Agendas for change: 1787–1790
'If only the king knew,' sighed country dwellers as they strove to overcome the hurdles of day-to-day life. At least, this is the remark recorded by Auget de Montyon — one-time intendant and enlightened councillor of state to Louis XVI — in jottings intended to become a study of the 'science of administration'.1 But of course the king does know, he replied to himself, and it is a vulgar error to suppose otherwise. For as long as the ordinary inhabitants of town and country continued to believe that the System could not change, only the relative position of individuals within it, the fiction of absolute monarchy faced no serious challenge from below. The present chapter is intended to show how this fiction became dangerously exposed at the level of the village. The aim is to explore the conceptual underpinnings of established authority in the hope of providing an answer to the question: 'How did the sense of a definitive break with the past come about?'
Although the notion of 'agendas' sounds rather modern and formal, it will enable us to highlight the contingent and interactive quality of popular grievances and ambitions. The compilation of the cahiers de doléances in nearly every rural parish served to fix those grievances and necessarily fixes the historian's attention. But popular aspirations for reform did not appear from nowhere in the late winter of 1789; nor did they remain unchanged thereafter. Cahier drafting was an important moment in an on-going process that began when Controller General Calonne summoned an Assembly of Notables to consider a range of far-reaching alterations to the fabric of monarchy, and only ended with the successful installation of replacement institutions of local government some three years later. During these years the familiar ancien régime died in the minds of villagers, and gradually — perhaps more gradually than is usually allowed — something new took its place. This process, in which the convening of parish assemblies in order to formulate and focus opinion in readiness for the Estates General is merely____________________