The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England, 1730-1848 / Edition 2

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781897959473
  • Publisher: Interlink Publishing Group, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 12/28/2005
  • Edition description: REV
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 278
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.70 (d)

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The Crowd in History

A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England), 1730â"1848

By George Rudé

Serif Books

Copyright © 2005 Serif
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-897959-47-3


The French Rural Riot of the Eighteenth Century

The seventeenth century in France had been rent by popular disturbance, above all by the periodic rebellions of disaffected peasants. In Richelieu's time, there had been the desperate uprisings of the croquants—or "poor countrymen"—of the 1620's, '30's and early '40's, involving whole provinces in bloody clashes with tax collectors and recruiting sergeants; and the peasants' war in Normandy, known as that of "Jean Va-Nu-Pieds," which aimed to abolish all new taxes levied in the past thirty years. After the dissident princes and parlements had had their turn in the civil wars of the Fronde (1648–52), peasant disturbances broke out again in the early years of Louis XIV, culminating in the great insurrection of the 1670's, which, starting over the salt tax {the hated gabelle) in the region of Bordeaux, carried the torch of rebellion through ten provinces in the south and west of· France. A final wave attended the last twenty-five years of the "Great Monarch'"s reign, with its wars, famines, and religious persecution. This was the age of the great peasant insurrection in Calvinist Languedoc, known as the war of the Camisards, the last of the French religious wars. But it was more than that, because it was also fought over the peasant's manorial obligations to his lord; and, soon after, in Catholic Quercy and Périgord, peasants were challenging the whole existing order by refusing to pay taxes to the King, tithe to the Church, or to perform servile manual labor (corvée) for the upkeep of the roads. Louis' long reign ended in a final outburst of peasant riots over the disastrous harvest and famine of 1709 and the further exactions of tax collectors for the War of the Spanish Succession.

Surprising as it may seem, the eighteenth century, which ended in the great social and political upheaval of the Revolution, was rarely marked by disturbances of such violence, scope, or magnitude. In the seventy-odd years separating Louis' death from the pre-revolutionary crisis of 1788, such fundamental questions as those raised by the peasants of Normandy, Languedoc, and Perigord in Richelieu's and Louis' time far more rarely appeared as issues in popular disturbances. Basically, peasant claims remained unsatisfied: the most onerous of the royal taxes—the gabelle and taille (land tax)—continued to he levied on unwilling peasants; and the holders of seigneurial fiefs continued to exact feudal obligations (though rarely servile labor other than the corvée) from their tenants; and in fact, aided by their lawyers, they were able to revive old claims, or to invent new ones, as the century progressed. So fundamental rural discontents continued to simmer beneath the surface; yet more peasants acquired land as freeholders or tenants, rural incomes rose, and Louis XV's reign, in particular, saw a degree of general agrarian prosperity unknown in earlier times.

In one sense, the great turning point was 1709, the year of the last great famine of the Old Régime: after this, nationwide starvation disappear e d a s a recurring phenomenon from the French countryside. Admittedly, rural distress continued, and agricultural prices, which had begun to fall about 1660, continued to fall till 1730; and there was a final backlash of widespread peasant disturbance, reminiscent of earlier years, that convulsed large parts of the country in hunger riots during the Regency in the 1720's. Soon after, how ever, the rural producer began to find a continuously expanding market for his g rain and wine; and Professor Labrousse has convincingly shown us that the forty -five years between 1733 and 1778 were years of steadily advancing prices and prosperity for rural proprietors and tenant farmers, or anyone else in the countryside whose holding was large enough to enable him to sell in the market. For ten years after 1778, partly because of France's entry into the War of American Independence, prices tended to fall again, with results that were often disastrous to wine-growers; but only in 1787 was France afflicted by a series of had harvests and other attendant calamities that stirred the whole countryside into a renewed outbreak of rebellion, which played a vital part in the revolutionary crisis of 1789.

In 1789, then, it was once more economic distress that forced the old traditional and basic grievances of the whole rural population to the surface; and, as Alexis de Tocqueville has insisted, the explosion may have been all the more violent because of the comparative prosperity and freedom enjoyed by many peasants in the preceding sixty or seventy years. Even in the prosperous years, however, when age-old discontents due to tithe, tax, and seigneurial exaction were dormant rather than active, a large part of the peasantry, even if cushioned against actual starvation, could still only scrape a meager existence from the cultivation of the soil. These included not only the hosts of landless laborers, cottagers, and métayers (sharecroppers)—accounting between them for over half the rural population—but many thousands of small proprietors who, even though they owned their land outright, did not possess the thirty acres or more that alone would yield a surplus for sale on the market. Such persons, therefore, like the bulk of the wine-growers and the people of the cities, depended for their survival on the purchase of bread or grain. Many cottagers and stripholders might be vitally concerned at the tendency of the larger proprietors and farmers to enclose the commons and encroach on their traditional rights of gleaning and pasture; but all, being buyers rather than sellers of food, would be concerned with the need for cheap and plentiful bread—indeed, this was their overriding preoccupation. As bread was the staple diet and accounted, even at its normal price of 2 sous a pound, for something like 50 percent of the poor man's budget, he was naturally alarmed, and might even suffer serious hardship, when it rose appreciably higher. In fact, whenever harvests were bad, or when the needs of war or a breakdown in communications led to shortage, hoarding, or panic buying, a large part of the rural population, like their fellows in the cities, were threatened with hunger; and on such occasions many would demonstrate in markets or at bakers' shops, or resort to more violent action by stopping food convoys on roads and rivers, pillaging supplies, or compelling shopkeepers, millers, farmers, and merchants to sell their wares at lower prices, or the authorities to intervene on behalf of the small consumers. As long as the peasant proprietor was relatively satisfied, there could be no question of a general rural conflagration, and the old issues underlying peasant rebellion lay muted; but the food riot remained as the typical and constant expression of popular discontent; and this was true of the village as it was of the city and market town.

France being a largely agrarian community, outbreaks of rioting (outside Paris, at least) corresponded fairly closely to the years of bad harvest and shortage. The lean years, between 1709 and the pre-revolutionary crisis of 1788, were 1725, 1740, 1749, 1768, 1775, and 1785. With the exception of 1749, these were also the major years, though by no means the only years, of popular disturbance. There were food riots at Caen in Normandy and throughout the Paris region in 1725. In 1739-40, the Marquis d'Argenson, one-time Foreign Minister, reported in his journal the desperate condition of the western provinces and successive outbreaks at Bordeaux, Caen, Bayeux, Angoulême, and Lille: at the latter, the Intendant was threatened with assassination. In 1747, he recorded disturbances at Toulouse and in Guyenne and, in 1752, at Aries, Rennes, Bordeaux, Metz, Le Mans, Caen, Rouen, Fontainebleau, and in Auvergne and Dauphine: at Rauen, the cotton workers held the city for three days, raided granaries and warehouses and suffered the loss of ten lives by bullets and five more by execution before being silenced by three regiments of dragoons. In 1768, when the price of bread rose higher in some provinces than at any time since 1725, there were riots at Le Havre and, at Mantes, crowds sacked a warehouse and sold its contents at half the market price. In 1770, spinners and weavers performed a similar operation at Rheims. In 177 4, the Parisian bookseller-diarist, Sébastien Hardy, recorded food riots at Tours and Bordeaux; they were followed early the next year by further outbreaks at Dijon, Metz, Rheims, Bordeaux, and Montauban which led, in turn, into the more extensive and protracted movement known to historians as la guerre des farines (the "flour war") of April–May 1775.

This was by no means the last of such disturbances before the Revolution: there were bread riots at Grenoble and Toulouse in June 1778, others in Normandy in 1784 and 1785, and many more in the critical year of 1788. Yet the riots of 1775, which, for two weeks and more, gripped Paris and its neighboring provinces and caused considerable alarm at Court, have a special claim on our attention. They were the last of the great popular movements before the Revolution; they occurred before such movements had begun to be impregnated with the new ideas of the Enlightenment; and, in some respects, they look forward to similar types of outbreak during the revolutionary years. Above all, they afford a classic (and richly documented) example of a particular type of food riot that had begun to emerge over the past century: the imposition of an unofficial price control by collective action, or what the French call taxation populaire. It is proposed, therefore, to devote the remaining pages of this chapter to a description and discussion of this movement.

Turgot had been made Comptroller General of Finance by Louis XVI shortly after his accession to the throne, in August 177 4. His record was a good one and, except by a small but influential group of aristocratic diehards, the appointment was well received. The new minister was a "Physiocrat" and a firm believer in free trade; and, in September, he took steps to restore the freedom of trade in grain and flour in the home market. This was not in itself an unpopular move: his predecessor, the Abbé Terray, who had regulated the trade by means of a monopoly of bulk purchase and stocking of markets, had won notoriety and odium by entrusting his operations to a couple of shady and unscrupulous dealers. The climate was, therefore, favorable for a change; and had the harvest been good (after a succession of failures), it might well have succeeded. But, unfortunately for Turgot, the harvest of 1774 turned out to be even worse than those immediately before it; and, with the depletion of stocks in the spring of 1775, the free entry of merchants and speculators into the markets, and the panic buying of the wealthier consumers, the price of grain, flour, and bread began to rise at an alarming pace. At Rozoy-en-Brie, one of largest markets in the Paris region (it was one of some sixty from which the capital drew its supplies of grain), the price of wheat rose, on April 1, from 25 to 30½ francs a setier (approximately 12 bushels), while in the Paris bread markets the price of the 4-pound loaf, normally 8–9 sous but recently 11, rose to 11½ sous in March, to 13½ sous at the end of April and to 14 sous in early May. In parts of Normandy and Picardy, prices rose even higher; so much so that some local officials begged the minister to intervene. But Turgot was obstinately committed to his Physiocratic ideas and refused to compromise. So the poor, faced with a mounting threat to their means of livelihood, resorted to their traditional mode of protest; but, this time, it was to be more persistently sustained and to be on a larger scale than any similar commotion in the last fifty years.

It began on April 27 at Beaumont-sur-Oise, a market town twenty miles north of Paris. According to the senior magistrate, who was later charged with complicity in the affair, the riots arose from the bakers' refusal to bake more bread and the high prices demanded by the grain merchants. He himself was asked to intervene; but, although entitled as a last resort to adjust the price of bread, having no authority to reduce the market price of wheat, he refused. So the local people, with the porters of Beaumont at their head, and peasants from neighboring villages took the law into their own hands, invaded the market, and compelled the dealers to sell their wheat at a "just" or reasonable price—in this instance, at 12 francs a setier.

The initiative taken by the Beaumont porters proved to be the "spark" that set the whole movement alight. It also set the pattern for the disturbances that followed in the Ile de France around Paris and four of its bordering provinces. The area covered was essentially enclosed by the rivers encircling the capital: the Oise and the Somme to the north, the Eure to the west, the Seine to the northwest and southeast, and the Marne to the east. Generally, the riots followed the course of these rivers or crossed them at strategic points, spreading from one market town to the next, and fanning out on either side of the rivers into the farms and villages of the surrounding countryside. In each market and village touched by the disturbances the news had got around—and it needed no specially hired agents or messengers to spread it—that, in other places, something was being done, either by the authorities or, failing them, by the people themselves, to impose a "just" ceiling on the exorbitant prices being charged by merchants, farmers, millers, and bakers; and it was urged that they, too, should follow this example. Usually, the "just" price in question followed the pattern set at Beaumont, and the men and women who flooded into the markets, bakers' shops, or farms of the laboureurs, refused to pay more than 12 francs for a setier of wheat, 20 sous for a bushel of flour, and 2 sous for a pound of bread. Admittedly, these proceedings afforded the opportunity for many to engage in indiscriminate pillage, or to undercut the "popular" price; but this was not a typical feature, and it is remarkable how many who had underpaid in the heat of the moment made up the difference later.

It was perhaps natural that contemporaries, especially Turgot's supporters (Voltaire among them), should have seen these disturbances as the outcome of a plot designed to starve the capital of its food supplies and overthrow the government by force. Miromesnil, the Keeper of the Seals, for example, told the Paris parlement, with all the authority of his high office, that "a plan had been devised to strip bare the countryside ... to starve the cities, Paris in particular." Turgot, indeed, had enemies at Court, among them the powerful Prince de Conti, whose ancestral seat of L'Ile-Adam lay suspiciously near the place where the trouble had started. There were also the Jesuits and the Church party, for whom Turgot's free-thinking principles and known association with philosophes and Encyclopaedists were matters of public scandal and reproach; and was it not significant that a number of parish priests had been arrested, and several more suspected, as alleged instigators of these riots? Was it not also strange that the Abbe Terray's former trusted agents, Doumerc and Sorin de Bonne, should as soon as the disturbances were over, have been confined, with several others, in the Bastille?

Such suspicions were widely held and have been inherited, in one form or another, by Turgot's biographers and other historians. Yet they have little basis in fact. The Prince de Conti himself proved to be a minor victim of the very riots that he was supposed to have incited, and his estates were to be the scene of further peasant disorders both before and during the Revolution of 1789. Sorin and Doumerc, it later appeared, were being charged solely with squandering public funds during the Abbe's administration; and the most that could be found against the parish priests, who were soon released from custody, was that they had been too ready to believe the current rumors that wheat was being sold at a reduced price in nearby markets. Even so, if the riots had been a more or less simultaneous explosion, or if any of the emissaries said to have been moving around with specimens of mouldy bread or bags of louis d'or had been arrested and questioned by the police, there might seem to have been some substance in the charge that the "flour war" was fostered by a conspiracy rather than by the fear of hunger.


Excerpted from The Crowd in History by George Rudé. Copyright © 2005 Serif. Excerpted by permission of Serif Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Illustrations and Maps, vii,
Preface to the 1981 Edition, 1,
Introduction: The Subject and its Problems, 3,
Part One. The Crowd in Action,
1 The French Rural Riot of the Eighteenth Century, 19,
2 The English Country Riot of the Eighteenth Century, 33,
3 The City Riot of the Eighteenth Century, 47,
4 Labor Disputes in Eighteenth-Century England, 66,
5 Luddism, 79,
6 The French Revolution: (1) The Political Riot, 93,
7 The French Revolution: (2) The Food Riot, 108,
8 The French Revolution: (3) The Labor Dispute, 123,
9 'Church and King' Riots, 135,
10 'Captain Swing' and 'Rebecca's Daughters', 149,
11 The French Revolution of 1848, 164,
12 Chartism, 179,
Part Two. The Pre-industrial Crowd,
13 Faces in the Crowd, 195,
14 Motives and Beliefs, 214,
15 The Pattern of Disturbance and the Behavior of Crowds, 237,
16 The Success and Failure of the Crowd, 259,
Bibliography, 270,
Index, 273,

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