Rabid revolutionaries like Robespierre and Marat are perhaps the poster children for the liberty, equality and brotherhood rhetoric preceding the French Revolution. In reality, the seed of the overthrow of the nobility and--almost by misadventure--the monarchy, was sown by an antiquated feudal system. It was the French peasant whose battle cry was more likely to be "Read my lips. No new taxes. Give me bread instead!" rather than some overblown radical slogan for liberty.
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When discussing the conditions leading up to the French Revolution, it is easy to dwell too much on the firebrand rabble-rousers who preached liberty, equality and brotherhood. The French peasantry, groaning under an arcane and archaic feudal system, was more interested in ridding itself of the crushing taxation that caused their standard of living to decrease at an alarming rate in a very short time. The peasants had little interest in overthrowing Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who actually enjoyed a high degree of popularity. The nobility and the Church, however, squeezed the Third Estate on every hand through taxes and tithes.
The French peasantry experienced widespread unemployment in the 1780s due to a sharp decline in the nation's important textile industry. This was compounded by a population explosion of roughly 25 to 30 per cent in about 90 years that was not matched by a significant rise in food production. The worst harvest in 40 years took place during the winter of 1788-89, compounding the food crisis. With more mouths to feed, the French peasant was still obligated to pay an inordinate amount of his tiny income for rent and taxes on everything from salt to wheat.
The feudal system had been dying out in much of Europe for several centuries due to its inherent inefficiencies. French agriculture had not kept pace with improvements and innovations made in the Netherlands and the British Isles, for example. France, never a major trading nation, derived most of its revenue from a dizzying array of internal taxes that fell disproportionately on those least able to pay them, the peasantry. When the peasants reached the point at which they could no longer afford to live, eat and pay the onerous taxes, rioting ensued.
The image of the French peasant is that of an elegant and genteel figure in a romantic oil painting. Indeed, he probably lived better than most of his class elsewhere in Europe at the time but was still incredibly poor. He and his fellows owned perhaps as much as 40 per cent of the arable land, but this was subdivided into several small plots, as they had been since the Middle Ages. Urban peasantry, often unemployed because of the waning textile industry, subsisted on ill-gotten gains from prostitution and petty theft and selling second-hand goods, or subsisted on nothing at all. Yet, for each general type of peasant, rents and food prices kept rising without a rise in wages.
Rampant inflation in the hard winter of 1788-89 led to widespread hunger in the countryside and in the cities, especially Paris. While wages did rise 22 per cent, the cost of living had risen by 62 per cent. The peasantry was being evicted from housing, and those unlucky enough to die at this time were buried in paupers' graves. The ensuing riots brought little relief and contributed to even higher unemployment, and yet the impossible taxes had to be paid. The stage was set for a rebellion against the tax-and-tithe consumers, the nobility and the Church.
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