In her winning memoirs, Mme de Genlis remembers dressing up with her sister-in-law as peasant girls. Thus disguised, they collected all the milk they could from farms on their estate and carried it home on the backs of donkeys. It was then dumped into their bath – a locally famous tub that could comfortably accommodate four–where the girls wallowed for two hours in a milky pool strewn with rose petals.
This is probably the sort of thing Talleyrand had in mind when he mourned the disappeared douceur de vivre of the old regime. And these social frivolities, sketched in pastel by Fragonard, costumed by Diana Vreeland, lit by a crepuscular glow and perfumed with summer flowers, still linger as a pleasant historical myth. Inevitably, there is about them something insubstantial and self-deceiving, like the King playing locksmith and the Queen minding her sheep. And beyond this dreamy, toyland France, historians are quick to remind us, lay Reality: armies of emaciated beggars dying on the roads; Paris streets slopping with ordure and butchers’ offal; relentless feudistes screwing the last sou out of peasants barely subsisting on chestnut gruel; prisoners rotting in the hulks for stealing a loaf of sugar or smuggling a box of salt; horse and hound laying waste to standing crops in the name of the lord’s droit de chasse; filthy bundles of rags deposited every morning on the steps of Paris churches containing newborn babies with pathetic notes claiming baptism; four to a bed in the Hôtel-Dieu, expiring in companionable dysentery.
To many of those who became revolutionaries, these opposites not only co-existed; they made each other possible. Great opulence and folly were fed by great wretchedness and despair. In his futuristic fantasy, The Year 2440, Louis-Sébastien Mercier imagined a France miraculously freed from despotism and poverty and ruled by an amiable Citizen-King. In a gallery filled with allegorical paintings, that representing the eighteenth century took the form of a gaudily dressed whore, with painted cheeks and mouth, holding two rose-colored ribbons that concealed iron chains. At ground level
her robe was in tatters and covered with dirt. Her naked feet were plunged in a kind of bog and her lower extremities were as hideous as her head was brilliant… Behind her [were] a number of children with meager livid aspects who cried to their mother while they devoured a morsel of black bread.
The impression conveyed by these images is one of enduring hopelessness, a world that needed to be blown up if it was ever to be substantially changed. Virtually as soon as the term was coined, “old regime” was semantically freighted with associations of both traditionalism and senescence. It conjured up a society so encrusted with anachronisms that only a shock of great violence could free the living organism within. Institutionally torpid, economically immobile, culturally atrophied and socially stratified, this “old regime” was incapable of self-modernization. The Revolution needed to smash it to pieces before acting as a Great Accelerator on the highway to the nineteenth century. Beforehand, all was inertia; afterwards, all was energy; beforehand, there was corporatism andGemeinschaft; afterwards, individualism and Gesellschaft. The Revolution, in short, was the permitting condition of modernity.
It could be argued, though, that the French Revolution was as much the interruption, as the catalyst, of modernity. Not in all respects, since in its most militant phase, the Revolution did indeed invent a new kind of politics, an institutional transference of Rousseau’s sovereignty of the General Will that abolished private space and time, and created a form of patriotic militarism more all-embracing than anything that had yet been seen in Europe. For one year, it invented and practiced representative democracy; for two years, it imposed coercive egalitarianism (though even this is a simplification). But for two decades its enduring product was a new kind of militarized state.
But this is not what most historians mean when they write of the Revolution ushering in a modernity inimical to the “old regime.” What they usually have in mind is a world in which capital replaces custom as the arbiter of social values, where professionals rather than amateurs run institutions of law and government, and where commerce and industry rather than land lead economic growth. In virtually all these respects, though, the great period of change was not the Revolution but the late eighteenth century. In fact it might even be argued that the Revolution drew much of its power from the (ultimately hopeless) attempt to arrest, rather than hasten, the process of modernization. And in many respects it was all too successful. In 1795, the total value of France’s trade was less than half what it had been in 1789; by 1815 it was still at about 60 percent. The momentum of economic and social change in France only picked up as the Revolution and the military state it created in its wake disappeared.
The abolition of privilege did, of course, mean a sweeping away of legal distinctions that are correctly seen as premodern. But since the general availability of titles was coming to be a matter of money and merit, not birth, eighteenth-century privileges seem to have more in common with the honorific distinctions and forms common to all modern societies in the nineteenth and, in many cases, the twentieth centuries. They were certainly not incompatible with the creation of either a modern economy or a modern state. Equally, if the Revolution abolished old forms of social dues on seigneurial estates, many of these dues had already been commuted into money and were simply converted into rent in the “new regime.”
The “old regime,” then, was not a society doddering its way to the grave. Far from appearing moribund, signs of dynamism and energy may be found wherever the historian looks. From the King downward, the elite were less obsessed with tradition than with novelty, and less preoccupied with feudalism than with science. In the great pile of the Louvre were housed not just the Académie Française and academies of painting and inscriptions and medals, but those of science and the latest royal foundation, the Academy of Medicine. Moreover it was a royal initiative in 1785 that expanded the sections of the Academy of Science to include mineralogy, natural history and agriculture. If gifted prodigies in the arts like Jacques-Louis David could be lodged in an apartment in the Louvre, so could paragons of the new mathematics like Lagrange, lured back to France from Berlin. Certified geniuses were promoted early and showered with status and honor. Fourcroy, the most inventive chemist of the age, was a professor at twenty-nine in the Jardin du Roi and one of the luminaries of the Academy; Gaspard Monge, the son of a peddler and the founder of modern descriptive geometry, had a chair at twenty-five. Others were placed in positions of honor and public esteem, like Lalande the astronomer, Haüy the mineralogist and especially the mathematician Laplace, who was given a special post at the Ecole Militaire.
Nor was this official enthusiasm for science purely a matter of speculative theory. Wherever possible, the crown and government endeavored to apply new data to practical purposes. Military technology produced the Gribeauval cannon and the musket which, together with the tactical changes introduced by the great reformer Guibert, created the ascendancy of French arms over the next quarter of a century. On the outskirts of Paris, at Vanves, Charenton and Javel, were a number of workshops all devoted to developing chemical processes helpful to industry: vitriols for bleaches, lead-whites for paints, inflammable gases.
The partnership of government and the academies subscribed to the late Enlightenment view – especially cherished by its exemplary figure the Marquis de Condorcet – that the empirical gathering of data was the first step towards a society that could progressively free itself from poverty, ignorance and pain. A rain of paper, designed to elicit the information on which action might then be taken, descended from Paris on the provinces. No sooner had it been set up, for example, than the Academy of Medicine distributed to 150 physicians a circular on the ecology of local sickness: its seasonal incidence; the contribution of contaminated water, filthy streets, malnutrition and the like. Out from the Louvre issued instructions to the Normandy cider makers on how to avoid barrel tainting, and to the peasants of Sologne to stop eating the blighted rye that gave them ergotism (with the attendant side-effects of gangrene and decomposing feet). Traveling lecture tours were arranged for the formidable Dame de Coudray, along with her mechanical uterus capable of contracting at different rates, to offer courses in basic obstetrics to provincial midwives. M. Parmentier’s propaganda for the potato as the miracle crop that would save France from famine received official support to the point where the Queen replaced her usual corsage with potato flowers as a misplaced gesture of public-spiritedness.
Wherever government could busy itself with the public good, it did. After fifteen memoranda dealing with the gruesome problem of slaughter-house waste, it attempted to move some of the butchers out from the quartier Saint-Jacques. It tried to limit the casual dumping of ordure by creating great cesspits at Montfaucon and in the name of public hygiene even disturbed the repose of the dead (whose noxious vapors were thought to poison the atmosphere), exhuming remains from Paris churches and carting them out to the newly created cemetery of Père Lachaise. In the land of the (barely) living, torture was abolished in 1787, Turgot’s project to emancipate Protestants was finally realized in the same year and the bewildering array of internal customs duties replaced by a single duty.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. The extraordinary outbreak of official activism it catalogues may be read – in the manner of de Tocqueville – as further evidence of the deadening effect of bureaucratic intervention. But much of what was done made a measurable and most often a positive difference to lives touched by conscientious government. Even the much vilified intendants were capable of altering conditions in their region for lasting good. Raymond de Saint-Sauveur found the south-western generality of the Roussillon, and especially its capital Perpignan, in a state of dilapidated penury when he arrived. The city had food stocks for one month and the road to Catalonia that might import further supplies was collapsed. Torrential rains had washed away most of the province’s few usable bridges. Within a few weeks he had reopened the mountain passes using gangs of laborers (some of them hired from Barcelona). Before the year was out he had repaired the bridges and constructed rows of gravel dikes as a crude but effective defense against further flooding in low-lying areas. Over the next three years he built new wells to provide Perpignan with a clean water supply, available from seven public fountains or (at a price) delivered in pipes to the houses of the well-to-do. A fire corps of twelve paid and permanent men was introduced, and a system of street cleaning during the summer months. Public baths, street lighting, a night watch, an atelier de charité to train poor children in “useful arts” (wool carding, spinning and weaving). A father of nine children, Saint-Sauveur was taken aback by the ignorance of basic obstetrics that he found during his two lengthy mule-back tours of inspection in the mountainous interior and established a course of midwifery in Perpignan to which each village in the province could send one woman free of cost. A mineral water spa was established in the hills, available for the therapy of poor as well as well-off patients.
The intendant had grander dreams of turning Roussillon into the hub of a thriving regional economy that would stretch from Languedoc to Catalonia unimpeded by boundaries of state or language. Agricultural societies were established with royal subsidies, new strains of sheep introduced on model farms. At the same time he eased off on the ferocity of the war against the salt smugglers, publicly blaming high duties and appreciating that brutal policing would only be met by counter-brutality from the smuggling gangs. Many of Saint-Sauveur’s more ambitious plans were unrealized, but he managed to fund his program of public works with the help of direct government subsidies and without imposing further taxes on the local population. None of this necessarily made him liked. In common with many other efficient and honest intendants, he had to flee from his post in 1790, pursued by a revolutionary crowd. But his accomplishments were substantial nonetheless and in miniature they speak eloquently to the energy and practicality that were the hallmarks of government at the end of the old regime.
At the symbolic center of all these public endeavors was Louis XVI. For all his addiction to the hunt, his inarticulate reticence in council, his increasing tolerance of the excesses of his wife and brothers, there is ample evidence of his engaged and lively concern in much of this public business. The day following Christmas 1786, for example, he attended an event that gave him even more satisfaction than the outing to Cherbourg. At a special school for blind children – the first of its kind in the world – run by Valentin Haüy, the younger brother of the great mineralogist, the King witnessed the miracles of Enlightenment, benevolence and skill. Twenty pupils, all of them blind since either birth or infancy, read out loud from books specially printed in raised relief-print, identified places and features on maps, sang and played musical instruments in his honor. The older children were also able to set type, spin yarn and knit hose. Especially impressive was an eleven-year-old boy, Le Sueur, who had been the first of Haüy’s pupils, discovered pathetically begging for himself and his seven brothers and sisters, and who now was the prodigy of the class, almost a teacher in his own right. A few months earlier the Academy of Music had the first of a number of benefit concerts for this “Philanthropic School” and the King was moved and impressed enough to endow it with special funds and scholarships. A similar institution run by the Abbé L’Epée cared for deaf-mutes and had invented the first lip-reading system, which enabled his charges to lead a normal and evidently happy life.
The Terror was to wreck these institutions as infamous relics of absolutist charity and clerical superstition, and return the children to the goodwill of the citizenry at large (in other words, to beggary and persecution). But in the 1780s, public knowledge that the blind and the deaf, traditionally treated as cursed pariahs, could be revealed as happy, working men and women was sign enough that a better time was at hand.
Until the calamitous harvests and industrial slump of the late 1780s, there was some reason for optimism about the prospects of the French economy. Here too, despite obstinately backward agricultural production, the pattern was one of growth and modernization disastrously disrupted by the Revolution. The best estimates of that growth put it at around 1.9 percent a year. Only during the Empire, when military power simultaneously sealed France off from British competition and expanded material supplies and captive markets in “Greater France,” was industry able to progress at a rate comparable to that of the old regime.
By 1780, goods, mail and passengers were on the move around France at a rate, volume and frequency that had altered dramatically from only twenty years before. By the fast and reliable (if rather jolting) diligence, it took eight days to reach Toulouse from Paris instead of the fifteen it had taken in the 1760s, five to Bordeaux instead of fourteen, three to Nancy instead of a week and just a day to Amiens instead of two. Every day at noon the Rouen coach would leave Paris and reach its destination at nine the following morning. Even though the business had been farmed out to a private company, the state retained control over fare prices for both passengers and goods. An inside seat on the Lyon coach, for example, was 114 francs, inclusive of food and board. At the other end, a place atop the impériale was just 50 francs without food. Each traveler could take one bag free provided it did not exceed ten pounds.
Better communications – by a network of canals as well as roads – meant the expansion of markets. If France was still a long way from the kind of nationally unified market virtually in place in Britain, it was emerging from its extreme parochialism. By the end of Louis XVI’s reign, 30 percent of all agricultural goods (the most sluggish of all commodities to reach a market economy) were being sold and consumed at places other than their point of production. Even if this meant no more than cartloads of eggs, milk and vegetables moving from a farm or village to a small town, it represented a change of enormous significance in the rural economy and the alteration of a subsistence peasant into a cash farmer. The progressive – and then very sudden – removal of internal tariff barriers must also have made a substantial difference to longer-distance trade, especially if one considers that a cargo of timber traveling from Lorraine to the Mediterranean would have had to encounter thirty-four different duties at twenty-one halts.
French international trade, on the eve of the Revolution, was likewise at an all-time high, estimated at a billion livres in value, much of it concentrated in the thriving ports of the Atlantic economy. Buoyed up by the colonial trade with the French Caribbean, Bordeaux had undergone a spectacular expansion from 60,000 inhabitants in 1760 to 110,000 by 1788. Of the enormous quantity and value of goods landed there, 87 percent of the sugar, 95 percent of the coffee and 76 percent of the indigo was immediately reexported at a substantial profit. Other ports like Nantes in Brittany shared in the booming trade – in slaves as well as consumer goods – and a whole string of ports profited from the important ancillary trades and services: mast- and sail-making, ship repairs, naval artillery stores and the like. On the Mediterranean, Marseille was in an almost equally enviable position, trading primarily with the Levant, but also exporting woollen goods manufactured by the thriving industries of Languedoc.
Even French industry, always in the shadow of the spectacular expansion taking place in Britain, was growing at the end of the old regime. France was indisputably the most important industrial power on the Continent, and though its production in absolute figures paled beside the British, its rate of growth in some sectors was actually superior. In both manufactured cotton and coal mining, for example, output was growing by 3.8 percent per year. At the great Anzin mines alone, production increased 700 percent during the second half of the century and in Vosges, the number of cotton manufactures increased 1,800 percent. In the metallurgical industries, too, French growth between 1720 and 1790 was on the order of 500 percent compared with Britain’s 100 percent. Other data put the comparison in perspective. While 25 percent of what historians estimate to be the British gross national product was industrial in 1790, the equivalent figure for France was 20 percent (of which almost half, it is true, came from textiles). It would be idle to pretend that France was going through the same kind of explosive industrialization as Britain, but it is equally indisputable that on the eve of the Revolution the trajectory was pointing sharply upwards.
This was not just a matter of output data, impressive though these are. The entrepreneurial ethos and technical sophistication that are often assumed to have been missing from France were in fact to be found. Beginning in the 1760s, for instance, the Académie des Sciences commissioned a spectacular series of volumes constituting a Dictionary of Arts and Crafts. Using copious engravings of great technical precision and beauty, these volumes were a primer not just on traditional industrial techniques but on the newest machinery. And while they began with volumes on the luxury crafts – porcelain, glass and furniture – they rapidly expanded to include much more on industrial processes in iron, coal, textile dyeing, mechanical silk production and sugar refining. The volumes on the mechanical production of cotton, for example, were written by Roland de La Platière, the inspector-general of manufactures for the province of Picardy in the northeast.
New enterprises involving mechanization seemed to spring up almost every month in the 1780s, connecting capital to technology. In some cases they brought new investment to older concerns that languished for want of capital. In 1786, much encouraged by the Royal School of Mines, which had been opened in 1783, a new company was set up, heavily capitalized, to reopen the copper mines of Bigorre in the French Pyrenees. The partners who signed the contract of incorporation were a typical mix of aristocrats from the world of high finance (Saint-James and Pache de Montguyon), business-minded Parlementaires (François-Jean Rumel) and bankers like Thélusson et Cie. Another spectacular success was the syndicate formed around the Péreire brothers to operate a greatmechanical pumping engine at Chaillot designed to provide Paris with a decent water supply for the first time.
It is often said, even by the more optimistic historians of this time, that there were in reality two Frances. One was the modernizing, expanding France of the periphery and the Paris basin, with booming Atlantic and Mediterranean commerce; textiles in the northeast but more especially in the Champagne and eastern regions; coal in the Pas-de-Calais; metallurgical furnaces and foundries in Lorraine. This was a France of concentrated capital and labor, innovative technology (even if at the beginning some of it was thieved from the British), adventurous investment, good communications, a France market-driven. But it co-existed with another France of the center: somnolent and lethargic, locked into old and local traditions of supply and demand, unperturbed by any powerful demographic impulses, where towns dominated by the law, clergy and government presided over a rural hinterland comprising for the most part subsistence peasant cultivators. So that for every Mulhouse, Hayange or Bordeaux, there were many more places like Tours, where in 1783 the intendant complained that the inhabitants “preferred the indolence in which they were brought up to the cares and hard work that are required by major enterprises and bold investments.”
There is a great deal of truth in this contrast, but it disguises some other important processes which were, if anything, tending to prod the sleepier France awake, and which made the spread of industrial and commercial enterprise much more even. The most significant was the huge proliferation of rural cottage industries on the outskirts of older centers. Freed from guild restrictions, entrepreneurs were increasingly placing raw materials with village spinners and weavers (sometimes supplying their basic equipment) and taking delivery of the finished goods for precontracted prices. So that beyond the apparently torpid economy of medium-size and small towns there lay a wholesale commercialization of the countryside. For some time this was thought to be a retarding factor in the process of industrialization, but wherever it took place (in much of the Rhineland, for example, as well as in France) it can clearly be seen as complementary rather than inimical to the modernization of manufactures. Some processes – such as weaving – remained cottage industries, while spinning became quickly concentrated in mechanized factories. This was the case in French Flanders, for instance, where Lille’s losses were the making of Roubaix-Tourcoing.
In some areas this semi manufacturing, semi domestic industrial partnership shook up the local economy. In the case of the Parlement city of Grenoble, more than six thousand men and women within the city’s walls and on its outskirts worked for some sixty master glovers, cutting, dressing and scenting hides and then stitching and embroidering the finished products. Some of the larger shops housed as many as twenty workers, but far more common was a pattern of four or five artisans sharing domestic space.
Other medium-size towns, like Rouen in Normandy, that saw their traditional staple trade – textiles – dwindle in the early part of the century, had a complicated evolution. A few capitalists revitalized production by importing British factory equipment and creating modern spinning factories, but others still used rural labor. The city itself diversified its trades, exported far more to the Paris region and elsewhere in Normandy, made goods for local rural artisans who in fair times could afford to buy them and provided a market for commercially produced and processed market produce. Rouen may have had the unenviable reputation as the most malodorous and unhealthy town in northern France, but economically it was certainly one of the most robust. By the end of the old regime it was turning out (in addition to manufactured cottons) woollen hose, hats, porcelain, paper, refined sugar, glass, and soap, linen bleached with the new Berthollet chloride process, copper products and sulfuric acid.
It was the spectacle of these little urban beehives buzzing with commercial activity that gladdened the heart of optimists like the Marquis de Condorcet. Though he was impatient to see the empire of science and reason brush aside the last institutional impediments to its ascendancy, he believed there was no reason why this should not happen in a reforming monarchy as enlightened as that of Louis XVI.