Origins of the French Revolution

By William Doyle | Go to book overview

15
The Peasantry

Many analyses of the origins of the Revolution begin with the peasantry and its problems and grievances. The logic of this no doubt lies in the fact that over 80 per cent of the French population was made up of peasants. It certainly cannot lie in any role that the peasantry might have played in precipitating the old regime's final crisis, since they played no role. Right down until the spring of 1789, the peasants were completely passive observers of what was happening, and those involved in the political struggles of the pre-revolutionary years gave little thought to them. What made the peasants important was the failure of the 1788 harvest, which endangered public order in the countryside quite as much as in the towns; and the drawing up of the cahiers in the spring of 1789, which raised expectations, as a peasant woman told Arthur Young, that 'something was to be done by some great folks for such poor ones'. 1 When these expectations were not immediately fulfilled, they took the law into their own hands, and the National Assembly was forced to appease them in ways which most of its members would have preferred to avoid.

'Peasant' is a vague term, harder to define than noble but not by any means as difficult as bourgeois. Peasants were country dwellers; but within that broad definition, as with other social categories, there was an enormous range of wealth, status, and outlook. The most obvious way of subdividing the peasantry is in terms of the land to which they had access. This is not the same as the land they owned, for all the evidence suggests that what mattered was enjoyment of land rather than ownership. Some four million peasants actually owned perhaps a quarter of the land of France, a proportion possibly rather less than that of 1700; but almost all the other land was worked and exploited by peasants under leases of one sort or another. Everything depended on the size of the units in which it was owned or leased. At the apex of the peasantry stood a small group of large-scale farmers, not always easily distinguishable from bourgeois. They tended to exploit large concentrations of land, or take the leases of whole farms or even estates from wealthy absentees, subletting to smaller

-178-

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Origins of the French Revolution
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Prefatory Note vii
  • Contents *
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Writings on Revolutionary Origins Since 1939 3
  • 1 - The Classic Interpretation 5
  • 2 - Revisionism 10
  • 3 - Post-Revisionism 35
  • Part II - The Breakdown of the Old Regime 43
  • 4 - The Financial Crisis 45
  • 5 - The System of Government 54
  • 6 - Opposition 65
  • 7 - Public Opinion 76
  • 8 - Reform and its Failure, 1787-1788 91
  • Part III - The Struggle for Power 109
  • 9 - The Nobility 111
  • 10 - The Bourgeoisie 121
  • 11 - The Election Campaign, September 1788 to May 1789 131
  • 12 - The Economic Crisis 148
  • 13 - The Estates-General, May and June 1789 157
  • 14 - The People of Paris 166
  • 15 - The Peasantry 178
  • 16 - Conclusion: The New Regime and its Principles 189
  • Notes 197
  • Further Reading 226
  • Index of Authors Cited 229
  • General Index 233
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