1. The Peasantry

The “political economy” that Carlyle branded as the “dismal science” wondered whether the poor are poor because they are ignorant, or ignorant because they are poor. The question can be answered by contrasting the proud independence of the Frenchpaysantoday with the degrading indigence of the French peasant in the first half of the eighteenth century.

His condition was improving in 1723 as compared with the extremity to which he had been reduced by the wars and exactions of Louis XIV. Subject to feudal dues and church tithes, he owned a rising proportion of the soil of France, varying from twenty per cent in Normandy and Brittany to fifty per cent in Languedoc and Limousin.40 But the average holding of these small proprietors was so small—three to five acres—that they had to support their families by serving as hired hands on other farms. Most of the land was owned by the nobles, the clergy, or the king, and was tilled by tenants, by métayers (sharecroppers), or by day laborers under the discipline of a steward. Tenants paid the owner in money, produce, and service; métayers, in return for land, implements, and seed, paid the landlord half the crop.

Despite the growth of peasant proprietorship, there remained many survivals of feudalism. Only a small minority of proprietors—often as low as two per cent—held land in franc-alleu, i.e., free from feudal dues. All peasants except these “allodial” freeholders were required to give the local seigneur several days of labor yearly, enough to plow and plant his acres, reap his harvest, and stow his barns. They paid him a fee for fishing in the lakes or streams, and for pasturing their cattle in the fields, of his domain. (In Franche-Comté, Auvergne, and Brittany, until the Revolution, they paid him for permission to marry.41) They were obliged to use his mill, his bakehouse, his wine or oil presses, and no other, and to pay for each use. They paid the lord for every fireplace they had, every well they dug, every bridge they crossed on his terrain. (Some such taxes exist amongst us today in altered forms, as paid to the state.) Laws prohibited the lord and his companions from injuring the peasant’s planting or animals while hunting, but these edicts were widely ignored, and the peasant was forbidden to shoot the seignorial pigeons nibbling on his crops.42 Altogether, on a conservative estimate, fourteen per cent of the peasant’s produce or income went to feudal dues; other estimates raise the proportion.43

In a few localities literal serfdom remained. A distinguished economic historian estimated that “the total number of serfs” in eighteenth-century France “did not exceed one million.”44 Their number declined, but there were still some 300,000 in 1789.45 Such peasants were adscripti glebae— bound to the soil; they could not legally abandon, sell, or transfer their land, or change their dwelling place, without the lord’s consent; and if they died without children living with them and ready to carry on the farm, the farm and its equipment reverted to the seigneur.

After paying his feudal dues and ecclesiastical tithes, the peasant had still to find money, or sell some of his produce or property, in order to meet the taxes laid upon him by the state. He alone paid the taille, or tax on posessessions. In addition he paid a gabelle, or tax on salt, and a vingtième—five percent of income—laid upon every household head. Altogether he paid a third of his income to the landlord, the Church, and the state.46 Tax collectors were authorized to enter, or force their way into, his cottage, search for hidden savings, and take away furniture to make up the sum allotted to the household as its share of the tax. And just as the peasant owed the lord labor as well as dues, so, after 1733, he was compelled to give to the state, annually, twelve to fifteen days of unpaid labor (corvée) for building or repairing bridges or roads. Imprisonment punished resistance or delay.

Since taxes rose with income and improvements, there was, among the peasantry, little incentive to invention or enterprise. Agricultural methods remained primitive in France as compared with those of contemporary England. The fallow system left each tract idle every third year, while England was introducing crop rotation. Intensive cultivation was almost unknown. Iron plows were rare, there were few animals on the farm, and little manure. The average holding was too small to allow the profitable use of machines.

The poverty of the French peasant shocked English travelers in this age. At every stop, wrote Lady Mary Montagu (1718), “while the post-horses are changed, the whole town comes out to beg, with such miserable starved faces, and thin tattered clothes, they need no other eloquence to persuade the wretchedness of their condition.”47 French observers gave no rosier picture until much later in the century. “In 1725,” said Saint-Simon, “the people of Normandy live on the grass of the fields. The first king in Europe is great simply by being a king of beggars, … and by turning his kingdom into a vast hospital of dying people, from whom all is taken without a murmur.”48 And in 1740 Marquis René Louis d’Argenson calculated that “more Frenchmen had died of want in the last two years than had been killed in all the wars of Louis XIV.”49 “The clothing of the poor peasants,” said Besnard, “and they were almost all poor, was … pitiful, for they had only one outfit for winter and summer.… Their single pair of shoes (very thin, and cleated with nails), which they procured at the time of their marriage, had to serve them the rest of their lives, or at least as long as the shoes lasted.”50 Voltaire estimated that two million French peasants wore wooden shoes in winter and went barefoot in summer, for high taxes on skins made shoes a luxury.51 The peasant’s dwelling was built of mud and roofed with thatch; usually it had but one room, low and ceilingless; in some parts of northern France, however, cottages were made stronger to bear the cold and winds of winter. The peasant’s food consisted of soup, eggs, dairy products, and bread of rye or oats; meat and wheat bread were occasional dissipations.52 In France, as elsewhere, those who fed the nation had the least to eat.

From this hard life the peasant found consolation in drunkenness and religion. Taverns were numerous, and home brews helped. Character was coarse, brutality was standard, violence flared between individuals, families, and villages. But within the family there was a strong though silent affection. Children were numerous, but death cut most of them down before maturity; there was hardly any increase in the population of France between 1715 and 1740. War, disease, and famine operated with Malthusian regularity.

2. The Proletariat

Still lower than the peasant in social status were domestic servants, who were so poor that few of them could afford to marry. A notch above the peasantry was the proletariat of the towns: the artisans in shops or factories, the carriers of goods and purveyors of services, the craftsmen who built or repaired. Most industry was still domestic, performed in rural cottages as well as in urban homes; merchants supplied the material, collected the products, and pocketed nearly all the profit. In the towns industry was largely in the guild stage, with masters, apprentices, and journeymen working under old rules by which the guild and the government fixed the hours and conditions of labor, the types, quality, and price of the product, and the limited permissible area of sale. These regulations made improvements difficult, excluded the stimulus of external competition, and shared with internal traffic tolls in retarding industrial development. The guilds had become an aristocracy of labor; fees for acceptance as masters ran as high as two thousand livres, and mastership tended to be hereditary.53 Work in the shops began early, ended late; around Versailles the journeymen labored from as early as four in the morning till as late as eight at night;54 but toil was less intense than in factories today, and the ecclesiastical festivals provided numerous holidays.

Most industry was “petty,” employing only three or four “hands” outside the family. Even tanneries, glassworks, and dyeing establishments were small concerns. In Bordeaux the employees were only four times as numerous as the employers. The government, however, maintained some large plants—soap factories, the Gobelin tapestry works, and the porcelain industry at Sèvres. Mining was becoming a large operation as coal replaced wood for fuel. Protests were made about coal smoke poisoning the air, but industry then as now had its way, and in Paris, as in London, people breathed at the risk of their health. There were steelworks in Dauphiné, paper mills in Angoumois. Textile factories reached considerable size in the north; so Van Robais employed fifteen hundred persons in one mill at Abbeville, and Van der Cruissen engaged three thousand men at Lille.55 Such multiplication encouraged division and specialization of labor, and stimulated the invention of machinery for routine processes. The Encyclopédie of Diderot (1751 f.) contained descriptions and drawings of a surprising variety and complexity of mechanisms already introduced in French industry, seldom to proletarian applause. When the Jacquard loom was installed at Lyons the silk weavers smashed it to pieces in fear that it would throw them out of work.56

To encourage new industries the government, as in Elizabethan England, granted several monopolies, e.g., to the Van Robais family for the production of fine Dutch cloths; and it helped other projects with subsidies and interest-free loans. Over all industry the government exercised a rigorous regulation, inherited from Colbert. This system aroused a rising protest from manufacturers and merchants, who argued that the economy would expand and prosper if liberated from governmental interference. It was in voicing this claim that Vincent de Gournay, toward 1755, uttered the historic phrase “Laissez faire” (Let it alone), which in the next generation, with Quesnay and Turgot, would express the physiocrat plea for free enterprise and free trade.

The artisans too resented the regulations, which severely hampered their organization for better conditions and pay; but their chief grievance was that rural and factory labor was capturing the market from the guilds. By 1756 the manufacturers had reduced the artisans in the larger cities—and even the guild masters—to the condition of wage earners dependent upon the entrepreneurs.57 Within the guilds the masters underpaid their journeymen, who periodically went on strike. Poverty in the towns was almost as great as in the villages. Crop failures brought the urban proletariat to famine and riot every few years; so at Toulouse in 1747, at Paris in 1751, at Toulouse in 1752.58 Already, about 1729, Jean Meslier, the atheist priest, proposed to replace the existing system with a libertarian communism.59

By the middle of the century Paris, Rouen, Lille, Lyons, Bordeaux, Marseilles were teeming with prolétaires. Lyons for a time surpassed Paris as a manufacturing center. Thomas Gray, the English poet, described it in 1739 as the “second city of the kingdom in bigness and rank, its streets excessively narrow and nasty, the houses immensely high and large (25 rooms on a floor and 5 stories high), and swarming with inhabitants.”60 Paris was a turbulent hive of 800,000 souls, of whom 100,000 were servants and 20,000 were beggars; dismal slums and magnificent palaces; dark alleys and dirty streets behind fashionable promenades; art fronting destitution. Coaches, public cabs, and sedan chairs were engaged in vituperative collisions and traffic jams. Some thoroughfares had been paved since 1690; in 1742 Trésaquet paved roads with rolled stones (chaussée empierrée et roulée); but most of the streets were plain dirt, or laid with cobblestones fit for revolutionary barricades. Street lamps began to replace lanterns in 1745, but were lit only when the moon was not full. Street signs appeared in 1728, but there were no house numbers before the Revolution. Only the well-to-do had faucet water in their homes; the rest were supplied by twenty thousand water carriers, each bearing two buckets, sometimes up seven flights of stairs. Water closets in the home, and bathrooms with running hot and cold water, were privileges of the very rich. Thousands of shops, marked with their picturesque emblems, maintained their own chaos of discordant and suspected weights and measures till the Revolution established the metric system. There were honest shopkeepers in maisons de confiance, but the majority had a reputation for short measures, rigged prices, and shoddy goods.61 Some shops were assuming a specious splendor for the carriage trade. Poor people bought chiefly from peddlers, who laboriously toted their wares in pails or baskets on their backs, and contributed to the music of the streets with their traditional, unintelligible, welcome cries, from “Baked potatoes!” to “Death on rats!” Rats contested with humanity the housing facilities of the city, and men, women, and children rivaled the rats in the race for food. Said Montesquieu’s Persian visitor:

The houses are so high that one would suppose they were inhabited only by astrologers. You may imagine that a town built in the air, with six or seven houses the one on the top of the other, is densely populated, and that when all the inhabitants come down into the street there is a pretty crush. I have been here a month, and I have not yet seen a single person walking at a foot-pace. There is no one in the world like a Frenchman to get over the ground. He runs and flies.62

Add the beggars, the vagabonds, the pickpockets, the street singers, the organ players, the medicine mountebanks. All in all, a populace with a hundred human faults, never to be trusted, always alert for gain, heartily and profusely profane; but, given a little food and wine, the kindest, jolliest, brightest populace in the world.

3. The Bourgeoisie

Between the lowly and the great, hated by the one and scorned by the other, the middle class—doctors, professors, administrators, manufacturers, merchants, financiers—subtly, patiently made its way to wealth and power. The manufacturers took economic risks, and demanded commensurate rewards. They complained that they were harassed in a hundred ways by governmental regulations, and by guild control of markets and skills. The merchants who distributed the product raged against a thousand tolls impeding the movement of goods; at almost every river, canal, and crossroads the noble or ecclesiastical lord of the domain had an agent exacting a fee for permission to proceed. The seigneur explained that these tolls were a reasonable reimbursement for his expense in keeping roads, bridges, and ferries in service and repair. A royal edict of 1724 suppressed twelve hundred such tolls, but hundreds remained, and played their part in earning bourgeois support of the Revolution.

French commerce, hampered inland, was spreading overseas. Marseilles, a free port, dominated European trade with Turkey and the East. The Compagnie des Indes, reconstituted in 1723, extended its markets and political influence in the Caribbean, the Mississippi Valley, and parts of India. Bordeaux, chief outlet for the Atlantic trade, raised its maritime commerce from 40 million livres in 1724 to 250 million in 1788. Over three hundred vessels sailed to America from Bordeaux and Nantes every year, many of them carrying slaves to work the sugar plantations in the Antilles and Louisiana.63 Sugar from French America was now outselling English sugar from Jamaica and Barbados in European markets;64 this may have been a motive for the Seven Years’ War. The total foreign trade of France rose from 215 million livres in 1715 to 600 million in 1750.65 Voltaire estimated that the number of trading vessels in French service had increased from three hundred in 1715 to eighteen hundred in 1738.66

The rising profits from maritime commerce were the chief stimulus to the conquest of colonies. The zeal of French merchants and missionaries had won for France most of Canada and the Mississippi basin, and some Caribbean isles. England challenged these French possessions as enclosing and endangering its colonies in America; war would decide that issue. A like rivalry divided the French and the English in India. At Pondicherry, on the east coast south of Madras, the French had established themselves in 1683, and in 1688 they received from the Mogul Emperor full control of Chandernagor, north of Calcutta. Under the energetic lead of Joseph Dupleix these two ports captured so much trade and wealth that the English East India Company, which had set up strongholds at Madras (1639), Bombay (1668), and Calcutta (1686), felt itself compelled to fight the French for the disintegrating Mogul realm.

When England and France found themselves on opposite sides in the War of the Austrian Succession (1744), Mahé de La Bourdonnais, who had made a record of enterprising administration in the French islands of Mauritius and Bourbon in the Indian Ocean, proposed to the Versailles government a plan “to ruin the commerce and colonies of the English in India.”67 With a French squadron, and the jealous consent of Dupleix, he attacked Madras and soon compelled its surrender (1746). On his own responsibility he signed an agreement with the English authorities to restore Madras to them for an indemnity of £420,000. Dupleix refused to sanction this arrangement; La Bourdonnais persisted; he sailed on a Dutch ship to Europe, was captured by an English ship, was released on parole, entered Paris, and was sent to the Bastille on a charge of insubordination and treason. He demanded trial; after two years of imprisonment he was tried, and acquitted (1751); he died in 1753. Meanwhile a powerful British fleet besieged Pondicherry (August, 1748); Dupleix defended it with such spirit and skill that the siege was abandoned (October). Seven days later the news reached India that the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle had returned Madras to England. The French government, knowing that the inferiority of its navy doomed it to defeat in India, refused to support Dupleix’s schemes of conquest; it sent him only minor forces and funds, and finally recalled him to France (1754). He lived long enough to see the utter rout of the French by the English in the India phase of the Seven Years’ War.

At the top of the Third Estate were the financiers. They could be old-fashioned small-scale moneylenders, or full-scale bankers handling deposits, I loans, and investments, or “tax farmers” serving as revenue agents for the State. The restrictions laid by the Catholic Church upon the charging of interest had now very little effect; John Law found half of France eager to trade in stocks and bonds. Paris opened its Bourse in 1724.

Some financiers were richer than most nobles. Paris-Montmartel had 100 million livres, Lenormant de Tournehem 20 million, Samuel Bernard 33 million.68 Bernard married his daughters into the aristocracy by giving each of them a dowry of 800,000 livres.69He was a gentleman and a patriot; in 1715 he himself fixed the tax on his property at nine million livres, so revealing a wealth that he might have partly concealed;70 and when he died (1739) the examination of his accounts disclosed the great extent of his Secret charities.71 The four brothers Paris developed their banking firm into a political power. Voltaire learned from them much of his financial cunning, and shocked Europe by being both a philosopher and a millionaire.

The best-hated financiers in eighteenth-century France were the “farmers general.” The ferme générale had been organized in 1697 to collect indirect taxes—chiefly on subsidies, registrations, drafts, salt, and tobacco. In order to spend these revenues before they were collected, the government farmed them out to some individual who paid it a stipulated sum for the right to gather them over a period of six years. The increase in taxes, wealth, and inflation is reflected in the rising price paid for this lucrative lease: 80 million livres in 1726, 92 million in 1744, 152 million in 1774; no government has ever been at a loss for ways to spend its people’s money. The lessee delegated the collection of the taxes to forty or more “farmers general” (fermiers généraux), each of whom paid a million or more livres as advance security, and licked his fingers as the revenues passed through them; so the profits of the forty farmers general for 1726–30 exceeded 156 million livres.72 Many of such collectors bought estates and titles, built costly palaces, and lived in a pompous luxury that aroused the ire of aristocracy and clergy. Some of them collected art and artists, poets and mistresses, and opened their homes as havens or salons to the intelligentsia. Helvétius, most amiable of the philosophes, was one of the most generous of the fermiers généraux. Rousseau was long the guest of Mme. d’Épinay, a farmer general’s wife; Rameau and Vanloo enjoyed the hospitality of Alexandre de La Popelinière, chief Maecenas among the financiers. The upper bourgeoisie, anxious for social recognition, revenged themselves for ecclesiastical censures and titled contempt by supporting the philosophers against the Church, and later against the nobility. Perhaps it was the financiers who financed the Revolution.

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