On the fifty-five per cent of the French soil owned by the nobility, the clergy, and the king, most of the agricultural work was done by métayers, who received stock, tools, and seed from the owner, and paid him, usually, half the yield. These sharecroppers were so poor generally that Arthur Young pronounced the system “the curse and ruin of the whole country”;16 not so much because the owners were cruel, but because incentives were weak.
The majority of the peasant proprietors who tilled forty-five per cent of the soil were condemned to poverty by the small size of their holdings, which limited the profitable use of machinery. Agricultural technology in France lagged behind that of England. There were schools of agriculture, and model farms, but only a few farmers took advantage of them. Probably sixty per cent of the peasant proprietors owned less than the five hectares (about thirteen acres) needed to support a family, and the men were driven to hire themselves out as laborers on large farms. Wages of farm laborers rose twelve per cent between 1771 and 1789, but in the same period prices rose sixty-five per cent or more.17 While agricultural production rose during the reign of Louis XVI, the hired laborers grew poorer, and formed a rural proletariat which, in periods of slack employment, served as a breeding ground for a multitude of beggars and vagabonds. Chamfort thought it “incontestable that there are in France seven million men who beg alms, and twelve million who are unable to give alms.”18
Probably the poverty of the peasants was exaggerated by travelers because they noticed chiefly the visible conditions, and did not see the currency and goods concealed to avoid the eye of the tax assessor. Contemporary estimates conflict. Arthur Young found areas of poverty, brutality, and filth, as in Brittany, and areas of prosperity and pride, as in Béam.19 By and large, poverty in rural France in 1789 was not as bad as in Ireland, no worse than in Eastern Europe or in the slums of some “affluent” cities of our time, but worse than in England or in the ever bountiful valley of the Po. The latest studies indicate that “there was, at the end of the Old Regime, an agrarian crisis.”20 When drought and famine came, as in 1788-89, the sufferings of the peasantry, particularly in the south of France, were such that only the charities distributed by the government and the clergy kept half the population from starving.
The peasant had to pay for the state, the Church, and the aristocracy. The taille, or land tax, fell almost entirely upon him. He supplied almost all the manpower of the army’s infantry. He bore the brunt of the government’s monopoly on salt. His labor maintained roads, bridges, and canals. He might have paid the tithe more cheerfully, for he was a pious “God-fearing” man, and the tithe was collected with mercy, and seldom took a literal tenth;21 but he saw most of the tithe leaving the parish to support a distant bishop, or an ecclesiastical idler at the court, or even a layman who had bought a share of future tithes. The direct tax burden on the peasant was reduced by Louis XVI; the indirect taxes were in many districts increased.22
Was the poverty of the peasants the cause of the Revolution? It was a dramatic factor in a complex of causes. The very poor were too weak to revolt; they could cry out for relief, but they had neither the means nor the spirit to organize rebellion, until they were aroused by the more prosperous farmers, by the agents of the middle class, and by uprisings of the Paris populace. Then, however, when the powers of the state had been reduced by the intellectual development of the people, when the army was dangerously infected with radical ideas, and local authorities could no longer rely on military support from Versailles—then the peasants became a revolutionary force. They assembled, exchanged complaints and vows, armed themselves, attacked the chĊeaux, burned the homes of unyielding seigneurs, and destroyed the manorial rolls which were quoted as sanctioning the feudal dues. It was that direct action, threatening a nationwide destruction of seignorial property, that frightened the nobles into surrendering their feudal privileges (August 4, 1789), and so bringing a legal end to the Old Regime.