain political influence. To this day, New Year’s remains an important celebration in France, and it is not uncommon to exchange gifts and give special tips and bonuses to mark the occasion; these gifts, in past and present, are exchanged separately from Christmas gifts, and the new year constitutes its own gifting occasion.
Though the policies of the French Revolution eradicated many Old Regime practices, they did not put an end to the étrennes mignonnes, and almanacs remained popular New Year’s gifts well into the nineteenth century. An 1874 edition of Every Saturday, a weekly American publication, depicts Parisian new year celebrations as joyous and festive, and notes that Parisians were purchasing and exchanging a variety of étrennes, including monetary tips, a puppy with a silver collar, sugar plums, bonbons, and almanacs.
The continuation of New Year’s almanacs is also evidenced by their presence in many rare booksellers’ catalogs. The almanacs available for sale and auction online were originally published between 1716 and1845. Their prices vary significantly, ranging from five hundred to three thousand American dollars. Aside from the internal text that necessarily varies by year, there is also a diverse level of embellishment from one almanac to the next; for example, the almanac belonging to the Baron of Soubès is simple and undecorated, while some of the rare book collectors’ items tout ornate bindings and engravings, blurring the line between utility and ornamentation.
Of the many New Year’s gifts exchanged over centuries of Old Regime history, only a few non-manuscript étrennes survive. One example, pictured [above/below], is a masterpiece in Parisian gold and enamelwork, and features the virgin Mary with the Christ child, seated below an ornate gem-encrusted trellis. It is important to note the contrast between the ornate, ostentatious, boldly religious étrennes that were lost to time, versus the practical, utilitarian almanacs that survived to the present day; the latter made for less conspicuous targets for revolutionary plunder.
In many ways, the French Revolution amounted to a bibliocide. As Thomas Lecaque has shown, revolutionary mobs torched millions of literary artifacts from the Old Regime- including genealogies, cartularies, title papers, registers, and priceless medieval manuscripts. Lecaque especially mourns the loss of cultural memory in the south, and asserts that book burning was not simply a byproduct of broader destructive tendencies, but a calculated and purposeful reshaping of “intellectual, cultural, and historical thought and life for concrete purpose.” The southern revolutionaries’ decision to burn countless medieval manuscripts was nothing short of an intellectual tragedy. I ask, what do we do with what survived? Can the everyday, pocket-sized items that were deemed too miniscule for revolutionary bonfires help us recover some lost aspect of the Old Regime? And did the small size and ordinary nature of these étrennes mignonnes help them elude the fiery fate that so many more conspicuous tomes endured?
The small size of the étrennes mignonnes is important. Ashli White analyzes the importance of considering the “familiar items” that made up a significant revolutionary-era material culture. In her study of revolutionary cockades across the Atlantic, she argues that these tiny emblems, imbued with dynamic meaning, were “crucial revolutionary objects.” Surely, the fact that cockades were small and relatively inexpensive to produce contributed to their geographic proliferation; perhaps, similarly, the small size of the étrennes mignonnes allowed them to evade the revolutionary bonfires and, consequently, persist in archives and in rare book collections today.
Careful consideration of ordinary artifacts can lead to a more personal, human analysis of historical subjects. By studying the étrennes mignonnes, historians can gain a glimpse into the lived experience of a Baron in Old Regime Languedoc – what others gave him, what he owned, what he consulted, and what outlived him.
Caroline Hackett is a doctoral candidate at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. She teaches undergraduate classes on historical research and writing methods, as well as Nineteenth Century Europe. Her research focuses on gender, property, and the law in the south of France. She is currently writing her dissertation about married women’s property rights in Languedoc. You can find Caroline on twitter @c_hackett.
Title Image: An 1824 French Almanac. Source: Abe Books.
Neruda, Pablo. Odes to Common Things, Bilingual Edition. Belfast: Bullfinch, 1994.
Mack, John. The Art of Small Things. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Stammers, Thomas. The Purchase of the Past: Collecting Cultures in Post-Revolutionary Paris c. 1790-1890. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
 Soubès is a commune in Hérault, in southern France.
 For more on this, see this recent state of the field: Serena Dyer, “State of the Field: Material Culture,” The Journal of the Historical Association 106, no. 370 (March 2021): 282–92.
 Brigitte Buettner, “Past Presents: New Year’s Gifts at the Valois Court, ca. 1400,” Art Bulletin 83 (2001): 598.
 Archives départementales de l’Hérault, 192 J 35, “Almanach de poche 1787 intitulé “Étrennes mignones, curieuses et utiles, avec plusieurs augmentations et corrections pour l’année 1787”
 Buettner, “Past Presents,” 603.
 Claude Lévi-Strauss, “How the Gift Idea Started: New Year Echoes Round the World,” The UNESCO Courier, December 1955.
 Catherine Welch, The Little Dauphin (London: Methuen & Company, 1908), 53.
 Philippe Meyzie, “Les Cadeaux Alimentaires Dans Le Sud-Ouest Aquitain Au XVIIe Siècle : Sociabilité, Pouvoirs et Gastronomie,” Histoire, Économie et Société 25, no. 1 (2006): 33.
 “The ‘Great World’ In France: New Year’s Gifts,” Every Saturday: A Journal of Choice Reading 1, no. 7 (February 14, 1874): 178.
 For some examples, see: “ALMANAC – Etrennes Mignonnes Curieuses et Utiles Augmentées Pour l’Année 1743. Paris: De La Boutique de M. Jouenne Chez Durand Rue S. Jacques à S. Landry et Au Grison, [1742/43].,” Musinsky Rare Books, accessed December 11, 2022, https://www.musinskyrarebooks.com/pages/books/2866/almanac/etrennes-mignonnes-curieuses-et-utiles-augmentees-pour-l-annee-1743; “Etrennes Mignonnes, Curieuses, Utiles Et Amusantes. AN 1824,” Abe Books, accessed December 11, 2022, https://www.abebooks.com/first-edition/ETRENNES-MIGNONNES-CURIEUSES-UTILES-AMUSANTES-1824/30745842951/bd; “Lot 1805: Binding.- Almanac.- ETRENNES MIGNONNES POUR L’AN,” Roseberys Auctions, accessed December 11, 2022, https://www.invaluable.com/auction-lot/binding-almanac-etrennes-mignonnes-pour-lan-1805-c-8enjyhto6l; “[BINDING–EMBROIDERED]. Etrennes Mignonnes. Liege: Everard Kints, 1762.,” Christies Auction House, accessed December 11, 2022, https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-3918542.
 Pamela Patton, “New Year’s Gifts, Then and Now,” The Index of Medieval Art, Princeton (blog), January 1, 2020, https://ima.princeton.edu/2020/01/01/new-years-gifts-then-and-now/.
 Thomas Lecaque, “Archives Lost: The French Revolution and the Destruction of Medieval French Manuscripts,” Age of Revolutions, April 29, 2019.
 Lecaque, “Archives Lost.”
 Ashli White, “On Ribbon and Revolution: Rethinking Cockades in The Atlantic,” Age of Revolutions, March 15, 2019.