Site hosted by Angelfire.com: Build your free website today!

The Role of the Peasantry in the French Revolution

Back to Menu
Back to History

The purpose of this essay is to assess the role of the peasantry in the outbreak of the French Revolution. The reasons why all peasants of whatever station harboured a deep resentment of the ancient, feudal regime shall be explored. The pressures and ensuing actions that eventually led to the peasants having a major role in the eruption of the revolution will also be discussed.

First it is important to consider the position of the peasants within the latter years of the 1700s. The French peasants were by no means as impoverished as those in many other countries at that period in time [1]. They had certain civil liberties and the ability to own their own land [2]. Almost all were able to grow grapes for their own private use and there were markets where they could sell the produce of personal speciality skills [3].

Although the peasantry were still seen as workhorses they were no longer at the mercy of violent feudal overlords. Within an atmosphere where it was uncommon to be harshly dealt with by the government, peasants were becoming more independent and literate [4] [5].

Unfortunately, perhaps due to the isolation of each peasant, they did not seem to be truly evolving. Shared knowledge is a very well known method of progression. It was not considered socially acceptable to befriend a peasant, even if you were a peasant yourself. You could not hope to advance socially, if you were still conversing with the peasantry. This segregation caused the French peasant to become socially as well as mentally stagnant. This was good for the upper classes but not for the peasants [6].

This dull spot in the peasants forward thinking is best shown by their farming methods. There were very few differences between the farming methods used in ancient Rome and those used by the French peasantry in the late 1700s [7]. This blind devotion to ancient methods of cultivation showed a sincere lack of progression [8].

The size of the areas being farmed by each individual peasant did not help their situation. Due to the division of farms, that were already small, among all the children of each family, harvests were of poor quantity as well as quality. Making the circumstances worse was the fact that half of each peasants produce had to be given to the landlord [9].

This leads us to the subject of taxation. Each peasant had at least five taxes to pay. As well as the landlord creating any tax he thought was necessary there was also the Gabelle, or salt tax. Almost all peasants for the preservation of meat used salt. It was also used to hide the meats often-rancid taste. The Church imposed the Taille, which was another direct tax on income. There was the Vingtieme, which was a twentieth tax on income and also the Capitation, which was an income tax per head. The peasant who had very little, now had next to nothing [10].

Due to the majority of their wheat and maize (corn) harvests going everywhere but to themselves, some peasants developed personal speciality skills. The isolation of these individually skilled workers led to more un-progressive behaviour. The produce of these specialist skills, yarn, cloth or tools, could be sold at markets. The money gained from these sales may be used to buy meat or black bread. Meat required salt and the paying of salt tax, so was reserved only for religious holidays. White bread was only for the rich [11].

The years 1787 to 1789 saw a massive decline in the economic viability of agriculture. Poor harvests were to blame for the price of wheat doubling within two years. The price of the planting was beyond most farmers and the destruction of crops hit all. The winter of 1788-89 was the harshest winter the French had seen in eighty years. Peasants had to rely on speciality skills for income as well as the sale of household furniture so as they could heat their homes. This in turn left the peasants with no money to plant new crops [12] [13] [14].

This downfall of farming led to a massive relocation to the cities. Peasants, due to no longer having an occupation or life in the countryside, took part in a centralization of the population. The peasants were hoping for more opportunities within the cities but what they did not realise was the fact that the cities were in just as much trouble [15].

In 1778 France entered the American Revolution War, leaving the Royal Government bankrupt. This meant that the cities were just as deep in the recession as the countryside. The peasants, moving to the cities looking for better prospects, were sadly disappointed and frustrated [16] [17].

By the end of 1788 the position of the urban, as well as the rural, peasants was getting worse by the second. The bad harvests were causing centralization due to lack of farmer finance; the government had run out of money so were increasing taxes; the population was growing at an alarming rate and the Lords were getting very uneasy. The unrest of the peasants was being vented on the Lords for they were the most immediate face of the feudal system. The pressures were mounting up on the peasants who were becoming very hostile to the Lords and the Lords were becoming increasingly violent towards the peasants [18].

The peasants, especially the urban peasants, were now beginning to think more for themselves. The nobles were being asked to pay taxes in order to help the government, so the peasants started to see themselves on more equal terms with the noble men. The peasants were becoming more politically aware [19]. 1778 also saw the death of Voltaire and Rousseau who were known as enlightenment writers. Rousseau had released a composition called the "Social Contract" in 1762, which was highly critical of the European political order. Excerpts from this work were being distributed amongst the urban peasants, further fuelling their unrest and political consciousness [20] [21].

This new found political awareness brought with it speculations that Princes and other wealthy persons had been hording produce in order to gain political strength. The thought that these wealthy hoarders were going to be politically stronger than the common person did not agree with the peasantry. This unrest was also felt among the wage earners, small tradesmen, craftsmen and vine growers. These feelings were not only prominent in the countryside but also within the cities [22].

Although it was common knowledge that the peasants and other common persons were themselves hoarding, this did not stop the common people from joining together in protest to the unequal distribution of political power [23].

Small proprietors and tenants were also recognising the strength in numbers that the common people were accumulating. They also joined forces with the more common person [24]. Even politically aware Noblemen were highly critical of the senseless and useless French Nobility [25].

The Nobility and the Monarchy were not the only groups that were coming under fire from these ever growing groups of enlightened people. Enlightenment brought with it a deep, as well as fashionable, loathing of the Church and Christian beliefs in general. Gifted, enlightened writers such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu fuelled the hostility of the common person, against the Church [26].

Christian belief insists that man's salvation depends on his self-denial and oppression of natural instincts [27]. Christianity was attacked with hysterical violence. There was no place within an enlightened France for a religious belief so contrary to man's natural instincts and so destructive to his piece of mind. Although the Church in France was not as corrupt as in other Catholic Kingdoms it still represented the intolerable ideals of the Old Regime. The people were convinced that in order to destroy the Old Regime they must first obliterate the Church, as that is where the tyranny derived from [28].

In 1789, criticisms of the Old Regime were accumulated and presented by the more vocal of the common persons. The document that held all their objections was called their 'Notebooks of Grievances' (Cahiers de doleances) [29]. The common people now felt that they had friends of a similar disposition within the ranks of the French Nobility that would listen to them [30]. As well as the peasants, workshop masters, small shopkeepers and sometimes guilds of journeymen helped draw up the cahiers de doleances [31].

Within the cahiers de doleances there were demands for freedom of speech, writing, assembly, trade and freedom from arbitrary arrest. The main aim of the document was the equality of all men, [32] but public primary education was also insisted upon [33].

Documents of grievances were not the only accomplishments that an organisation of the masses was producing. Out of a time of uncertainty and irrationality emerged organised and efficient militias [34]. The peasants were tired of being rounded up like cattle and forced into compulsory military service and manual labour. The peasants were weary of having to hide in the woods in order to avoid being forced into a military that their taxes was supposed to pay for. The peasants payed a tax so as military personnel could be hired and now they were being forced to join a service to a Monarch that they did not want [35].

The peasants formed their own military, armed with pitchforks and other farm implements. The village councils sometimes led them. These peasant armies marched on the homes of the useless Noblemen, burning both coats of arms and, more importantly, the rent registers. Villagers working together were refusing to pay taxes anymore. It seamed that even in court the judges were now siding with the villagers. This may have been due to increased pressure from the village militias and crowds of peasants that filled the courtrooms. The peasants were eventually getting somewhere [36].

It would appear that now the peasants had created a suitable platform for the Revolution to firmly spring from. The need had been created for the summoning of the Estates-General and the creation of a National Assembly was about to occur in only six months.

Over the thirty-three years prior to 1789 it would appear that the position of the peasants had been gradually getting worse. Not only had their situation been deteriorating but also they were becoming more literate and independent. These three facts in themselves point towards revolution.

Social awareness, through knowledge gained with literacy, was adding to the isolation of the French peasant. Blind devotion to the Old Regime was being questioned and gradually abolished.

Outdated farming methods and poor weather conditions were making the paying of taxes even more difficult. The fact that taxes were raising and more were being invented did not help the situation, or dampen the feelings of unrest. The peasants were becoming homeless, hungry and angry.

Specialist skills did not put the peasants in a better financial condition, as the money gained from the sale of craft goods went almost directly to the paying of taxes.

Moving to the cities that were in more financial strife than the countryside, was never going to better the life of the peasant.

The realisation that the Old Regime and its corrupt institutions were to blame for the downfall of the land, gave the peasants a target for their frustrations.

A common enemy for anyone with a grievance to vent their anger on brought the peasants, as well as some of those higher on the social scale, together. These armies of unhappy, enraged and bitter people set the stage for the rest of the French Revolution.

[1] Rude, G. The French Revolution, London, England, Phoenix Giant, 1996. p2 [2] De Tocqueville, A. The Old Regime and the French Revolution, New York, United States of America (U.S.A.), Doubleday, 1983. p120 [3] Forster, R. Seeds of Change, Peasants, Nobles, and Rural Revolution in 18th-Century France, New York, U.S.A., Macmillan, 1975. p7 [4] De Tocqueville, A. The Old Regime and the French Revolution, New York, U.S.A., Doubleday, 1983. p120 [5] Rude, G. The French Revolution, London, England, Phoenix Giant, 1996. p2 [6] De Tocqueville, A. The Old Regime and the French Revolution, New York, U.S.A., Doubleday, 1983. p124 [7] Forster, R. Seeds of Change, Peasants, Nobles, and Rural Revolution in 18th-Century France, New York, U.S.A., Macmaillan, 1975. p9 [8] De Tocqueville, A. The Old Regime and the French Revolution, New York, U.S.A., Doubleday, 1983. p123 [9] Rude, G. The French Revolution, London, England, Phoenix Giant, 1996. p2 [10] Rude, G. The French Revolution, London, England, Phoenix Giant, 1996. p2 [11] Forster, R. Seeds of Change, Peasants, Nobles, and Rural Revolution in 18th-Century France, New York, U.S.A., Macmallan, 1975. p5 [12] Rude, G. The French Revolution, London, England, Phoenix Giant, 1996. p6 [13] De Tocqueville, A. The Old Regime and the French Revolution, New York, U.S.A., Doubleday, 1983. p123 [14] Forster, R. Seeds of Change, Peasants, Nobles, and Rural Revolution in 18th-Century France, New York, U.S.A., Macmillan, 1975. p83 [15] De Tocqueville, A. The Old Regime and the French Revolution, New York, U.S.A., Doubleday, 1983. p123 [16] Rude, G. The French Revolution, London, England, Phoenix Giant, 1996. p8 [17] Forster, R. Seeds of Change, Peasants, Nobles, and Rural Revolution in 18th-Century France, New York, U.S.A., Macmillan, 1975. p84 [18] Forster, R. Seeds of Change, Peasants, Nobles, and Rural Revolution in 18th-Century France, New York, U.S.A., Macmillan, 1975. p82 [19] De Tocqueville, A. The Old Regime and the French Revolution, New York, U.S.A., Doubleday, 1983. p127 [20] Rude, G. The French Revolution, London, England, Phoenix Giant, 1996. p7 [21] Forster, R. Seeds of Change, Peasants, Nobles, and Rural Revolution in 18th-Century France, New York, U.S.A., Macmillan, 1975. p1 [22] Rude, G. The French Revolution, London, England, Phoenix Giant, 1996. p31 [23] Forster, R. Seeds of Change, Peasants, Nobles, and Rural Revolution in 18th-Century France, New York, U.S.A., Macmillan, 1975. p18 [24] Rude, G. The French Revolution, London, England, Phoenix Giant, 1996. p31 [25] Forster, R. Seeds of Change, Peasants, Nobles, and Rural Revolution in 18th-Century France, New York, U.S.A., Macmillan, 1975. p54 [26] Rude, G. The French Revolution, London, England, Phoenix Giant, 1996. p7 [27] LaVey, A.S. The Satanic Bible, New York, U.S.A., Avon Books, 1969. pp23-24 [28] De Tocqueville, A. The Old Regime and the French Revolution, New York, U.S.A., Doubleday, 1983. pp148-157 [29] Rude, G. The French Revolution, London, England, Phoenix Giant, 1996. p6 [30] Forster, R. Seeds of Change, Peasants, Nobles, and Rural Revolution in 18th-Century France, New York, U.S.A., Macmillan, 1975. pp84-5 [31] Rude, G. The French Revolution, London, England, Phoenix Giant, 1996. p33 [32] Rude, G. The French Revolution, London, England, Phoenix Giant, 1996. p39 [33] Forster, R. Seeds of Change, Peasants, Nobles, and Rural Revolution in 18th-Century France, New York, U.S.A., Macmillan, 1975. p85 [34] Rude, G. The French Revolution, London, England, Phoenix Giant, 1996. p49 [35] De Tocqueville, A. The Old Regime and the French Revolution, New York, U.S.A., Doubleday, 1983. pp128-130 [36] Forster, R. Seeds of Change, Peasants, Nobles, and Rural Revolution in 18th-Century France, New York, U.S.A., Macmillan, 1975. pp88-89

Copyright (c) 2003 Mercury Templar. All rights reserved. This work may not be reproduced in whole or in part by any means whatsoever without written permission from the author.