It has been said that man does not live by bread alone, yet this is exactly the situation the urban poor faced in the French cities during the harsh winter of 1788-89. Unwilling to adopt cheaper foods introduced from the New World, the French poor relied on bread and little else to sustain themselves. When a catastrophe caused the price of bread to rise nearly 90 per cent in one year, many found themselves working to keep the requisite two loaves of bread on the table. There was nothing left over to pay for anything else. This was the winter of their discontent.
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While the roots of the food shortages leading up to the French Revolution formed predominantly during the winter of 1788-89, famine continued to threaten the peasantry until the rise of Napoleon in 1800. In the pre-Revolutionary period, inadequate distribution methods, antiquated agricultural practices and the climatological period known as the Little Ice Age (lasting from the 16th to the 19th centuries) converged to create a “perfect storm” of shortages and inflationary prices. During the Revolution itself, bread riots again erupted, helping to ignite the infamous Reign of Terror in 1793.
Food shortages and outright famine were no strangers to the European peasant, especially during periods of war, pestilence and meteorological swings like the Little Ice Age. However, in the 1700s a 25 per cent population increase in France overstressed an already struggling agricultural system that could not keep up with demand. With even a 10 per cent decrease in a harvest, people went hungry. The winter of 1788-89 was especially brutal, freezing transportation canals and rivers solid so that food distribution slowed to a trickle. The spring thaw laid waste to newly planted fields, while a subsequent hailstorm flattened crops. The all-important wheat crop, on which the majority of the French peasantry relied for their dietary staple of bread, nearly failed. This cycle of bad weather and worse crops continued to plague the entire course of the Revolution.
Bread riots in Paris and other French cities were the most overt actions against a feudal system of taxes, tithes, work in kind and other privileges claimed by the nobility. Protests against the hated taxes on salt, hearths and wheat had erupted from time to time since the Hundred Years’ War of the 14th and 15th centuries. By this time, bread was the staple of the French peasants’ diet. The lowly white potato, embraced by the poor elsewhere on the continent and in the British Isles, was shunned by the French as being “pig food.” Thus, inflation, shortages and hunger were the real genesis of the Revolution, not egalitarian slogans.
Bread prices rose 88 per cent in 1789, forcing most French peasants to the subsistence level where they worked only to feed and house themselves and their families. Desperation grew, with the poor’s anger being directed at bakeries and grain markets. For a time, local governments attempted to improve distribution channels and moderate soaring prices. Against this backdrop of rumbling stomachs and wailing hungry children, the excesses and arrogance of the nobility and clergy strutted in sharp contrast. The Reign of Terror was figuratively enthroned on a loaf of bread four years later.
Marie Antoinette, never regarded as an intellectual even in her own time, has found her place in history as a vain and clueless woman. Her response to the plight of the hungry Parisian peasants who lacked bread: Let them eat cake. Unfortunately, she never said it. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, French writer and philosopher, attributes the quote to an earlier French princess, Marie-Therese, who lived about 100 years before the Revolution. Additionally, the sentiment was really not as callous as it appears when taken out of context. It more nearly means, “Let the people eat cake at the same price as bread,” which was fixed by law, thus allowing a peasant to eat something he usually could not afford.
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