The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question, 1700-1775by Steven Laurence Kaplan
In preindustrial Europe, dependence on grain shaped every phase of life from economic development to spiritual expression, and the problem of subsistence dominated the everyday order of things in a merciless and unremitting way. Steven Laurence Kaplan’s The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question, 1700–1775 focuses on the production and distribution of France’s most important commodity in the sprawling urban center of eighteenth-century Paris where provisioning needs were most acutely felt and most difficult to satisfy. Kaplan shows how the relentless demand for bread constructed the pattern of daily life in Paris as decisively and subtly as elaborate protocol governed the social life at Versailles.
Despite the overpowering salience of bread in public and private life, Kaplan’s is the first inquiry into the ways bread exercised its vast and significant empire. Bread framed dreams as well as nightmares. It was the staff of life, the medium of communion, a topic of common discourse, and a mark of tradition as well as transcendence. In his exploration of bread’s materiality and cultural meaning, Kaplan looks at bread’s fashioning of identity and examines the conditions of supply and demand in the marketplace. He also sets forth a complete history of the bakers and their guild, and unmasks the methods used by the authorities in their efforts to regulate trade.
Because the bakers and their bread were central to Parisian daily life, Kaplan’s study is also a comprehensive meditation on an entire society, its government, and its capacity to endure. Long-awaited by French history scholars, The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question, 1700–1775 is a landmark in eighteenth-century historiography, a book that deeply contextualizes, and thus enriches our understanding of one of the most important eras in European history.
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The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question
By Steven Laurence Kaplan
Duke University PressCopyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Psychologically, culturally, politically, and economically, bread was one of the most powerful "structuring structures" that governed private and public life in Old Regime France. It was at the core of both the material and symbolic organization of everyday existence. France was not merely "panivore," following the picturesque contemporary idiom; it was obsessed with bread. Bread was its primary means of survival, its paramount vector of sacrality, and its most comforting trope. It was impossible for the French to conceive of their well-being, here and now or hereafter, outside the confines imposed by the bread paradigm, at once tutor and tyrant.
Even if there were other foods available, the Encyclopédie méthodique reported, "the bulk of the people believe that they are dying of hunger if they do not have bread." For them the loaf contained something more than calories and nutrients. Whatever its particular form, texture, and composition, it conveyed an assurance of continuity and fidelity and it served as a measure of diverse sorts of legitimacy. Crystallizing both collective identity and individual destiny, bread forged the complicated links between sacred and profane, hope and anguish, whole and part, mother and child, prince and subject, producer and consumer, seller and buyer, justice and injustice.
If the French were "the biggest eaters of bread in the whole world," it was less for mystical than for rational reasons. While bread was evidently the worldly substance closest to divinity, it was believed to be also "the food most analogous to the human species." It was "the healthiest of all foods" and "the most essential to life." In the words of a distinguished physician, "it is appropriate to all sexes, ages, ranks, and temperaments, to the rich as to the poor, to the King as to the last of his subjects."
The "panivorous" rationality, however, fed on itself in a perilously circular way, foreclosing certain strategies of survival by preventing the optimal utilization of all available foods. Passionately interested in finding ways to attenuate subsistence crises, the food scientist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier despaired of making his case for surrogates and alternatives in France. "It will be hard," he wrote, "to convince the French accustomed to eating one kind of bread or another that three-quarters of the world gets by without it." Reviewing Parmentier's Examen chymique des pommes de terre, the Journal de l'agriculture warned that "the current furor to make everything into bread can only prove dangerous." It referred to Parmentier's efforts to circumvent the extraordinarily conservative disposition of Parisians in particular and of the French in general ("impassioned ignorance and ridiculous prejudice") by presenting the potato as a friendly farinaceous vegetable to be used in (procrustean) bread. It would be virtually impossible to induce the French to change their basic foodways, observed a commentator in the Journal économique: "there are persons so stubbornly installed in their old habits in this respect that it would take an infinity of examples, and require almost miracles before their very eyes, to persuade them of their error."
Grafted on a widespread pagan culture that paid special deference to grain, the Christian tradition, no less deeply rooted in the agrarian world, invested bread with a powerful and miraculous spirituality. Christian texts and liturgy abound in bread imagery. Among many other things, Jesus, the "Living Bread," was "a nourishing god who addressed a population suffering from chronic shortage." Instituting the Eucharist, Christ said of the bread: "This is my body." There is no more moving moment in Christian practice than the communion, mediated by bread and wine, that joins the believer and his or her God. So meaningful was the very act of breaking bread that until the second century the words fractio panis referred exclusively to the Eucharist. It seems very likely that for a great many French women and men the mood of the Eucharist echoed in the communion of everyday bread breaking in the family or at work. Surely the Eucharistic mold reinforced the conviction that only bread could sustain life in its deepest sense; that food acquired providential power and status only when it took the form of bread.
Quasi-liturgical practices spilled over into daily bread-breaking routine. The best-known example is the custom of tracing the sign of the cross on the loaf with the tip of a knife. Bread's holy nature required a special protocol of respect; fears of retribution impelled believers to rigor. To avoid misfortune, they avoided placing the loaf bottom up, as if this were an act of desecration. It was a sacrilege to waste bread, to fail to utilize all the leftovers in soup or some other form, or to offer them as alms. (The Christian horror of waste served the mundane needs of the civil order, where economy in subsistence became the watchword of administrators and scientists, and Voltaire and Rousseau, despite their antagonistic views on the social utility of luxury, joined hands to assail the prodigal waste of precious flour in wig preparation and cosmetics.) One had to repair the insult to bread allowed to fall to the ground by kissing it. Stepping on bread was a damnable act. The prescriptive glissando from liturgy to folklore was not always coherent. Thus in some parts of France it was considered a sin to give bread to animals, while in other places mixing chicken feed with bread crumbs was a fecund recipe for increasing the number of eggs.
The familiar act of the offering of holy bread dramatized the connection between material and spiritual concerns, casting into relief both the sanctified status of bread and its social obligations. It was a sacrificial ritual with a redistributive function, though critics claimed that the bulk of the holy bread never reached the needy to whom it was destined. Theoretically each Parisian was bound to make the offering when his turn came within the parish ("we are all equal in the eyes of the Lord"). While certain observers saw moral advantage in inducing Parisians to acknowledge publicly the pivotal role of bread in their individual and collective lives, Louis-Sébastien Mercier deplored the ostentatious aspect of the ritual ("a spectacle of vanity") and its tendency to issue in unsavory disputes regarding rank and magnitude of contribution ("these pious trivialities"). The parishes frequently summoned the courts to condemn recalcitrant citizens. (Lieutenant General of Police Hérault personally reprimanded a woman baker who had less excuse than anyone for failing to make the offering.)
To describe a well-merited disgrace in the eighteenth century, one called it "holy bread." Apart from its sacred metaphorical vocation, as quasi-ubiquitous everyday trope bread impinged on everyone's consciousness. Bread conveyed notions of health, fecundity, fortune, cleverness, wisdom, home, family, love, work, pleasure, joy, comparative worth, and so on. For Dr. Paul-Jacques Malouin, the eighteenth century's first great baking expert, drawing on the Greek and the Hebrew as well as on colloquial usage, life and bread were "synonymous terms." According to Voltaire, a Jesuit adversary "paid me the honor of publishing two volumes against me in Lyon in order to earn some bread (I don't think he got white bread for it)." Asked why he carried a hammer, a master locksmith arrested by the police in May 1775 explained "it's my bread." A fugitive journeyman denounced in May 1739 "is not where he is supposed to be, earning his bread." With the Enlightenment, noted Le Babillard, a late-eighteenth-century periodical, "the art of thinking and writing has become a breadwinner." The shift from the image of gagne-pain (breadwinner), common in the eighteenth century, to the formula gagne-bifteck (steak-winner), a post-World War II locution, marks the enormous socioeconomic distance traversed in two centuries.
Direly ill, a person has lost "the taste for bread." An individual who has already enjoyed many years of life "has already baked more than half of his bread." A person devoid of malice is "good like bread." A wonderful man or woman is "better than good bread." A taciturn or doleful person "has lost his bread in the oven." A young woman who became pregnant before marriage "has borrowed a bread from the next ovenful." In nineteenth-century Alsace couples in a hurry "take loaves from the coming ovenful," but certain men learn at their expense that "it is not always he who heated up the oven who is the first to bite into the warm bread." Drawing on a classical binary metaphor at the end of 1994, in a front-page article Le Monde noted that Prime Minister and soon-to-be presidential candidate Edouard Balladur "must have suspected that after having eaten his white bread, he would sooner or later be obliged to swallow his black bread," that is to say, tougher times would surely follow his early success. In early 1995 President Francois Mitterand remarked ironically on candidate Jacques Chirac's leftward drift: "a new social contract for employment has become [his] daily bread."
These tropes turned imperceptibly into myriad proverbs that characterized a wide range of comportment. "To eat one's white bread first" referred to an individual who enjoyed tranquility at the outset and then endured troubles. It is difficult to remedy an affair that one has begun badly: "If one puts them in the oven incorrectly, one gets bedeviled loaves." It was lamentably selfish to "to eat one's bread in one's bag." To express one's boredom with a given experience, one remarks that "that is as long as a day without bread." A person who arouses vain hopes "promises more butter than bread." To signify one's right to partake of one's neighbor's bread, one averred that "a bread that is sliced open has no master." Long before the Revolution people dreamed of "Liberty & baked bread," an ideal/idyll that tended to be individual rather than collective and suggested that happiness was having some property and not being subject to anyone. In the mid-eighteenth-century edition of his dictionary, Pierre Richelet suggested that it was possible to have a rich conversation without ever abandoning one's loaf, linguistically speaking.
Not by Bread Alone
One of the rare eighteenth-century thinkers who did not associate bread with either liberty or felicity was Simon Linguet, a lawyer, muckraker, and pungent social commentator. His case is interesting because he contested the constrictive bread archetype vehemently, without any regard for its sacral immunities, in terms of the rational requirements for social production and reproduction. Beyond the play of paradox in which he delected, he raised many crucial questions that others repressed or ignored concerning the logic of the "bread-centered" (panivore) subsistence system, its legitimizing and mystifying discourses, and its perverse effects. These reflections informed Linguet's fierce campaign against the Enlightenment's self-proclaimed economists, the physiocrats, for whom grain was at the very core of the socioeconomic system and the liberty to dispose of it freely was the first principle of politics.
This Montesquieu (or perhaps this Persian) of French foodways began by exposing the overbearing ethnocentrism of hegemonic assumptions about bread—"prejudices" equally shared by the elite and popular cultures. "First, we have the idea that it is the only food suitable to our nature and that humankind would perish without it," wrote Linguet. "It is, however, a fact that the majority of mankind is unfamiliar with its usage," he added, echoing Voltaire who had made the same observation without pondering its implications, "and that among those who adopted it it produces only pernicious effects." The French needed to look beyond their navel: for Americans, who ate cassava, plantains, bananas, and corn, bread was "a delicacy and not a regular food"; sustained by rice, which was infinitely easier to cultivate, conserve and prepare than grain-wrought farinaceous foods, Asians viewed the latter as luxuries; in Africa, where people survived through hunting, fishing, and fruit consumption, bread and its panoply were unknown.
A Copernican revolution away from the truth, the French had to strip away the sophistic rhetoric and see bread for what it really was: "a tedious and costly compound, a nuisance in every sense" that was consumed exclusively and exceptionally in a "little corner of the planet, ... our little Europe." Even there, "where it seems so necessary," a vast number of people were excluded from its so-called benefits: the Spaniards who survived on chestnuts or acorns; the French who lived on a buckwheat or millet porridge or a sort of corncake; or the Germans who managed with boiled potatoes. The numbers spoke eloquently in Linguet's judgment: barely 5 percent of the world's population ate any form of bread. "There's the universal food! There's the important object of subsistence to which governments must sacrifice everything, on which all political speculations must be founded, and whose form we must attempt to give, by every violent manipulation, to all the foods with which nature bountifully endowed us [precisely] to turn us away from this one."
Far from being a harbinger of democracy, bread, especially in its wheaten form, was a marker of despotism, distinction, and disdain. Far from being an authentic commodity of first necessity, bread, especially wheat bread, was called into being by "luxury." To account for the "slavery" to which bread reduced (European) mankind, Linguet elaborated a sort of dependency theory: "There is no type of food that holds men more tightly in a state of dependence" than bread. The need to provide a regular supply of bread held the people—the poor who were the overwhelming majority—"in chains," subjected them to arbitrary power, reduced them to contemptible status.
The "bread-as-the-only-possible-food" ideology justified this tyranny, and the exploitation "of the little people" by "the big." Given the enormous intrinsic difficulties of cultivating bread-making grain, conserving it, transporting it, transforming it into flour, and then converting it into bread, and given the temptations to which the greedy and manipulative easily succumbed, it was inevitable for the system to fall prey to disorders, in particular "monopoly," whose victims were the little ones. The bitter irony of this subsistence system was that it engendered "the secret of perpetuating famines" that it was supposed to prevent. "Bread," implored the beggar. It was bread, however, that begot the beggar, and the misery in which the majority languished. "When bread returns to assassinate you," admonished Linguet, "the image of peace and quiet, of liberty and of abundance" associated with bread will rapidly recede.
Anterior to its political ramifications, "this cruel dependence" derived from the natural and social requirements of bread production. Agriculture subjected the cultivator and then the consumer to abominable "constraints." No work was physically harder and morally more exigent than growing bread grains; no activity was less certain of issuing in success, given the risks (weather, disease, predators). In the cycle of application and vigilance, there was no repose, for once a harvest came in, another had to be prepared. And the harvest was not the end of the tale but the beginning of a new chapter. For the grain had to be threshed, winnowed, stored, conditioned, transported; then cleaned, ground, bolted, graded, stored, transported, and (re)conditioned. Only then was it ready for the killing task of nocturnal bread making that fell to the bakers. And a few days after it was baked the bread was no longer fit for eating.
For Linguet, there was no rationality in this exhausting, debasing, and aleatory process. It was neither in the interest of the state, which needed to develop wealth and stimulate population growth ("the plough opens the tomb of our species"), nor in the interest of consumers, for whom bread offered security no purchase, to persist in such an exorbitant and ultimately self-destructive course. It made infinitely more sense to turn to the inexhaustible supply of fish, harvestable without planting and incessant labor ("the seas are a vast countryside," which could not be turned into "a prison"), or to the production of rice, which was cheaper and easier to grow, more abundant and more certain, largely impervious to the elements, extremely durable, infinitely simpler to prepare, at least as tasty and more nourishing, in a word "the most beneficent of all foods."
Excerpted from The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question by Steven Laurence Kaplan. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author
Steven Laurence Kaplan is Goldwin Smith Professor of European History at Cornell University.
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