The Flour War (the phrase, used contemporaneously, was retained by historians) refers to a wave of riots arising from April to May 1775, in the northern, eastern, and western parts of the Kingdom of France. It followed an increase in grain prices, and subsequently bread prices, because police withheld grain from the royal stores in addition to poor harvests in the summers of 1773 and 1774. This revolt, remarkable in its scale, was settled by wheat price controls (before the supply recovered) and the intervention of troops. The wheat rebellion during the Ancien Régime manifested a social and political crisis. These events can be interpreted as a reaction against the edict from Turgot, which liberalized grain commerce on September 13, 1774; indeed, this liberalization appeared contrary to the "moral economy", and broke the principle that required the king to ensure the security of his subjects and their food supply.
Recent analyses tend to see this event not only as a revolt caused by hunger, but also as a prelude to the French Revolution. The Flour War can be considered, for this reason, as a pre-revolutionary event or as a harbinger of the Revolution. Said Flour War was in line with previous wheat fluctuations, and ushered in the wheat riots of Year II.
Causes and stages of frumentary violence
During the period before the spring harvest of 1775, the cereal reserves were exhausted while new crops had not yet arrived. In spring 1775, famine arose in this new context: before Turgot's edict, every region faced its own shortages, so that some would have suffered a genuine famine while others would have been totally spared and supplied through stable prices; a royal intervention would have been requested, and without a doubt obtained, to assure the supply of the regions most affected. With liberalization, grains could leave spared regions to go the worst affected areas, causing significant price increases and shortages all over affecting more people more quickly.
The price of grain and of bread, which reached 30 sous, rose suddenly; an intolerable burden on the poorest populations. There ensued major popular unrest at markets and other flour distribution locations. Rumors spread against the "power-grabbers" and "monopolizers". This type of popular reaction against the merchants was a constant in times of famine, but it took on an unusual depth, even though the government moved toward laissez-faire economic theories, and liberalized commerce.
For a long time, the theory of a political plot woven against Turgot by various coteries of the Court has been advanced as an explanatory factor, a thesis historian George Rudé has dashed.
Main stages of an Ancien Régime riot, from obstruction to looting
Over 17 days, 180 conflicts would be listed from the Paris Basin; Jean Nicolas notes 123 distinct riots. Cynthia Bouton turns up 313 occurrences, sometimes interpreted as "anarchic movements", sometimes as the anticipation of rural revolts. These demonstrations of the moral economy took three distinct forms:
- in exporting regions, one notices spontaneous working-class taxation, and more or less organized looting. The rioters denounce speculation, forcing large farmers and land-owners to sell their stocks on the market at a "fair price", eventually looting bakeries and warehouses, while claiming to restore the principles of economic morality.
- in the cities, warehouse and bakery attacks are organized in a similar fashion.
- finally, erect obstacles to channels of communication, on rivers and roads, in areas of large cultivation. More by basic survival instinct than by malicious intent, the rioters hinder transport of a particular agricultural province's wheat to other provinces with higher purchasing power.
Victims were usually merchants or farmers, but more common, as shown by Cynthia Bouton, they were the direct representatives of power. The riots were often directed against the profiteer millers or against counselors of parliament, as they were that day, April 18, in Dijon. On April 27, the movement hit the great cultivated plains, initially West Burgundy then, gradually, Beauvaisis, and finally Beauce and Brie. The rebels were in front of Versailles on May 2 and 3; the mob plundered the bakeries of Paris. Louis XVI appeared anxious, because some slogans and lampoons implicated his court. The destruction was in reality very limited, the main targets were the boats carrying the wheat, which were sunk.
Return to order
Order was reestablished by a pair of government actions:
- repressive, by the intervention of 25,000 soldiers, 162 arrests, and the hanging of two rioters (a 28 year old wigmaker and his 16 year old companion who were executed as examples in Place de Grève ).
- assistance to the population by the organization of food supplies to those provinces in difficulty as well as obligations placed on supply owners to sell their product at a fixed price. The king sent an increased number of messages to the peasant masses, in particular through the preaching of the clergy.
Five months were needed to put a definitive end to the trouble, but most of the problems were over by May 11, 1775.
- The idea of free trade of grain was discredited. Longer term, the economic experiment distanced the masses from the government in Versailles.
- In the realm of politics, the outcome provoked fundamental modifications to the government and a change in royal policies. Turgot calls for and obtains, on behalf of Louis XVI, the resignation of the Lieutenant General of Police, Jean-Charles-Pierre Lenoir.
- A few libelous statements, very localized in origin, blamed the king himself: one would find attacks against "the Bourbon blood," but these writings were the doing of a cultivated population and of learned pens. For Kaplan, the event marked the growing disenchantment of the people toward the king, a step toward the rupture of the sacred bond between the king and his subjects.
- However, the rioters showed a paradoxical nature, evincing the characteristics of economic morality brought to light by the historians E.P. Thompson and Charles Tilly: on the one hand, a request to return to royal paternalism, and at the same time, a critique of governmental policy. Two opposing logics: one that obeys the laws of property, and one that obeys morality. The rioters challenged public authority and requested the restoration of fair pricing. Lacking a response, set up a practice of rules of internal order: regulatory power.
- Finally, these rioters were a sign of a desire for food justice and redistribution, based upon a strong demand for regulation and supervision. The bread rioters could further be compared to jacqueries, in the sense where they were not trained against political authority, they were not doing it to usurp power, but they were obeying a communal discipline. Grain access and fair pricing of bread emerged as universal rights.
- On the social level, sources witnessed an increase in social tensions and social polarization: a small group of elite rich farmers were opposed to the masses of increasingly poor farmers. The peasants, described by certain sources as Insurgents, were accompanied by village officials (who were sometimes forced) and by parish priests, like in Normandy.
The rioters' targets were therefore those individuals who were free of communal discipline: farmers and owners of large farms in the Paris Basin, and, to a lesser extent, the bourgeoisie of the cities. Occasionally, noble landholders or clerics, farmers who had status in the feudal system, for example Jacques-Pierre de Hericourt, farmer of Cagny, in Brie, lord of Chesany.
- The issues around wheat and the social issues demonstrated the structural weakness of the kingdom's economy, but they also heralded the emergence of a new anti-establishment rhetoric.
Jean-François Parot's historical novel Le sang des farines (Eng. title: The Baker's Blood) centers upon the events in Paris during the Flour War.
Notes and references
- Bourguinat, Nicolas. "L'État et les violences frumentaires en France sous la Restauration et la Monarchie de Juillet". Ruralia. Retrieved 26 February 2014.
- food prices were very unstable, collapsing very quickly in the case of abundance and vice-versa
- Nicolas, Jean (2008). La Rébellion Française, Mouvements populaires et conscience sociale (1661-1789). France: Folio. pp. 253–265. ISBN 978-2070359714.
- Bouton, Cynthia (1993). The Flour War: Gender, Class, and Community in Late Ancient Regime French Society. United States: Penn State University Press. ISBN 978-0271010557.
- Vincent, Bernard (2006). Louis XVI. France: Gallimard Folio Biographies. p. 111. ISBN 9782070307494.
- Cynthia A. Bouton. The flour war: gender, class, and community in late Ancien Régime French society. Penn State Press, 1993. ISBN 027101055X, 978-0271010557
- Allan Todd. Revolutions 1789 - 1917.Cambridge University Press. 1998.
- Steven L. Kaplan, Le pain, le peuple, le roi : la bataille du libéralisme sous Louis XV, Paris, Perrin, 1986.
- Vladimir S. Lujblinski, La guerre des farines. Contribution à l'histoire de la lutte des classes en France, à la veille de la Révolution, Grenoble, Presses Universitaires de Grenobles, 1979.
- Louise Tilly, « La révolte frumentaire, forme de conflit politique en France », dans Annales. Économies, sociétés, civilisations, tome 27, n° 3, mai-juin 1972, pp. 731–757 (pp. 11–33).
- E. P. Thompson, Florence Gauthier, Guy-Robert Ikni, La Guerre du blé au XVIIIe siècle : la critique populaire contre le libéralisme économique au XVIIIe siècle, Montreuil, 1988.