Monday, December 16, 2013

Bread, Sugar, Coffee

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama is an enormous book. I read it during the past week because I wanted to know more about the French Revolution than "Let them eat cake." Well, I did know more, but I wanted a lot more. The old cliche about Marie Antoinette does reflect accurately that the masses of people in pre-Revolutionary France struggled to get enough to eat. The first half of Citizens depicts the increasing misery of the people due to harvest failures in the 1780s, among many other trends and events. In this little tiny discussion of a brick-sized book, I'm going to explore just a few ideas on food and the Revolution.

Tax farms, not agricultural farms, presented a major problem for Louis XVI. Despite the problems of bad conditions for food production, on the whole France was prosperous; however, the tax farmers who collected taxes under contract were reaping most of the benefits of trade and economic growth. Many of the changes that led up to the Revolution represented efforts to contain financial difficulties, including the convening of delegates in various assemblies of old tradition.

Vigee Lebrun's portrait of Calonne
Louis' early efforts included the appointment of a series of ministers to straighten out his numerous financial problems. One was Calonne, who had a reputation for prodigality and opulence that didn't help with Louis' own poor public image. Schama describes Calonne's chef Olivier, who presided over a vast staff of "specialists of the table." He writes:
"There were three servants alone to look after the roasted meats, with their own assigned kitchen boy called Tintin. Calonne had a weakness for truffles, partridge and, more surprisingly 'macarony de Naples' eaten with Parmesan or Gruyère, a dish which one would have thought incompatible with lace cuffs." (p. 235 -- I read this tome in a paper book as there's no Kindle edition!)
Meanwhile, of course, the king and his vast court ate very well also, while poor and even middle-class people were facing rapidly rising prices. Even when incarcerated in the Bastille, the well-off could bring in high-quality food -- beef, chicken, fresh fruit and vegetables. Common prisoners were still fed decently, though; those imprisoned for participating in "flour war" riots in 1775 were fed "gruels and soups, sometimes lined with a string of bacon or lardy ham." (p. 392)

In contrast to Calonne, one subsequent finance minister, Necker, was widely believed to be capable of controlling this inflation; he was "a bringer of cornucopias: the man who would make solvency from bankruptcy, create work where there was unemployment and bring bread where there was famine." Necker had even "put up his personal fortune as collateral for a grain shipment" from abroad.
Necker with cornucopia
"The notion that famines were caused not by the climate but by conspiracy had a long pedigree in France. But it was never more widely shared nor more angrily expressed than in 1789. If bakers and millers who withheld their stock from the market to drive prices even higher were the immediate villains, behind them lay an even more sinister aristocratic cabal." (p. 372)
Louis dismissed Necker in 1789, also dissolving the National Assembly, infuriating those who had believed in him and had confidence in his policies and his integrity.

What I found interesting in Schama's detailed social and economic history is that during the Revolution, as before, rich people who didn't flee still ate well, while prices of bread, sugar, coffee, meat and many other commodities important to the middle and lower classes continued to rise rapidly, perhaps even more than before. Poor harvests were made worse by disruptions to the peasants (like abolishing the church and persecuting the clergy). Tropical imports like sugar and coffee became scarce when French colonies also revolted. Imports of supplementary grain for bread and imports of any still-available exotic foods were cut off by lack of function in ports caused by various Revolutionary actions and policies. The poorest people, as always, suffered the most.

A major concern during the Revolutionary period (Schama's book covers up to 1794) was hoarding, whether by farmers, dealers, shopkeepers, or ordinary citizens. During the Terror, the Convention adopted the death penalty for hoarders.  They defined "goods of the first necessity" including the basics: "bread, salt and wine," and also "butter, meat, vegetables, soap, sugar, hemp, wool, oil and vinegar. Anyone possessing stocks of this market basket was required to make a formal declaration to the authorities." Both wholesalers and retailers could be ordered to sell goods at any time. Throughout the era, and indeed in pre-Revolutionary times as well, efforts at price control met with a similar lack of success. (p. 757) Long lines for food were a reality of the day, and those with political power were able to take the best for themselves. (p. 862 and elsewhere)

As the Revolution proceeded, another responsibility of the new leaders involved supplying the large armies that they were amassing to defend France against foreign troops opposing them. This required major efforts at procurement and even production, as well as "inspirational propaganda." A soldier's daily ration theoretically was "a pound and three quarters of bread, together with a few ounces of meat, beans, or some other dried vegetable and wine or ale. If they were lucky they might get an onion and a slab of cheese, and where there was no brandy, gin or tobacco to start the day, the officers could expect trouble." (p. 765)

Festival of Reason
Food was always a necessity and present throughout various symbolic events. At a festival to rename Notre Dame de Paris the "Temple of Reason" an opera singer played the role of Liberty, seated on a bank of flowers. One writer described the smell of herrings at a similar festival in Saint-Gervais, while at Saint-Eustache "he was horrified to see 'bottles, sausages, andouilles, pâtés and other meats'" around the choir of the former church. (p. 778)

What most struck me about this quite fascinating book was one general point: that many changes that took place during the revolution were in fact very lasting, especially the economic restructuring that altered the role of the nobility and obliterated many of the remnants of feudalism, turning "lords" into "landlords" or removing nobility entirely from the economic picture, replaced by new upper class types. This change persisted even when royalty was restored.

Note: Images are from Wikipedia.

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