On July 13, 1788, a hailstorm burst over a great part of central France from Rouen in Normandy as far south as Toulouse. The Scottish gardener Thomas Blaikie, who witnessed it, wrote of stones so monstrous that they killed hares and partridge and ripped branches from elm trees. For many more the rain of icy white pellets was deadly enough not to need exaggeration. It wiped out budding vines in Alsace, Burgundy and the Loire; laid waste to wheat ripening in the fields of the Orléanais; pitted young apples in the Calvados; shriveled young olives and oranges in the Midi. In the western province of the Beauce, the cereal crops had already survived one hailstorm on May 29 but succumbed to the second blow in July. In the Ile-de-France south of Paris, where vegetable and fruit crops were wiped out as they were ripening, farmers wrote, “A countryside, erstwhile ravishing, has been reduced to an arid desert.”
In much of France a drought followed. That, in turn, was succeeded by a winter of a severity the like of which had not been seen since 1709, when the red Bordeaux was said to have frozen in Louis XIV’s goblet. The same stories of eighty years before recirculated with the gnawing cold. Birds were said to be frozen to their perches; wolves to come prowling from their lairs in the Cevennes down into the plains of Languedoc; poor men in wild places like the Tarn and the Ardèche to be reduced to boiling tree bark to make gruel. The verifiable reality was bad enough. Frozen rivers stopped water mills from turning what grain there was into flour, and prevented transportation of emergency supplies to the areas of greatest want. Deep snow lay on the ground as far south as the Haute-Garonne, west of Toulouse, where between February 26 and April 10 there were fresh falls almost every other day. In January Mirabeau described Provence as visited by the Exterminating Angel. “Every scourge has been unloosed. Everywhere I have found men dead of cold and hunger, and that in the midst of wheat for lack of flour, all the mills being frozen.”
The thaw brought its own miseries. In mid-January, the frozen Loire melted suddenly, sending flood waters over fields and pasture and bursting through rudimentary retaining dikes into the streets of Blois and Tours.
Eighty years before, there had been unmistakable famine: roads littered with starved corpses. In 1789 there was famine’s little sister, dearth – la disette – but that was bad enough. The cruelties of the weather followed a harvest in 1787 that was no better than mediocre. The four-pound loaf that formed the staple of three quarters of all French men and women and which, in normal times, consumed half their income, rose in price from eight sous in the summer of 1787 to twelve by October 1788 and fifteen by the first week of February. To feed a family of four required two of those loaves each day, while the average wage of a manual laborer was between twenty and thirty sous, of a journeyman mason at most forty. The doubling of bread prices – and of firewood – spelled destitution. Over the winter of 1788 some clergy estimated that as many as a fifth of the population of Paris, over 100,000 souls, were receiving some sort of relief. In grand gestures, magnates like the Duc d’Orléans sold paintings – it was said to succor the poor – but isolated acts of philanthropy could never produce enough food or firewood to make the winter bearable for the thousands of its victims.
The calamity touched different groups of the population in different ways, dragging each down to a level of subsistence from which it thought it had safely escaped. For the landless day laborers in the countryside, many of them migrant workers, the wreckage of the harvests robbed them of precious work. They had left their families, setting out on a familiar route for seasonal labor in vineyards, wheat fields or olive groves and hoping to return to sustain their own patch. Now they would probably never go back and would have to struggle to avoid perishing altogether. For the small holders – the métayers – who constituted the greater part of the rural population, it was the last turn of a tightening screw of debt and impoverishment. With too little land to feed their own family, they procured a little extra from the seigneur, together with seed, implements and draft animals in return for a share of the harvest. This burden precluded any kind of surplus, and the métayers were often obliged to buy additional food to make up their subsistence. They were, then, consumers as well as producers, and the punitive increases in the price of bread and firewood at the end of the eighties wiped out any chance they may have had of profiting from a gradual rise in value of their crop. With a season’s harvest blackened by frost or hail, and taxes owed to the seigneur and the state, their creditors were likely to call in the debt. Eviction, and demotion to the class of the landless – and for the present, workless – was the result. In relatively prosperous areas like the countryside around Versailles, according to Georges Lefebvre, heads of households uprooted from their land constituted a third of the whole rural population. In lower Normandy the figure rose to as much as three quarters. So they too added to the rising tide of helpless humanity shuffling its way towards the churches for a handout of bread and milk, or towards the big towns.
Should they reach a city, their reception would be almost as bleak. Migrant workers had filled the ranks of casual labor: market porters, coachmen, chimney sweeps, water sellers. But the crisis in the countryside swelled into a depression that spilled over into the rest of the economy. Reduced purchasing power shrank the market for manufactured items, already suffering from the competition of cheaper British goods that came flooding in as a result of the commercial treaty of 1786. Artisans were thrown out of work; piece jobs in cottage looms disappeared; building workers were laid off as the boom in urban construction in the great cities came to a sudden halt. Industrial towns like Lyon and Rouen had, respectively, twenty-five thousand and ten thousand unemployed. In Amiens, closer still to the entry point of British manufactures, the figure was as high as forty-six thousand.
Amidst evidence of general ruin, Necker did what he could to provide some relief. He forbade the export of grain, granted under the Brienne edicts of 1787, and embarked on a vigorous importing policy using nearly fifty million livres for both cereals and rice. But supplies were not easy to come by. The Russo-Turkish War in the Mediterranean had cut off Levantine sources for the south of the country, and another conflict in the Baltic had impeded more traditional sources from Poland and east Prussia. In the north, great ice floes packing the Seine estuary and harbor at ports like Le Havre made it impossible for ships to unload. Supplies that did reach France were, in any case, expensive since other countries, in much the same predicament, were competing for whatever grain was available. Frozen rivers and canals made transport by barge slow and difficult. And when Polish wheat and rye at last arrived in the north and northeast by way of Holland and the Austrian Netherlands, the grain had deteriorated so that it made a yellowish flour that smelled sickly-sour.
All in all, it was not, perhaps, the most auspicious moment to ask the people of France to air their grievances. Yet from the depths of their want and distress, the figure of the King-Father (addressed as such in many of the cahiers de doléances) assumed an almost saintly aspect, giving his subjects the opportunity of a kind of surrogate audience. So for all its horrors, the winter of 1788– 89 should not be taken as an advance death sentence on the great political experiment then under way. But it did mean that in the popular mind, the business of a new constitution was somehow connected with the filling of empty bellies. This was to charge patriotism and representation with more than either could possibly deliver. Just as liberty was no magic answer to the problem of fiscal solvency, neither was equality an answer to the even more recalcitrant task of feeding the population in years of shortage.
Once brought to the attention of the populace, the interdependence of food and freedom would not go away. The illusion that new political institutions could provide sustenance where the old ones had not, rested on the belief that the parasitical agents of the old regime had deliberately used their power to engineer crises from which they might profit. In these pactes de famine periodic shortages had been the signal for speculators in grain to withhold supplies from the markets, driving prices upwards until the moment when they could be exploited for maximum profit. A policy of liberating the grain trade from regulations that required licensed sales at specified markets had only offered further opportunities for this extortion. These widely held beliefs needed people to blame: theagioteurs (speculators) and accapareurs (hoarders), for whom some rural cahiers demanded the death penalty, but just as often ministers in the government who were suspected of colluding in their conspiracy. At the beginning of the Revolution it was possible to pin responsibility for the prolongation of the food crisis on the intransigent aristocracy, said to be conspiring to starve the people into submission. But successive revolutionary administrations fell victim to the charge that it was their inadequate patriotism and punitive zeal that held the people hostage to the cycle of hunger. Only when harvests improved and soldiers fed, locustlike on the march in the countries they occupied, did the problem recede.
It was the connection of anger with hunger that made the Revolution possible. But it also programmed the Revolution to explode from over-inflated expectations.
Those expectations began in earnest when the King called on his subjects to assemble in their parishes and bailiwicks to elect deputies and to write down a list of all their grievances and hopes for the future. In one sense, the exercise merely confirmed the traditional belief that the King would always come to the succor of his people in their distress. But it had never been confirmed in so direct and universal a way. The subsequent events of the Revolution are so dramatic that they distract attention from the magnitude of the experiment that took place across the whole of the country from February to April 1789. Nothing like it had ever been attempted, not in France or anywhere else – certainly not in that paragon of constitutional excellence, the Kingdom of Great Britain. Twenty-five thousand cahiers were drawn up in a simultaneous act of consultation and representation that was unprecedented in its completeness.
Not all of them, of course, echo with the unmuffled voice of the people. The machinery of election to the Estates-General set out in the royal convocation of January 24 ensured that while the nobility and clergy would elect their representatives directly, the process for producing the deputies of the Third would be both complicated and indirect. Local assemblies, under the medieval name bailliages (bailiwicks), were to be convened, roughly one for every hundred voters – those being liberally defined as all tax-paying residents of twenty-five or over. (Apparently in some local assemblies widows appeared, arguing optimistically that the royal edict had not specified sex.) The electorate thus created numbered some six million souls. With all its complications and practical difficulties, it was, up until that time, the most numerous experiment in political representation attempted anywhere in the world.
Most often convened at the village church, these primary assemblies drafted their cahier and elected deputies to represent the community at a further assembly. In some areas that “general assembly” then elected deputies but not infrequently it had to reduce itself by several stages before arriving at a final selection for the Estates at Versailles. The procedure also ensured that it would necessarily be the most eloquent, educated and politically adept who would survive the winnowing process. In practice that meant, overwhelmingly, lawyers and public officials – the stalwarts of local academies and sociétés de pensée – with a sprinkling of physicians, notaries and enlightened ex-abbés (like Sieyès) and the occasional businessman who made the grade.
On the other hand, the local assemblies were remarkably free from any kind of official intimidation. Necker honored his commitment to strict impartiality and total freedom from censorship during the elections. It was common, for example, for local government officials to preside over assemblies where the state and its servants, from intendants down to the agents of the tax farms, were roundly denounced for their many tyrannies, petty and grievous. Those denunciations were all incorporated into the final statement. So, for all the filtering out of beliefs and personalities, the cahiers offer an astonishingly complete account of what, in the late winter and early spring, was on the mind of the French people as their political nation was reborn.
The cahiers speak with two voices. A great number project the voice of patriotic unity, uttered in remarkable unison, often from all three Estates. Their statements were concerned primarily with political and legal matters and their voice was that of the educated urban world of modernizing France. From the countryside and from the artisans of the towns came a sharper tone, obediently repeating as a matter of form the pious clichés of Third Estate politics, but at heart concerned with quotidian matters of taxes, justice, the scourges (the word fléau may be the most commonly used term in all of the rural cahiers) of the militia and the game laws; in other words, with survival.
It is not so surprising that the first kind of language – that of political change – was so standardized. There were conscious efforts to reproduce a published “program” that would incorporate most of the principal issues rehearsed in the pamphlet literature of the autumn of 1788. Sieyès produced a primer for local assemblies that was printed up in thousands and distributed, with an endorsing note from the Duc d’Orléans, throughout the Ile-de-France. Curates were especially recommended to make use of the instructional pamphlet, which not only suggested (strongly) what might be said, but the order and manner in which it should be recorded in the cahier. Other cahiers became famous in their own right as model manifestos of the liberal future – none more so than the enormous document written by Du Pont de Nemours for the Third of Nemours.
The message was the same throughout. The Estates-General was the assembled body of the Nation and should be recalled, periodically, whenever the Nation’s business demanded. Some documents proposed three-year sessions; bolder ones insisted it should sit until a new constitution was established. A number of cahiers specifically identified the legislative power with a national assembly and insisted, in the English manner, on the separation of powers. Virtually all required that it assent to any new taxation. Liberty of person, thought, utterance and publication was to be guaranteed, which meant the abolition of lettres de cachet, any forms of arbitrary justice (like the tribunals of the military) and virtually all censorship. Interference with mail was stated in innumerablecahiers as a direct assault on personal liberty.
On financial matters there was similar concord. The liabilities of the crown were to be consolidated as a national debt. There would be mandatory published budgets every year, with each department of state fully accounted for. Venal office was to be abolished (above all in finance) and no taxpayer was to be exempt from any obligations on account of rank or the claims of privilege. If nobility was to remain (said a number of the cahiers of the nobility) it should be merely an honorific matter, what Rabaut Saint-Etienne had called “the decorated part of the nation.”
The cahiers of the liberal elite, whether in the first two orders or the Third, then translated the standard agenda of their debating academies into business of state. There should, many of them said, be a plan for national education. Lotteries, gaming houses and other frivolities that enticed the people from serious self-improvement should be banished. A substantial number also committed themselves to liberal economic principles: the abolition of the guilds and of all restraints on freedom and mobility of labor; the suppression of internal customs barriers and the end of all tax farming. In most of these respects it was, paradoxically, the cahiers of the nobility (that of Nemours excepted) that approximated most closely the “bourgeois” paradigm in their concern to match personal with economic liberty. Given the involvement of so many of their class with commerce, industry, finance and technology, this is perhaps less surprising than it may at first seem. But a large majority of the cahiers of the nobility pronounced themselves in favor of that basic “bourgeois” axiom, equality before the law.
It was a vision of France continuous with much of the modernizing ethos of the 1770s and 1780s. Rank would melt into citizenship; science and education, under the benign guidance of the elite, would do away with the brutish ignorance, poverty and sicknesses of the people. Enlightened self-interest would come to prevail on the land and create a prospering peasantry that, through rational methods of farming, could create sufficient surpluses to turn itself into customers for manufactured goods. That in turn would benefit a labor force that could be wooed away from defensive protection to entrepreneurial opportunity. Over this transformed realm an accountable administration, appointed for merit and competence, would govern with austerity and integrity. Patriotism and public service would be exemplary, starting with a monarch unsurpassed in popularity; the arts would blossom as never before and the new epoch would belong, simultaneously, to France and to all of humanity.
A surprisingly large number of the nobility shared these views. They were recorded in the cahiers of the major towns: in those of the four thousand nobility domiciled in Paris; in those of large towns like Bordeaux and Rouen, and smaller provincial centers like Aix, Saumur, Grenoble, Blois and Orléans. Even the members of some of the most distant gatherings, like that of the nobility of Moselle at Pont-à-Mousson, insisted in the name of “reason enlightened by philosophy” that all fiscal exemptions for its own class should be abolished, that all citizens should be treated alike in terms of their tax liability and that any kind of personal privilege whatsoever should be suppressed. And while the nobility assumed there would have to be some sort of reimbursement for the abolition of venal offices, it thought this could only be done very gradually in the interests of the state.
It was not a chorus of complete harmony. The paradoxical effect of the electoral machinery was to give representation to the much larger number of poorer backwoods nobles who had never been part of the culture of modernity and who had only their titles to cling to for esteem. In Brittany, they were the épées de fer, the steel swords, who took part in street brawls in Rennes during January 1789 with crowds supporting the Third Estate proposals to vote by head not order. Bested in both physical and political contests, they refused to elect deputies to the Estates at all. Elsewhere, groups of nobles who were less charmed by the idea of dissolving their inherited rank into a nation of citizens, took a stand on voting by order and elected deputies to the Estates who would support their view. In the Cotentin, for example, at Coutances, the deputies gloried in the illustrious names of Leclerc de Juigne, Achard de Bonvouloir, Beaudrap de Sotteville and Arthur de Villarnois. While endorsing in general terms a “concord of the orders,” they made it clear that they should assemble, deliberate and vote, as “distinct, separate, equal and free” entities.
Between the Paris nobles who protested bitterly that the election regulations had forced them to separate from their co-citizens of the Third in the old “Commune,” and the citizen-nobles of the Dauphiné, Provence and Languedoc on the one hand, and the bluebloods of Brittany, Burgundy, Franche-Comté and upper Normandy on the other, there was a large body of mixed opinion. In a number of noble assemblies the decision on voting by head or order was narrow: fifty-one to forty-three at Blois, for example. Many nobles whose social personalities were divided between an urban, modern existence and the management of a seigneurial estate argued that for items of national business – such as taxation and war and peace – they should debate and vote together in common; but for items of business concerning their respective orders they should retain a separate identity. Others still were prepared (as was Necker) to leave the decision to the Estates itself, so that if “the needs of the Nation demanded it” they would be prepared to vote in common after all. At Blois, when the votes were recast in exactly this way, the number determined to vote by order dropped dramatically to twenty-five and the number prepared to support a “mixed” compromise came to sixty-eight. If thecahiers of those assemblies prepared to vote by head in such circumstances and for “national business” are added to those already committed to voting by head on principle, then in fact a majority (approximately 60 percent) of the French nobility in 1789 came out in favor of a genuinely national assembly.
The “Third Estate,” then, came into being as a joint political enterprise, initially designed by members of the liberal nobility and made possible by the deep divisions within their own elite. Within the clergy, there was a similar group of prelates prepared to endorse the bitter complaints of the village curates (abundantly represented in the assemblies of their order) against an overendowed ecclesiastical aristocracy. But there is no doubt that the process of the elections themselves gave the opportunity for new men – largely from the legal profession and public officialdom – to assert themselves as spokesmen for the Third. And within the clergy, an even more radical process occurred, whereby the country curates established themselves as an opposition to the diocesan hierarchy. In so doing, both groups emancipated themselves from their patrons, even to the point where they were emphatic that they should not be represented in the Estates-General by nobles, however well meaning.
The humiliating experience of Antoine Lavoisier was typical of this separation. Unpopular though he may have been as a Farmer-General – and worse, as the designer of the new customs wall encircling Paris – Lavoisier was also a pioneer of the new agriculture. Secretary of the Royal Committee on Agriculture, established at his urging, he had spent a considerable sum of his own in an experimental attempt to improve what was, arguably, the most wretched farming country in all of France: the Sologne. A boggy, badly drained, humid region south of the central Loire Valley, the Sologne had a dreadful climate that regularly blighted its rye harvest, obliging the peasantry to consume the grain even when it had been attacked by an ergotic fungus. At the least this led to the hallucinatory states associated with ergotism. More often it also included a form of arterial paralysis that ended with gangrene and a condition known to the many French physicians who examined it as “formication”: the sensation of being eaten alive by ants.
In a long report presented by Lavoisier to the Committee in 1788 he described the results of ten years of hard labor on his model farm at Fréchines, where he spent three years attempting to create lucerne meadows before switching more successfully to clover and sainfoin, and introducing the potato and field beets. Rams and ewes were imported from Spain and Chanteloup cows crossbred with more local stock to produce hardier animals. At the end of the decade, he still concluded rather pessimistically that while all this had produced some gratifying results it was idle to expect the individual tenant farmer to do likewise since “at the end of a year (burdened with taxes) there remains virtually nothing for the cultivator who considers himself fortunate to survive, even to lead a miserable and sickly life.”
To the small community of improving landlords in the Loire and the Ile-de-France, Lavoisier was a hero. And he evidently wanted very badly to identify himself as a Citizen-Patriot by achieving election as a deputy of the Third Estate. This was technically possible since the royal edict had specified that only two of the four initial electors had necessarily to be of the Third. But it was this very provision which caused a great deal of ill-feeling in their assemblies when well-meaning but patronizing members of the liberal nobility attempted to take advantage of it. Lavoisier apparently participated in at least one such meeting, since he signed the minutes of the assembly at La-Chapelle-Vendômoise, but at Villefrancoeur, his native parish, he was brusquely rejected by the Third Estate as socially disqualified from election.
While the view from the top down, then, was predominantly one of union and concord, that from the bottom up was just as often one of grievance and discord. If the statements of the elite were documents of Enlightenment optimism, those of the people were true doléances – laments. Their tone was a mixture of sorrow and anger and their appeal was less to the self-evident propositions of reason and nature than to a king-father who might redress their grievances. A local muse at Allainville, near Pithiviers, compared the “good heart” of the reforming King with a bee pollinating flowers. But he also implored him to rescue the villagers from the collectors of the gabelle, “those bloodsuckers of the Nation who quaff the tears of the unfortunate from their goblets of gold.”
The curates, notaries or local lawyers who produced the written form of those grievances ensured that they included the standard catalogue of political reforms. Many of these small-town scribes traveled from village to village in the weeks of March helping the local population to organize their meetings and supplying a standard document, so that one finds virtually identical statements reproduced in the cahiers of neighboring hamlets. But there were also striking variations. Often the cahier would begin as though a personal messenger were giving the King a guided tour of the village and its terrain, and explaining how its ills were rooted in both local topography and the seigneurial baronies that had encamped on it. The village of Cabrerets, for example, in the mountainous south-west, cut by the river Lot, is today much visited by tourists on their way to sample the black wines of nearby Cahors. But in 1789 its villagers failed to appreciate the picturesque. The community, said their cahier, “is situated in the most frightful and abominable corner of the world and has no possessions at all other than rocky escarpments and virtually inaccessible mountains covered with scrub and other poor vegetation and with almost no pasture… it can be justly affirmed that the community of Cabrerets must be one of the poorest and most miserable in the Kingdom.” The tracks which passed for its only communications were unfit even for horses or donkeys, so that it took six hours to walk to Cahors. Not surprisingly, the place had long been abandoned by a curate. Thus its overwhelming needs were simple and not at all revolutionary: a decent road and a church.
Elsewhere, the brutalities of geography or climate had been made worse by human depredations, and after reviewing their physical situation, village cahiers went on to catalogue a long list of licensed bullies who made the lives of the peasantry particularly difficult. Invariably, at the top of the list were the tax officers of both the state and the seigneur, bailiffs of all kinds, the porteurs de contrainte (enforcers), who at Comberouger in the Tarn were paid thirty sous a day to terrorize the local population into paying their taxes or seize what few belongings they had.
The gabelous of the salt tax were the worst. The tax was regarded as particularly regressive since, as one cahier put it, with pardonable exaggeration, “salt is often the only thing the poor have to put in their pot.” The cahier of Kanfen, a village of seventy-four dwellings outside Thionville in the Ardennes (northeastern France), was especially eloquent on this. Most of its population, it explained, were forced to live as day laborers on farms, owing to the dearness of pasture, grain and wood. With their paltry wage – sometimes as little as five sous a day – they could not possibly afford salt at the high price it was taxed. So they were obliged to buy an eight-day supply of smuggled salt and “return trembling” to their house where, in all likelihood, the agents of the gabellewould be lurking, hidden behind a hedge. The malefactor would be attacked, arrested, forced to pay the tax and, if unable to do so, led away to prison without even notifying his family. “If it is a woman they are arresting,”
having no shame they search everywhere and attack her with insults… if they enter a house they do so at the very break of day… not like honest men but like a band of robbers armed with sabres, hunting knives and steel-tipped sticks. If a woman is in bed, they search the bed, never noticing if she is sick and never ashamed of what they are doing, turn the bed upside down. We leave you to judge what happens if a gang like this comes into a house where a woman is pregnant. Often it ends with the death of the fruit of her womb.
There were many other undesirables classified by the farmers as “scourges”: millers who defrauded them by taking indeterminate amounts of grain as their fee instead of a set money sum; gamekeepers who attacked them with dogs if they set traps for rabbits devouring their crops; “vagabonds” (usually the migrant workless scavenging for a barn to sleep in and a handout) whom they said were infesting the settled countryside. In Alsace, Lorraine and the Moselle, anti-Semitic complaints were commonplace, alleging that Jews were preying usuriously on peasant debts. In Brittany there were complaints about protected tobacco monopolists who held a captive clientele to ransom and then fobbed them off with moldy stock “more likely to poison than soothe the unfortunate.” The samecahier from Boisse singled out horse rustlers as a particular breed of criminal, undeterred by a mere term in the galleys and meriting the death penalty. In the south and southeast there was harsh criticism of monastic orders living off the fat of the land while peasants starved. At Onzain, on the mid-Loire, the cahier went so far as to demand that all religious orders be abolished outright as worthless parasites. Officers and constables of the seigneurial courts were especially despised for their armed ignorance and brutality.
Attacks on these groups arose spontaneously, but they were urged on by propaganda campaigns directed by members of the very groups being attacked. Thus the most vehement statement against the wealth of the diocesan clergy and the abbeys was by the Augustinian canon Ducastelier. His Gold in the Temple urged that the Church be returned to its “primitive fortunes” so as to regain its “primitive sanctity.” “Twenty million must subsist on half the wealth of France while the clergy and blood-suckers devour the other half.” Priests must be, quite simply, “citizens of the state.” Likewise, it was an aristocratic magistrate from the Châtelet, André-Jean Boucher d’Argis, who compared seigneurial courts to “vampires pumping the last drop of blood from the bodies to which they have attached themselves.”
The remedy for virtually all these ills was not so much freedom as protection. (Salt was the only exception.) A theme running through almost all the cahiers of the Third Estate was the need to turn the clock back and subordinate modern definitions of property rights to more traditional communal accountability. Where inheritance laws were mentioned, it was almost always to insist on the equal partition of land between heirs (even though it was precisely this customary practice that was producing unviable lots). The grain trade should be regulated once more and only those licensed with official brevets be permitted to sell, and then only at officially designated markets. The parish of Nôtre-Dame-de-Franqueville in Normandy even wanted wheat prices to be pegged “to a rate that the poor can afford.” Gleaning rights should be protected. Enclosures of common land where peasants had been accustomed to graze their animals should be discouraged or suppressed altogether, as should the drainage of ponds for conversion to fenced meadows, since that too was robbing the village of a watering place for their livestock.
Woodlands which had also traditionally been used for grazing as well as the customary collection of firewood were an even fiercer source of contention. In Burgundy, for example, three separate demands – for naval construction (notwithstanding its distance from the sea), the urban construction industry and most important of all the booming metallurgical industries, in which the nobility were so heavily invested – had all driven timber prices sky-high. Aggressive estate management of the kind favored from the 1760s onwards could not afford to be sentimental – or even traditional – about so valuable an investment. Private forest guards were resorted to in order to ensure that animals whose grazing destroyed saplings were kept out and malefactors pursued.
At Le Montat, near Cahors, the villagers were certain that change had been for the worse. The harvest was less plentiful than a hundred years before; clearances, enclosures and the cutting of forest had left them without pasture for their livestock and so without the manure to fertilize soil that had become exhausted. Taxes, rents and the price of basic commodities had doubled as conditions had worsened. The result was that the farmers of Montat “found themselves strangers amidst their own possessions and have been obliged to take to the life of wanderers and vagabonds… Happiness, which is the base of all our hopes, sighs and labors, has fled from us… for several years we have been beset by calamities that have taken away our harvests; taxes without number accumulating on our heads and far greater than our strength…” All they asked for was
to have our own property from which we can subsist on a little bread moistened with our tears and our sweat, but for some time now we have not enjoyed even this happiness… the last crust of bread has been taken from us so that we are bereft even of our hopes for the future; despair and death being our only resource yet your [the King’s] paternal voice has heard our hearts and has made us leap with joy.
Le Montat was buried deep in one of the most arid regions of the southwestern Massif Central. At the center of the pays de petites cultures it was a region where too many bodies scrambled for too little thin soil and where hundreds of thousands had given up sharecropping on their patch of hillside and had become nomadic landless laborers. But in the pays de grandes cultures, where lots were larger, cash crops for urban markets more common, communications better, land more fertile and crop yields more abundant, many of the complaints were the same. And just because, in these regions (like the Ile-de-France, the Beauce, the Loire Valley, French Flanders and Artois), the peasants were better off, with larger holdings and a smattering of education, they felt more acutely the threats posed to their new security by the developments of the second half of the century. Their resistance to enclosure of common land, pond drainage and woodland is perhaps better characterized as a struggle for capital resources with the agents of seigneurial estates than as blind conservatism. But it was based on collective principles and actions, not naked individualism. Well before 1789, resistance to landlords’ appropriations had been mounted through village assemblies and local courts, where with increasing consistency the legal agents of the government as often as not took their side against the seigneur. As a result, by the time that the appeal for the cahiers went out, a local village leadership, usually in the hands of the better-off farmers, had already defined its grievances and tested its strength against the local nobility, assuming increasingly that the crown would be an ally in its campaign for communal rights.
Those same village “headmen” (in French Flanders they were literally called hoofmannen) were themselves not immune from criticism. Where, as in the Beauce and the Brie, they were profiting as individuals off the enclosure and partition of the common land, the cahiers produced a crop of bitter complaints from less well-off peasants on exactly that score. In many cases, as at Châtenay, Baillet, Marly and Servan-en-Brie, thewealthier fermiers were directly accused of impoverishing the many, and demands were made to limit the size of farms to land that could be cultivated with four plows. “It is time to put a brake on the ambitions of rich landowners,” stated the cahier of Fosses, where they accused farmers of lending money to poorer cultivators on extortionate terms with the deliberate intention of using foreclosures to eat up their property. At Villeron, near Vincennes, there was an explicit request for a law that would “keep the land in small farms as they were in earlier times and when work could be provided for the inhabitants hereabout.”
The rural ancien régime was thus caught in contradictions that it would pass on to the Revolution. On the one hand, through its agricultural societies, experimental farms (like the one where Lavoisier made his pioneering efforts in the wretchedly poor region of the Sologne) and free trade policies, the government was committed to a physiocratic vision of the future: cash markets, consolidated lots, capital accumulation, higher prices for produce, fodder crops – rationalized, “English” farming. But the here-and-now needs of taxes (more easily collected through communal institutions) and social peace pushed it in precisely the opposite direction, towards protection and intervention.
And it was also abundantly clear from the cahiers that much of France wanted more, not less, government in the countryside. Assembly after assembly asked for better policing against cattle and horse thieves, pilfering vagabonds, counterfeiters – even, at Cloyes in the Loiret, against an epidemic of traveling quacks and empirics, said to be infesting the region, doing harm to men and beasts alike. Villages – in both grandes and petites cultures – wanted curacies where they had none; better pay for those they had; schools, roads, bridges, asylums for the poor and infirm. The common theme was a desire to transfer social authority from private jurisdictions – be they the tax farmers, the seigneurial courts or the local abbey – to that of the government of the crown, and by extension the Nation. Thus royal (or National) justice alone should determine who had rights over watercourses or heathland, whether land could remain open or be fenced. The partnership envisaged was between a solicitous sovereign and an active, empowered, local community.
It also seemed axiomatic that a truly paternalist state of the kind set out in the rural cahiers was incompatible with the exploitation of what remained of anachronistic feudal rights. These had been fiercely attacked by writers like the Abbé Clerget and Turgot’s colleague Boncerf, especially when they were used as a pretext for extorting money from local inhabitants, who would in return be freed from the obligation of performing some service. Clerget thought that one such claim – by a Franche-Comté seigneur – that he possessed the right to lead his vassals to the hunt in winter and “there make them open their bowels so he might warm his feet in their ordure” particularly bogus. In Burgundy and the Nivernais, oddities of this kind survived, like the obligation to surrender the tongue of every ox slaughtered for the delectation of the château. In the Vosges, a similar right required the presentation of bulls’ testicles on the same occasion. More vexing was the remnant of mainmorte that required a lord’s permission for a peasant to sell his land and which prohibited him from bequeathing it to anyone other than a direct relative who had shared his house. Yet these were but the rags and tatters of a feudalism that had disappeared in the rest of France.
More typically, privilege was converted by seigneurial managers into fees for alleged services rendered: milling, brewing, crossing a river, taking beasts to market – as well as the quitrents demanded each year for the mere privilege of farming on what was, in a titular sense, the lord’s land. Such service and legal fees had been aggressively exacted as a new form of business practice, complete with the most up-to-date archival documentation (not an oxymoron in eighteenth-century France) and a new profession of researchers to make the claims stick, if contested in court (as they increasingly were).
From its outset, then, the Revolution was running fast in opposite directions. Its leaders wanted freedom, deregulation and mobility of labor; commercialization; rational economic activity. But the distress that would actually provoke men to commit acts of violence – licensed, as they supposed, by the King – arose from exactly the opposite needs. And this was as much true for urban artisans as it was for peasants. A striking number of cahiers both within towns themselves and especially from rural regions dependent on cottage weaving and spinning attacked mechanization and the amalgamation of industrial processes into factories. Still more were adamant in denouncing unskilled and unorganized retailing at fairs and markets. Hawkers and itinerant traders of all kinds were seen as interlopers, passing off shoddy goods at prices that undercut those who had to pay guild fees and go through years of apprenticeship for official licenses.
These views, it is true, were predictable, given that the primary assemblies of the Third Estate in towns were organized by guilds and corporations, so that one would expect the opinions of the master-craftsmen rather than journeymen to predominate, as indeed they did. But it would be equally naive to assume that masters and employees were necessarily divided about the threat of unregulated labor simply because other issues – principally the living wage – were a regular bone of contention. In most of the larger cities, hostility was of long standing between long-settled artisans in trades like tailoring and immigrant labor producing pieces for sale at improvised market stalls. Even in Paris, where the labor market was fluid, it is by no means clear that the cahier of the women florists and hat decorators did not represent workers as well as patronnes of the guild. They were particularly concerned that “these days anyone thinks they can compose a bouquet” and that “unprincipled women” were reducing “honest florists to the last extremes of poverty by their chaotic practices.” It was not the guild baronesses but “mothers of families, having to pay out thirty sous a day for food,” who were being driven to ruin by the free market. And they were particularly hostile to the practice of women from the outerfaubourgs coming in at the break of day and offering flowers below agreed prices. No one, they demanded, should be allowed to sell before four A.M. between Easter and Saint Martin’s Day (November 11) or earlier than six during the rest of the year.
In a smaller provincial town like the English Channel port of Le Havre, these animosities became even clearer. In the same cahier that complained about the inadequacy of pay, the guild of ship’s carpenters objected strongly to the shipbuilders’ practice of hiring casual labor on a day-by-day basis. Similarly, the coffee-lemonade-and-vinegar sellers took exception to unlicensed competition that filched supplies from unladen ships and set up cut-price stalls. And the hatters insisted that the twice-weekly Havre open market was actually destroying the community, since “the public was cheated by persons who without any knowledge insinuate themselves into the trade.” The rise in theft, drunkenness and violent brawls in the town was due, they thought, to this floating, undisciplined element.
On the shifting frontiers between town and country, these conflicts were particularly sharp. The usual scenario was the difficulty townsmen had in enforcing regulations about the marketing of produce brought in from the suburban hinterland. But occasionally it could be the farmers of the villages “outside the walls” who felt themselves victimized by commercial exploitation. The affaire des boues (best translated as the “muck business”) was the major concern for the many little communities to the south and west of Paris – now so many termini on the Métro –like Vanves, Ivry, Pantin and La Villette. For a long time these bustling little hamlets had been held hostage by the Paris butchers’ guild, which had been given the right to pasture its livestock in their fields. Under this monopoly, the radial zone around Paris had, in effect, been requisitioned to feed the great belly of the city. Local farmers were not permitted to raise animals or sell them to the city on their own account.
They were, however, allowed to grow cabbages and onions, carrots and beans. And in recognition of having surrendered their meadows to the Paris butchers, the villages had been given the right to collect street ordure, gratis, from the city: muck worth its weight in gold as market garden fertilizer. Since the late 1770s, the cahiers complained, barriers had been set up to charge their dung carts fees to freight the precious cargo out of the city, violating the quid pro quo. While exploited by this new business practice, they in their turn had not been allowed to charge the meat merchants anything at all for pasture. Redress, in their view, lay not in the liberal solution of allowing each party to charge the going rate for the service, but rather to restore the traditional terms of the agreement. If nothing was done they threatened to clear the butchers’ stock in their own direct way.
Many other processes of economic modernization triggered angry responses. A syndicate formed by an entrepreneur, Defer de La Nouerre, to divert a tributary of the Seine, the Yvette, to a new canal provoked violent opposition from all the riverain parishes along its course. The plan would rob the faubourg Saint-Marcel of a major water supply, ruin the Gobelin tapestries and worst of all deprive sixteen water mills of their capability to produce flour. In February 1788 the Parlement of Paris banned the enterprise and ordered Defer to repair any damage he had done in the early works as well as restore the river to its original course. But both Brienne’s and Necker’s governments favored the project, and with its status uncertain, the cahiers of affected communities bristled with indignation lest the operation go ahead.
It was these kinds of highly specific, local grievances that could arouse mighty passions in the winter and spring of 1789. As cases before the Parlements, they had been isolated instances of the conflict between nascent capitalism and community rights. Woven into the texts of the cahiers and the procedure to elect deputies for the Estates-General, they contributed a great deal to the politicization of the Third Estate. In this sense at least, the politics of the Nation was composed as much of a myriad of local material complaints as it was of the high-sounding epithets of constitution-making. And as would be the case during the Revolution, the interests of center and locality, elite and rank-and-file did not always pull in the same direction.
While the cahiers of the liberal nobility offered an alluring picture of a briskly modernizing France that would consummate the great alterations of the 1770s and 1780s by shaking off restrictions like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, those of the Third Estate wanted, very often, to return to the cocoon. By implication they suggested a mythical France, governed by an all-seeing, just and benign monarch, cared for by a humble and responsible clergy. In that ideal commonwealth, administration would somehow manage to be both everywhere and nowhere, present in the local community when needed (as in the strengthened maréchaussée constabulary that many cahiers requested) but careful notto ride roughshod over local rights. Such a government would thus succeed in establishing just and reciprocal relations between citizens and between citizens and government.
Above all it was to be a France free of the corruptions of modern life. Innumerable cahiers of the Third urged the abolition of gaming houses, of lotteries – in some cases even of cafés – as places of ill repute that swallowed their young people in poverty and debauchery. For the scum of the gilded world – bankrupts, usurers, grain speculators – they reserved their fiercest punishments, like branding. Many of them urged the abolition of the petits spectacles – the boulevard theaters – with a fervor that would have warmed the heart of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As if following the apocalyptic rhetoric of Mercier, they wished to lance the poisoned carbuncle of city life and clean it of its mess.
This was, of course, to ask for the impossible. But asking for the impossible is one good definition of a revolution.