The novel begins when a weak-willed parish priest refuses to perform the marriage of two peasants, Renzo and Lucia, because a local nobleman covets the beautiful girl. Just in time, the couple escape their small village to avoid him. (The rest of the book basically follows them as they flee and undergo a variety of perils.)
A bread riot greets the young man as he enters Milan in flight from the angry and vindictive nobleman. He comes through the gates, and the mob is running in the streets carrying stolen bread and flour that they have looted from bakers' shops.
The book is very long and digressive, so the reader is treated to a long description of the food shortages and what the city fathers are doing to respond to public demand for affordable bread. Here is an abbreviated version of his description:
This was the second year of bad harvests. ... peasants... were compelled to go out and beg for their bread instead of growing it by the sweat of their brow ... The unbearable level of taxation, levied with incredible greed and incredible folly; the habitual behavir of the troops quartered in the villages ... and various other factors ... had been slowly helpingto produce that tragic result throughout the territory of Milan. ... And that miserable harvest was not yet fully gathered in, when requisitions for the army ... made such a hole in it that the shortage of grain began to be felt immediately. With the shortage came its painful, salutary, inevitable consequence, a rise in prices.Pressured by the mob, the magistrates fixed the price for food, which meant that vendors couldn't afford to buy supplies at the higher wholesale price, and that importers couldn't obtain grain from elsewhere. Under mob pressure, bakers were baking and selling at a loss, and they begged the authorities for a recourse. When a higher price was set, the mob took to the streets. At dawn on the day that Renzo arrived, the mob had begun with attacks on bakers' delivery boys, and continued with looting the bakeries.
But when prices rise more than a certain amount, they always produce a certain effect... This effect is a common conviction that it is not in fact the shortage of goods that has caused the high prices. People forget that they have feared and predicted the shortage, and suddenly begin to believe that there is really plenty of grain, and that the trouble is that it is being kept off the market. Though there are no earthly or heavenly grounds for that belief, it gives food to people's anger and to their hopes. Real or imaginary hoarders ofgrain, landowners who did n ot sell their entire crop within twenty-four hours, bakers who bought grain and held it in stock -- everyone, in fact who possessed or was thought to possess grain was blamed for the shortage and for the high prices, and made the target of universal complaint and of the hatred or rich and poor alike. The storehouses and granaries were known to be full, overflowing, butsting with grain... (p. 231-232)
The theme of hunger, famine, shortages, and illogical or effective measures taken by both the hungry people and their leaders continues through the book. For example, when Renzo crosses the border of the Duchy of Milan and enters the next territory (meaning he's gone from the area ruled by Spain to that ruled by Venice) he finds that the rulers have purchased loads of grain and are arranging to feed the hunger. Thus they have acted more wisely and preserved civil order. "A bit less noise and a bit more sense." (p. 330)
All in all, I enjoyed reading this classic, which now seems to be obsolete. The 720 pages went much faster than I anticipated. Although the hero and heroine at first seemed to be rather foolish and unable to grasp that they were being abused and betrayed by those they believed in, they learned to be less trusting of the authorities as the book progressed. By the end, I was happy to have them finally reunited after two years of persecution, and married at last.