Modern history


In the political crisis of the early 1750s, the opponents of the crown invoked the misery and distress of the common people as justification for their criticisms. Yet in fact, although short-term problems caused by harvest failure still occurred, the economy generally was doing rather well – far better, in fact, than many contemporaries suspected.

There was a widespread assumption that the peasantry on whom so much of the country’s wealth was based lived within an economy of self-sufficiency which left little room for change or improvement. Just as the conventional wisdom had it that the king should ‘live off his own’, so the ideal of rural living was the household which was at once a unit of production and consumption, and which possessed the substantial wherewithal to look after most of its own needs. Most peasant family heads spent most of their time producing enough food for themselves and their families to live on. The staff of life was bread, and home-produced tasted sweetest. Political arithmeticians regarded the daily ingestion of between 4 and 5 livres of it by each adult male as an irrefrangible universal need. In the peasantry’s lexicon, gagner son pain (‘to earn one’s bread’) was synonymous with gagner sa vie (‘to earn one’s livelihood, living, or life’) and people had as many names for bread as the Eskimos for snow and the Bedouin for sand, each richly encrusted with connotations of nutritional quality, geographical provenance, economic status and social aspiration. Thus the rich might afford white, wheat-based loaves; the hard-up a black, unleavened loaf of rye and barley or a maize-based porridge; and the very poorest – like the disinherited paupers of the Vivarais – a practically indigestible chestnut bread which comprised, one village proudly boasted, ‘our aid, our principal foodstuff, the wherewithal on which we nourish our families, our servants, our pets, our livestock, our poultry and our pigs’.21

The wish to maintain and perpetuate the domestic unit was accompanied by an equally thoroughgoing commitment to local autarchy. Most peasants conducted the majority of their lives within a 5–10 mile radius of their birthplace. Where they could not satisfy their family’s needs from their own production, they looked to their neighbours, their village and their locality – their pays – to supply them. The pays contained the local weekly market for the exchange of goods, as well as encompassing most other needs – the services of a notary or of a surgeon, for example, or a local royal court. Peasants’ homes were built and furnished very largely with local ingredients, their bread-based diet was, wherever possible, home-grown and their clothes, tools and furniture were similarly either made at home or passed down across the generations. Three-quarters of young men and four-fifths of young women even found their marriage partner within the pays. L’esprit de clocher – ‘loyalty to one’s local steeple’ – was an instinctive reflex among France’s peasants, and to find the hated foreigner one did not have to cross the Channel or the Pyrenees: l’étranger was not infrequently the denizen of a neighbouring village or an adjacent pays, who was instantly identifiable by an alien dress or accent. Roistering youths patriotically defended the honour of their village in violent pranks and pitched battles against their neighbours.

The scale of household priority was etched on the face of the landscape: polyculture targeted at supplying local needs was the rule, and pride of place in the fields was taken by cereal cultivation. The ager, in the terminology inherited from the Romans – the cultivated land – predominated over the other main components of the rural landscape: the peasant domus or home, around which the garden (hortus) provided a further site for cultivation; and the saltus, the mixture of meadows, heathland, woods and wasteland stretching indeterminately around cultivable and inhabitable zones. The preponderance of the cereal-producing ager was most apparent in the north and north-east. In these so-called pays de grande culture, in which open-field farming was the rule, the agerformed between two-thirds and four-fifths of the acreage of communities. Vast cornfields growing rye (for local consumption), oats (for local livestock) and wheat (for the towns and the rich) stretched away as far as the eye could see. Fields were unenclosed and often in medieval strip formation, and followed a rotation system which left at least one-third of the cultivable land fallow each year. The lack of saltus left little room for grazing, and the shortage of livestock produced a chronic insufficiency of dung, the main fertilizer, thus keeping crop yields low. The function of the saltus in providing ancillary means of subsistence was met in this region by practices such as glanage and vaine pâture, whereby after harvest the fields were turned over to all members of the community for gleaning and grazing.

There were fewer open fields outside this classic pays de grande culture, the interplay of local geographical and meteorological conditions, legal situations and historical differences producing a more varied, polycultural landscape – and, in consequence, a more varied local diet. In both the south and west, the ager was broken up into smaller plots by fields and hedges. Cereal quasi-monoproduction was replaced by more varied cultivation: pastoral farming in Normandy and elsewhere; vines in the Bordelais, Burgundy and along the Loire valley; olives and fruit-trees in the Mediterranean south; hemp, flax and linen in the coastal areas in the north and west; and salt in southern and western marshland areas. The palette of cereals, normally grown here on a biennial rotation, was wider too: there was a good deal of buckwheat in the west, for example, while maize, imported from the New World in the sixteenth century, had installed itself widely in the sunny south-west. Gardens tended to be larger and more extensive in many of these southern and western areas, allowing crop diversification and a good deal of experimentation in fruits and vegetables – garlic, tomatoes and aubergines in the Midi, for example, alongside more classically northern peas, beans, cabbages, carrots and onions. Zones of saltusbetween areas of cultivation were more extensive here too – they made up to half of farmed land in the Massif Central, for example, as against a paltry 4 per cent in northern Artois. The produce of the saltus provided animal litter, fuel (wood, fallen branches, etc.) and dietary alternatives (berries, mushrooms, etc.).

The autarchic tendency within French peasant agriculture, staked out around polycultural usage of the ager, hortus and saltus, was underpinned by poor agrarian technology and inefficient communications. While in England and the Netherlands there was a vibrant trade in publications on agricultural improvement, there was simply no innovatory work on agriculture published in France from Olivier de Serre’s paean in praise of the self-sufficent farmer, Théâtre d’agriculture et ménage des champs (‘Theatre of Agriculture and of Field-Management’) (1600) down to the middle of the eighteenth century. Technical archaism was widespread: the light plough used in the Midi, for example, differed very little from its Roman forebear. The agrarian innovations with which its neighbours were beginning to experiment made little ground in France. Although, as we shall see, external and colonial trade was starting to boom,22 internal trade was still relatively sluggardly. Distance-times were unimpressive – between 30 and 40 kilometres a day by land, and though water-borne transport had the edge over mule-back terrestrial carriage, traffic was sparse and subject to delays caused by flooding, low water levels and the like. Hardly surprisingly, grain prices in – for example – Toulouse showed a completely different profile from that of Paris, highlighting the localism of markets. Early eighteenth-century France was, rather than a single national economy, a collection of quasi-molecular economies, all of which nervously depended on the state of the harvest.

In the context of poor agrarian technology and communications and over-dependence on cereal crops, localism spelt periodic famine at worst, hunger at best when there were harvest shortfalls caused by bad weather. Seventeenth-and early eighteenth-century France was wracked by spasmodic ‘mortality crises’ which saw the number of deaths in a locality spiral upwards three-, six-, even tenfold, under the impact of hunger and famine. In the pays de grande culture in particular, the price of grain acted as a kind of demographic barometer, high prices caused by bad harvests sending the number of deaths spiralling upwards in so-called ‘steeples’ of mortality. Though the more variegated cultivation and diet of the south and west acted as a demographic cushion, no locality was immune from this deadly mechanism. Peasants starved in their droves in the final years of the ‘Grand Siècle’ of Louis XIV, as we have seen.23 For every nationwide catastrophe, moreover, there were numerous local crises, and the poor state of communications often meant that peasants in areas of shortage could sicken and starve without redress while adjacent areas enjoyed a period of plenty.

Famine was not death’s only calling-card. Peasant households were visited with unfailing regularity by infant mortality, which carried off on average one child in every three or four before his or her first birthday, and granted new-born babies only a one-in-two chance of attaining puberty. This kind of inbuilt, quotidian mortality was accompanied by famine’s companion scourges, war and disease. Life-threatening epidemics could operate independently of the state of the harvest – the Marseille plague of 1720 had emerged from the bluest of economic skies – but in practice often reinforced the impact of hunger and malnutrition. Starving peasants ate anything to hand – unripe fruits and berries, weeds and nettles, and even, according to one seventeenth-century Alsatian chronicler, ‘rats, mice, the corpses of hanged criminals and rotting carcasses’.24 The breakdown in normal economic relationships in time of bubonic plague, moreover, had a similarly deadly effect: contemporary physicians argued that the disease was not contagious and that deaths ascribed to plague were caused by starvation. The deadly cocktail caused by epidemics and hunger in combination was even more fatal when mixed with the impact of war, as the terrible crises of 1692–4 and 1709–10 attested.25

Given the range of catastrophes, man-made and natural, which could rain down on the peasantry, it is perhaps surprising that France’s population in the middle- and long-term was relatively stable: between the fifteenth and the early eighteenth century, it oscillated between 17–18 and 20–21 million. Though poorly adapted to sustained growth, the molecular structure of peasant France was highly resilient and durable under the harshest of attacks. High mortality – roughly forty deaths per annum per thousand head of population – was matched by fertility at roughly the same high level, which suggests, incidentally, a systematic ignorance of contraception. Mortality crises were characterized by a sharp drop (often up to 50 per cent) in the marriage rate and the number of conceptions, but when the number of deaths fell there was a recuperatory rush down the aisle and a comforting spurt of conceptions. This pattern was linked to the prevalent system of household formation. It was normal to establish a separate household on marriage, for which the partners saved in advance – a factor which had the effect of deferring the age of marriage far beyond the biological minimum, and producing a large pool of available celibates. Limits on the availability of land, moreover, meant that marriage was invariably deferred until death produced either an inheritance or a new niche in the land market from which frustrated celibates could profit. Young women married in the early to mid-twenties, men when they were getting close to their thirtieth birthday.

The strength of the self-equilibrating, homeostatic mechanisms operating on population size in the middle and long term underlined the extent to which the economy was geared essentially around the peasantry’s conservation and survival. In addition, peasants had to operate within a social and juridical system – seigneurialism, or féodalité (‘feudalism’) in contemporary parlance – which also inhibited innovation. With the exception of a few enclaves of completely freehold (‘allodial’) land, notably in the south, all property was subject to the dues and obligations levied within some 50,000 seigneurial estates. Around half of these were owned by noblemen, and the rest were under the control of the bourgeoisie, the church or collective owners such as village communities, and they ranged in size from fractions of a village to huge expanses of territory. Conventionally, seigneuries were divided between, first, the domain land which included the manor and which was owned and farmed direct by the seigneur, usually by his steward supervising its leasing out under share-cropping (métayage) or leasehold (fermage) arrangements; and, second, the tenures (or censives) which were divided among the peasantry and others. Overall, allowance made for enormous regional variations, peasants owned maybe 30 to 40 per cent of the cultivable land, as opposed to the nobility’s share of some 25 per cent, followed by the bourgeoisie with 20 per cent and the church with between 6 and 10 per cent. Peasants holding tenures paid their seigneurs a whole array of dues, whose form differed from area to area. Most paid a cens, or cash quitrent, though some had commuted this into a due in kind, and many into the unpopular champart (or seigneurial tithe), which hovered at around 10 per cent of produce. They could sell and buy, exchange and donate, receive and bequeath largely without hindrance – but only at a price: they also paid transfer taxes on the sale, inheritance or exchange of land. The lods et ventes, for example, were a particularly onerous purchase tax on censives.

Classic medieval-style feudalism was not widespread: only in the main within recently acquired areas like the Franche-Comté were there serfs who were tied to the land, had few rights upon it and performed labour-dues for their lords. Yet féodalité remained a key notion of reference in the peasant’s mind-set. In it were embodied not only the range of dues and services owed, but also the rights of justice and policing which lords enjoyed throughout their seigneurie, and which were often emblematized by acts of personal homage and a wide array of other honorific rights and customary entitlements: seigneurs had their own pew in church, their coats of arms on the church weathervane, first claims on grazing rights, the right to a manorial dove-cote, symbolic labour-dues (corvées) of various kinds, and so on. Though some of these ancillary rights were honorific, others were more financially productive than strictly seigneurial dues, which formed only a minority of the income of most lords. Many seigneurs, for example, derived large sums from the banalités within their estate – the right to insist that all peasants (or vassals, to use the archaic vocabulary still in use) used their winepress, mill or bread-oven. Seigneurial tolls were another moneyspinner: between the source and the mouth of the river Loire, one of the most utilized channels of communication, there were no fewer than seventy-seven tolls. Even when not financially productive, seigneurial rights could be mightily resented – because seigneurs enjoyed a monopoly of hunting rights on their lands, for example, peasants had to bite their lips in frustration as their lord’s doves gorged themselves on springtime seeds.

The weight of the seigneurial system on peasant farm output varied from place to place. In some areas, village communities were strong enough to stand up to their seigneurs, and whittle away their powers. This was particularly the case in the Midi, where village communities had often purchased the seigneurial function, and where the seigneurial burden was usually less then 10 per cent of the peasant product. Elsewhere, however, notably in Burgundy and Brittany, figures ranging up to 25 per cent were not uncommon. The seigneurial burden was all the heavier when taken in conjunction with other peasant outgoings: the church took a tithe on all produce (apart from new crops and those cultivated by gardening) which usually worked out at between 8 and 12 per cent in kind. Then there were local taxes for maintenance of communal property, and so on, and of course state taxation. Overall perhaps one-third or more of the peasant product could be creamed off in these ways in an average year. There were, however, no ‘average’ years for peasants working within an economy so dependent on the vagaries of the climate, in which the grain yield could fluctuate by a factor of two each year, where impositions varied erratically and where one-fifth or so of the harvest had to be retained for sowing the next year. Peasant families perforce adopted an ‘economy of makeshifts’26 within the household, combining work of all family members (for richer farmers, this might be in textile manufacturing or rural industry) with migration, begging and petty crime, and where necessary borrowing up to the hilt.

Considering the demands made on the peasantry, it is perhaps surprising that there were relatively few signs of overt collective resistance. There were, as we shall see,27 grain and market riots in years of high prices and grain scarcity, and a powerful undertow of petty crime (poaching, theft, arson, etc.), plus a good deal of peasant litigation. But this was small beer when compared with the first two-thirds of the seventeenth century, when the three- or fourfold increase in state taxation had triggered a whole panoply of anti-governmental riots and popular revolts throughout France, often supported by seigneurs who resented the state siphoning off a greater part of the peasant surplus. A slowdown in the rate of increase in direct taxes under Louis XIV’s rule attenuated fiscal pressure, and combined with a tougher policy of government repression of rebels to bring docility back to French countrysides – a process in which the post-Tridentine-trained parish clergy, who acted as a moral policing agency, also played a part. Also of import was a tightening-up of already draconian laws against vagrancy, a streamlining of the rural police force, the maréchaussée (backed up when called for by the army), plus concerted efforts from the 1680s down to the 1730s to institute a ‘great confinement of the poor’, forcibly placing deviant and destitute groupings in ‘general hospitals’ (hôpitaux généraux), where they could be both punished and moralized back into the ways of social and political conformity.

If eighteenth-century peasants were rather more docile than their ancestors, this was also due to a degree of erosion of the sense of local community on which the earlier riots and revolts had been predicated. Seigneurs found themselves being marginalized within the rural community. The numbers living on the land shrank: the life of great nobles revolved around Versailles and Paris; middling nobles were more based in provincial towns; and many poorer nobles – hobereaux (‘little hawks’), as they were called – either kept a low profile or else simply collapsed into the peasantry, especially once governments started to crack down on tax-dodgers among putative country gentlemen. Established patterns of provincial patronage frittered away: by 1750, a ducal absentee landlord, for example, preferred a capable bourgeois steward on his estates rather than a flock of resident noble dependants and commensals looking to him for preferment. The functions of seigneurs within their community also dwindled. The role of the lord’s château in offering physical protection to peasants in the times of war and invasion was also being attenuated by the security success of Vauban’s ceinture de fer. The peace-keeping services of the seigneur were in decline too. Peasant communities were often effectively self-policing, while the newly reorganized maréchaussée served as an ancillary peace-keeping force. Seigneurial courts which in the past had coped with the bulk of local litigation were, moreover, increasingly bypassed by royal courts. Though the cost and pettifogging longueurs of royal justice made many peasants continue to rely on seigneurial justice for arbitration of minor and urgent matters, the state often seemed to offer a more genuinely impartial service.

There was less and less love lost between peasants and seigneurs. The services which the latter had provided for the peasant community in the past had diminished in value. Seigneurs were less likely now to recycle seigneurial dues back into the community in the form of charity. And whereas in the past they had drawn most of their consumption from local sources, offering employment and custom to the locals, this too was in decline. The noble Roncherolles family in Pont-Saint-Pierre in Normandy, for example, were typical in abandoning indigenous tastes of the terroir for imported foodstuffs – champagne, oysters, widely assorted fruits and vegetables, coffee and so on. Seigneurs were increasingly resented for draining money and produce out of the village and putting very little back in – a criticism which was also levied against the clergy over the tithe, which in nine cases out of ten left the community to end up in the hands of eminent ecclesiastics in the towns. The lack of interest shown by most seigneurs in agricultural improvement – they allowed their tenants only short leases, and rarely invested in agricultural production themselves, preferring venal office and other investment channels – seemed only to confirm the view that most seigneurs regarded their peasants as a collective milchcow providing sustenance for their own increasingly cosmopolitan tastes.

If the sense of solidarity between peasant and seigneur was breaking down over the early eighteenth century, social and economic change was also bringing a broader sense of differentiation within the peasantry itself, and making the assumption of universal peasant autarchy as ridiculously archaic as the notion of the king ‘living off his own’. The period from the middle of the sixteenth century down to around 1720 had witnessed a major shift in landholding patterns. Small and middling peasants were adversely affected by low grain prices and high state taxes and were forced into indebtedness and thence, via a notoriously slippery slope, expropriation. Nobles and urban bourgeois tended to snap up the choicest morsels close to the towns – ownership of the expansive cereal-growing areas to the south of Paris, for example, was monopolized by these groups, plus the clergy.

Peasant indebtedness caused by tough times offered opportunities not only to the social elite, however, but also to other peasants. The structure of the peasantry thus became increasingly steeply hierarchical. At the apex of the pyramid was a minority of well-off farmers who were edging into the bourgeoisie, and who produced enough to feed themselves and their families even in hard times. In the average village there would be two or three peasants who owned a plough and draught animals (for their own use and for renting out to their social inferiors), a cart to take their surplus produce to market, land-holdings over 10 hectares in extent, herds of livestock and a house and garden with the incipient trappings of gentility. In the pays de grande culture in particular, such peasants, who might be the only fully literate members of their village, often combined farming with the job of acting as seigneurial steward or collector of dues, plus a little dabbling in money-lending. These coqs de village (‘village cockerels’) were heartily resented by those less blessed with land, literacy and good fortune, for they seemed the embodiment of that model of household independence to which all peasants aspired yet which very few achieved. Most villages also had a solid phalanx of peasants who possessed between 4 and 10 hectares of land and who hovered on the threshold between economic dependence and independence: in good years, they prospered and produced enough for themselves to eat, but a bad harvest (and all the more a run of them, or too many children, or chronic sickness) could lead to borrowing, land sale and family impoverishment. Below this grouping were large numbers of peasants with only very little land or with no land at all. These individuals, who comprised over two-thirds of the inhabitants of many villages, relied on salaried work for seigneurs or richer peasants, the village community’s collective rights and the other expedients which constituted the peasants’ economy of makeshifts. From their ranks sprang another perennial component of the rural world, the hordes of beggars and vagrants who roamed the highways seeking employment or sustenance.

The last years of the reign of Louis XIV had been tough on the least secure and the least protected of the peasant community – most dramatically in the mortality crises of 1693–4 and 1709–10. Yet out of the seemingly bottomless cauldron of misery in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century there emerged a number of developments which by around 1750 were already transforming some of the most perdurably gloomy features of rural France. Considering the scale of the demographic damage caused by mortality crises between 1690 and 1710, the process of recuperation was remarkably swift and complete. A population level of some 21.5 million in 1690 had swelled to some 22.6 million in 1710. Large numbers of deaths in these years had opened numerous gaps in the pattern of landholding, which were eagerly filled by young, assiduously procreating couples. Though the economic troubles of the last years of Louis XIV’s reign and then the Regency seem to have halted the upward movement, John Law’s famous System was a blessing in disguise for many peasants, whose indebtedness was reduced to nugatory proportions by the massive depreciation of the early 1720s. The wiping clean of many slates was combined with a denser provision of employment, not only in agriculture but also in industry which, as we shall see in the next section, was making important headway at this time.

This economic upturn coincided, as chance would have it, with the diminution in the effects of the three great demographic scourges of early modern France. War-related population losses were less devastating even under the last years of Louis XIV, partly because most campaigns were conducted outside French borders, but also because the French army – like its European peers – was developing better military supply systems which reduced the need to live off the land. Killer disease was in retreat too. Bubonic plague had been in relative abeyance since the 1660s, and its explosion into Marseille and Provence in 1720 confirmed the ability of government, through quarantines and cordons sanitaires, to hem the disease in and prevent its diffusion across the country. Other diseases would take up the demographic slack left by the disappearance of the plague: smallpox, dysentery and typhoid fever remained particularly damaging. But none of them had the plague’s ability to kill 90 per cent of those affected and to cut the size of a major city by half.

War and epidemic disease were losing their demographic sting, and, in the favourable economic atmosphere of the 1720s and 1730s, allowing population to grow at an unprecedented (and, by contemporaries, unsuspected) rate. Population levels rose from 22.6 millions in 1720 to some 23.8 millions in 1730 – an increase of over 5 per cent in a decade, which added another 1.2 million to France’s population, to which the 1730s in turn contributed another 0.8 million. Famine too was becoming a thing of the past. The tightening of grain markets over the early decades of the century played a part in this, but so too did government policies of famine relief. This was strikingly evident in 1739–42, when appalling weather caused a series of harvest failures which some contemporaries maintained were more severe than those of 1709–10. The central government utilized its Intendants to provide intelligence about harvest shortfalls, and to mobilize charity, locate surplus grain on the world market and coordinate famine relief in the areas worst affected. Some areas – notably Brittany and Anjou – were hard hit nonetheless, but population losses never reached the scale of earlier such mortality crises, and the overall population level was maintained down to 1750, before another spurt of growth occurred. Life expectancy at birth was maybe two years more in 1750 than it had been in 1700 or 1650 – and rising. Though largely unsuspected by a political elite still mainly fixated on the unchangeability of peasant miseries and beset by depopulation fears, the vital signs of rural France were surprisingly strong.

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