Gateway to the Classics: Peeps at History: France by John Finnemore
Peeps at History: France by  John Finnemore

France before the Revolution

We have now come to the period which saw the greatest event in French history, the French Revolution. It is also one of the greatest events in the history of Europe, for the whole Continent from north to south, east to west, was drawn into the wild hurly-burly of fierce warfare and uproar which followed upon the rising of the French people against their rulers.

What is a revolution? It is an upsetting of the old order of things; it is a time when the man turns against his master, and snatches authority from the master's hand. Then the latter has either to beat down his former servant, or to fly to save his life.

The masters in France before the Revolution were, first of all, the King; after him, the nobles and clergy. From the King at the head to the poorest noble, they used their power badly. The rulers treated the ruled, the vast mass of the nation, as people created for their convenience, to supply them with money and to serve them. The King demanded great sums to provide armies for his wars, to surround himself with a brilliant and luxurious Court, to defray the expenses of government. The money was raised by laying heavy taxes on the people, and on the people alone; the upper classes paid nothing. The peasant, the farmer, the townsman, from their scanty purses were drawn the large sums required. Here was a very great injustice which was plain to all men. But the royal taxes were not all; after the King, the nobles.

In the hundred years before the Revolution, the French nobility had deserted their country homes for the Court, and their days were spent at Paris, Versailles, or Fontainebleau. Their castles stood empty, their faces were no more seen among their tenants, but their calls for money were unceasing. They wished to shine at Court, and this demanded a heavy outlay, and the last farthing was wrung from the peasant's little hoard. The power of feudal days still existed in the hands of a French noble, though the conditions of feudal life had long since gone.

The noble used these powers to lay very heavy conditions on his tenants. The small farmer had to pay rent for his land in three ways: in coin, in kind, and in labour. Very often the money-rent was an ample sum to cover the value of the holding, but he was far from being quits with his master. He had next to pay the rent in kind: so much corn, so much butter, so many cheeses, so many fowls, to be sent to the big house. Then came the rent in labour: he had to mend the roads of his master, help to till the fields, and to find horse and cart whenever there were loads to carry. He had to pay dues to his lord at times of marriage or of death; he was bound to grind his corn at his lord's mill, to press his grapes, his olives, and his walnuts at his lord's press, to bake his bread at his lord's oven—and for all these he must pay.

Nor was he yet at the end of his burdens; there were still the terrible corvées. We have spoken of the corvee  of forced labour to make and repair roads, but the lord of an estate himself had the right to make a corvee  by decree, and the wretched tenants knew not from day to day when a fresh burden might be laid upon them. Sometimes the decree was of a most unreasonable nature, such as that which forced peasants to beat the water in a moat all night lest the frogs by their croaking should disturb the sleep of the lord in his chateau.

But no matter how unjust or how foolish the demands made upon the peasant, he had to submit. If he refused to pay, or perform a task, heavy fines were laid on him, and the officers of the law were soon at the door of his house to seize all that he owned, to hale him off to prison, to flogging, and, very often, to torture.


Splendour and gaiety among the rich and great.
The great staircase at Versailles before the revolution.

The result of this grinding oppression was to take all heart out of the people. Of what use was it to work and be thrifty when your hard-earned gain would be torn from you to be wasted in Paris? It was of no use, and in many places the peasants sank into despair, and allowed their corn-fields and pastures to become overgrown with rushes and brambles, to return to bog or marsh or forest, as it once had been.

Thoughtful men in France saw these evils, and warned those in power that such cruel treatment would end in dreadful troubles. One great writer, speaking from the depths of his heart in fierce pity, thus describes the French peasants:

"There be certain savage and shy wild animals, male and female, which are scattered up and down our countryside. They are sunburned to a sort of dull black, and walk bent towards the earth they dig; on straightening themselves they show, it is true, a human face, and, in fact, they are men and women. They withdraw from the fields at nightfall to their dens, where they sup on black bread, roots and water. They spare their fellow-men the labours of seed-time and harvest, and do not deserve to lack the bread they sow."

This, then, was the state of France before the Revolution—splendour and gaiety among the rich and great; black, grinding misery among the toiling masses.

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