Chapter 26: Delays in the Abolition of the Feudal Rights

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

The people desire to abolish feudal system — Aims of middle classes — Gradual estrangement of middle classes and people — “Anarchists” — “Girondins” — Importance of feudal question in Revolution — August 4, 1789 — Reactionary party gains ground — Honorary rights and profitable rights — Decrees of February 27, 1790 — Feudalism still oppresses peasants — Difficulties of peasants

According as the Revolution progressed, the two currents of which we have spoken in the beginning of this book, the popular current and the middle-class current, became more clearly defined — especially in economic affairs.

The people strove to put an end to the feudal system, and they ardently desired equality as well as liberty. Seeing delays, therefore, even in their struggle against the King and the priests, they lost patience and tried to bring the Revolution to its logical development. They foresaw that the revolutionary enthusiasm would be exhausted at no far distant day, and they strove to make the return of the landlords, the royal despotism, and the reign of the rich and the priests impossible for all time. And for that reason they wished — at least in very many parts of France — to regain possession of the lands that had been filched from the village communities and demanded agrarian laws which would allow every one to work on the land if he wanted, and laws which would place the rich and the poor on equal terms as regarded their rights as citizens.

They revolted when they were compelled to pay the tithes, and they made themselves masters of the municipalities, so that they could strike at the priests and the landlords. In short, they maintained revolutionary conditions in the greater part of France, whilst in Paris they kept close watch over the law-makers from the vantage-points of the galleries in the Assembly, and in their clubs and meetings of the “sections.” Finally, when it became necessary to strike a heavy blow at royalty, the people organised the insurrection and fought arms in hand, on July 14, 1789, and on August 10, 1792.

The middle classes, on their side, worked with all their might to complete “the conquest of power” — the phrase, as is seen, dates from that time. According as the power of the King and the Court crumbled and fell into contempt, the middle classes developed their own. They took up a firm position in the provinces, and at the same time hastened to establish their present and future wealth.

If in certain regions the greater portion of the property confiscated from the émigrés and the priests passed in small lots into the hands of the poor (at least this is what may be gathered from the researches of Loutchitzky,[117]) — in other regions an immense portion of these properties served to enrich the middle classes, whilst all sorts of financial speculations were laying the foundations of many a large fortune among the Third Estate.

But what the educated middle classes had especially borne in mind — the Revolution of 1648 in England serving them as a model — was that now was the time for them to seize the government of France, and that the class which would govern would have the wealth — the more so as the sphere of action of the State was about to increase enormously through the formation of a large standing army, and the reorganisation of public instruction, justice, the levying of taxes, and all the rest. This had been clearly seen to follow the revolution in England.

It can be understood, therefore, that an abyss was ever widening between the middle classes and the people in France; the middle classes, who had wanted the revolution and urged the people into it, so long as they had not felt that “the conquest of power” was already accomplished to their advantage; and the people, who had seen in the Revolution the means of freeing themselves from the double yoke of poverty and political disability.

Those who were described at that time by the “men of order” and the “statesmen” as “the anarchists,” helped by a certain number of the middle class — some members of the Club of the Cordeliers and a few from the Club of the Jacobins — found themselves on one side. As for the “states-men”, the “defenders of property,” as they were then called, they found their full expression in the political party of those who became known later on as “the Girondins”: that is to say, in the politicians who, in 1792, gathered round Brissot and the minister Roland.

We have told in chap. XV. to what the pretended abolition of the feudal rights during the night of August 4 was reduced by the decrees voted by the Assembly from August 5 to 11, and we now see what further developments were given to this legislation in the years 1790 and 1791.

But as this question of feudal rights dominates the whole of the Revolution, and as it remained unsolved until 1793, after the Girondin chiefs had been expelled from the Convention, I shall, at the risk of a little repetition, sum up once more the legislation of the month of August 1789, before touching upon what was done in the two following years. This is the more necessary as a most regrettable confusion continues to prevail about this subject, although the abolition of the feudal rights was the principal work of the Great Revolution. Over this question the main contests were fought, both in rural France and in the Assembly, and out of all the work of the Revolution, it was the abolition of these rights which best survived, in spite of the political vicissitudes through which France passed during the nineteenth century.

The abolition of the feudal rights certainly did not enter the thoughts of those who called for social renovation before 1789. All they intended to do was to amend the abuses of these rights. It was even asked by certain reformers whether it would be possible “to diminish the seigniorial prerogative,” as Necker said. It was the Revolution that put the question of abolition pure and simple of these rights.

All property, without any exception, shall be always respected” — they made the King say at the opening of the States-General. And it was added that “his Majesty expressly understands by the word property the feudal and seigniorial tithes, levies, rents, rights and dues and, generally speaking, all rights and prerogatives profitable or honorary, attached to the estates and to the fiefs belonging to any person.”

None of the future revolutionists protested then against this interpretation of the rights of the lords and the landed proprietors altogether.

“But,” says Dalloz — the well-known author of the Répertoire de jurisprudence, whom certainly no one will tax with revolutionary exaggeration — “the agricultural populations did not thus interpret the liberties promised to them; everywhere the villages rose up; the châteaux were burned, and the archives and the places where the records of feudal dues were kept were destroyed; and in a great many localities the landlords gave their signatures to documents renouncing their rights.”[118]

Then, in the dismal blaze of the burning châteaux and the peasant insurrection which threatened to assume still greater proportions, took place the sitting of August 4, 1789.

As we have seen, the National Assembly voted during that memorable night a decree, or rather a declaration of principles, of which the first article was “The National Assembly destroys completely the feudal system.”

The impression produced by those words was immense. They shook all France and Europe. The sitting of that night was described as a “Saint Bartholomew of property.” But the very next day, as we saw already, the Assembly changed its mind. By a series of decrees, or rather of resolutions passed on August 5, 6, 8, 10 and 11, they re-establisbed and placed under the protection of the Constitution all that was essential in the feudal rights. Renouncing, with certain exceptions, the personal services that were due to them, the lords guarded with all the more care those of their rights, often quite as monstrous, which could in the slightest way be made to represent rents due for the possession or the use of the land-the real rights, as the law-makers said (rights over things — res in Latin signifying things). These were not only the rents for landed property, but also a great number of payments and dues, in money and in kind, varying with the province, established at the time of the abolition of serfdom and attached thenceforth to the possession of the land. All these exactions had been entered in the terriers or landedestate records, and since then these rights had often been sold or conceded to third parties.

The champarts, the terriers, the agriers comptants and so on[119] and the tithes too — everything, in short, that had a pecuniary value — were maintained in full. The peasants obtained only the right to redeem these dues, if some day they would come to an agreement with the landlord about the price of the redemption. But the Assembly took good care neither to fix a term for the redemption nor to determine its rate.

In reality, except that the idea of feudal property was shaken by Article I of the resolutions of August 5 to 11, everything which concerned dues reputed to be attached to the use of the land remained just as it was, and the municipalities were ordered to bring the peasants to reason if they did not pay. We have seen how ferociously certain of them carried out these instructions.[120]

We have seen, furthermore, in the note written by friend James Guillaume[121] that the Assembly, by specifying in one of its acts of August 1789 that these were only “resolutions,” gave themselves, by this, the advantage of not having to require the King's sanction. But at the same time, the acts were thus deprived of the character of law, so long as their provisions had not been put into the shape of constitutional decrees. No obligatory character was attached them: legally, nothing had been done.

However, even these “resolutions” seemed too advanced to the landlords and to the King. The latter tried to gain time, so as not to have them promulgated, and on September 18 he was still addressing remonstrances to the National Assembly asking them to reconsider their resolutions. He only decided on their promulgation on October 6, after the women had brought him back to Paris and placed him under the super-vision of the people. But then it was the Assembly that turned a deaf ear. They made up their minds to promulgate the resolutions only on November 3, 1789, when they sent them out for promulgation to the provincial parlements (courts of justice); so that in reality the resolutions of August 5 to 11 were never actually promulgated.

In such conditions the peasants' revolt had necessarily to go on, and that is what happened. The report of the Feudal Committee, made by Abbé Grégoire in February 1790, stated, in fact, that the peasant insurrection was still going on and that it had gained in strength since the month of January. It was spreading from the East to the West.

But in Paris the party of reaction had already gained much ground since October 6. Therefore, when the National Assembly undertook the discussion of the feudal rights after Grégoire's report, they legislated in a reactionary spirit. In reality the decrees which they passed from February 28 to March 5 and on June 18, 1790, had as consequence the reestablishing of the feudal system in all that was of importance.

That, as can be seen by the documents of the period, was the opinion of those who wished for the abolition of feudalism. they described the decrees of 1790 as re-establishing feudalism.

To begin with, the distinction between the honorary rights, abolished without redemption, and the profitable rights which the peasants had to redeem, was maintained completely, and confirmed; and, what was worse, several personal feudal rights, having been classed as profitable rights, were now “completely assimilated with the simple rents and charges on the land.”[122] Some rights, therefore, that were mere usurpations, mere vestiges of personal servitude and should have been condemned on account of their origin, were now put upon the same footing as obligations resulting from the location of the land.

For non-payment of these dues, the lord, even though had lost the right of “feudal seizure”[123] could exercise constraint of all kinds, according to the common law. The following article confirms this: “The feudal dues and taxes (droits féodaux et censuels), together with all sales, rents and rights that are redeemable by their nature, shall be subject, until their redemption, to the rules that the various laws and customs of the kingdom have established.”

The Constituent Assembly went still further. In their sitting of February 27, following the opinion of Merlin, they confirmed, in a great number of cases, the right of serfdom in mortmain. They decreed that “the landed rights of which the tenure in mortmain had been converted into tenure by annual rent not being representative of the mortmain, should be preserved.”

So much did the middle classes hold to this heritage of serfdom that Article 4 of chap. iii. of the new law declared, that “if the mortmain, real or mixed, has been converted since the enfranchisement into dues on the land, or into rights of mutation, these dues shall continue to be owed.”

Altogether, the reading of the discussion in the Assembly on the feudal rights suggests the question — whether it was really in March 1790, after the taking of the Bastille, and on August 4 that these discussions took place, or were they still at the beginning of the reign of Louis XVI. in the year 1775.

Thus, on March 1, 1790, certain rights “of fire, ... chiennage (kennels), moneage (coining), of watch and ward,” as well as certain rights over the sales and purchases by the vassals were abolished. One would have thought, however, that these rights had been abolished, without redemption, during the night of August 4. But it was nothing of the kind. Legally, in 1790, the peasants, in many parts of France, still dared not buy a cow, nor even sell their wheat, without paying dues to the lord. They could not even sell their corn before the lord had sold his and had profited by the high prices that prevailed before much of the corn had been threshed.

However, one might think that at last these rights were abolished on March 1, as well as all the dues levied by the lords on the common oven, the mill, or the wine-press. But we must not jump to conclusions. They were abolished, true enough, but with the exception of those cases where they formerly been the subject of a written agreement between the lord and the peasant commune, or were considered as payable in exchange for some concession or other.

Pay, peasant! always pay! and do not try to gain time, for there would be an immediate distraint, and then you only save yourself by winning your case before a law-court.

This seems hard to believe, but so it was. Here is the text of, Article 2, chap. iii., of the new feudal laws. It is rather long, but it deserves to be reproduced, because it lets us see what slavery the feudal law of February 24 to March 15, 1790, left still crushing down the peasant.

“Article 2. And are presumed redeemable, except there is proof to the contrary (which means `shall be paid by the peasant until he has redeemed them'):

All the seigniorial annual dues, in money, grain, poultry, food-stuffs of all kinds, and fruits of the earth, paid under the denomination of quit-rents, over-rents, feudal rents, manorial or emphyteutic, champerty, tasque, terrage, agrier (rights on the produce of lands and fields, or on the tenant's labour), soète, actual forced labour, or any other denomination whatsoever, which are payable or due only by the proprietor or holder of a piece of land, so long as he is proprietor or holder, and has the right of continuing in possession.

All the occasional fees (casuels) which, under the name of quint (fifth), requint (twenty-fifth), treizains (thirteenth), lods (dues on sales of inheritance), lods et ventes, mi-lods, redemptions, venterolles, reliefs, relevoisons, pleas, and any other denominations whatsoever, are due on account of supervening mutations in the property or the possession of a piece of land.

The rights of acapts (rights on succession), acapts in arrears (arrière-acapts) and other similar rights due on the mutation of the former lords.”

On the other hand, the Assembly, on March 9, suppressed various rights of toll on the high roads, canals, &c., which were levied by the lords. But immediately afterwards they took care to add the following clause:

It is not to be understood, however, that the National Assembly includes, as regards the present, in the suppression declared by the preceding article, the authorised toll-gates . . . &c., and the duties mentioned in the article aforesaid which may have been acquired as compensation.” This meant that many of the lords had sold or mortgaged certain of their rights; or else, in cases of inheritance, the eldest son having succeeded to the estate or the châteaux, the others, more especially the daughters, received as compensation certain rights of toll over the highways, the canals, or the bridges. In these cases, therefore, all the rights remained, although recognised as being unjust, because, otherwise, it would have meant a loss to some members of noble or middle-class families.

Cases like these recurred all through the new feudal law. After each suppression of feudal right some subterfuge was inserted to evade it. So that the result would have lawsuits without end.

There was only one single point where the breath of the Revolution really made itself felt, and this was on the question of the tithes. It was decided that all tithes, ecclesiastical and enfeoffed (which means sold to the laity), should cease from January 1791. But here again the Assembly decreed that for the year 1790 they were to be paid to whom they were due, “and in full.”

This is not all. They did not forget to impose penalties on those who might disobey this decree, and on opening the discussion of chap. iii. of the feudal law, the Assembly enacted: “No municipality or administration of district or ddepartment shall be able, on pain of nullity and of being prosecuted as a guilty party and having to pay the damages, as such, to prohibit the collection of any of the seigniorial dues, of which payment shall be asked under the pretext that they have been implicitly or explicitly suppressed without compensation.”

There was nothing to fear from the officials of either the districts or the departments; they were, especially the latter, body and soul with the lords and the middle-class landowners. But there were municipalities, especially in the East of France, of which the revolutionists had taken possession, and these would tell the peasants that such and such feudal dues had been suppressed, and that, if the lords claimed them, they need not be paid.

Now, under penalty of being themselves prosecuted or distrained upon, the municipal councillors of a village will not dare to say anything, and the peasant will have to pay, and they must distrain upon him. He will only be at liberty, if the payment was not due, to claim reimbursement later on from the lord, who, by that time, may have emigrated to Coblentz.

This was introducing — as M. Sagnac has well said — a terrible clause. The proof that the peasant no longer owed certain feudal dues, that they were personal, and not attached to the land — this proof, so difficult to make, rested with the peasant. If he did not make it, if he could not make it — as was nearly always the case — he had to pay!