The French Revolution will forever be associated with events in Paris but it in fact began as a howl of rage from France’s rural poor. David Andress reveals how an urban elite co-opted this peasants’ insurgency and turned it against the very people who had started it
The peasants of Avançon had had enough. And so they rebelled. It was April 1789: several months earlier, their village, nestled in an alpine valley near the regional centre of Gap, had like every other French village been summoned to express their collective grievances. For the first time since 1614, an elected national body, an Estates-General, had been summoned by royal decree, with notice that what the people wrote in their cahiers de doléances, their registers of grievances, would reach King Louis XVI’s ears for redress.
The offer came in a moment of deep crisis. At the top of society, there was deadlock about reforms to taxation vital to stave off state bankruptcy. This was why, after two years of manoeuvring, the kingdom had blown the dust off the remedy of an Estates-General, empowered to make changes nobody else could agree on. But the crisis at the bottom of society was even deeper. Months of snowbound winter had battened on a country fearful of how to cope with the latest of several poor harvests. Intensifying shortages and rising prices in the spring fed rumours that the rich and powerful were plotting to starve the people into submission.
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So the people acted. The peasants of Avançon launched their own local revolution. Their feudal seigneur, the overlord entitled to a share of all they produced, was a nobleman and judge in the regional court at Aix. Early in April, they wrote informing him that the statement of their grievances to the Estates-General had ended their obligations to him. On Sunday 19 April, they met after church and determined to get back the crops they had handed over from the last harvest. The next day, joined by detachments from neighbouring villages, they marched under arms to the lord’s chateau. He was absent, so they conducted a forcible but peaceful search, finding nothing helpful, and left after obliging the servants to promise that the lord would formally renounce his rights within the week.
The forces of order responded. A mounted police detachment was met with defiance from the community, and a threat to drive their cattle onto the lord’s pasture. A larger body of cavalry was despatched days later, but the villagers hid on the steep wooded hillsides until they departed. Overt confrontation fizzled out into bluster about legal action, but the seigneur wrote to the government lamenting that his authority, and ability to extract revenue from the village, was now a dead letter. His account is the only record we have of this event, which would otherwise be buried in obscurity.
The path to violence
The French Revolution of 1789 is most often depicted in terms of the dramatic and traumatic events at the national centre, and of course those killed and injured storming the Bastille on 14 July deserve such attention. But the revolution was also made in thousands of other places, where people even more hard-done-by than the Parisians stood up and abolished a whole social order from below, defying a thousand years of history with the weight of their own experience and their hopes for a better future. All too often, those who took power in the name of the revolution betrayed those hopes, and in that betrayal laid the path to the tragic violence for which the 1790s are also renowned.
The crisis that became the French Revolution began at the very highest levels of a highly hierarchical society. If the kingdom under King Louis XV (reigned 1715–74) had not sought to exert itself vigorously in both global imperial competition and martial dynastic rivalry, it would not have spent more than half the period 1735–65 at war, and it would certainly not have piled up the mountain of debt such wars created. If the culture that sought glory on the battlefield and at the negotiating-table had been less aristocratic, less driven by assumptions about the entitlement of the great to privilege (and thus to avoid paying their fair share), those debts might have been less unmanageable, and the taxation system more easily reformable.
By the 1780s, after another expensive war, this time for American liberty, under the new young king Louis XVI (1774–92) and his wife Marie Antoinette, reformist currents of ‘Enlightenment’ thinking insisted that something would have to give. By 1786, a threat of real state bankruptcy made that a certainty. The trouble with Enlightenment by then was that almost everyone with an opinion thought it was on their side. After decades of polite society debate, and rising circulation of sometimes less-polite written critique, it had become commonplace for ministerial reformers and reactionary stalwarts alike to claim that the “national interest” and “public opinion” supported their positions.
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When ministers in early 1787 handpicked an ‘Assembly of Notables’ to rubber-stamp impeccably enlightened tax-reforms, the notables in question destroyed the project by arguing it was both an attack on time-honoured elite privileges, and a lurch towards despotism that the nation could not tolerate. Out of these and further elite disputes came the idea that history – in the form of the Estates-General – held the only legitimate answer, and out of yet more argument came the notion that the mass of the nation – the Third Estate, ranking after the Catholic clergy and the nobility – deserved an enhanced voice in proceedings. By the end of 1788, the whole of France was preparing for the mammoth task of making real an idea that had seemed fantastic when voiced only 18 months earlier, of a “truly national representation”.
But what, in fact, was the nation to be thus represented? It was some 28 million people, of whom perhaps less than 1 per cent were the First Estate of Catholic clergy, monks and nuns, and perhaps around the same number were the Second Estate of those with formal title to nobility.
Of the remaining 98 per cent, some hundreds of thousands constituted a wider propertied class, the comfortably-off and the upwardly mobile who had not yet managed to do what remained entirely normal, and progress formally into the ranks of the nobility. Some of them were a genuinely influential mercantile class, making fortunes from the great iniquities of the trade in slaves and the colonial produce they toiled for, but even these tended to do what generations of lesser merchants, lawyers and traders had done, and look to lordship as their personal and familial future. It was out of the more radical-minded of all these elites that a new revolutionary leadership would be forged.
Beneath these groups, and beneath the several million others who dwelled in towns and cities, were the three-quarters or more of the French who lived in the countryside. Alongside rural craftspeople and the spinners and weavers of cottage industry, at least two-thirds of the French were peasants, engaged directly in agriculture. They owned a little under half the land of the country, though often in feeble plots.
Kaleidoscope of hardships
The more prosperous peasants rented the other half from wealthy landowners. The less prosperous hired themselves out, the menfolk as day-labourers, the women sometimes likewise, or as servants and wet-nurses. Almost all of them sent their children into domestic or agricultural service as soon as they could support themselves.
The actual conditions of life for the peasantry were a kaleidoscope of hardships, makeshifts, historic rights and entitlements, overlain with grim realities of high child mortality – a third, even a half in some places – and periodic epidemic disease.
In this context, families and communities were sometimes remarkably successful. Two or three generations of good luck could move a single family from the land, via education and trade, to the fringes of real prosperity. The generations preceding 1789, although now lurching into a crisis of prices, had collectively fed a population that grew by nearly a quarter in a few decades – impossible without constant effort at innovation and expansion, new crops and new techniques.
In the cahiers de doléances they wrote in 1789, peasant communities expressed the struggle they experienced to deliver this growth – and simply to survive – under the weight of the rest of society. The state, because it could not tax the wealth of the privileged adequately, heaped taxes on the powerless. Because it lacked the administration to collect land-taxes directly, it made village councillors responsible for extracting revenue from their neighbours, or paying it themselves. Because it desperately needed money in advance, it farmed out the collection of excise taxes on goods to commercial enterprises, who profiteered from everything they could collect above what they had paid, and used armed thugs in the countryside to deliver those returns.
Meanwhile the church demanded its tithes on peasant crops, much of which disappeared into wealthy abbeys and cathedral chapters, while priests charged for their services, and peasants struggled to gain the use of hospitals and orphanages their sweat had paid for. Alongside this, the seigneurs, the lords of the manor, charged their own percentage of the crop, tolls on bridges, fees for monopoly control of milling, and many other things, just because they could, and used their powers to appoint their own courts to enforce them.
Seigneurial rights were an investment, changing hands on an open market without any say for those they affected, into which the rising middle classes poured their life-savings, gaining social cachet and a secure retirement fund at the same time. What’s more, they often intensified their enforcement of those rights with new abuses, precisely to secure that investment.
The fire beneath
Of all this, in 1789, the peasants had had enough. Most of the cahiers de doléances were expressed in the deferential terms of those used to the wrath of authority. But some allowed a glimpse of the fire beneath to show through. One village near Cahors in the south-west asked bitterly: “The lands of nobles and the church, should they not be subjected to taxation? Why protect them from it? Why subject the lands of poor people exclusively to it…?” The same document lamented their subjection to the feudal seigneurs, who have their abusive “charges… recognised as easily as one changes a shirt”.
Village communities threw off the yoke of this entire ‘Old Regime’ even before the Estates-General gathered, and while it wrangled fruitlessly through May and early June, peasants up and down the land were declaring themselves freed of their obligations, just like Avançon, or going further. Seigneurial and monastic granaries were emptied, registers of seigneurial rights were ceremoniously destroyed, game-reserves were assailed, fences broken down, and from one end of France to the other, the message that taxes and tithes would not be paid again in their old, abusive forms was declared to the faces of bemused officials.
Events in Versailles and Paris that summer followed their own path of political crisis and urban insurrection, throwing up iconic moments, from the Estates-General’s renaming as the National Assembly, to the ‘Tennis Court Oath’, in which the assembly vowed not to disband until a new constitution had been adopted, to the Parisians’ storming of the Bastille in defence against any attempt to disband the assembly.
The peasantry only came onto the scene in the form of rumours of disorder, and fears from the politicians that widespread discontent might be manipulated by the new revolution’s enemies. A manoeuvre to pacify the peasants by removing the feudal burden became, almost by accident, an ecstatic festival of the end of ‘privilege’ on 4 August, leading on to the resonant language of the Declaration of the Rights of Man at the end of that month. But while the new revolutionaries were doing all this, they were also overlooking, and in some cases scorning, what the peasantry had already done.
Blighted by snobbery
Almost the first declaration of the new assembly in June had been that the state’s debts would be honoured, and taxes should continue to be paid until replaced. They did the same for the church’s tithes when they “abolished feudalism” in August. Going further, they were careful to insist that all the most valuable seigneurial rights to regular payments were in fact not abolished, but merely made redeemable: for a lump-sum of 20 years’ payments (an unimaginable amount for most), the peasants could escape their burden, but otherwise would continue to owe it in perpetuity. The middle and upper classes’ investments in seigneurial status were valuable private property, and as such, and written into the Declaration of Rights, could only be done away with if covered by a “just and prior indemnity”.
In these terms, their vision clouded by distance, snobbery and self-interest, the revolutionaries set up the conditions for an intermittent, but entirely real, insurrection in the countryside, from the very start of their new order. Peasants felt betrayed, as seigneurs – many of whom were overtly hostile to the new order – were able to use the letter of the law to vex them for payments.
Local urban-based authorities were infuriated by peasant tax-refusal, to the point of sending armed militia expeditions to enforce payment at gunpoint. Religion became a flashpoint after the state seized church assets, turning half the priesthood, and many among their flocks, against the new order. Some things the revolutionary rulers did, like letting landlords add the value of abolished tithes and taxes to rents, made sense to them as measures to keep capital in circulation. But to impoverished tenant-farmers, whose landlords might be the same urban-based alien class that increasingly dominated local politics, it could seem like the cruellest oppression.
Long before Louis XVI tried to flee the country in 1791, pitching the revolution towards further radicalisation, war and a republic the next year, the countryside was wracked with waves of resistance, to local overlords, state impositions, or both.
At first similar to the overwhelming events of 1789, in which there were strikingly few casualties, rural unrest became steadily more traumatic, and more inclined to lead to deaths, as the wider political climate deteriorated.
By 1793, despite conceding the final abolition of feudal payments without compensation, the republic had so alienated many peasants that they provided the footsoldiers for a counter-revolutionary civil war. Many others fought with equal dedication on the other side, embracing the gains of revolution, and the resultant strife was a prime cause of what history calls ‘the Terror’. In the western region of the Vendée, the result was the death of hundreds of thousands, and a bitter heritage of cultural and political division that endures to this day.
One of the great tragedies of the era was that they had to fight at all, and much of the blame for that lies with the blinkered elites who had made a new order, forgetting who it was that had really shattered the old one.
David Andress is a professor of modern history at the University of Portsmouth. His most recent book is The French Revolution: A Peasants’ Revolt, published by Head of Zeus in 2019