SOCIAL CAUSES OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION:  Readings

1.  Poverty Observed: Journal of a Country Priest

Village priests served as community leaders in a variety of respects, including keeping a register of births, marriages, and deaths. One such curate, the Abbé Lefeuvre, also included in his register impressions of life during the severe winter of 1709, which give a sense of the difficult and fragile lives of the poor in rural towns in the eighteenth century.


The cold began to be felt at the end of October 1708, on the evening of the Feast of the Apostles Saint Simon and Jude, 28 October 1708. The wind shifted to the north, the rain that had been falling all day long turned into ice and snow, and one saw therein a warning of what was to happen later on because the snow, having frozen in the trees, weighed on them so heavily that branches as heavy as men were seen to succumb under the burden and fall to the ground, and I am an eyewitness that most of the oak trees of the parish were badly damaged.

Nothing withstood this cold; many men died of it, but to tell the truth not in the immediate vicinity; almost no birds remained; partridge were taken by hand or were found dead, together with other game, either as a result of the cold or because the ground was always covered with snow. But if only that had been the greatest evil! Wheat died and vines dried up; none of the large trees, neither the oaks nor the fruit trees, could withstand it; and the chestnut and walnut trees were especially ill treated. When one had confidence to venture out, one could hear the oaks breaking apart, and I have seen some open to a width of three fingers from top to bottom.

Finally, after three weeks of this cold, which increased continually, the thaw came. Its sad effects were not yet known. Work was begun on the vines in the usual manner, but this soon became impossible because the cold began again at the start of Lent toward the middle of February and lasted fifteen days in the same violent manner. The sun, however, was stronger and made the cold more bearable to men during the day, but much more damaging to what remained of the produce of the earth, which could not resist the terrible nights that caused almost everything to die, so that it was scarcely possible to gather enough to provide for next year's seed.

Wheat was soon at 28 livres the septier, and wine at 100 francs the pipe. It was hardly possible even for those who knew how, to find money, when there wasn't any. The number of poor people increased incredibly because the continuing rains of the previous year, 1708, had been very bad and had damaged the grain crops. . . . The poor of the countryside were destitute of any aid, no longer possessing a cabbage or a leek in their gardens, so they crowded into the cities to take part in the liberalities of the inhabitants, which were very considerable, at least in Nantes—for I cannot speak of other cities.

But they were soon begrudged the only help they had. They were forced, by the threat of great penalties, to return to their homes, and there soon appeared the most beautiful edicts in the world to help them, which, however, served only to increase their misfortune. Each parish was supposed to feed its own poor; but for this it would have been necessary for the poor to feed the poor. So these lovely edicts were without effect, and the only way to help the poor, by decreasing the taxes with which they were burdened, was never put into practice. On the contrary, they were increased.

Source: Jeffry Kaplow, ed., France on the Eve of Revolution: A Book of Readings (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1971), 9–12. This material is used by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

2.  The Traditional Order Defended

This newspaper article considers the question of equality from the opposite point of view—arguing that without social distinctions making clear who should lead and who should follow, society cannot hold together. In particular, the article emphasizes that economic changes such as reliance on the market to set prices undercut older ideas of protection by the elite, shifting notions of social morality.


What do we see first? Seigneurial goods, common people's goods, houses and lands for sale or to rent. Expenses, offices, and pensions for sale. . . . These are frequently transferred. If people think a little bit, they will be aware of the worldly and moral whirl in which they live. Lands, castles, family estates, expenses, leave one family to enter another one. These mobile possessions, this continuous succession, which substitutes old masters for new ones and continuously subjects half the men to the other half, represent such an amazing show for a philosopher. We would be led to believe that there are no real possessions, and that all men are simple usufructuaries. In less than a generation, most of the goods have gone from one master to another and are often distorted. Large lands and expenses, which are important to all the distinguished families because of the name of the house, are not spared from these revolutions, because of marriages, alliances, death, exchanges, and changes of fortunes.

Then comes the sale of furniture, personal effects, wardrobes, carriages . . . either because of death or through a friendly transaction, which brings up the same thought. Here again we notice how short human pleasures are, how the remains of wealthiness and luxury rapidly go from one family to another. In a short time, referred to as years, these same families will be stripped of the remains of wealthiness and luxury.

Source: Eugene Hatin, Histoire politique et littéraire de la presse en France, 8 vols. (Paris, 1859–61), 2:125.

3.  A Bread Riot

Bread was the basic staple of most people's diets, and variations in the price of bread were keenly felt by the poor, especially by women who most frequently bought bread in the marketplace. Women would sometimes protest against what they thought to be unjust price increases for bread in what were known as "bread riots." As this excerpt shows, these were not usually violent, nor did they involve looting, but instead were a collective action designed to force bakers to sell bread at a "just" or "moral" price rather than at whatever price the market would allow. This passage is taken from a well-known chronicle of the reign of Louis XV by Etienne-Joseph Barbier.


(17 July 1725)—On Saturday the fourteenth, a baker of the faubourg Saint-Antoine seemingly tried to sell bread for thirty-four sous which that morning had cost thirty. The woman to whom this happened caused an uproar and called her neighbors. The people gathered, furious with bakers in general. Soon their numbers reached eighteen hundred, and they looted all the bakers' houses in the faubourg from top to bottom, throwing dough and flour into the gutter. Some also profited from the occasion by stealing silver and silverware.

The guards, who are at the city gates during the day, arrived but were driven back by a shower of rocks. They had the presence of mind to close the three gates of the faubourg Saint-Antoine. They sent for a mounted patrol, which forced its way with swords into the midst of the crowd and fired three shots, leading to a general dispersal.

All this is due to the controls on bread. Farmers are forbidden to bring wheat to market and bakers are given only a certain quantity of flour. The kind of bread baked is also regulated. Rolls and soft bread are no longer eaten in Paris.

Several signs have appeared in the mornings, one of them posted in the courtyard of the Palais-Royal, containing terrible rumors against the government and against Monsieur the Duke [of Orléans]. Just very recently, we have had to pay [two new taxes] and bread has been extraordinarily expensive. This is too much at once to take sitting down.

(April, 1724)—Money has been devalued by one-third this year. . . . Order is being reestablished only with great difficulty, which highlights the danger of workers becoming accustomed to increased earnings. It was attractive for them to work only three days and to have enough to live on for the rest of the week.

It is obvious how far these lower-class individuals go in creating factions. In Paris there are perhaps four thousand stocking weavers. When the first devaluation took place, they wanted to have five sous more per pair of stockings, and this the merchants were obliged to give them. With the second devaluation, the merchants wished to reduce this five sous increase. The workers refused, the merchants complained, and the workers rebelled. They threatened to beat up those among them who would work for a lower wage, and they promised one écu a day to those who would have no work and could not live without it. To do this, they chose a secretary who had a list of the jobless and a treasurer who distributed the stipend.

Source: E. J. F. Barbier, Chronique de la regence et du regne de Louis XV ou journal de Barbier, vol. 1 (Paris: G. Charpentier et Cie., 1857), 350–51, 399–403.

 

4.  Visual Images of the Early Revolution

 

Source: mfr 88.1789.


Male and female sans-culottes were supposed to embody frugality, thrift, hard work, and, above all, honest devotion—whether to pets, the nation, or fellow comrades.


"The Welcoming of a Marquis in Hell"

The image points out the destruction of the nobility, depicting the arrival in Hell of a "marquis" and several other "aristocrats," described in the legend as "conspirators" and "traitors."


"The Crushed Aristocracy"

This image uses the classical figures of an angel and a cherub to celebrate the achievements of Louis XVI on the base of a statue. The words state that he has destroyed the "aristocracy" and established the liberty of the French people. The monarch's action is equated with the other great reminder of national emancipation, the Bastille, seen in the background.


"The Third Estate Marrying Priests with Nuns"

The National Assembly also eliminated monasteries, since monks and nuns had increasingly become figures of ridicule. This image depicts the dissolution of the religious orders, rather than the confiscation of lands, as the crucial element in religious reorganization. It shows "the National Assembly marrying nuns and monks" so they will become productive citizens.


"Monks Learning to Exercise."

This image ridicules monks for contributing nothing to society, either economically or demographically, by depicting a group of them being taken from the monastery and drafted into the army, where they hope "to become good citizens" as was expected under religious restructuring. To bring the clergy under the control of the new government, on 12 July 1790, the National Assembly passed the measure that became known as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. It targets not Catholicism but past clerical abuses. The measure sought to create a "revolutionary" clergy, which would serve the people rather than rule over them.

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