Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Reign of Louis XV: Second Edition

Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Reign of Louis XV: Second Edition


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A new edition of Kaplan's landmark study on eighteenth-century French political economy, reissued with a new Foreword by Sophus A. Reinert. Based on research in all the Parisian depots and more than fifty departmental archives and specialized and municipal libraries, Kaplan's classic work constitutes a major contribution to the study of the subsistence problem before the French Revolution and the political economy of deregulatory reform. The study focuses on the radical legal changes "freeing" the grain trade in the 1760s, and the ensuing subsistence crisis that violently buffeted the realm and profoundly impacted French life. In the course of the analysis, Kaplan offers crucial insight into the liberal movement, the reform impulse within the government, the character of parlementary politics, the operation of local administration, the collective attitudes and behaviour of consumers, the famine plot persuasion, the organization of the grain and flour trades, and the management of royal victualing enterprises.

Anthem Press is proud to reissued this pathbreaking work together with a significant new historiographic companion volume by the author, "The Stakes of Regulation: Perspectives on 'Bread, Politics and Political Economy' Forty Years Later."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781785275425
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 07/30/2020
Series: Anthem Other Canon Economics Series
Pages: 816
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Steven L. Kaplan is the Goldwin Smith Professor of European History, emeritus at Cornell University.

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Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Reign of Louis XV

By Steven L. Kaplan

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2015 Steven L. Kaplan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-479-1




At every level of administrative life, public officials expended enormous amounts of time, energy, and money in dealing with the subsistence question. Virtually everyone who practiced or wrote about public administration, or what was commonly called "police" in the Old Regime, considered provisioning to be among its paramount concerns. "The abundance of grain," intoned Colbert, "is the thing to which we must pay the most attention in the police." A hundred years later his eulogist, Necker, wrote that "the subsistence of the people is the most essential object which must occupy the administration." Dupont, physiocracy's chief merchandiser and a mordant critic of what he believed to be the Colbert-Necker continuum of policy, remarked ironically on the "abundance" of the subsistence subject and deplored the fact that it dominated so much of public business: "nothing can better prove to you that this branch of Administration is truly the first of all [of them] than the multitude of Laws, Regulations, Arrêts of Parlements, Ordinances of Judges, Ordinances of Municipalities, Ordinances of intendants or royal agents which have come into place in all times on the matter of the provisioning of grain."

Management of food supply was directly or indirectly connected with some of the policies we associate with the growth of the state. To sustain cities, huge supplies of food had to be wrenched from the countryside (and partly because of the difficulty of provisioning them, old-regime governments tried to limit the size of certain urban centers). To promote industrial development and enable France to compete internationally — so Colbert maintained — an easy and sure subsistence had to be provided for the working population. On a more general plane, without regard to particular economic or political doctrines, an easy subsistence seemed to serve the public interest. A sufficiently nourished people would produce more (goods and children), earn more, buy more, and pay more taxes, and thereby enhance national prosperity and strength. To support an army, the government had to marshal regular stocks of food. Food management was a bewilderingly complex business and it generated many conflicts of interest, between various public institutions such as the armed forces or hospitals and the society at large, between cities and hinterland, between competing regions, etc. The state itself was often a party to these disputes, which it was supposed to mediate. Its missi dominici dispatched to displace local, seignorial, or old-time royal officials in the exercise of police and justice inherited responsibilities for provisioning which they could not renounce.

The state had many other reasons for wanting to create and expropriate part of an agricultural surplus. Whether subsistence considerations shaped the development of fiscal policy or not, fiscal policy affected the government's ability to control the food supply. Direct taxation promoted the commercialization of agriculture, forced peasants into the market, and helped make grain supply visible and available. Partly in order to facilitate provisioning, the government sporadically endeavored to eliminate the labyrinth of fiscal (and feudal) excrescences which hindered market transactions and impeded the circulation of goods. The state encouraged investment in agriculture with an eye toward increasing national wealth yet, in deference to subsistence demands, when cultivators sought to shift, say, from grain to wine in response to market incentives, it prohibited the move. Decisions about the floating population and public assistance policy in general were always made in reference to the subsistence situation in the cities and the countryside.

Connections like these underline the intimate relationship between the management of subsistence and the development of the state. They suggest that by the beginning of the early-modern period the state was already deeply enmeshed in the regulation of production, consumption, and distribution. But the extraordinary urgency which administrators at all levels, not just the agents of the central state, attached to the question of subsistence was the result above all of their overriding concern for social stability. The growth of the state itself generated forces of instability, but the concern for "tranquility," as contemporaries called it, was neither peculiar to France nor to the Old Regime.

The policy of provisioning as a means of social control had been practiced, in one form or another, since the beginning of urban civilization. It was not, at least in the French case, the product of a particularly cynical view of man, society and polity. It was based upon the familiar conviction, informed by a rapid reading of the history of the plebs and the state, that the failure to assure an adequate food supply could jeopardize the political and social structure of the kingdom. Nicolas Delamare, author of the most influential treatise on "police" in the Old Regime, drew the lesson from antiquity. The Roman experience taught that hunger caused depopulation and moral and physical deterioration and — far worse — threatened to "excite the greatest revolts, the most dangerous seditions." In the same vein, the author of an essay on "the history of subsistence," written in the early 1770's, argued that dearths "preceded, prepared, and caused" grave and sometimes lethal disorders in the empires of Rome, Constantinople, and China. "Everywhere," he warned, "you will see subsistence gives the first start to revolutions." Necker was the first major public figure in the Old Regime who dared articulate these fears in detail and make the case for social control in terms of a full-blown model positing the inherent fragility of social organization and the ineluctability of class conflict, but many of his assumptions and conclusions were drawn from the common stock of administrative or police thought.

The police theory of containment assumed that the state was not only menaced, from within, by magnates and their clans, religious minorities, mutinous constituted bodies, and other fractions of society, but that it was vulnerable, too, in its relations with the mass of people, the vast majority of whom saw themselves above all as consumers. As a rule, the people "submitted" provided their elementary needs were more or less satisfied. When the people felt their existence to be threatened, however, their threshold of tolerance plummeted. They not only became enraged by prolonged periods of shortage, soaring prices, and extreme and unusual misery, but they became resentful of burdens which in other circumstances they ignored or reluctantly accepted. When the people took on this mood, they could be contained only with the greatest difficulty. When the routine of daily life was disrupted, the government could not carry out its business. In the worst of circumstances, it found itself submerged in chaos.

Implicit in this view was the idea that the government which exposed itself by dereliction or insouciance to this kind of menace deserved what it reaped, for the people should not have to be put to this sort of terrible test. To be sure, there were other sources of popular disorder, such as excessive or novel fiscality, military or militia conscription, and the abrogation of certain customary franchises. Yet none of these was as permanent and as pervasive a prod to disruption, none caused such profound disaffection toward the state and society, and none aroused the people to such a pitch of fury as threatened subsistence. Ultimately, the government, not the people, had to answer for this sort of breach of tranquility. In the absence of order, government could not endure and society could not hold together. The "prerequisite" for order, in the words of an eighteenth-century intendant, was "to provide for the subsistence of the people, without which there is neither law nor force which can contain them."

This is not to suggest that this simple model of containment guided all decisions made by the government, though the further one moves from the center the more compelling it becomes and the more nearly it describes the instincts of local authorities for whom social control was a firsthand, visceral matter. The ministers, if not the échevins and the royal procurators, did not believe that they could govern by bread alone or that what worked for antiquity would function well in what they self-consciously felt to be a modern state and society. State policy had its own imperatives aside from social control or solicitude for the hungry. Yet the exigencies of social control, and ultimately the concern for survival, placed serious constraints on the freedom of the state to elect certain strategies for its own development and for the growth of society. The subsistence preoccupation influenced social and economic policy in obvious ways, but perhaps its most important implications were in the end political. The state committed itself to the consumer interest. The consumer interest embraced the overwhelming majority of the population. It included not only the laboring people of the cities, but vast numbers of peasants, workers, and craftsmen inhabiting the countryside.

The commitment to the consumer interest was symbolized by the king and embodied in the idea of the king as father-to-his-people. Probably every king would have liked to see himself regarded as father to his people; the history of kings shows that the paternal metaphor was a slogan for all seasons. In France, however, it acquired at least one specific and consistent meaning. In the Old Regime it was widely believed that the king had a duty to safeguard the existence and therefore the subsistence of his subjects. The origin of the notion is obscure, though eighteenth-century commentators traced it as far back as the time of Charlemagne. Whether it began as a sincere statement of royal intention or as a device for propaganda, it was taken very seriously by both the kings and the people. The fatherly monarch was, d'office, by his own proclamation and by universal anticipation and acclaim, the supreme victualer. What more solemn duty could a father have than to make it possible for his children to enjoy their daily bread? Though it never found expression in the coronation oath or achieved the fundamental stature of, say, the salic law, the commitment to subsistence–the social contract of subsistence–became, informally, a responsibility and an attribute of kingship. It was not merely something the king did for his people; it was something he was expected and in some sense required to do. The people counted on royal intervention and took the measure of a king partly in terms of his fatherly success. Morally and politically, the king was highly motivated to play the role well. Royal paternalism and the policy of social control were two sides of the same coin; both dealt with the relationship between the ruler (or his deputies) and the ruled. But whereas social control spoke the chilling language of raison d'état and stressed the checks placed upon the people and the supremacy of the interests of the state, this brand of paternalism exuded the compassion characteristic of familial ties, emphasized not the constraints upon the subjects but their claims upon the State, not the prerogatives of the government but its obligations, and found its rationale in the very nature of the royal mission, consecrated by tradition and religion.

If the medieval myths of the princely héros nourriciers no longer had currency in the Old Regime, still the idea of linking kingship and subsistence elicited enduring support. The theoretician of absolutism and divine monarchy, Bossuet, argued that the king's responsibility to assure subsistence was the "foundation" of all his claims on his subjects. His master, Louis XIV, did not always practice what Bossuet preached, but he understood the significance of the charge and he performed the victualing part self-consciously and convincingly. "I entered personally into a very detailed and very exact knowledge of the needs of the peoples and the state of things," he proudly told the dauphin, in reference to the millions he spent importing grain during the great dearth in the early 1660's; "I appeared to my subjects as a veritable père de famille, who makes provision for his house and shares the food equitably with his children and his servants." If Parisians forgave Louis XIV for some of his brutal excesses, it was at least in part because he had been their "pharaoh."

Though the Enlightenment raised probing questions about its validity, this conception of governmental responsibility found influential adherents in the eighteenth century. Montesquieu asserted that the state owed its citizens "an assured subsistence"; in this he differed little from the author of Politics Drawn from the Holy Scriptures, though he hardly shared Bossuet's view of Louis XIV as the ideal of kingship incarnate. The imperious human right to existence, which the radical social critics Mably and Linguet claimed the Sovereign was bound to guarantee, had more in common with the old vision of the providential and liturgical vocation of kingship than with the new conception of the rights of man that was beginning to emerge in the second half of the eighteenth century. In a crude essay submitted to the government during the subsistence troubles of the 1770's, a petitioner contended that "if by divine right the peoples owe a tribute to their Sovereign, there is one [tribute] perhaps equally indispensable due them and that would be that which would act to guarantee them against dearth." Another memorandum, composed at about the time of the Flour War by a lawyer and knight of the order of St. Louis, declared that, among the "obligations" which a "father owes to his children," the "necessity to furnish the essential food, which is bread" stood first. Writing at a time when the king's authority to undertake provisioning came under sharp attack, Desaubiez, author of a treatise on "Public Happiness," insisted that royal grain supplying was a "sacred right of the crown." Nor were the women who marched on Versailles in October 1789 engaged in an act of irrational fury: their view of the king as baker-victualer of last resort had a long tradition.

Although Louis XV did much to discredit it, the paternalistic idea and the expectations it engendered remained very much alive at the end of the Old Regime and the traditional connection between king/government and subsistence went on to trouble the revolutionary leaders. The wistful, consoling vision of a king-provider served as a major theme in counter-revolutionary popular propaganda. On a number of occasions Parisians besieged the bakers shouting slogans of a mood similar to that of the southern Italians who revolted in the mid-nineteenth century to the nostalgic refrain "the king fed us." Beset by serious subsistence problems and unable to devise new methods to deal with them, the revolutionaries were haunted by the specter of the old-regime victualing state whose successes they simultaneously exaggerated, denounced, and envied. Indeed, if one were to study prerevolutionary France through the eyes of a Creuzé-Latouche, one would believe that "under the Old Regime the government itself furnished Parisians with bread," a grave distortion of fact but a revealing acknowledgement of the legacy and the memory of the traditional provisioning policy.


Excerpted from Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Reign of Louis XV by Steven L. Kaplan. Copyright © 2015 Steven L. Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations; Foreword to the Second Edition; Acknowledgements; List of Abbreviations; Introduction; 1. The Police of Provisioning; 2. The Regulations and the Regulators; 3. The Origins of Liberty; 4. The Response to Liberalization: Theory and Practice; 5. Forcing Grain to be Free: The Government Holds the Line; 6. The Reforms and the Grain Trade; 7. Paris; 8. The Royal Trump; 9. The Government, the Parlements, and the Battle over Liberty: I; 10. The Government, the Parlements, and the Battle over Liberty: II; 11. From Political Economy to Police: The Return to Apprehensive Paternalism; 12. Policing the General Subsistence, 1771–1774; 13. The King’s Grain and the Retreat from Liberalization; Conclusion; Bibliography; Index

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From the Publisher

“Broadly conceived, richly detailed, thoroughly researched in the national and local archives, and generously larded with suggestions for future study, this is a piece of work that must delight and inform any student of France under the Old Regime. It is likely to remain, for many years to come, the definitive work on the subject.” —Keith M. Baker, Stanford University

“This is a book of social history that renews the old political history. It is an economist’s investigation that raises questions about collective psychology, mentalities, and levels of culture … [a work of] erudite virtuosity … a great work.” —Daniel Roche, Collège de France

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