Complaints of an unfair tax system. Cries of inequality and a widening income gap. Rumors of impending doom. No, we are not talking about 2013. These were the themes which put a twist in the French Revolution of 1789. Here’s a short essay I wrote on the subject a while back.
As the French bourgeoisie revolution raged in the summer of 1789, the peasants who had long been under the stern hand of an unkind system were emboldened by the maneuverings in Paris and created a widespread uprising that pushed the French Revolution into a new phase. The peasants did not wait quietly to hear all of the political outcomes of the Estates General. In fact, the peasants moved, pushed and provoked the revolution into unpredictable territory.
The peasants comprised the bulk of the French population. They toiled tirelessly on the land often not being able to grow enough on their meager plots on which to subsist. (Lefebvre 130). The peasants endured a long list of inequalities which made them the most overburdened class in France. These burdens united the rural population in common recognition that all of the obligations placed on them could not continue (Lefebvre 133). One of the grossest inequalities concerned the tax system.
The peasants were singled out discriminatively in regards to tax requirements. They were the only class which had to pay the taille, the unfair land tax, and they also contributed most to the poll tax (Lefebvre 133). Likewise they were the only class which was randomly chosen for military service (Lefebvre 133). But this by far was not all. They endured the indirect taxes on items such as salt, but perhaps worst of all, they paid the dreaded manorial dues to the lords of the land. The church also had its hold on the peasants if but to a lesser degree. The tithe had to be paid to the clergy. Perhaps the peasants would not have minded paying the tithe as much if they saw the proceeds being put to use in the local parish; however, the tithe collector who claimed their potion of the peasants harvest seemed to become nothing more than a grain hoarder (Lefebvre 135). It would have made the peasants frustrated and angry to see grain being stored in large quantities around the country when the bulk of the rural folk did not have enough to eat. The peasants were also critical of the bourgeoisie many of whom owned thriving businesses and generally had better means to navigate difficult economic times. Clearly, however, the overwhelming sense of anger and discontent emanating from the peasants was focused on the nobility and when the peasants moved, they hit their desired target hard.
One of the interesting features of the peasant revolts was the mass hysteria being conjured up by any one of a thousand rumors which spread contagiously across the land. There was widespread belief in an ‘aristocratic conspiracy’. Many believed that the aristocrats would not sit back and let their privileges be taken away by a bourgeoisie assembly. The peasants believed that the aristocrats would deceive the king into action to crush the Third Estate using hired foreign armies or bands of brigands or thieves to do their bidding (Lefebvre 143). In fact, the long drawn out inaction of the Estates General during the months leading up to the storming of the Bastille was in the peasants’ view merely a part of this conspiracy (Lefebvre 143). In light of these ‘conspiracies’, the peasants bonded together in solidarity many claiming that they would not make any payments on the harvest during the coming fall months (Lefebvre 143).
To further disturb the already aroused feelings of the rural farmers, fear and panic of impending disaster and attack became widespread. This so called Great Fear pushed one person’s fear upon another creating confusion, terror and backlash against the nobles and landlords. Rumors spread that cavalrymen were wandering around the countryside; a simple group of people coming out of the forest could spread viral rumors about brigands and others hired by nobles who were going to threaten the peasants land and livelihood; one group of the new National Guard was mistaken to be brigands which led to more rumors and upheavals (Lefebvre 147). It is not likely that any of these rumors which spread fear and panic throughout much of France in 1789 was organized or planned. It did, however, have a great impact on how the peasants thought and acted. Misinformation gave credence to their actions, and it did not really seem that the verification of the rumors was necessary. It emboldened the peasants to act out lest they lose the little they still had.
One broad factor that roused the peasantry into rebellion was the economic woes that accompanied the year of revolution. In the spring of 1789, the high price of bread brought about widespread riots and uprisings in the Northern provinces (Lefebvre 145). An already overtaxed population would not tolerate the drastic rise in their sustenance; many moved into action.
In the southern province of Dauphiny, an agrarian revolt broke out. In one place, a group of peasants gathered fearing their houses were in danger of being burnt down. In response to this unspecified threat, they attacked the local manor houses and torched them all (Lefebvre 149). In fact, after the storming of the Bastille in Paris on July 14, the peasants were in many ways emboldened and in their celebratory state burnt down many manor houses (Lefebvre 145). The targeting of the manor houses was logical. Above all else, they hated the dues that they had to pay to the nobles. They hated the class system which pushed them down to the benefit of the privileged classes. The peasants wanted nothing less than the complete renunciation of manorial dues and the complete destruction of the manor system (Lefebvre 146).
The peasant revolt moved the revolution from the cities to the most remote rural areas. The peasant revolt also pushed the revolution out of the mere political arena in Paris by violently confronting the nobles who had so long persecuted and used them. An uprising of the peasantry was not an assured matter. Lefebvre contends that without the king calling an Estates General they would not have moved at all (144). But the fact that they did adds a fascinating and perhaps surprising feature to the French Revolution.
LeFebvre, Georges. The Coming of the French Revolution. Trans. R.R. Palmer. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2005.