Modern history

IV DEAD RABBITS, TORN WALLPAPER; MARCH – APRIL 1789

The first heavy casualties of the French Revolution were rabbits. On March 10 and 11, 1789, the villagers of Neuville formed themselves into platoons, armed with clubs and sickles, and searched meadows and woods for their prolific little enemies. What dogs they had accompanied them, and the shout of “Hou, hou” signified to the rest of the hunting party a satisfactory kill. Where none were found, traps were laid in defiance of draconian game laws that had long terrified the peasantry into sullen obedience.

Throughout the Ile-de-France and elsewhere in northern France, from the estates of the Comte d’Oisy in Artois to those of the Prince de Conti at Pontoise, similar invasions took place. Disregarding the game laws that had protected birds and animals, and the brutal “captaincies” that enforced them, hobnail boots trampled through forbidden forests or climbed over fences and stone walls. Grass was mown in grain fields to reveal the nests of partridge and pheasant, snipe and woodcock; eggs were smashed or fledglings left to the dogs. Warrens were staved in, hares rooted out from behind rocks. In daring villages, pit traps were even set for the most prized game, which was also the most voracious consumer of green shoots: roe deer. The most spectacular assaults were on those châteaux in miniature: dovecots, from which the peasantry had seen aerial raiding parties launched against their seed, returning in absolute safety to their seigneurial compound. They were, said one cahier, “flying thieves.” In one district of Lorraine, no less than nineteen cahiers called for their outright destruction, while another sixteen insisted that doves and pigeons should, at the very least, be firmly shut up for fifteen days after sowing.

It could hardly be called poaching since there was nothing furtive about the onslaught. In some cases, the slaughtered game was hung from poles like trophies and paraded about the village. Initially the gangs ran into mounted patrols serving the captaincies. But there were simply too many determined peasants who, with their winter crop destroyed by the climate, were not prepared to see their spring crop turn into rabbit fodder. In some places, like the estates of the Prince de Condé near Chantilly, villagers simply ignored the game laws and hunted at will. When they ran into gamekeepers, as on March 28, they shot them dead on the spot.

Faced with this kind of mass disobedience, systematic attempts at repression faltered, and before long authorities turned a blind eye to much of what was happening. At Oisy a united confederacy of villages overran the local count’s game. At Herblay, where the onslaught had been particularly fierce, its ringleader, the aptly named Toussaint Boucher, was briefly apprehended, but later released. In defying the captaincies of game and in risking sentences of flogging, branding and banishment, the rabbit and bird killers obviously believed that they had Right – in the form of the King’s will – on their side. One of the cahiers of the Ile-de-France had insisted that it was “the general will of the Nation that game should be destroyed since it carries off a third of the subsistence of citizens and this is the intention of our good King who watches over the common good of his people and who loves them.”

To the desperate, there was something particularly satisfying about smashing in a dovecot. But when its mutilated contents were strewn over the lawn of a country estate, an unsubtle but eloquent message was being conveyed to the seigneurs of France. The game riots announced a movement from verbal complaint to violent action. It was as though the royal consultation of the people had produced the assumption that the King now licensed what had been unlawful; that his law, and by extension the will of the Nation, overrode the selfish appropriations of privilege. Killing game was not only an act of desperation, it was, by the lights of 1789, Patriotic.

Killing the game of the seigneurs, after all, was preferable to turning anger on their persons. And it is striking that throughout the rural insurrections of 1789 a succession of animal or inanimate targets was selected for the visceral discharge of hatred. Bloodshed through surrogate sacrifices, be they the mannequins burned on the Pont Neuf, prize white doves strangled in their cots or more inanimate targets like violently defaced coats of arms on carriages or church pews, all performed the same symbolic function: an oblation for freedom.

Attacks on grain transports, which broke out at about the same time, followed the same pattern. As in the “flour wars” of 1775, the rioters believed they were more faithfully carrying out the King’s will than the authorities who had usurped his name. He had decreed, so it was rumored, that the price of a sétier of wheat should be reduced from forty-two to twenty-four livres – as though there were a primitive justice performed in the transposition of the numbers. Bread was to be priced, justly, at two sous a pound instead of the market rate of nearly four. The King’s enemies were the same as the People’s: speculators, hoarders, fraudulent millers, profiteering bakers. The vacuum of power announced by the elections to the Estates-General reinforced this impression and made the leadership of the attacks on barges, wagons and flour stores more audacious. Conspicuous in that leadership were women. At Viroflay it was women who set up a checkpoint on the road between Versailles and Paris, stopping convoys and searching them for grain or flour before permitting them to pass. At Joüy another attroupement of women demanded that grain be sold well below the market rate and the most substantial farmer of the neighborhood, a man named Bure, wisely let them have it at whatever price they asked. In a wide radius of countryside around Paris, from Bourg-la-Reine to Rambouillet, the story was the same.

In the early spring of 1789, the geography of popular intervention was much wider than it had been fourteen years earlier. Mid-March to mid-April saw attacks on bakeries and granaries throughout the Nord, from Cambrai and Valenciennes to Dunkirk and Lille. In Brittany, violence had never really died down since the street fighting of January in Rennes but had fanned out into smaller towns like Morlaix and Vannes. Between March 30 and April 3 a riot at Besanç on led by women enforced maximum grain prices and went on to smash up the houses of recalcitrant Parlementaires.

The breadth and intensity of the disorders in the countryside required troops to contain the movement before it became a general insurrection. But the epidemic of disturbances in provincial towns spread available forces too thin. Increasingly, it was left to local communities to fend for themselves as best they could. As early as April 1788 Troyes had set an example by forming an urban militia responsible to local authorities rather than the officers of the crown. A year later, meetings convened for electoral purposes gave more momentum to this devolution under stress, and volunteer guards were armed in Marseille, Etampes, Orléans and Beaugency. It was a crucial moment in the collapse of royal authority. First came the recognition that the père nourricier – the King-as-Father-Provider – could not feed his subjects. Then followed the ample evidence that neither could he protect them.

It was in Paris, of course, that that anger and hunger were most dangerously joined. Collectively, the city was already indignant because it had been precluded from assembling on the model of the Dauphiné, as a united “Commune” (its medieval title). The twenty electoral assemblies of the nobility of Paris (as well as many of those of the clergy) all preceded their cahier with a formal complaint that they had thus been deprived of the blessings of patriotic fraternity. And whereas about one sixth of the citizens had been disfranchised by tax qualifications elsewhere in France, in Paris a higher tax qualification of six livres ensured that the proportion rose to one quarter. A typical pamphlet protesting this exclusion commented angrily that “our deputies are not going to be our deputies. Things have been so arranged that we can have no part in electing them, and the city of Paris, divided into sixty districts, will be, in every respect, like sixty flocks of sheep.”

The Parisian worker was thus the first to experience, in short order, the euphoria of national representation followed by the sting of alienation. Aside from the industrial depression, the frozen Seine had taken livelihoods from the gens de rivière – dockers, bargemen, log floaters – and bitter conditions lasting into spring added to their number unemployed masons, house painters and carpenters. When the weather abated somewhat in April twelve thousand of the neediest were sent to dig at the buttes of Montmartre; others scraped the quais or dredged rivers and canals. But the scale of distress overwhelmed these modest work projects.

In the bakers’ shops, the price of the all-important four-pound loaf fluctuated between twelve and fifteen sous. In February twenty-seven bakers were each fined fifty livres for exceeding the permitted ceiling of fourteen and a half sous. Their guild immediately protested that, given shortages and high wholesale prices, it was impossible for them to sell at this level without cheating on wheat or dangerously polluting the loaf with makeweight substitutes. Newspapers reported that men were exchanging their shirts for bread and, in one case, a woman removed her corset and gave it to the baker for a loaf. In such circumstances a Cahier of the Poor appeared arguing for a statutory minimum wage and guaranteed subsistence for all able-bodied working men and women. A similar Cahier of the Fourth Order, written by Dufourny de Villiers, urged a substantial tax on the rich to support the poor, since cupidity had created a society where “men are treated as though they are disposable.”

At the end of April, a week after the Third Estate of Paris had held their much delayed primary assemblies, misery and suspicion boiled over in violence. The occasion was a rumor, circulating in the faubourg Saint-Antoine (immediately to the east of the Bastille), that the wallpaper manufacturer Réveillon had said he would cut his workers’ wages to fifteen sous a day. Réveillon and his fellow victim the saltpeter manufacturer Henriot indignantly denied the story. He was, in fact, one of the more conscientious employers in Paris, paying on average between thirty-five and fifty sous a day and keeping much of his force on the books during the bitterest period of the winter when weather made their work impossible. But he was precisely the kind of capitalist entrepreneur guaranteed to provoke the wrath of both the independent craft artisans and journeymen who made up the majority of the population of the faubourg Saint-Antoine.

Réveillon’s career was an exemplary story of the self-made business-man not uncommon at the end of the old regime. He had begun as a simple apprentice paperworker but had left the guild-controlled industry for the newer and freer line of wallpaper manufacture. Marrying well he had used the dowry to buy his own works. In 1789 it was located in the ground floor of a large house sold to Réveillon by a ruined financier whose furniture passed to the self-made man for his apartments in the upper stories. Instead of merely printing, gumming and finishing, Réveillon had acquired his own paper manufacture, thus controlling all the processes of production. As the history of the Montgolfiers had shown, there were close relations between papermakers and the worldof science, and it was in Réveillon’s workshop that Pilâtre de Rozier had made his first experiments in ballooning. Réveillon himself dabbled in chemistry enough to discover a new process for making vellum, which he turned out from his works in the Brie. By 1784 he employed four hundred workers, was commissioning designs from the best artists at the Gobelins and had received a special gold medal for excellence in manufacturing. He even managed to export his lines to England.

It was exactly the kind of modern enterprise that the artisans of the faubourg saw as a threat. Concentration of labor, the use of children outside the system of apprenticeship, integration of industrial processes were all enough to single Réveillon out as an enemy. Worse, his house, Titonville, stood out at the corner of the rue de Montreuil and the rue du faubourg Saint-Antoine, famous for its spectacular furniture, its immense library and, most important, its large and lovingly acquired two-thousand-bottle cellar.

Réveillon was the casualty of his own ill-digested reflections on modern economics. For what he had actually said at an electoral meeting in the district of Saint-Marguerite was that “since bread was the foundation of our national economy,” its distribution should be deregulated, permitting lower prices. That in turn would allow lower wage costs, lower manufacturing prices and brisk consumption.

It was good Chamber of Commerce propaganda. But when taken together with similar comments by Henriot, it is not hard to see how it sounded like a threat to cut wages. But the first demonstrations seem to have been not in the faubourg Saint-Antoine, where Réveillon’s workers lived (very few of them were implicated in the riots), but in the poorer faubourg Saint-Marcel across the river. This was a district dominated by brewery and tannery workers, whose industries had been badly interrupted by the freezing of the Bièvre river, on which both their manufacturing processes depended. A crowd of some hundreds, armed with sticks, made their way towards Saint-Antoine, shouting, “Death to the rich, death to the aristocrats.” Armed with sticks they set off on a noisy demonstration to Réveillon’s factory. The bookseller Siméon Hardy, the most valuable busybody in Paris, ran into one group of the demonstrators, now numbering around five hundred, carrying a mock gallows to which was attached the hanging effigy of Réveillon and a placard proclaiming “Edict of the Third Estate Which Judges and Condemns the Above Réveillon and Henriot to be Hanged and Burned in a Public Square.” By the time they reached the place de Grève, the number had swelled again to three thousand, and there they attempted to stop traffic and set up their stake before proceeding on to Réveillon’s house in the rue de Montreuil.

The assembly of electors from the sixty Paris voting districts had constituted itself into a virtual informal administration, sitting at the Archevêché. It sent three courageous volunteers, two of them textile manufacturers, to speak to the crowds. “Who are you and why do you want to stop us hanging Réveillon?” one of the crowd asked. With a grandiose magnanimity borrowed directly from the theater, the textile maker Charton replied, “I am the Father-Provider [père nourricier] of several of you [meaning their boss] and the brother of all of you.” “Well then, since you are our brother, embrace us” (a proof of fraternity which many of the most zealous Jacobins at their apogee could not manage). “Willingly,” replied Charton, “if you throw down your sticks.” Explaining that Réveillon and Henriot were good patriots and friends of the people seemed to have the required calming effect, as the demonstrators disbanded.

Trouble had not gone away, however. Barred from reaching Réveillon’s house by a company of fifty gardes françaises, the demonstrators did manage to reach Henriot’s, which they tore apart from top to bottom, smashing furniture and burning the debris in the street.

On the following day, the twenty-eighth, things got worse. A crowd almost as large as the previous day’s was harangued by a forty-year-old woman, Marie-Jeanne Trumeau, the pregnant wife of a day laborer from the faubourg Saint-Antoine. Together with the twenty-four-year-old Pierre-Jean Mary, listed in the trial records as a “writer,” she incited the crowd to continue what had been begun the day before. As they made their way across the Seine, the reinforcements from Saint-Marcel had been enlarged by river people: unemployed stevedores and the flotteurs who pushed timber rafts. With the brewers and tanners and workers from Saint-Antoine they made up a formidable crowd of between five and ten thousand who faced a barrier of gardes françaises in front of Réveillon’s house.

The riot threatened to do something much more serious than destroy property or overwhelm the policing of Paris; it threatened to interrupt horse racing at Vincennes. For whether they lived in hôtels in the Marais or in Saint-Germain, the society owners of fleet geldings and fillies, and the many more who bet on them, had to pass through Saint-Antoine to get to the racecourse. Riots were riots but traffic jams were really serious, not to mention the abuse and fist-brandishing at anyone in a fashionable carriage failing to show enthusiasm for the Third Estate. The Duc d’Orléans, hero of the crowd (and horse magnate), was the exception. Greeted as (yet another) “father of the people,” the Duc alighted from his carriage, waved amiably and made a few noises to the effect that all his friends should calm down. When they retorted that that was all very well but the bastard bosses were about to cut their pay to fifteen sous a day, Orléans responded in the only way he knew – by scattering bags of money among the crowd, and exiting to appreciative applause.

Understandably, tension relaxed. But the crowd remained and so did the guards in front of Titonville. They stayed like that for some hours until the racegoers returned. Sensibly, most of the traffic had been diverted at the barrière of the Trône – all, that is, except the carriage of Orléans’ own wife, who insisted on the direct route to the Palais-Royal. Fatally, the guards parted to let her through and thousands suddenly followed, pouring into Réveillon’s factory. The manufacturer and his family barely managed to make their escape through the gardens, from which they ran to the Bastille for safety. In two hours there was nothing left of their house and factory except the vast array of bottles in the cellar, which even a crowd of thousands was unable to consume at once. Immense bonfires in the garden consumed paper, gum – a perfect inflammable – paint, furniture, paintings.

Belatedly, a military force of some hundreds – comprising detachments of the gardes françaises, the city watch (the Guêt) and regular troops armed with some cannon and with drums beating – made its way to the house. Showered with stones and tiles, they first shot into the air and when that had no effect, directly into the crowd. Even the normally cool Marquis de Ferrières, who happened to witness the scene, described this as a massacre, though tallies of the exact number of dead ranged from twenty-five to nine hundred. Certainly there were at least three hundred civilians injured, and it seems probable that there were as many fatalities.

In an attempt to show firmness, two men caught looting – a porter and a blanket worker – were convicted and hanged on the thirtieth. Three weeks later another group of seven were tried and one of them, the public letter writer Mary, was executed after being paraded through the streets with a sign declaring him “seditious.” Five of his fellows, including a fifteen-year-old apprentice locksmith, were forced to witness Mary’s death before they in their turn were branded “GAL” on each shoulder and sent to the galleys signified by that mark. Marie-Jeanne Trumeau was reprieved by personal intervention of Réveillon himself.

In all respects but one the Réveillon riots were an unmistakable sign of things to come. The exception was that the militia of the gardes françaises, many of them from the same classes as the rioters, had obeyed orders and had not detached themselves (as they would three months later) from the regular troops. But there are distinct signs that they too felt themselves abused by authority, especially when the sergeant who had given the order to let the Duchesse d’Orléans pass was demoted. They collected donations from among the men to make up his lost pay and at the same time repudiated the officer who had ordered them to fire on the crowd.

More blood was shed in the Réveillon riot than at any other journée of the Revolution until the great insurrection of 1792 that would bring down the monarchy. So it is not surprising that it came as a violent shock to the governance of the city. The received wisdom that Paris could be policed by its normal complement of six thousand or so assorted forces was no longer plausible. The army was needed, even though that prospect filled many of the elite with as much apprehension as reassurance. The riot also divided commentators further into citizen-nobles who were appalled by the bloodshed and others like a captain from the Strasbourg garrison of the Royal Cavalry whose dinner in the Marais had been interrupted by the noise and who went to watch the spectacle for himself. What he saw was not a tragedy but “fifteen or sixteen hundred of the excrement of the Nation, degraded by shameful vices… vomiting up brandy, presenting the most disgusting and revolting sight.”

The officers observing the melee had been forced to beat a hasty retreat when it was noticed that two of them were wearing the military decoration of Saint-Louis on their uniforms, so attracting the wrath of the crowd. But what really offended the captain was their “insolence” in appropriating the respectable slogan of the Third Estate – “Vive Necker and the Third Estate” – for their battle cry. And the true significance of the Réveillon riot was that it suggested just how vulnerable the self-appointed leadership of the people would be if it was established on the shoulders of popular force. Since the artisans of the faubourgs Saint-Antoine and Saint-Marcel had been educated to believe that their plight was attributable to “aristocrats” and sundry other unpatriotic persons, the continuation of that plight presupposed that traitors were still in power. Starvation, in other words, was a plot. Its logic meant that unmasking the conspiracy and doing away with those responsible would be putting bread in the mouths of the hungry.

For their part, the shaken representatives of the Third of Paris suspected that the rioters had themselves been bribed by royalist spies to foment disorder and so embarrass their new authority. Réveillon, after all, was himself an elector – one of their own kind, a modern man, liberal in his politics, a model capitalist in his trade. But it was exactly this kind of self-satisfaction on which revolutionary violence would make war. Though the ringleaders of the crowd in April 1789 were hapless, inarticulate figures, there were others within the franchise who were ready to fashion this rhetoric of social incrimination. Pamphlets were already circulating on the streets of Paris that held politics to the accounting of the breadline. What No One Has Yet Said was one of the titles, the work not of a member of the “Fourth Estate” but a barrister of the Parlement, de La Haie. What he said was that bread should be the first object of the Estates-General and that the very first duty of all true citizens was to “tear from the jaws of death your co-citizens who groan at the very doors of your assemblies.” The same writer described coming out of an electoral meeting the week before and encountering several citizens whose poverty had denied them entry:

They had only one thing to say:

“Are they concerned with us, Monsieur? Are they thinking of lowering the price of bread? We haven’t eaten anything for two days.”

There were two kinds of revolutionary temper in Paris in 1789. The first was that of modern man: Sylvain Bailly, astronomer, academician, resident of suburban Chaillot, for whom the electoral assembly was equivalent to a kind of political rebirth.

When I found myself in the middle of the district assembly, I thought I could breathe fresh air. It was truly a phenomenon to be something in the political order and by virtue alone of one’s capacity as a citizen… that assembly, an infinitely small fraction of the Nation, felt nonetheless part of the power and rights of the whole and it made no pretence that these rights and that power lent it a kind of authority.

It was precisely that authority that the Four Cries of a Patriot of the Nation challenged. To make that challenge real, the writer asserted, citizens must be armed, and immediately. To make it real, aristocrats must be banished so the Nation would be delivered from their “infernal machinations.” What point was there “preaching peace and liberty to men dying of hunger? What use would a wise constitution be to a people of skeletons?”

That was the second voice of revolution. Through the first year of revolution, the two voices would harmonize as the chorus of the Third Estate, Citizens-and-Brothers. But before long, aristocrats would vanish or perish and hunger remain. At that point a more serious shouting match would begin.

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