Chapter 16: The Peasant Rising

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

Peasants begin to rise — Causes of risings — Châteaux destroyed — Rising in Alsace — Franche — Comté — Castres — Auvergne Characteristics of rising — Middle classes and their fears Picardy revolts — Terror throughout France — National Assembly meets

Ever since the winter of 1788, and especially since March 1789, the people, as we have said, no longer paid rent to the lords. That in this they were encouraged by the revolutionaries of the middle classes is undoubtedly true; there were many persons among the middle classes of 1789 who understood that without a popular rising they would never have the upper hand over the absolute power of the King. It is clear, also, that the discussions in the Assembly of the Notables, wherein the abolition of the feudal rights was already spoken about, encouraged the rising, and that the drawing up in the parishes of the cabiers, which were to serve as guides for the assemblies of electors, tended in the same direction. Revolutions are never the result of despair, as is often believed by young revolutionists, who think that good can come out of an excess of evil. On the contrary, the people in 1789 had caught a glimpse of the light of approaching freedom, and for that reason they rose with good heart. But to hope was not enough, to act was also necessary; the first rebels who prepare a revolution must be ready to give their lives, and this the people did.

Whilst rioting was being punished by pillory, torture and hanging, the peasants were already in revolt. From November, 1788, the Governors of the provinces were writing to the ministers that if they wished to put down all the riotings it was no longer possible to do so. Taken separately, none was of great Importance; together, they were undermining the very foundations of State.

In January 1789, writs of plaints and grievances (the cabiers de doléances) were drawn up, the electors were elected, and from that time the peasants began to' refuse to furnish statute labour to the lords and the State. Secret associations. were formed among them, and here and there a lord was executed by the “Jacques Bonhommes.” In some paces the tax-collectors were received with cudgels; in others, the lands belonging to the nobles were seized and tilled.

From month to month these risings multiplied. By March the whole of the east of France was in revolt. The movement, to be sure, was neither continuous nor general. An agrarian rising is never that. It is even very probable, as is always the case in the peasant insurrections, that there was a slackening in the outbreaks at the time of field work in April, and afterwards at the beginning of the harvest time. But as soon as the first harvests were gathered in, during the second half of July 1789, and in August, the risings broke out with fresh force, especially in the east, north-east and south-east of France.

Documents bearing with exactitude on this rising are want — Those that have been published are very incomplete, and the greater part bear traces of a partisan spirit. If we take the Moniteur, which, we know, only began to appear on November 24, 1789, and of which the ninety-three numbers, from May 8 to November 23, 1789, were compiled later on in the Year IV.,[59] we find in them a tendency to show that the whole movement was the work of the enemies of the Revolution — of heartless persons who took advantage of rustic ignorance. Others go so far as to say that it was the nobles, the lords., or., indeed, even that it was the English, who had incited the peasants to rise. As for the documents published by the Committee for Investigations in January 1790, they tend rather to represent the whole affair as the result of an unfortunate chance — the work of “brigands,” who had devastated country parts, and against whom the middle classes had taken up arms, and whom they had exterminated.

We know to-day how false this representation is, and it is certain that if a historian took the. trouble to study carefully the documents in the archives, a work of the highest value would result from it, a work the more necessary as the risings of the peasants continued until the Convention abolished feudal rights, in August 1793, and until the village communes were granted the right of resuming the communal land which had been taken from them during the two preceding centuries. For the time being, this work among the archives not being done, we must confine ourselves to what can be gleaned from some local histories from certain memoirs, and from a few authors, always explaining the rising of 1789 by the light which the better-known movements of the following year sheds on this first outbreak.

That the dearth of food counted for much in these risings is certain. But their chief motive was the desire to get possession of the land and the desire to get rid of the feudal dues and the tithes.

There is, besides, one characteristic trait in these risings. They appear only sporadically in the centre of France and in the south and west, except in Brittany. But they are very general in the east, north-east and south-east. The Dauphiné, the Franche-Comté and the Mâconnais are especially affected by them. In the Franche-Comté nearly all the châteaux were burned, says Doniol;[60] three out of every five were plundered in Dauphiné. Next in proportion comes Alsace, the Nivernais, the Beaujolais, Burgundy and the Auvergne. As I have remarked elsewhere, if we trace on a map the localities where these risings took place, this map will in a general way present a striking resemblance to the map “of the three hundred and sixty-three,” published in 1877, after the elections which gave to France the Third Republic. It was chiefly the eastern part of France which espoused the cause of the Revolution, and this same part is still the most advanced in our own day.

Doniol has remarked very truly that the source of the risings was already set forth in the cabiers, which were written for the elections of 1789. Since the peasants had been asked to state their grievances, they were sure that something would be done for them. Their firm belief that the King to whom they addressed their complaints, or the Assembly, or some other power, would come to their aid and redress their wrongs, or at least let them take it upon themselves to redress these wrongs — this was what urged them to revolt as soon as the elections had taken place, and before even the Assembly had met. When the States-General began to sit, the rumours which came from Paris, vague though they were, necessarily made the peasants believe that the moment had come for obtaining the abolition. of feudal rights and for taking back the land.

The slightest encouragement given to them, whether on the part of the revolutionaries or from the side of the Orléanists by no matter what kind of agitators, coupled with the disquieting news which was coming from Paris and from the towns in revolt, sufficed to make the villages rise. There is no longer the slightest doubt that use was made more than Once of the King's name, and of the Assembly's, in the provinces. Many documents, indeed, allude to the circulation among the villages of false decrees of the King and of the Assembly. In all their risings, in France, in Russia and in Germany, the peasants have always tried to decide the hesitating ones — I shall even say to persuade themselves by maintaining that there was some force ready to back them up. This gave them cohesion, and afterwards, in case of defeat and of proceedings being taken against them, there was always a safe excuse. They had thought, and the majority thought so sincerely, that they were obeying the wishes, if not the orders, of the King or of the Assembly. Therefore, as soon as the first harvests were reaped in the summer of 1789, as soon as people in the villages began to eat again after the long months of scarcity, and the rumours arriving from Versailles began to inspire hope, the peasants rose. They turned upon the châteaux in order to destroy the charterrooms, the lists and the title-deeds; and houses were burned down if the masters did not relinquish with a good grace the feudal rights recorded in the charters, the rolls and the rest.

In the neighbourbood of Vesoul and Belfort the war on the country houses began on July 16, the date when the châteaux of Sancy, and then those of Luce, Bithaine and Molans, were plundered. Soon all Loraine had risen. “The peasants, believing that the Revolution was going to bring in equality of wealth and rank, were especially excited against the lords,” says the Courrier français.[61] At Saarlouis, Forbach, Sarreguemines, Phalsbourg and Thionville the excise officers were driven away and their offices pillaged and burnt. Salt was selling at three sous the pound. The neighbouring villages followed the example of the towns.

In Alsace the peasant rising was almost general. It is stated that in eight days, towards the end of July, three abbeys were destroyed, eleven châteaux sacked, others plundered, and that the peasants had carried off and destroyed all the land records. The registers of feudal taxes, statute-labours and dues of au sorts were also taken away and burnt. In certain localities flying columns were formed, several hundred and sometimes several thousand strong, of peasants gathered from the villages round about; they marched against the strongest châteaux, besieged them, seized all the old papers and made bonfires of them. The abbeys were sacked and plundered for the same reason, as well as houses of rich merchants in the towns. Everything was destroyed at the Abbey of Mürbach, which probably offered resistance.[62]

In the Franche-Comté the first riots took place at Lons-le-Saulnier as early as July 19,when the news of the preparations for the coup d'état and Necker's dismissal reached that place, but the taking of the Bastille was still unknown, says Sommier.[63] Rioting soon began, and at the same time the middle classes armed its militia (all wearing the tricolour cockade) to resist “the incursions of the brigands who infest the kingdom.”[64] The rising soon spread to the villages. The peasants divided' among themselves the meadows and woods of the lords. Besides this, they compelled the lords to renounce their right over land which had belonged formerly to the communes. Or else, without any formalities, they retook possession of the forest's which had once been communal. All the title-deeds held by the Abbey of the Bernardins in the neighbouring communes were carried off.[65] At Castres the risings began after August 4. A tax of coupe was levied in kind (so much per setier) in this town. on all wheats imported into the province. It was a feudal tax, granted by the King to private individuals. As soon, therefore, as they heard in Castres the news of the night of August 4, the people rose, demanding the abolition of this tax; and immediately the middle classes, who had formed the National Guard, six hundred strong, began to restore “order.” But in the rural districts the insurrection spread from village to village, and the châteaux of Gaix and Montlédier, the Carthusian Convent of Faix, the Abbey of Vielmur and other places were plundered and the records destroyed.[66]

In the Auvergne the peasants took many precautions to put the law on their side, and when they went to the chateaux to burn the records, they did not hesitate to say to the lords that they were acting by order of the King.[67] But in the eastern provinces they did not refrain from declaring openly that the time had come when the Third Estate would no longer permit the nobles and priesthood to rule over them. The power of these two classes had lasted too long, and the moment had come for them to abdicate. For a large number of the poorer nobles, residing in the country and perhaps loved by those round them, the revolted peasantry showed much personal regard. They did them no harm but the registers and title-deeds of feudal landlordism they never spared. They burned them, after compelling the lord to swear that he would relinquish his rights.

Like the middle classes of the towns) who knew well what they wanted and what they expected from the Revolution, the peasants also knew very well what they wanted; the lands stolen from the communes should be given back to them, and all the dues begotten by feudalism should be wiped out. The idea that the rich people as a whole should be wiped out, too, may have filtered through from that time; but at the moment the jacquerie confined its attention to things, and if there were cases where the persons of some lords were ill-treated, they were isolated cases, and may generally be explained by the fact that they were speculators, men who had made money out of the scarcity. If the land-registers were given up and the oath of renunciation taken, all went off quietly: the peasants burned the registers, planted a May-tree in the village, hung on its boughs the feudal emblems, and then danced round the tree.[68]

Otherwise, if there had been resistance, or if the lord or his steward had called in the police, if there had been any shooting — then the châteaux was completely pillaged, and often it was set on fire. Thus, it is reckoned that thirty châteaux were Plundered or burnt in the Dauphiné, nearly forty in the Franche — Comté, sixty-two in the Mâconnais and the Beaujolais, nine only in the Auvergne, and twelve monasteries and five châteaux in the Viennois. We may note, by the way, that the peasants made no distinctions for political opinions. They attacked, therefore, the houses of “patriots” as well as those of “aristocrats.”

What were the middle classes doing while these riots were going on?

There must have been in the Assembly a certain number of men who understood that the rising of the peasants at that moment represented a revolutionary force; but the mass of the middle classes in the provinces saw only a danger against which it was necessary to arm themselves. What was called at the time la grande peur(“the great fear”) seized in fact, on a good many of the towns in the region of the risings. At Troyes, for example, some countrymen armed with scythes and flails had entered the town, and would probably have av pillaged the houses of the speculators, when the middle classes, “all who were honest among the middle classes,”[69] armed themselves against “the brigands” and drove them away. The same thing happened in many other towns. The middle classes were seized with panic. They were expecting “the brigands.” Some one had seen “six thousand” on the march to plunder everything, and the middle classes took possession of the arms which they found at the Town Hall or at the armourers', and organised their National Guard, for fear lest the poor folk of the town, making common cause with “the brigands,” might attack the rich.

At Péronne, the capital of Picardy, the inhabitants had revolted in the second half of July. They burnt the toll-gates, threw the Custom House officers into the water, carried off the receipts from the Government offices and set free all the prisoners. All this was done before July 28. “After receiving the news from Paris on the night of the 28th,” wrote the Mayor of Péronne, “Hainault, Flanders and all Picardy have taken up arms; the tocsin is ringing in all the towns and villages.” Three hundred thousand middle-class men were formed into permanent patrols — and all this to be ready for two thousand “brigands,” that, they said, were overrunning the villages and, burning the crops. In reality, as some one aptly remarked to Arthur Young, all these “brigands” were nothing more than peasants,[70] who were, indeed, rising, and, armed with pitchforks, cudgels and scythes, were compelling the lords to abdicate their feudal rights, and were stopping passers-by to ask them if they were “for the nation.” The Mayor of Péronne has also aptly said: “We are willing to be in the Terror. Thanks to the sinister rumours, we can keep on foot an army of three millions of middle-class men and peasants all over France.”

Adrien Duport, a well-known member of the Assembly and of the Breton Club, even boasted of having armed in this way the middle classes in a great many towns. He had two or three agents “resolute but not well-known men,” who avoided the owns, but on arriving at a village would announce that “the brigands were coming.” “There are five hundred, a thousand, three thousand of them,” said these emissaries, “they are burning all the crops round about, so that the people may starve.” Thereupon the tocsin would be rung and the villages would arm themselves. And by the time that the sinister rumour reached the towns, the numbers would have grown to six thousand brigands. They had been seen about a league off in such a forest; then the townspeople, especially middle classes, would arm themselves and send patrols into the forest — to find nothing there. But the important point was that the peasants were thus being armed. Let the King take care! When he tries to escape in 1791,he will find the armed peasants in his way.

We can imagine the terror which these risings inspired all through France; we can imagine the impression that they made at Versailles, and it was under the domination of this terror that the National Assembly met on the evening of August 4 to discuss what measures should be taken to suppress the jacquerie.