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The French Revolution of 1789-1793 is commonly accepted as one of the most influential incidents in European history. The drastic changes in the French social and political structures took place at the end of the 18th century. The modern historians find many causes and premises of revolution, from social inequality to macro-political situation in the country. However, the inadequate national food supply system, taxation, and high prices for bread and salt that made the vital products inaccessible for the majority of peasants and poor people may be considered the main factors which provoked the bursting of revolution.
Each revolutionary situation originates in the discontent of the social masses with their current position. However, it is possible to say that the unavailability of food, bread, and salt, in particular, had a dominant influence on the course of the French Revolution because the concept of freedom alone cannot have a significant value in times of severe hunger.
Products Scarcity: Bread and Salt
Many writings and works devoted to the investigation of European history in the 18th century have captured the chronicles of a long-term hunger that was spread across France on the eve of the Revolution (Taine 1). 1788 was very arid, and, as a result, the harvest was poor.
As Hippolyte Taine claims in his volumes on the French history, there was a heavy hail in the Parisian region just before the harvest season, and it devastated about forty kilometers of the most fertile land and caused many damages that were estimated over one million francs (2). The winter of 1788 was also the coldest since 1709 – about one- third of the olive trees in Provence died, and the left trees were substantially harmed so that they couldn’t fructify for at least two following years (Taine 2). The consequent food scarcity and hunger resulted in riots first at regional levels and then developed into the national revolution.
The common people, peasants in particular, who hardly managed to sustain their lives purchasing cheap bread, experienced great challenges when the price of bread had rapidly increased. Since the spring of 1789, hunger reached all French regions. The government attempted to encourage the farmers, landowners, and tradesmen to import bread into the markets by increasing the import premiums, and they spent over 30 million francs on grain supply for France; but all the efforts were futile, and the hunger and food scarcity continued to grow on the national scale.
Barley bread was the crucial element of the French diet in the 18th century. The common men, including landlords and tenants, ate bread and drank nothing except water. The situation in many regions was so bad that many poor people ate oat bread or even just the oats soaked in water (Taine 2). As a result, death rates increased. The majority of people could not afford to buy any food, and the bread that was for sale was of extremely poor quality because the bakers didn’t have enough profit on buying high-quality grains. The governors could supply only bad grain; it was rotten and could provoke the development of diseases.
However, even the poor-quality bread was highly demanded at those times because the consumers didn’t have another choice. It was observed that the individuals who received their portion of bread could often become the objects of attacks and violence (Taine 2). And such incidents may be considered the best demonstration of the whole situation with food in France of 1789.
The salt also was associated with exorbitant prices. To reduce the peasants’ refusal to purchase an expensive product, the government obliged them to buy not less than seven pounds of salt per year for each person only for cooking and eating. For any other purposes, i.e. pickling or cattle feeding, peasants had to purchase extra amounts of salt. For the prevention of salt smuggling, the smugglers were sent to prison or servitude to the galleys for at least nine years (Taine 16). In case a salt-smuggler was captured for a second time, he was sentenced to death by hanging. The peasants who bought salt that wasn’t taxed were severely punished as well. The special troops of armed guards repelled the peasants from the places where they could buy salt illegally.
High taxes were levied on wine. For the country that is known for its famous vineyard districts, this tax was particularly important. Thousands of royal guards made a lot of efforts to control the situation and regulate social compliance with the established rules (Kaplan 137). The guards rummaged the peasants’ cellars and measured each barrel, and they also could search the passing people and vessels in the streets. In case a peasant couldn’t pay out the tax, the officials could sell his/her cattle or house utensils for the estimated arrears. But the amounts of the peasants’ arrears only continued to grow, and as the taxes for food became more unbearable, the public discontent increased.
The Ruling Class
In the 17th and 18th centuries, France was considered a powerful state. Louis XIV increased the military force, and the country seized the large colonies in America, Western India, and Africa. The pompous events were held in the royal palaces, and the king was always followed by his entourage. However, the wealth of the royal court was created at the cost of the severe exploitation of the peasantry.
Thus, the years preceding the French Revolution were associated with both redundancy and poverty. During the kings’ reign, French cuisine was innovative and experimental. The best royal cooks competed in the invention of condiments and sauces for the deserts and the dishes made of fried meat and other selected high-quality products. At the same time, peasants ate merely stale bread and pottage. It is possible to presume that the evolvement of the French cuisine interfered with the bursting of revolution – the interest towards culinary and gastronomy vanished.
At that time, the revolution was inevitable because the French society was at a standstill being incapable of bearing the burden of feudal ideas and institutions any longer. The absolute monarchy failed to prevent the increasing economic, social, and political crisis (Kaplan 67). And the absolute monarchy itself became the main obstacle to the further development of the country. The royalty stopped representing the common national interests and supported the class privileges for land-owning, trade monopolies, etc.
The antinational and stagnant character of the absolute monarchy is best reflected in the food crisis. The financial politics of the government were highly inadequate – the large sums from the state treasury covered the exorbitant expenses of the royal family and are used for the maintenance of the royal court’s glory (Kaplan 33). Despite the constant increase in taxes and other duties, the treasury was always empty, and the national debt expanded in size tremendously.
The adverse situation with food access on the national scale, along with the excess and unaffordable taxation makes it clear that the king and aristocracy were disconnected from the life of the French society as a whole. They didn’t realize the severity of the actual political and economic situation in the country and didn’t see the real attitude of their subordinates.
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Relationship between Food and History
Food is a vital part of the human mode of life. Food is one of the basic human physical needs, and the inability to fulfill this need interferes with the sound intellectual and cultural development of people. When the food scarcity becomes such a large-scale phenomenon as it was in France at the end of the 18th century, the substantial transformation of the political and social structure can be the only way to guarantee the sound future development of the nation.
In his book, Ronald Sheppard claimed that the bread scarcity could be considered one of the reasons for the fall of Rome (Sheppard and Newton 16). And it is possible to say that the limited access to bread and other products, along with the unjust treatment of the common people, and the evident inequality provoked the fall of the absolute monarchy in France.
The course of the French Revolution largely affected the concept of food consumption. For example, the tradition of late dinners was established because people often overstayed at public meetings. People began to eat twice a day instead of four times.
Until the middle of the 18th century, the food and beverages were served only in taverns and inns in which the menu wasn’t especially diverse. The first restaurant was launched in 1765, in Paris. The word “restaurant” is of French origins, and it can be translated as “restoration” (Levy 1). The owner of the restaurant, Monsieur Boulanger, offered the customers to still their hunger with bouillons, cutlets, and eggs. At those times, the catering arrangement in France was associated with rigid guild rules, but monsieur Boulanger became a founder of a new form of food consumption in Europe, and it became well accepted by the public because of low prices and menu diversity (Levy 1). In this way, Boulanger allowed the Parisian citizens with an average income to access high-quality food in an easier way.
The French Revolution of 1789-1793 caused a substantial transformation of society and politics. The main achievement was a complete abolition of the guild system in France. The lands of the majority of aristocrats were sold in installments to peasants (Plack 150). The revolution eliminated all the class barriers, cancelled the class privileges and introduces the equal social opportunities for all citizens. As a result, the expansion of civil rights in many European countries took place. And the new government was regarded as a guarantee for the equal rights of all French citizens.
As for the economic crisis and the consequent food supply crisis, they were effectively resolved through the transformation of the financial system. The taxation based on the class division was revoked, and the principle of the universality and proportionality to the income and property was introduced in the new taxation system (Plack 169).
The new principle of tax imposition guaranteed that the peasants and the poor people would not mire in excess debts and obligations, but would be able to pay an appropriate amount of money to the state while, at the same time, would not be deprived of opportunity to afford food and other necessities. Therefore, it is possible to say that the main causes for revolution development – unavailability of food, exorbitant taxes, and high prices – were ultimately and effectively resolved by the end of the French Revolution.
Kaplan, Steven. Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Reign of Louis XV. Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976. Print.
Levy, Paul. “The Mobile Guide: The First Restaurant.” Wall Street Journal 1989. ProQuest. Web.
Plack, Noelle. Common Land, Wine and the French Revolution: Rural Society and Economy in Southern France, C.1789-1820. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009. Print.
Sheppard, Ronald, and Edward Newton. The Story of Bread. London, UK: Routledge, 1957. Print.
Taine, Hippolyte. The French Revolution, Volume 1 . Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002. Online Library of Liberty. Web.