Heroism of middle classes at beginning of Revolution over rated — Abolition of serfdom — Statute labour and other impositions upon peasants — Failure of crops in 1778 — Riots follow — Nature of riots — “Vive la Liberté!” — Riots at Agde — Concessions granted to people — Effect of riots on elections — Agitation in rural districts — Importance of peasant insurrection
Nothing could be more erroneous than to imagine or describe France as a nation of heroes on the eve of 1789, and Quinet was perfectly right in destroying this legend, which some historians had tried to propagate. It is evident that if we were to collect into a few pages the occasional instances, very rare after all, of open resistance to the old régime on the part of the middle classes — such as d'Espréménil's opposition — we could compose a tolerably impressive picture. But what is particularly apparent in making a survey of the conditions of the time is the absence of serious protests, of assertions of the individual, the servility of the middle classes. “Nobody makes himself known,” says Quinet, very justly. There is no opportunity even to know oneself. And he asks: “What were they doing — Barnave, Thouret, Sieyès, Vergniaud, Guadet, Roland, Danton, Robespierre, and all the others, who were so soon to become the heroes of the Revolution?”
Dumbness, silence, prevailed in the provinces and in the towns. The central power had to summon men to vote, and invite them to say aloud what they had been saying in whispers, before the Third Estate issued their famous cahiers. And even then! If in some of the cahiers we find daring words of revolt, what submissiveness and timidity appear in most of them, what moderation in their demands! For, after the right to carry arms, and some legal guarantees against arbitrary arrests, it was chiefly a little more liberty in municipal affairs that was asked for in the cahiers of the Third Estate. It was later on, when the deputies of the Third saw themselves supported by the people of Paris, and when the mutterings of the peasant insurrection began to be heard, that they grew bolder in their attitude towards the Court.
Fortunately, the people began to revolt everywhere, after the disturbances provoked by the parlements during the summer and autumn of 1788, and the tide of revolt, gathering force, swept onward to the rising of the villages in July and August of 1789.
It has already been said that the condition of the peasants and workers in the towns was such that a single bad harvest sufficed to bring about an alarming increase in the price of bread in the towns and sheer famine in the villages. The peasants were no longer serfs, serfdom having long been abolished in France, at least on private estates. After Louis XVI. had abolished it within the royal domains in 1779, there remained in 1788 only about So,ooo persons held by mortmain in the Jura, at most about 1,500,000 in the whole of France, perhaps even less than a million; even those subject to mortmain were not serfs in the strict meaning of the term. As to the majority of the French peasants, they had long ceased to be serfs. But they went on paying in money, and in working for their personal liberty with statute labour as well as with work of other kinds. These dues were extremely heavy and variable, but they were not arbitrary, and they were considered as representing payments for the right of holding land, whether collectively by the community or privately as farm-land. And each parcel of land or farm had its dues, as varied as they were numerous, carefully recorded in the feudal registers, the terriers.
Besides, the right of manorial justice had been retained, and over large districts the lord was still judge, or else he nominated the judges; and in virtue of this ancient prerogative he retained all kinds of personal rights over his ex-serfs. When an old woman bequeathed to her daughter one or two trees and a few old clothes — for example, “my black quilted petticoat,” a bequest such as I have seen — “the noble and generous lord or the noble and generous lady of the castle levied so much on the bequest. The peasant paid also for the right of marriage, of baptism, of burial; he paid likewise on everything he bought or sold, and the very right of selling his crops or his wine was restricted. He could not sell before the lord had sold his own. Lastly, there were all manner of tolls (banalié's) — for the use of the mill, of the wine-press, the public bakehouse, the washing-places, on certain roads or particular fords-all maintained since the days of serfdom, as well as contributions of nuts, mushrooms, linen, thread, formerly considered as gifts for festive occasions.”
As to statute labour, it took an infinite variety of forms work in the fields of the lord, work in his parks and his gardens, work to satisfy all sorts of whims. In some villages there was even an obligation to beat the pond during the night in order that the frogs should not prevent his lordship from sleeping.
Personally the man was free, but all this network of dues and exactions, which had been woven bit by bit through the craft of the lords and their stewards in the centuries of serfdom — all this network still clung round the peasant.
More than that, the State was there with its taxes, its fines, its twentieths, its statute labours ever increasing, too, and the State, as well as the steward of my lord, was always ready to exercise ingenuity in devising some new pretext for introducing some new form of taxation.
It is true that, since Turgot's reforms, the peasants had ceased paying certain feudal taxes, and some provincial governors had even refused to resort to force to levy certain dues, which they considered to be injurious exactions. But the principal feudal dues attaching to the land were exacted in full, and they became all the heavier as the State and provincial taxes, to which they were added, continually increased. There is, therefore, not a word of exaggeration in the gloomy pictures of life in the villages drawn by every historian of the Revolution. But neither is there any exaggeration in saying that in each village there were some peasants who had created for themselves a certain amount of prosperity, and that these were the men who especially wished to shake off all feudal obligations, and to win individual liberty. The two types depicted by Erckmann and Chatrian in their Histoire d'un paysan — the middle-class man of the village, and the peasant crushed beneath the burden of his poverty — are true to life. Both of them existed. The former gave political strength to the Third Estate; while the bands of insurgents that, since the winter of 1788-1789 had begun to force the nobles to relinquish the feudal dues inscribed in the terriers, were recruited from among the starving poor in the villages, who had only mud cabins to live in, and a few chestnuts or the gleanings of the fields for food.
The same remark applies also to the towns, to which the feudal rights extended, as well as to the villages. The poorer classes in the towns were just as much crushed beneath feudal taxes as the peasants. The right of seigneurial justice remained to its full extent in many a growing city, and the hovels of the artisans and mechanics paid the same dues, in cases of sales or inheritance, as the huts of the peasants. Several towns had even to pay a perpetual tribute as redemption from their former feudal subjection. Besides this, the majority of the towns paid the don gratuit — the voluntary gift — to the King, just to maintain a shadow of municipal independence, and the burden of these taxes pressed hardest on the poor. If we add to all this the heavy royal taxes, the provincial contributions, the fines, the salt tax and the rest, as well as the caprices of the functionaries, the heavy expenses incurred in the law courts, and the impossibility of a mere commoner's obtaining justice against a noble, even if he were a rich member of the middle classes, and if we take into consideration the many forms of oppression, insult and humiliation to which the lower classes were subject, we shall be able to form some idea of the condition of the poor on the eve of 1789.
It was, however, these poorer classes who, by revolting in the towns and villages, gave the representatives of the Third Estate in the States-General courage to oppose the King and to declare the Assembly a constituent body.
Drought had caused a failure of the crops in 1788, and the winter was very severe. Before that there had certainly been winters as severe, and crops quite as bad, and even riots among the people. Every year there was scarcity in some part of France, and often it affected a fourth or a third part of the kingdom. But this time hopes had been awakened by preceding events — the provincial assemblies, the Convocation of Notables, the disturbances connected with the parlements in the towns, which spread, as we have seen, at least in Brittany, to the villages also. And these insurrections in 1789 soon became alarming both in extent and character.
I learn through Professor Karéeff, who has studied the effect of the Great Revolution upon the French peasants, that in the National Archives there is a huge bundle of documents bearing on the risings of the peasants which preceded the taking of the Bastille. For my own part, never having been able to study the archives in France, but having consulted many provincial histories of that period, I had already, in former works, arrived at the conclusion that a great number of riots had broken out in the villages after January 1789, and even after December 1788. In certain provinces the situation was terrible on account of the scarcity, and everywhere a spirit of revolt, until then but little known, was taking possession of the people. In the spring, the insurrection became more and more frequent in Poitou, Brittany, Touraine, Orléanais, Normandy, Ile de `France, Picardy, Champagne, Alsace, Burgundy, Nivernais, Auvergne, Languedoc and Provence.
Nearly all these riots were of the same character. The peasants, armed with knives, scythes, cudgels, flocked in a body to the town, and compelled the labourers and farmers who had brought the corn to the market to sell it at a certain “honest” price, such as three livres the bushel; or else they went to the corn merchants, took out the wheat and “divided it among themselves at a reduced price,” promising to pay for it after the next harvest. In other places they forced the landowner to forego his dues upon flour for a couple of months, or they compelled the municipality to tax bread, and sometimes “to increase by four sous the daily wage.” Where famine was severest, as at Thiers, the town workers went to collect wheat in the country districts. Often they broke open the granaries belonging to religious communities and merchant monopolists, or even those belonging to private persons, and provided the bakers with flour. Moreover, from this time, too, dated the formation of bands composed of peasants, wood-cutters, sometimes even of contrabandists, who went from village to village seizing the corn. By degrees they began also to burn the land registers and to force the landlords to abdicate their feudal rights — these were the same bands which gave the middle classes the pretext for arming their militias in 1789.
Ever since January there was heard, too, in these riots the cry of “Vive Ia Liberté! and from that time, and still more markedly after the month of March, we find the peasants here and there refusing to pay the tithes and feudal dues, or, indeed, even the taxes. Outside the three provinces, Brittany, Alsace and Dauphiné, which are cited by Taine, traces are to be found of similar movements nearly all over the eastern part of France.”
In the south, at Agde, after the riots of April 19, 20 and 21, “the people foolishly persuaded themselves that they were everything,” wrote the mayor and the consuls, “and they may do everything according to the pretended will of the King concerning the equality of rank.” The people threatened to sack the town if the price of all provisions was not lowered, and the provincial dues on wine, fish and meat suppressed; furthermore — and here we see already the communalist good sense of the masses of the people in France-” they wished to nominate consuls, some of whom would be drawn from their own class,” and these demands were acceded to the insurgents. Three days after the people demanded that the duty on milling should be reduced by one-half, and this also was granted.
This insurrection was the counterpart of hundred others. To obtain bread was the prime cause of the movement, but soon there were also demands in the direction where economic conditions and political organisation meet, the direction in which popular agitation always goes forward with the greatest confidence and obtains some immediate results.
In Provence, at least in March and April of 1789, more than forty large villages and towns, among them Aix, Marseilles and Toulon, abolished the tax on flour, and here and there the mob pillaged the houses of officials whose duty was to levy the taxes on flour, hides, butcher's meat, etc. The prices of provisions were reduced and a maximum established for all provisions, and when the gentlemen of the upper middle classes protested, the mob replied by stoning them, or else a trench was dug before their eyes which might serve for their grave. Sometimes even a coffin was brought out the better to impress the refractory who apparently hastened to comply. All this took place in April 1789, without the shedding of a drop of blood. It is “a kind of war declared on proprietors and property,” say the reports from the governors and municipalities. “The people still declare that they will pay nothing, neither taxes, nor dues, nor debts.”
Before that, since April, the peasants began to plunder the document by which he renounced his seigneurial rights of every kind.” At Peinier, they wanted the bishop to burn the records. At Hyeères and elsewhere they burned the old papers concerning the feudal rents and taxes. In short, in Provence, from the month of April, we can already see the beginning of the great rising of the peasants which forced the nobility and clergy to make their first concessions on August 4, 1789.
It is easy to discern the influence that these riots and this excitement exercised upon the elections for the National Assembly. Chassin, in his Génie de la Révolution, says that in some localities the nobility exercised a great influence on the elections, and that in these localities th peasant electors dared not make any complaints. Elsewhere, especially at Rennes, the nobles took advantage even of the sitting of the States-General of Brittany at the end of December 1788, and in January 1789, to try to stir up the starving people against the middle classes. But what could these last convulsive efforts of the nobles do against the pouplar tide, which rose steadily? The people saw more than half the land lying idle in the hands of the nobility and clergy, and they understood better than if statisticians had demonstrated it to them, that so long as the peasants did not take possession of the land to cultivate it famine would be always present among them.
The very need to live made the peasant rise against the monopolisers of the soil. During the winter of I788-1789, says Chassin, no day passed in the Jura without convoys of wheat being plundered. The military authorities could think of nothing but “Suppression of the riots”; but the tribunals refused to sentence or even to judge the famished noters. Similar riots broke out everywhere, north, south, east and west, says Chassin.
The elections brought with them a renewal of life and of hope in the villages. The lordly influence was great everywhere, but now in every village there was to be found some middle-class man, a doctor or lawyer, who had read his Voltaire, or Sieyès, or the famous pamphlet — Qu'est que le tiers élat? Everything was changing wherever there was a weaver or a mason who could read and write, were it only the printed letters. The peasants were eager to put “their grievances” on paper. It is true that these grievances were confined for the greater part to things of secondary importance; but throughout we see cropping up, as in the insurrection of the German peasantry in 1523, the demand that the lords should prove their right to the feudal exactions. When the peasants sent in their cahiers, they waited patiently for the result. But the tardiness of the States-General and the National Assembly exasperated them, and as soon as that terrible winter of I788-1789 came to an end, as soon as the sun shone again, and brought with it hope of a coming harvest, the riots broke out afresh, especially after the spring work in the fields was over.
The intellectual middle classes evidently took advantage of the elections to propagate revolutionary ideas. “A Constitutional Club” was formed, and its numerous branches spread themselves even into the smallest towns. The apathy which had struck Arthur Young in the eastern towns no doubt existed; but in some of the other provinces the middle classes extracted all the profit they desired from the electoral agitation. We can even see how the events which took place in June at Versailles in the National Assembly were prepared several months before in the provinces. Thus the union of the Three Estates and the vote by head had been agreed to in Dauphiné since the month of August 1788 by the States of the province, under pressure of the local insurrections.
It must not be thought, however, that the middle-class people who took a prominent part in the elections were in the least degree revolutionary. They were moderates, “peaceful rebels,” as Chassin says. As regards revolutionary measures, it was usually the people who spoke of them, since secret societies were found among the peasants, and unknown persons began to go about appealing to the people to pay taxes no longer, but to make the nobles pay them. Or else emissaries went about declaring that the nobles had already agreed to pay the taxes, but that this was only a cunning trick on their part. “The people of Geneva were emancipated in a day. . . . Tremble, ye nobles!” There were also pamphlets addressed to the peasants and secretly distributed, such as L'Avis aux habitants des campagnes, distributed at Chartres. In short, as Chassin says, and no one has more carefully studied this aspect of the Revolution: “Such was the agitation in the rural districts that even if the people of Paris had been vanquished on July 4, it was no longer possible to restore the condition in which the country had been previous to January 1789.” To do that, it would have been necessary to conquer each village separately. After the month of March the feudal taxes were no longer paid by any one.
The importance of this profound agitation in the country districts can be easily understood. Although the educated middle classes did undoubtedly profit by the conflicts with the Court and the parlements to arouse political ferment, and although they worked hard to disseminate discontent, it is nevertheless certain that the peasant insurrection, winning over the towns also, made the real basis of the Revolution, and gave the deputies of the Third Estate the determination, presently to be expressed by them at Versailles, to reform the entire system of the government in France, and to initiate a complete revolution in the distribution of wealth.
Without the peasant insurrection, which began in winter and went on, ever growing, until 1793, the overthrow of royal despotism would never have been effected so completely, nor would it have been accompanied by so enormous a change, political, economic and social. France might, indeed, have had a sham parliament, even as Prussia had in 1848; but this innovation would not have assumed the character of a revolution: it would have remained superficial, as it did in the German States after 1848.