The Food Riot as a Form of Political Conflict in France

Louise A. Tilly
University of Toronto

Volume: "Food Fights," Volume 5 (2019)
Digital Object Identifier: 10.21431/Z3G01S
Keywords: , , , ,


Food riots in France since the seventeenth century can be most meaningfully explained not in a simple economic formula of food shortage/hunger/riot, but within a political context of changing governmental policy and in terms of secular economic change in marketing arrangements of grain.

Food riots had several forms which show a definite change and development over time. The market riot, an urban version, was usually aimed at bakers whose prices were too high or whose loaves were too few, at city residents who were suspected of hoarding supplies of grain in their houses, and at government officials who failed to act swiftly to ease a food shortage.1

The entrave was the rural form of grain riot, in which wagons or barges loaded with grain were forcibly prevented from leaving a locality. In isolated examples, at least, it can be traced to the early seventeenth century. The market riot and the entrave were polar opposites. The market riot was a sign that not enough grain was available in a local urban marketplace. The entrave tried to restrict the local grain supply to local consumption, and at reasonable prices.

Taxation populaire, a form which emerged at the end of the seventeenth century, could occur at several levels, as described by Rose. His first category is essentially what I have already labeled as the market riot; the second concerns a “conscious political action against the authorities to secure the same end directly”; and the third was “‘taxation populaire’ itself … a disciplined measure implying an ordered sale and the handing of proceeds to the proprietor.”2 The crowd would seize the grain or flour, set a price recognized as the just price for the commodity (and usually far below the current market price, sometimes remarkably uniform from one riot to the next within a region),3 sell the food, and pay the owner. The taxation populaire could occur in a city marketplace and involve either bread or grain prices, or in a rural setting (entrave) as grain was sold off a wagon or barge.

The market riot was an old phenomenon in France, but the late seventeenth century saw a great increase of such riots, and of entraves, as well as the emergence of the new form of taxation populaire. The periodization of the increased incidence of food riots and the birth of the new form is important.4 Widespread food riots, involving large numbers of people, but of relatively short duration, occurred in 1693/94, 1698, 1709/10, 1725, 1739/40, 1749, 1752, 1768, 1770, 1775, 1785, 1788/89, 1793, 1799, 1811/12, 1816/17, 1829/30, 1839/40, 1846/47, and the last few in 1853/54. All of these years were times of high grain prices, but the secular price movements between the end of the seventeenth century and mid-nineteenth were quite diverse. The period starts at a declining price phase; after 1720 or thereabouts started the long upward movement of the eighteenth century. A downturn began after 1815, continuing until 1850. This long temporal perspective suggests that the emergence and growth in importance of the food riot had no connection with the long-term trends of prices, although short-term price peaks accompanied all riots.

After the searing subsistence crises of the turn of the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries (1693/94, 1698, and 1709/10), there was a measurable decline in the effect of hunger on mortality in France.5 Although there were periods of high food prices in the eighteenth century, demographic effects were less severe than earlier. An even further decline in both the intensity of price variation and of food-shortage-linked death occurred in the nineteenth century. The killing subsistence crises ended over a century before the last food riots—which continued to erupt during a period when, as far as starvation and misery went, life was improving.6 Trends in population growth and agricultural productivity confirm this. Both of these curves were in downward or stagnant phases from the late seventeenth century to 1720; then there was a slow upward movement of population with agricultural productivity generally ahead of population growth.

The large-scale political and economic changes which I believe were crucial to the increased importance of the food riot as a form of political conflict were: (1) a two-directional movement in French political arrangements first toward political centralization and concentration on the national level of policy decisions concerning economic matters, then toward a modification of the traditional paternalistic economy policy; and (2) the formation of a national market, also under the influence of state action. The movement of enlarging markets corresponded with the emergence of Paris as a price-maker—even for distant markets—at the end of the seventeenth century.7 In the absence of population growth in the seventeenth century, the trend to larger markets was a consequence of Bourbon financial and political policy. The fiscal nature of the tax system (erected in the seventeenth century against popular protest) went to support both royal ambitions in foreign policy and the overgrown bureaucracy which was needed to collect taxes.8 Increased efficiency in tax collection drove peasants into the market—they had to sell much of their crop in order to pay taxes—and transformed many of them into buyers of food, with money earned by specialized farming or participation in rural industry.9 The consequences of the heightened fiscal demands of the centralized state were both a growth in the number of buyers of food who were sensitive to price fluctuations and the increased movement of grain.

The popular reaction to these changes in governmental organization and policy took the form of food riots. Thompson’s model of a moral economy of the poor becoming prominent in the period of the dismantling of the paternalistic economy and the transition to laissez-faire applies equally well to France as to eighteenth-century England.10 The same legitimizing notions of justice which drove the tax rebels described by LeRoy Ladurie in seventeenth-century Languedoc moved the market rioters, who attracted more and more government attention after the 1690s. These men and women executed a rude justice, based upon a system of market regulations that endeavored to protect consumers by trying to force the government to act in the traditional ways or by themselves acting in the government’s place. The emergence of the food riot marked the nationalization and politicization of the problem of subsistence, and was based on a conscious popular model of how the economy should work.

The location of the riots resulted from market expansion and the accompanying strains. They did not generally occur where prices were the highest, but erupted in productive areas from which the grain was drained by metropolitan, military, or overseas demand, and in large cities, where the continuing influx of food was a constant preoccupation and a source of intense anxiety in years of shortage. In any given year, prices were likely to be highest where the harvest was severely reduced or had failed. Areas which had good or normal crops, if they were at all accessible, were immediately tapped by merchants from Paris or other large cities, or by the military suppliers. Prices in these areas were driven up by commercial activity, which in term reduced local supplies. This was the background to the rioting in productive areas, especially along their waterways or on their borders. It follows that as grain commerce increased and involved larger areas and longer distances, more protest could be expected, especially of the entrave type.

The following pages contain, first, a discussion of the two largescale transformations in the polity and economy of France which were accompanied by the emergence and growth of the food riot as a form of political conflict—the modification and eventual removal of paternalistic economic controls by government and the formation of a national market in grains; second, an application of Thompson’s concept of a moral economy to the French case; and, third, case studies of the timing, form, and location of a series of food riots from the early eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries which illustrate the effects of these transformations and popular reaction to them.


Evolution of Government Policy on Subsistence

Traditionally, the government intervened in two ways with regard to matters of subsistence. It regulated markets and it controlled commerce.

The grain market regulatory system, which was gradually changed in the seventeenth century, and abolished toward the end of the eighteenth, was basically the medieval system, oriented toward protecting the consumer and preventing hoarding, speculation, and untoward profit. It required that all grain be sold in open markets, with bakers and merchants free to buy grain only after small buyers were supplied. In many markets, at least to about 1715, individuals still bought their subsistence in the form of grain, which was then milled and baked for them. Official market measurers checked the quantities. Once it was offered for sale at a stated price, the grain had to be kept in the marketplace until sold, but for no more than three successive market days; on the fourth day it could be sold at a forced reduction in price. Standing wheat was not to be bought or sold, nor was grain to be held in granaries except on the farms that produced it, or in the home of the actual consumer. In times of shortage, administrative pressures were applied to cajole or force peasants and large farmers with stored wheat to put their grain on the market. For cereals, keeping a sufficient supply in sight and on sale was the main goal of market regulation. The enforcement of these regulations was originally a local responsibility, resting with local magistrates; but in 1667 the royal office of lieutenant of police for the city of Paris was established and given this task. The office was instituted in all major cities after 1699.11

A similarly complex net of rules dealt with the supply of and price of bread. Within each city, the price of bread was “fixed” in terms of the price of wheat, and was to be sold at that price on all markets; it was not arbitrarily set at an ideal “just price.” Prices were posted regularly for each weight and quality of bread, and no baker could sell his bread at another price. At first, the price of bread had been kept constant, and the weight of the loaf was reduced when costs went up. By the sixteenth century, this was no longer generally the case (in Paris, the change occurred by the 1430s), and bread prices themselves were allowed to move. In periods of extremely high grain prices, however, the proportional price formula was sometimes abandoned, as in 1693, in Paris, when the size of the loaf was reduced to minimize the apparent increase of bread prices. Officials did not overly press bakers who were unofficially reducing the size of the loaf and giving short weight.12

The centralizing political trend of the seventeenth century had its economic counterpart in mercantilism. Rothkrug describes mercantilism as the extension of the regulation of economic activity from commune to state. The crown supplanted local authority in one area after another. Royal officials took over the administration of traditional local laws and made them serve the needs of the state. The process of royal economic intervention has been described as “nothing but state-making—not state-making in a narrow sense but state-making and national-economy-making at the same time.”13 The sixteenth-century monarchs attempted, and the seventeenth-century Bourbons succeeded in implementing centralized economic regulation and establishing a bureaucracy to carry it out.

This is not to claim that economic absolutism had any more concrete reality than political absolutism. Among the important restraints on the possibility of centralization of economic controls, especially of the grain trade, were the limitations of the bureaucracy and financial realities arising from national priorities.

The rickety, many-layered nature of the old regime administration is well known. The intendant, and other new officers, such as the lieutenant of police, took over prerogatives formerly held by local or provincial officers, but the old offices and their holders were not eliminated. The result, therefore, was far from even.

Constant frictions permeated the various layers of the bureaucracy and the courts throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Conflicts between the parlements and the royal power are a prime example. Turgot wrote bitterly about the parlements which opposed his reforms:

the regulations are an excuse for the magistrates in time of shortage to make a show of their paternal solicitude and to portray themselves as protectors of the people … thus it is, authority is always precious to those who exercise it.14

There were also more strictly administrative conflicts of which those in Paris are the best documented. Despite his official role as regulator of markets, the police lieutenant of Paris still had to struggle in 1694 against the Provost of Merchants and the city hall for the predominance of royal officers over municipal.15 It was only after this struggle that the office of police lieutenant was established in all cities, and it was still later that Delamare’s manual for police officers was published, suggesting a long lag in the achievement of royal control of the police.

Considerable personal independence and leeway in the actions of royal administrators, no matter what the official policy, made matters worse. In city after city the men on the spot, faced with the threat of disorder, would ignore regulations when they seemed too strict, or else would make regulations contrary to official policy when they felt them needed.

The French bureaucracy was neither effectively controlled from the center nor honestly run. The administration of old regime France did not have the skill to carry out either the old regulatory system, given the increased scale of enforcement on the national level, or the principle of free trade in grains, because of the persistence of localism, confused lines of authority, and the possibility of free play of opinions among administrators. Under these conditions, popular suspicion of administrators as speculators and popular efforts to sway officers by violence are both very understandable. Installed primarily to collect taxes, the bureaucracy was unable to cope with the problems arising from the enlarging market, the promotion of which was national policy. Thus, in a sense, the subsistence riots were a continuation of an anti-bureaucratic, anti-centralizing revolt.

The national priorities which royal policy established were also a serious constraint on any rationalization of the bureaucracy in the old regime. The question of doing away with offices and dues was a financial question as well as one of combatting vested interests. As long as war and the pursuit of national or dynastic glory consumed the attention and financial resources of the state, there were severe limitations in how far economic and political reforms could go. Yet these very national policies (and the successful if inefficient imposition of taxes to support them) had the effect of enlarging the market.

One entire volume of Delamare’s Traité de la Police is devoted to administrative problems arising from subsistence and marketing. He summed up the challenge: “Public security is never more threatened than in those periods when there is no bread, or when bread is difficult to obtain.”16 The regulated market system worked best in years of normal prices. As the French monarchy became more centralized, it not only gave formerly local powers to royal officers, as shown above, but also began to change the traditional market and commercial regulatory policies. This evolution of royal policy regarding grain is best seen in terms of the questions of (1) fixing commodity prices, (2) freedom of commerce, (3) requisitions, and (4) public granaries.

The question of commodity price-fixing and what it meant is complex. As de Roover has shown, even in scholastic economic theory, the “just price was simply the market price.”17 Although reasonable prices for food were the primary goal, even in the medieval period emphasis was placed in normal times on enforcing competition rather than price-fixing. When a dearth of grains caused rocketing prices for bread, however, strict regulations were invoked, but usually not price-setting for grain.

Delamare’s chronology of royal attempts at price-fixing over the entire realm shows that, after 1500, there is no case of such attempts by the royal power. In 1709, grain price-fixing was discussed at length in the king’s council and among administrators. Delamare prints a questionnaire regarding grain price-setting which local administrators were asked to fill out. His own answers, and his summary of the answers of others, were all decisively against such a policy. The controller general concluded that price-fixing:

was still considered by the most experienced magistrates to be a measure impossible to carry out and subject to very great inconveniences; it is forcing men to act against their own interests, and they will find 100 ways to elude it.18

The old regime monarchic administration was too insubstantial to enforce national price-fixing. In fact, the only successful experiment with this policy in modern France was the Jacobin Maximum, when political terror and urban rationing accompanied price fixing. Even Napoleon’s largely demagogic move to establish a maximum in 1812 was never applied in much of France and had to be annulled as the supply of grain being brought to market dried up in response.19 The threat was real that farmers would simply refuse to bring their grain to market or else sell it in black markets. The debated national grain price-fixing of 1709 never took place, and there are only two other cases in the period of the Revolution and First Empire.

On the local level, officials occasionally set grain prices even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1649, during one of the Fronde crises, the Parlement tried to set the price of grain in Paris. For Beauvais, Goubert finds only one case of official price setting of wheat, in 1709, and speaks of grain prices as “always free.” And in Brittany in 1724, some police officers, believing that they were authorized to do so, fixed a maximum price on grain, an action which was soon annulled by the intendant.20 The price of bread continued to be fixed, in proportion to the price of wheat and rye, in markets all over France. Yet, especially in the period of Physiocratic influence on grain policy, this kind of regulation, as well as other market regulations, was not strongly enforced. From Brittany in 1773 came a complaint that bread “était marchandé” and did not have a fixed price.21 It is clear, however, that ordinary people often claimed that price-fixing of both bread and grain was a duty of local magistrates.

Commerce in grains was the main area in which the eighteenth century saw major changes. Controls on trade could be of several sorts: (1) actual declarations forbidding movement of grain out of a territory (royal officers tried to claim this as their duty, but various parlements, especially that of Normandy, disputed this—the correspondence of the intendants show them occasionally issuing such orders in the late seventeenth century, but more often a system of licenses issued by them was used to control quantities moved; (2) regulations on who could take part in the grain trade—there was no change in this policy until 1763-64, as all merchants were required to be registered according to a declaration in 1699 (this document repeated traditional prohibitions), and various categories of men, including large farmers, nobles, royal officers, and the principle municipal officers were prohibited from trading in grain;22 (3) strict enforcement of market regulations requiring that all grain be sold in public markets, and in general making wholesale marketing very difficult and legally almost impossible. Therefore, although there was much talk of freeing commerce around the turn of the century, the commercial system was only slightly modified in that licenses had been substituted for an outright prohibition of trade movement. This was in contrast to the definite refusal to condone price setting.

The critiques of Boisguilbert and Vauban attributed the problems of French agriculture at the end of the seventeenth century to the system of regulated commerce in grains, and their ideas were partially and tentatively adopted in eighteenth-century administrative practice. The continuation of internal duties and market regulations, however, greatly limited the significance of the various decrees ordering the absolute liberty of circulation of grains. It is fair to say, nevertheless, that in law and administrative practice, free internal trade of grains had been a matter of discussion, with agreement in general terms on its desirability, for years before the appearance of Physiocratic theories, which called for the complete elimination of limits on who could trade, the removal of market regulations, and the extension of freedom to external trade. The decrees of 1763 and 1764 declared freedom of transport of grains throughout the kingdom and abroad, and opened the trade to anyone, without need of registration. These decrees were abrogated in 1770, as were Turgot’s similar actions in 1774 and 1775, because of a combination of forces: bad harvests, popular opposition (including riots), and parlementary objections.

It was not until 1791 that the Legislative Assembly made free trade in grains, internal and external, the policy of revolutionary France, but even then the debate was far from over. In Lyons, and then in Paris, governmental intervention to guarantee cheap food for all became part of the Jacobin program, and the ensuing Maximum was repealed only in An III. The oscillation of public policy throughout the eighteenth century was due to genuine differences of opinion as to the proper degree and nature of state economic activity.

The fall of the Jacobins led to the triumph of economic liberalism, insofar as commerce in grain goes, but later years saw renewed discussion of price maximums on wheat (1812) and sliding scale export regulations. Remnants of market regulation lingered, and in the 1850s liberal propagandists were still heading their works with quotations from Turgot and urging Napoleon III to end the remaining haphazard controls.23

Under the catchall heading of “requisitions” are included investigation of supplies, attempts to force grain onto markets, and buying and “dumping” grain in an attempt to lower price levels. When it became clear that a harvest was inadequate and prices started to rise, in the late seventeenth century royal officials set about finding out just how much grain was stored in their areas by actually visiting large farms and granaries. Sometimes not only officials were involved in this process, as seen by an arrêt of September 1693, which provided that throughout France “persons of probity” were to visit farms, abbeys, and houses to inventory stocks.24 Generally, however, it was the royal officers who had the responsibility to make the visits, and this was a transfer to them of a duty which municipal officers had carried out in an earlier period. This transfer from local to royal officials took place during the seventeenth century. Of course, Paris is the clearest case of this transfer; elsewhere jurisdictional conflicts continued in the eighteenth century. The royal commissioners traveled to grain-producing areas and, using the broad powers granted them by the king, forcibly opened stores of wheat, determined quantities, and ordered them to be taken to market.

When all else failed, an expedient used by the monarchy and its officials to bring prices down was that of buying grain on  their own account and either selling it below market price, usually secretly or distributing it to the poorest consumers. Both Louis XIV’s instructions to the Dauphin and Colbert’s letters of the same period show this kind of energetic royal intervention in the famine of 1662. In 1698-99 and 1709-10, there were no purchases abroad on the king’s account, as there were in 1662, 1684, and 1693-94, probably because of wartime financial problems.25 However, in those years some intendants and even some royal commissioners secretly bought grain and took it to market to sell at loss prices. Some cities practiced similar methods for subsidizing the poor. In Aix, where bread prices were perennially high because they were pegged to expensive local wheat prices, although cheaper wheat was imported, it was the city that sold emergency grain from abroad to citizens at below-market price, and even below its cost to the city.26 This policy was again tried in 1789, for the first time in years, as the monarchy bought grain abroad and sent it to other major cities as well as to Paris.27

Crucial to any project of governmental buying of grain, aside from its financing and honest administration, was the availability of granaries and storage places for wheat. Unlike the Italian cities, which had successful storage schemes, public granaries were not widespread in France. Lyons led in establishing a Chambre d’Abondance (an outgrowth of earlier granary programs) to store grain as well as to feed the poor (1643). Other French cities later experimented with similar plans. Colbert, after the experience of 1662, when the king’s wheat was stored in the galleries of the Louvre, tried to persuade Parisian merchants to establish semi-public granaries. Nothing came of this because of opposition from the powerful merchants, but in 1684, the crown borrowed 10 million livres to subsidize public granaries, one of the few non-military financial obligations incurred by it during the old regime. Military needs still came first, however, and the earmarked funds were absorbed in the Dutch war. The proposal to establish a city granary in Paris in 1709 foundered partly on conflicting claims of officers, and partly on the unwillingness of merchants. Later, in the eighteenth century, the use of granaries was promoted in periods when regulation was official policy, and abandoned when notions of free trade dominated.28


Formation of National Market

The second large-scale transformation which was linked to the increased importance of grain riots most importantly to the location of such riots, was the expansion of local markets and the movement toward a formation of a national market. In his discussion of the English corn market, Gras argues that the concept of a metropolitan market should be substituted for that of a national market. He writes, “The conception of national economy which hitherto has been unchallenged, owes its position to the old and in many ways pardonable confusion between politics and economics.”29

In the sense that Paris was the administrative capital for the centralized royal bureaucracy in the seventeenth century, the effect of Paris in enlarging markets was also the result of political developments. Precisely because I am emphasizing economic and political consequences of enlarged marketing of commodities, the term national market seems useful.

Military demands were also crucial. In fact, the demands of the army, the instrument of dynastic ambitions, provided an earlier influence on marketing arrangements than did the growth of cities. Military needs for food for men and animals, and also for the draft animals and wagons which were employed for the internal movement of grains, often had a disturbing effect on the distribution of available food supplies. Cities smaller than the capital, such as Lyons and Rouen, also exerted powerful demands on the grain-growing areas, sometimes in competition with Paris. Meuvret has described the parasitism of seventeenth-century cities in relation to the countryside;30 the parasites also included the court, the bureaucracy, and the army. The third force acting to broaden the market was export overseas. This can be seen in Languedoc in 1630, 1645, and 1651, when the profitability of exports to Spain led large farmers and merchants to try to move grains out of the province and into ships headed toward Catalonia.31 Similar effects can be seen in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the Atlantic ports of Nantes, Bordeaux, and La Rochelle.

Despite different terminology and a broader application of the term national market, my evidence resembles that of Grasin demonstrating the emergence of Paris as a price-making center for a large area, and the increased importance of wholesaling merchants. The final paragraphs in this section will compare my findings to Labrousse’s picture of the local markets in grains which were caused by the expense and difficulty of transport.

Figure 1: Wheat Prices in Paris, Toulouse, and Beauvais from 1530 to 1788

One way to show the emerging role of Paris as a price-maker, even for distant markets which had little or no trade with it, is by comparisons of wheat price series over long periods.32 If the differential between the two prices narrows (that is, the ratio between the prices moves toward 1.0), and the two prices and the cyclical movement of the two series tend to vary more simultaneously over time, strong evidence of the emergence of a national market exists. Fortunately, long series for major cities are available in nominal prices; they make possible a graphic and quantified presentation.33 I have worked out a graph of Paris and Toulouse wheat prices from 1530 to 1788, and Beauvais from 1574 to 1746, all expressed in livres tournois per sétier, the measure of Paris. The three curves, plotted on semi-log paper, show the familiar price peaks and irregular short cycles. From visual examination of the graph, the Paris/Toulouse (distant market) price curves, in the first half of the period, not only seem to vary according to different climatic and marketing systems, but the prices themselves are far apart. At the end of the seventeenth century, however, the prices converge and the difference between prices in the two markets is reduced. Although there are a few years around 1740 when price differences are very marked, after about 1745 the two curves move together, with very similar prices. As often as not Toulouse is higher than Paris. Beauvais and Paris (nearby markets) move together from about 1600.

Table 1: Mean Prices and Standard Deviations from the Means

PeriodArithmetic MeanStandard Deviation

Some straightforward statistical analyses confirm and refine the visual impressions given by the curves. First, the mean prices for each of the three markets and their standard deviations indicate the long trends and the extent of variability in prices from year to year. The means rise consistently from half-century to half-century, with the surprising exception that average prices in Paris drop slightly after 1750. Until that point, Parisian prices were consistently higher than those of the other two markets; the eighteenth century brought a marked convergence of the three series. The government policy of reducing marketing and commercial controls seems to have succeeded in bringing Parisian grain prices into the same range as those of distant Toulouse. We lack figures for the nearby market of Beauvais after 1746, but the pull of the Paris market most likely brought its average prices up. Baulant has observed this phenomena in the closer markets of Pontoise and Rozoy-en-Brie.34

The standard deviations show that on the whole prices varied more from year to year in Paris than in Beauvais, and, especially, more than in Toulouse. Relative to the mean price level, the century from 1650 to 1749 brought exceptional variability into the prices of Paris and Beauvais. Again, the market settled down to some extent in the years after 1749.

Table 2: Mean Deviation of Price Ratio from 1.0


The mean deviations of the Paris:Toulouse and Paris:Beauvais price ratios from 1.0 measure more directly the extent of similarity from year to year. They show a distinct widening of the gap between Paris and Toulouse in the seventeenth century, followed by an even more decisive rapprochement in the eighteenth. Paris and Beauvais, on the other hand, experience relatively similar prices, year in, year out, from early in the seventeenth century. Both the means and the ratios, then, show a market based on Paris first making prices in nearby cities like Beauvais and then, in the eighteenth century, wielding its influence as far away as Toulouse.

This does not mean, however, that all the year-to-year fluctuations depended on events in the capital. The computation of correlations and regression coefficients for Paris:Toulouse and Paris:Beauvais make that clear. The prices of all three markets already had a strong tendency to fluctuate together (reflected by correlation coefficients in the vicinity of .6) in the sixteenth century. But during the time of the Fronde, and again in the 1740s, Toulouse and Paris oscillated in rather different rhythms. Climatic variations are probably important here. LeRoy Ladurie has made it clear that in Languedoc the subsistence crises before and during the Fronde were considerably milder than in the Beauvaisis and Paris; that is partly because the dry spells which reduced the northern harvests in those years were within the normal range of the arid South.35 The acute but short-term effects of the sieges of Paris during the Fronde were probably not felt in Toulouse. In 1740 there again was a severe local dearth in northern France which appears to have affected prices in Toulouse relatively little.

Table 3: Correlation and Regression Coefficients for Prices


Paris and Beauvais experienced much more similar climatic conditions, but there were still some differences between them. The correlation between their prices was already high in the sixteenth century. It dropped during the period from 1600 to 1649, when the highly localized effects of the Fronde in Paris (documented by Goubert) probably affected the correlation. But after 1650 the correlation and regression coefficients for Beauvais:Paris show them to be so closely related as to be essentially the same price system. I conclude that both the graph of price curves and the quantitative measures of price comparisons with close and distant markets show that Paris by the end of the eighteenth century was a price-making center for a large area, but that movement in this direction had begun one hundred years before in the case of the distant market, Toulouse, and long before that for the neighboring market, Beauvais.

An indirect evidence of the growth of a national market is provided by the increased presence of merchants specializing in storing grain and moving it long distances. In England, the growing importance of the “corn middlemen,” the engrossing merchant, and the regrator, is cited by Gras as evidence of the evolution of the metropolitan market in the sixteenth century. Fisher, writing of the period 1540-1640, also remarked that London, in contrast to smaller cities, relied on middlemen for its supplies: “a large and increasing proportion of the capital’s food passed, not through the common market places, but through the hands of the free retailers …”36

In the case of France, there are no new descriptive professional words to use as evidence, but we do see in the seventeenth century that the local blatier trade was supplemented by merchants who specialized in handling larger quantities of grain over longer distances, and who often bought and sold outside of the regulated marketplace. In times of dearth the blatiers and the merchants “became the enemy.”37 The chief way in which these men can be recognized is that during a shortage, the illegal character of their activity—buying at farms and granaries, buying by sample, and storing grain—attracted criticism and accusations from people who supported the traditional regulatory system.

In contrast to this, Arthur Young, the British agriculturalist, saw the accapareurs as playing a useful and beneficial role in preventing starvation by storing wheat when it could be bought cheaply and bringing it out to sell when supplies were short.38 Similarly, the greedy merchant, the spéculateur, and the accapareur, stripped of these value-laden titles, look to modern eyes very  much like wholesale merchants. This is not to deny that their activities often hurt consumers in the short run. They did, and as long as the government was committed to consumer protection, much of its action tended to limit wholesaling activity.

But these merchants existed despite popular and governmental disapproval; they are very evident in the second half of the seventeenth century, and, as government controls were reduced, they became even more important. Delamare’s accounts of the various subsistence crises from the 1660s again and again mention the operations of merchants acting in their own interests rather than in those of the public.39 It is clear that accapareur and wholesaler are synonyms. The confusion of words is similar to the situation in sixteenth-century England. “[City officials] found it difficult to distinguish between harmless direct buying and forestalling. County justice occasionally made themselves a nuisance by their efforts to protect rural consumers.”40 It seems to be equally difficult for historians to mark the dividing line between hoarders, speculators, and wholesale merchants. It is risky to judge by the testimony of contemporaries whose outlook was colored by a conviction that profits from trade in food must necessarily be limited.

The trend I have described of the movement toward a national market as early as the end of the seventeenth century runs counter to that noted by Labrousse. He emphasizes the imperfect and local markets which operated even after the mid-eighteenth century in France. In order to illustrate the limited usefulness for his purposes of local price series he compares prices of several groups of distant markets for relatively short periods (1744-1763 and 1756-1770). His graphs show extreme localization of prices, that the prices do not vary together, and that the direction of movement is also quite different.41 Because I have compared prices over a much longer period, my graph and tables show that Paris’ role as a price-maker for even a distant market, Toulouse, emerges strikingly after the end of the seventeenth century.

Labrousse argued that the enormous costs of transporting grain led to a “weak … circulation of grains.”42 The cost of transport became less important to the price of wheat in periods of price increases, but, at the end of the eighteenth century, when the transportation network was most developed and other hindrances on trade most reduced, the profitable shipment of grain between the zones of high and low prices proved impossible.43

Although it is true that the northern and northeastern areas where wheat prices were usually low could not profitably ship to Roussillon and Provence (Labrousse’s example) in the eighteenth century, the continued existence of regional markets does not vitiate a strong movement toward a national market and increased circulation of grain, especially in years of harvest failure. Provence, where prices were high, bought grain in years of dearth (and also in normal years as its own agriculture turned away from staples production) from Italy and North Africa.44 In the case of Strasbourg in 1770-1771, the concerned city did not attempt to get grain from far off Marseilles, but concentrated on the closer German cities in the Rhine valley.45 There was no trade connection between some of the high and low price areas, not because of high transportation costs, but because there existed closer foreign markets or French markets only slightly more distant than normal supply areas which could offer emergency supplies at acceptable costs. These costs were not always rational by modern economic standards, but they were accepted. The evidence shows that grain moved.46 In contrast to Labrousse’s picture of the impossibility of trade between high and low price regions in France, in years of high prices and shortages merchants did go beyond their usual supply areas. The cumulative effect of this process was grouped regional markets, enlarged markets, and increased movement of grain. The mechanism of this larger market was not, I suggest, in long links between distant markets, but in an interlocking web with ties that were only somewhat longer than those of the century before, but with a cumulative effect that is illustrated by the role of Paris as price-maker, even for Toulouse. This suggestion can be tested by a study of trade partners and routes for low and high-price years, as well as comparisons of local price series, both of which studies are beyond the scope of this paper. The local comparisons that had no part in Labrousse’s study of long and short cycles of aggregate price movement would correct what I suspect is a wrong impression from his work of extremely local and imperfect markets and lack of circulation of grains.47


The Moral Economy

Thompson’s “moral economy of the poor” served to legitimate popular reactionary violence by appealing to traditional rights and customs. He sees the moral economy as a popular alternative when eighteenth-century governments changed the orientation of their national economic policy.48 Thompson describes two major alternative models for a national economy in eighteenth-century England. The older was the paternalistic, in which widespread government controls were invoked to protect consumers. Opposition to this policy came from economic theorists and practical men who believed that such controls hindered the growth of large-scale commerce and industry, growth which became accepted as a goal by important groups in society and eventually in government. Thompson calls the second model “laissez-faire.” It removed overt moral assumptions from economic theory and action and posited an unregulated but self-adjusting market which would, in the case of grain, distribute supplies geographically and temporally (that is, throughout the harvest year) by means of the free play of competition. High prices in years of shortage, according to this model, were necessary to reduce consumption and adjust it to supply.

As has been shown above, there was no simple and swift changeover of economic arrangements in France from paternalism to laissez-faire. There was a long, slow process of transformation of economic policy with small changes, much debate, and hesitant larger changes. Both market regulations and royal regulation of grain commerce were greatly reduced before 1791, when the Assembly officially ended both types of governmental intervention.

Given the pattern of changing economic theories and actions in which consumer protection was being de-emphasized, and given the emergence of a national market which meant longer shipments of grain, frequent distributional problems, and often higher prices for consumers in producing areas it is not surprising that the grain riot became an important form of political pressure by ordinary people. Their justification was a theory of moral economy.

The moral economy, as defined by Thompson, is a traditional view of the social role of government and the proper economic roles of producers, consumers, merchants, and officials. Legitimation of popular violence in defense of these traditional concepts was actually sometimes strengthened by the leniency of local authorities and a general acceptance in the community. Thompson illustrates his model of the moral economy mostly with reference to popular price-setting. In France there were three basic assumptions about the government’s role on which the action of grain rioters was based: The government should (1) keep bread prices low by controlling and regulating the sale of bread and by setting the price of grain, when necessary; (2) search out grain supplies, requisition them if necessary, or force them onto markets at reduced prices; (3) prevent the movement of grain outside an area unless local needs were satisfied at a reasonable price. These are all actions which governments had taken in the past, which were arrogated to the royal government in the seventeenth century, and about the continuation of which there was incessant debate.


Form and Location of Riots

The form of food riots in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (entrave and taxation populaire) was determined by the reduction of governmental intervention in grain commerce and marketing. As the government withdrew, the people, whether city dwellers who forced price-setting in their markets, or country dwellers who prevented movements of grain from their locality, rose to act in its place, or to force it to act. The locale of grain riots can be attributed to the interaction, one could say collision, between the third assumption, that grain should not be exported from a region when prices were high, and the government policy of free exchange. The ideal of the moral economy is the link by which the form and location of eighteenth and nineteenth century riots can be connected to large-scale economic and political transformations with which the periodization of the emergence of the grain riot coincides.

As the French government and its agents were seeking to equalize food supplies by encouraging commerce, refusing to fix grain prices, and failing to keep bread prices under control, the new form of taxation populaire was born. In 1694, a crowd in Rouen rioted outside the palace of the parlement, demanding that the price of bread be lowered. They claimed that in the two-week absence of the president, the bread price had increased one sol. Local officials, finding the price of wheat slightly reduced, lowered the price of bread, too, and the crowd was sufficiently appeased to leave, although some of its elements attacked the house of a grain merchant and others pillaged a baker’s house. This was a kind of taxation under popular pressure. Several explanatory letters were sent off to Paris, indicating an anxiety on the part of the local officials to justify what they had done. In Lyons in 1699, as the city was negotiating a purchase of wheat at the current market price, a crowd of women protested that the bread price should be lowered.49 In 1709, there was a taxation of the most direct kind in the Paris region, which was to be troubled by this kind of riot for over a century after. At La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, a Parisian merchant, trying to load his wheat onto a barge on the Marne, was stopped by a crowd. They demanded his wheat at three livres for a bichet; he fled, and the crowd, which included a variety of solid citizens, obtained the wheat.50 Clearly they thought that justice was on their side in their attempt to stop grain from leaving their locality and in demanding that it be sold to them at a price they set. Also in 1709 in Abbéville, where military buying was affecting price levels, a placard addressed to the council said: “We are dying of hunger, we must absolutely order you to set prices on bread and grain or else we will break from our homes like enraged lions, weapons in one hand, fire in the other.” Here there was evidently no riot, only a fierce demand for governmental action.51

Price-setting on bread and on grain was intermingled in the above examples. The most clear cases of taxation populaire, those of grain, almost always took place during an entrave, and will be discussed below. In a strict sense, only these should be considered as a new departure, and as the result of the interaction of reduced governmental intervention, increased market size, and the moral economy. With regard to bread, however, even though price-setting was still the custom, as long as it varied in proportion to wheat prices, and wheat prices were soaring, it did not satisfy people who had a simple idea that the government’s role was to prevent starvation. The appropriate royal officers had to move swiftly and deftly to fend off the threat of riot under these circumstances. A contemporary, reporting on events in Roan in 1709, wrote, “At one moment 16 thousand persons rose to get bread and killed one of the principal royal officers who was accused of not having taken the proper steps to calm the people.”52

Even in connection with bread prices there are suggestions of a hardening of governmental attitudes about the wisdom of consumer protection, especially after 1750. Letaconnoux’s work on Brittany led him to say, “If they intervened, it was above all to maintain order and security, to prevent riots which despite their efforts broke out … to prevent pillage … it was also for political reasons, to avoid being made responsible for the sufferings of the people.”53 Lemarchand, in a recent study of Normandy, remarks on the fear, horror, and exaggeration of authorities and their quickness to repress with force, especially after the mid-eighteenth century.54 While at the turn of the century distributions of free bread and lowering the quality as well as the quantity of bread for a given price were expedients used by police authorities, in the Guerre de Farines of 1775 official attitudes were very different. The government answer was repression; there was no felt obligation to protect consumers. The Prince of Poix, who, as governor of Versailles, lowered the price of bread under pressure from a rioting crowd, was criticized in court circles for this “sotte manoeuvre.” In Paris, although a riot was being born, the price of bread the next day was posted at one-half a sol higher. Police orders to bakers, once the riot had started, were that they were not to sell bread under the posted price. This policy of Turgot was opposed by the police lieutenant, who was forced to resign, and by the parlement, which petitioned the king to take measures “to lower the price of grains and of bread to a level proportionate to the means of the people.”55 The parish priests were ordered to preach free trade and remind their parishioners that “all confiscation of food, even if paid for, if it is at a price inferior to its value is a true theft, disapproved by divine and human law …” Hardy, the Parisian bookseller and diarist, heard a sermon on this subject in Paris, and reported grumbling and protest among the listeners.56

There was a direct feedback to the problem of bread prices from the popular position on grain price-setting. The reason for setting a controlled price on grain, after all, was to lower bread prices. A short-circuit of the theory plus resistant or insensitive authorities led to taxation populaire of bread; the eighteenth-century riot waves demanded interchangeably that the government should set grain prices and lower bread prices, especially during episodes of urban popular violence.

Taxation populaire also existed in the countryside, but it was usually associated with people acting in the place of government in two ways: They scoured the large farms looking for stores of grain, and they tried to prevent grain from leaving their locality.

Popular requisitions are a feature of the immediate pre-Revolutionary period. These processions of aroused peasants and village dwellers contain a strong suggestion of class conflict—poor against rich. Lemarchand cites several cases of marching against granaries in 1784 and 1789, and remarks on the fact that chateaux and monasteries as well as farms were attacked. “Thus, these popular risings, aimed firstly at seizing wheat wherever it could be found, ended by challenging the entire social system of the epoch, although the rioters were not fully conscious of this.” Armed crowds, with banners and martial music went into the Norman countryside to “taxer le grain chez le cultivateur.”57 Other raids on chateaux came from nearby regions of the west, Maine and Anjou. In the small Angevin towns of Baugé and Longué the Revolutionary militia led the chateau-searchers.58

Probably the most common form of popular violence about grain was still the entrave. There were some riots of the entrave type because of popular opposition to any export in a period of rising prices even in the early seventeenth century, when export controls were usually imposed by local officers, provincial magistrates, or, later, intendents. Earlier still, there was official opposition from local governments. Some cities even claimed a kind of “riparian rights” to a share of grain passing through their territory on canals or rivers, and also on roads. Claims of this sort were made by Amiens, Compiègne, Clermont-Ferrand, and Poitiers.59

By the end of the seventeenth century, the policy of most of the intendants, as described above, was to keep channels open except in the worst situations. From Lyons, the intendant wrote in 1698:

It is terrible and dangerous that the provinces isolate themselves this way, one from the other; it is the way for all to lack, for, at bottom, no one lacks; but however good orders can be given, they cannot be without inconvenience, nor can they produce the good effect that liberty of commerce produces infallibly.60

Popular clamor against export existed in all classes of the population. At Marans, through which grain passed to La Rochelle, “the principal inhabitants declared their solidarity, by public act, with all the pillage that might come in the future.”61 And from Moulins, the intendant, himself, wrote:

Since, in this type of sedition there is some sort of memory of law, and public right is not completely violated … what leads these unhappy people into error, it seems to me, is that they believe that the arrêt which forbade transport of grains outside the kingdom also forbade it from one province to another …

He therefore recommended light punishment for rioters.62

Turgot, in instituting his reforms, realized that people had to be persuaded of the benefits of free trade. He wrote, “It is absolutely necessary to put before the eyes of the public the details of the regulations which we are suppressing so that people know what is being done away with and realize its absurdity …”63 The Guerre de Farines which resulted from his policy, consisted largely of alarmed people putting into action the traditional policy of limiting exports from an area by themselves blocking movement of wagons or barges and selling grain at low prices to local residents. In Brittany, where there were many substantial farmers and merchants who were profiting from the grain trade, the intendant ordered the parish priests in 1787 to explain free trade from their pulpits.64 But it was hard to persuade people to abandon fear for their local supply of food. Grain riots continued to occur until the 1850s when improvements in the communication and transportation network made possible quick shipments to balance supply and demand.

The incidence of entrave grew with the increased circulation of grain—the transformation from local to national marketing. The location of the entraves was determined by the routes of the movement of grain and by special market demands from period to period.65 The factors leading to increased and fluctuating demands on producing areas (discussed above) were the growth of city markets, military needs, and exports. To illustrate the interplay of these forces, I give more detailed descriptions of riot locations for three crisis periods for which documentation of riots is fairly full: 1709/10, 1816/17, and 1839/40.


Case Studies of Riot Periods

The killing famine of 1709/10, which Delamare called the worst in history, followed the killing cold of the “Grand hiver” of 1709. Yet a reading of the sources indicates that there was at least one very important exceptional demand that had to be satisfied, and was, thus leading to all sorts of strains on the distribution of the available grain in France. This was the provisioning needs of the army in Flanders. The case of Burgundy and Champagne is best documented. Burgundy evidently saved more of its harvest than the area close to Paris, for in 1709/10 not only did supplies go to the capital, but also to the army and south to Lyons. St. Jacob states that “the dearth was less an affair of lack than of distribution.”66 Within the province, which was quickly tapped by the large military and urban consumers, smaller cities sought food and the countryside armed to prevent loss of vital supplies. “There was an open war with the peasants to get their grain,” wrote a canon of Beaune. Officials and troops from Beaune only managed to get a good quantity of grain in the Auxois by armed force. Macon’s purchases were stopped by peasant entrave. In Pontailler the grain which had been officially designated for movement to Lyons was seized and distributed at a set price. Similar violence was directed against grain boats elsewhere. The feelings of the Burgundians were that “there is no justice if people die of hunger in Burgundy to feed the city of Lyons.”67 Lyons’s demand was also considered excessive in the area closer to Lyons in 1709, when a rash of entraves took place in nearby villages.68

The northern area of Burgundy and Champagne were being tapped by Paris, and Delamare was concentrating his efforts to make the movement of grain easier in the area of Troyes-Chalons-St. Dizier-Vitry, much to the uneasiness of the inhabitants. He arrived at Troyes the day after a riot in which the houses of judges, and the Bureau de Recettes des Droites du Roy, had been attacked. Committed as he was to restoring rational trade through commercial regulation, Delamare declared at the marketplace that he had been sent by the king to help the people and restore plenty, and he persuaded a gathering crowd to disperse. At the border of Champagne and Brie, at Sezanne, there was another entrave in which police reported that although there was plenty of grain, people refused to see it sold and shipped.69

In the west, Brittany had had a better harvest than the rest of France, yet grain was stopped at Saint-Brieuc and Paimpol.70 A list of the important riots of 1709 in Anjou shows that one was an entrave of wheat leaving Ponts-de-Cé for Nantes; the second, in Angers itself, was an entrave of wagons leaving for Laval, with violence continuing in a generalized attack on bakers; and the third was an entrave at Montejean of barges bound for Angers. The Ponts-de-Cé episode was notable because people insisted on buying part of the wheat which they had prevented from leaving and let the larger part proceed to Nantes. The reserved grain was distributed at a low price to the poor, as certified by their parish priests.71 Finally, in the north, Normandy was, as was often the case, squeezed by extraordinary demands from Paris and the army. In both 1709 and 1710 large quantities of grains from the Caux and the Vexin were shipped off to Flanders for military needs. The riot that took place in Rouen in July 1709 was aimed most directly against the intendant, who, it was felt, had not acted promptly to assure the subsistence of Normandy.72

This list of events was not selected in any way except to group them regionally, yet it is perfectly clear that every one of them was triggered by more movement of grain than people thought was right. Price differences were attractive enough to merchants to move grain, and Parisian and army demands were politically crucial enough for government to promote and protect that movement. Martin sums up the effect of large purchases: “Even if they acted in a strictly honest way, their [merchants’] purchases were so large that they caused a local shortage of grain and a certain price increase.”73 Riots erupted in those areas in which redistribution occurred.

An early challenge to the restored Bourbon government came with the bad harvest of 1816 and the ensuing wave of riots which has been described by Chabert and Marjolin. The latter emphasizes the royalist proclivities of the areas in which the early riots occurred, and concludes that these areas also supported the paternalistic economic policies of the old regime.74 But paternalism regarding the commerce of grain had been largely abandoned by the old regime itself. The troubles started in Toulouse at the end of October. The harvest had been good in the Haute-Garonne, but grain was being shipped to Provence where it was needed. Grain barges were stopped by an angry population and the price fixed on grain in the market. In the Vendée, where the harvest had also been good, a group of entraves took place against grain headed for Bayonne. In 1816/17, almost all riots were taxation populaire of grain and entraves. There was a kind of ritualization of protest as the forms of popular violence over the movement of grain followed familiar scenarios. In place after place, familiar roles were filled by merchants and their shippers, enraged women and men armed with sticks and pitchforks who stopped the barges or wagons and “taxed the wheat.” A kind of guerrilla theater—an acting out of ritualized protest—came into being.75

People thought that circumstances amply justified their action. “When you don’t have any bread, who’s afraid of prison?” was the shout heard in a village on the Orne. Officials found it quite natural also, for example, that the inhabitants of the Ille-et-Vilaine were aroused by purchases of grain by merchants from Bordeaux and Brittany.76

Familiar areas became involved quickly, and Chabert’s list of the locations most seriously affected by riots is to a large degree a traditional one: the Paris region, lower Normandy, Lyonnais, but with some new locations, the Nord, Borbonnais, and Bas-Poitou. Parisian demand can be seen in its own hinterland and Normandy. Shipments of wheat from Le Havre up the Seine had to be accompanied by troops. In the Paris region, Champagne, Burgundy, the Nivernais, and Orleanais, Marjolin describes a seemingly formless, furious “jacquerie descending on the markets, spreading through the country, pillaging farms, besieging cities, not fearing to attack the cities or attacking troops and throwing them back.”77 Despite the descriptive word “jacquerie,” however, most of this violence took the form of taxation populaire, entraves, and requisitions, and took place in commercial wheat-growing areas in which extra heavy demand was distorting prices in the popular conception and putting grain into open view as it was shipped out. The Nord protests were along the Dunkerque canal, through which grain was moving to the interior. The Lyonnais experienced familiar troubles as, again, the area surrounding the city felt itself depleted of supplies by the demand of the city.

The west was involved as areas along the smaller rivers feeding the Loire became agitated. Redistribution within the west meant that a department like the Sarthe, which was not a major producing area, was called on to ship grain north to Alençon and Rouen, east to Chartres, and presumably on to Paris, with ensuing problems and popular violence.78

Marjolin’s conclusion is that most of the violence occurred where harvests were good or normal and the inhabitants were aroused by the attempts to redistribute unequal supplies. Where there were real shortages, there were fewer riots, and more taxation populaire. Chabert agrees that the incidence of violence did not coincide with the regions of highest prices (which were the Haut- and Bas-Rhin, and the southeast). His explanation is that the areas most heavily involved were the most densely populated and the most industrialized, hence the most affected, following the Labroussian model, by the slowdown of industrial activity which rapidly followed a poor harvest.79 More work has to be done on the 1816/17 wave of grain riots—especially in careful correlations of the incidence of violence with the economic structure of the departments where it occurred—since Chabert’s own information shows many riots in commercial farming areas, which were heavily involved in grain-production, not industry. In the context of the long period I have been describing, however, the 1816/17 riots fall into the same pattern in that their location can be attributed by the pattern of distribution of grain and their form to a popular belief in the need for governmental intervention. When the government failed to act, popular violence tried to force it to do so, or the crowd acted in its place.

In the 1839/40 food riots, discussed and mapped by Levy-Leboyer, there is a decisive shift of location to the west.80 The first wave, which actually started in December 1838, but reached its height in early 1839, was concentrated around the Atlantic ports of Brest, Nantes, and La Rochelle, through which grain was being shipped to English buyers. The same kind of export-spurred protest recurred late in 1839, after another mediocre harvest. Paris’ demand and redistribution within the west shows up in the post-harvest 1839 protest, especially in Sarthe and Mayenne. South of the Loire, most of the incidents of popular violence were entraves (this was true throughout France, also; of sixty incidents classified according to type, thirty-nine were entraves)81 on waterways leading to the Loire. Once on the river, some of the grain headed toward Paris via Orleans, some for the Atlantic ports. Roads north through Berry and Limousin witnessed numerous entraves.

Although the industrial crisis with which Levy-Leboyer is primarily concerned may have had some effect in mobilizing unemployed textile workers in the Norman and Breton bocages, the unemployment explanation does not hold for all of the cases described. Again the major influence was location in areas which were involved in larger market systems than they had been, and the form of protest in which taxation populaire was dominant, harking back to demands for a return to the paternalistic intervention of the government.



The food riots of the mid-seventeenth to mid-nineteenth centuries were the consequence of the nationalization and politicization of economic problems. They accompanied a shift of concerns about subsistence policy to the national political arena, and, in a sense, they continued the anti-tax, anti-centralizing revolts of the pre-Fronde period because it was the growth of the centralized state, with its political goals and financial needs, which determined the large-scale changes in the economy, and the changed role of government in the economy.

The timing of the increased importance of food riots coincides with the growth of the market in response to the demands of the centralized state, its administration and court, and its political goals of foreign domination. The food riot grew even more common, and its shape became formalized as a consequence of the late eighteenth-century reduction of government intervention in the commerce of grain. The political consciousness of ordinary people was sharpened as they rioted, not only because they were hungry, but also because they thought that the government had an obligation to act in specific ways when faced by high food prices. The ideology of the moral economy, which recalled earlier government paternalism, was the popular justification for the taxation populaire and the entrave. The location of the riots, especially the riots in producing regions, resulted from the distribution problems which accompanied the emergence of a national market, and was complicated by an extraordinary demand from the army, administrative centers, and later by growing industrial cities and overseas export.

Backward-looking protest, in the form of grain riots which invoked paternalistic economic regulations, occurred in 1788 and during the Revolutionary years. A harbinger of modern social legislation, the Jacobin Maximum was also a reformulation of a principle that the old regime had already questioned and to some degree abandoned. Popular violence, entraves, and taxation populaire, continued throughout the transition from a paternalistic to a laissez-faire economy and the attainment of a national market. The market rioters were expressing a rough-and-ready ideology of controls, sanctioned by tradition. They were crying out in protest at being made to be the ones to pay the cost of a giant step in national economic development. And they were using the political tool of powerless people—popular violence. The achievement of political and economic integration—political participation for the popular classes and an efficient market—marked the end of the food riot in the mid-nineteenth century.



  1. The market riot was traced back to the classical world by Nicolas Delamare in his Traité de la Police (Paris, 1729; 3rd ed.), 4v. He was one of the grain commissioners who served with the Paris police lieutenants at the end of the reign of Louis XIV. His Traité was first published 1705-19, 3v. but citations for this essay are from the 3rd ed.
  2. R. B. Rose, “Eighteenth Century Price Riots, the French Revolution and the Jacobin Maximum,” International Review of Social History, IV (1959), 435, 438.
  3. George Rudé, “La taxation populaire de mai 1775 à Paris et dans le région parisienne,” Annales historiques de la Révolution française, XXVIII (1956), 177.
  4. Abbot Payson Usher, The History of the Grain Trade in France, 1400-1710 (Cambridge, Mass., 1913), remarks on the few documented grain riots before the mid-seventeenth century. In general, historical documentation of grain riots is sparse before the end of that century. Either there were few of them, or they were not considered worth mentioning. My impression that food riots increased in number is based on reading the following general works: Ernest Lavisse, Histoire de France depuis les origins jusqu’à la Révolution (Paris, 1910-11); Hippolyte Taine, Les origins de la France contemporaine (Paris, 1930; 32nd ed.). For regional studies of the seventeenth century: Emannuel LeRoy Ladurie, Les paysans de Languedoc (Paris, 1964), 2v.; Pierre Goubert, Beauvais et le Beauvaisis de 1660 à 1730 (Paris, 1960); Marc Venard, Bourgeois et paysans du XVIIe siècle (Paris, 1957); Gaston Roupnel, La ville et la campagne au XVIIe siècle (Paris, 1955); Pierre de St. Jacob, Les paysans de la Bourgogne du Nord au dernier siècle de l’Ancien Régime (Paris, 1960); Pierre Deyon, Amiens, Capitale provinciale: Étude sur la société urbaine au 17e siècle (Paris, 1967); René Baehrel, Une croissance: La Basse-Provence rurale (fin du XVIe siècle-1789) (Paris, 1961). For works focusing on the turn of the century: A. M. de Boislisle (ed.), Correspondence des controleurs generaux des finances avec les intendants des provinces (Paris, 1879), 3v.; René Lehoreau (ed. François Lebrun), Cérémonial de l’Eglise d’Angers, 1672-1727 (Paris, 1967); Guy Lemarchand, “Crises économiques et atmosphere sociale en milieu urbain sous Louis XIV,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, XIV (1967), 244-265. For the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, other detailed works are cited below.
  5. Jean Meuvret, “Les crises de subsistences et la demographie de la France d’Ancien Régime,” Population, I (1946), 643-650. See also Goubert, Beauvais, and LeRoy Ladurie, Les Paysans de Languedoc.
  6. A recent article by Jean Meuvret, “Les oscillations des prix des céréales aux XVIIe siècles en Angleterre et dans le pays du Bassin parisien,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, XVI (1969), 543, remarks “the threatened populations made all the more noise since they were not completely wiped out.”
  7. André Rémond, Études sur la circulation marchande en France aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles (Paris, 1956), 26, sees the frequency of eighteenth century crises and ensuing social problems as forcing a national policy of road-building and removal of hindrances to internal commerce.
  8. Jean Meuvret, “Circuits d’énchanges et travail rural dans la France du XVIIe siècle,” in Studi in onori di Armando Sapori (Milan, n.d.), II, 1129-1142, emphasizes the effect of cities in drawing rural areas into the market economy.
  9. Goubert, Beauvais, passim, and also “The French Peasantry of the Seventeenth Century: A Regional Example,” in Trevor Aston (ed.), Crisis in Europe, 1560-1660 (New York, 1967), esp. 164-171.
  10. Edward P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present, L (1971), 71-136; idem., The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1964), 63-64.
  11. A very useful state-of-the-question article was written over sixty years ago by Joseph Letaconnoux, “La Question des subsistances et du commerce dans grains en France au XVIIIe siècle,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, VIII (1906-07), 409-445. My description of market controls is derived from R. B. Rose, “The French Revolution and the Grain Supply: Nationalization Pamphlets in the John Rylands Library,” The John Rylands Library, Bulletin, XXXIX (1956-57), 175; Usher, History of the Grain Trade; Raymond de Roover, “The Concept of the Just Price: Theory and Economy Policy,” Journal of Economic History, XVIII (1958), 418-434, 438-439; Jean Meuvret, “Le commerce des grains et des farines à Paris et les marchands parisiens à l’époque de Louis XIV,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, III (1956), 169-203.
  12. Bread policy is described in Jean Meuvret, “Les prix des grains à Paris au XVe siècle et les origins de la mercuriale,” Société historique et archéologique de Paris et de l’Ile-de-France, Mémoires, XI (1960), 286; Micheline Baulant-Duchaillat and Jean Meuvret, Prix des céréales extraits de la mercuriale de Paris (1520-1698) (Paris, 1960), I, 2-8. Joseph Letaconnoux, Les subsistances et le commerce des grains en Bretagne au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1894), 105-106, describes bread-pricing in Brittany. For eighteenth century Paris, see Léon Cahen, “L’approvisionnement en pain de Paris au XVIIIe siècle et la question de la boulangerie,” Revue d’histoire économique et sociale, XIV (1962), 458-472, and Jacques Godechot, La prise de la Bastille (Paris, 1965), 87-91. Examples of flexible enforcement of regulations in Jacques St. Germain, La Reynie et la police au Grand Siècle d’après des nombreax documents inédits (Paris, 1962), 278-279; Boislisle, Correspondence, II, 145, 549; and Guy Lemarchand, “Les troubles de subsistances dans la Généralité de Rouen (seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle),” Annales historiques de la Révolution française, XXXV (1963), 411.
  13. Lionel Rothkrug, The Opposition to Louis XIV: The Political and Social Origins of the French Enlightenment (Princeton, 1965), 21, and Gustav Schmoller, The Mercantile System (1896), quoted in C. H. Wilson, “Trade, Society and the State,” Ch. VIII in The Cambridge Economic History of Europe (Cambridge, 1967), IV, 573.
  14. Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Oeuvres, cited in Georges Afanassiev, Le commerce des céréales en France au dix-huitiènne siècle (Paris, 1894). This translation and all others are by L. Tilly. Léon Biollay, Le Pacte de Famine et les operations sur les grains au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1885), 267-274, attributes parlementary opposition to free trade in Burgundy to the realization that the parlementaires themselves would be among the first victims of popular ire.
  15. St. Germain, La Reynie, 274.
  16. Traité, III, 828.
  17. de Roover, “Concept of Just Price,” 429-430.
  18. Traité, III, 922-934. Quote from controller general in Boislisle, Correspondence, III, 402.
  19. Albert Mathiez, “Les restrictions alimentaires en l’an II,” Revue d’histoire économique et sociale, XIV (1926), 42; Albert Chabert, Essai sur les mouvements des prix en France de 1798 à 1820 (Paris, 1945), 390-391. Napoleon was acutely aware of the political importance of the price of bread in Paris, and said, “The government is there, and soldiers don’t like to shoot at women, who with infants on their backs, come to shout in front of bakeries,” cited in Jean Tulard, La préfecture de police sous la monarchie de juillet suivi d’un inventaire sommaire et d’extraits des rapports de la Préfecture de police conservés aux Archives nationales (Paris, 1964), 97. Tulard also describes bread price-setting based on grain cost under the July monarchy, 98.
  20. Mme. Cubells, “Le Parlement de Paris pendant la Fronde,” XVIIe siècle, 35 (1957), 193-194; Goubert, Beauvais, 368; Letaconnoux, Bretagne, 63.
  21. Ibid., 113. See also Robert Darnton, “Le Lieutenant de police J. P. Lenoir, la Guerre des farines et l’approvisionnement de Paris à la veille de la Révolution,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, XVI (1969), 611-624. Lenoir says in this memoir (622) that after 1775, even after the fall of Turgot and his own return to the police lieutenancy, the price of bread was regulated “naturally” and no longer formally set by police ordinance.
  22. J. F. Rivière, Précis historique et critique de la legislation française sur le commerce des céréales et des mesures d’aministration prises dans les temps de cherté (Paris, 1859), is the chief source of this chronology; see also Delamare, Traité, III, 615 ff.
  23. Victor Emion, Legislation, jurisprudence et usages du commerce du céréales (Paris, n.d., 2—J.I.H. but preface dated 1854), 13. See also Rivière, Précis, which quotes Turgot on the title page: “It is by commerce alone and by free commerce, that the inequality of harvests can be corrected.”
  24. Delamare, Traité, III, 870.
  25. 1662 events in Paul Bondois, “La misère sous Louis XIV. La disette de 1662,” Revue d’histoire économique et sociale, XII (1924), 61-62; later period in Biollay, Le Pacte de Famine, 36-37. See also Gustave Bord, Le Pacte de Famine: Histoire-Légende (Paris, 1887), 36-37.
  26. Baehrel, Une croissance, 61.
  27. Biollay, Le Pacte de Famine, 67-68. See also Léon Cahen, “Le Pacte de Famine et les spéculations sur les blés,” Revue histoirique, CLII (1926), 32-43.
  28. Granary policies are discussed in St. Germain, La Reynie, 264; E. V. Hamilton, “Origin and Growth of the National Debt in France and England,” in Studi in onore di Gino Luzzatto, II (Milan, 1950), 249; Rivière, Précis, 130; Biollay, Le Pacte de Famine, 40; Afanassiev, Le commerce des céréales, 392.
  29. Normon Scott Gras, The Evolution of the English Corn Market from the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1967), viii, also 95-99.
  30. Meuvret, “Circuits d’échanges,” 1141.
  31. LeRoy Ladurie, Les paysans de Languedoc, I, 448-449.
  32. Wheat prices are used despite the fact that bread made of rye, or wheat and rye mixed, was the normal diet of ordinary people through most of my period. Scholars have generally paid first attention to wheat prices, and there are not the long published time series for rye that there are for wheat. C. E. Labrousse, Esquisse du movement des prix et des revenus en France au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1933), I, 5, justifies his emphasis on wheat prices this way, “The importance placed on it [the price of wheat] corresponds to its importance in the national market as ‘product of exchange,’ as an index of the fluctuations of the whole group of grains to which it is tightly correlated, rather than to its role in popular consumption,” and I have followed this emphasis. Later studies, such as Goubert’s, have confirmed the correlation between wheat and rye prices. Meuvret’s recent article, “Oscillations des prix des céréales,” 540-541, 552, points out that increases in the price of rye were proportionally stronger than those of wheat, reflecting increased consumption of the less expensive grain in response to higher wheat prices.
  33. Thanks are due for methodological advice on this section to Charles Tilly and Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie. The prices for Paris, Micheline Baulant, “Les prix des grains à Paris de 1431 à 1788,” Annales. E. S. C., XXIII (1968), 520-540; for Toulouse, Georges et Geneviève Frêche, Les Prix des grains, des vins, et des legumes à Toulouse (1486-1868). Extraits des mercuriales suivis d’une bibliographie d’histoiore des prix (Paris, 1967); for Beauvais, Goubert, Beauvais, I, 401-405. The Beauvais prices are harvest year prices rather than calendar year prices as are the Paris and Toulouse prices, but Goubert’s graphed comparison of harvest and calendar year prices shows that differences minimal for are study of long cycles, 372. See also René Baehrel, “L’exemple d’un exemple,” Annales. E. S. C., IX (1954), 213-214. The Beauvais curve has the added interest of being a proxy for Amiens, in the commercial grain-growing area of Picardy, as Deyon has shown in Amiens, 45-47. His comparison of price curves for Amiens and Beauvais (unfortunately he does not give the numbers on which the Amiens curve is based) show that although Beauvais was not an important commercial market and Amiens was, their prices were similar and varied together throughout the seventeenth century. From this I conclude that we can fairly say that Paris was making prices in Picardy as well as the Beauvaisis from about 1600, at least.
  34. Baulant, Les prix des grains, 521-522; Labrousse, Esquisse, I, 106-113, price table for fourteen generalities and Paris, 1756-1790. Labrousse’s average prices for the Generality of Paris are higher in this period than those of the city of Paris. The Generality of Amiens also had higher prices than Paris in ten of the thirty-five years from 1756 to 1790.
  35. LeRoy Ladurie, Les paysans de Languedoc, I, 449-450.
  36. Gras, Evolution, 198-199, and F. J. Fisher, “The Development of the London Food Market, 1540-1640,” in E. M. Carus-Wilson (ed.), Essays in Economic History (London, 1954), I, 146.
  37. Germain Martin, “Les famines de 1693 et 1709 et la spéculation sur les blés,” Comité des Travaux historiques et scientifiques, Section des Sciences économiques et sociales, Bulletin (1908), 161.
  38. Robert Latouche, “Le prix du blé à Grenoble,” Revue d’histoire économique, XX (1932), 347. Lemarchand, “Troubles de subsistences,” 410, writes that for ordinary people, the accapareur was the “gros negócient en grains.”
  39. Delamare, Traité, III, 829-830.
  40. Fisher, “Development,” 150. According to Littré’s Dictionnaire de la langue française, the usage of spéculer in the sense of taking advantage of price changes in buying and selling commodities emerged in the eighteenth century; in the seventeenth, “spéculer, c’était méditer sur la metaphysique.”
  41. Labrousse, Esquisse, I, 5-9. See also Jean Meuvret, “La géographie des céréales et les anciennes économies européenes: prix méditerranéans, prix continentaux, prix atlantiques à la fin du XVII siècle,” Revista de Economia (1951), 63-69. Meuvret demonstrates geographically-determined market regions, but his regional price comparisons are limited to the last quarter of the seventeenth century, because, he explains, “By extending the effort to a later period, one risks seeing the specific character of the mechanisms one wishes to analyze evaporate” (64). He implies by this that regional markets were less definable after 1700, which fits my findings.
  42. Labrousse, Esquisse, I, 124. For comparison with the English case, see C. W. J. Granger and C. M. Elliott, “A Fresh Look at Wheat Prices in the Eighteenth Century,” Economic History Review, XX (1967), 257-262. Granger and Elliott use spectral analysis of grain price series over a long period to prove that regional markets had largely disappeared by the eighteenth century. T. S. Ashton argues in his Economic History of England: The Eighteenth Century (London, 1955), 86, that even before transportation improvements, wheat was commonly carried over long distances and market autonomy had disappeared.
  43. Labrousse, Esquisse, I, 123-124. Following Labrousse, Chabert, Essai, I, 21-22, also emphasizes limitations on markets arising from transportation difficulties, and the great spread in price differentials for the period I798-1820. See also Octave Festy, L’Agriculture pendant la Révolution française: Les conditions de production et de récolte des céréales (Paris, I947), 88-89. Meuvret, in “Oscillations des prix des céréales,” 548, recognizes the role of long-term market evolution in pointing out that although long cycles of price rise were accompanied by less severe price oscillations than in periods of price decline, this does not hold for the sixteenth century; he writes “Other factors were operating, from century to century, factors which we could provisionally sum up in a formula of a gradual development of grain commerce….”
  44. Baehrel, Une croissance, 78 and passim.
  45. Yves Lemoigne, “Population and Provisions in Strasbourg in the Eighteenth Century,” in Jeffrey Kaplow (ed.), New Perspectives on the French Revolution: Readings in Historical Sociology (New York, 1965), 61-62.
  46. Fisher, “Developments,” 150, writes for England, “Curiously enough the difficulties of land carriage do not seem to have impressed contemporaries. They were simply accepted to a degree which historians, debauched by the standards of a pampered age, are apt to forget.…” Rémond, Etudes sur la circulation marchande, 38, writes “The considerations of distance, of the intrinsic values of the transported merchanise, of the pressing need for such and such a product surely influenced its level (and especially in the case of grain transport) but not in a mathematical sense.” Rémond also emphasizes the importance of commercial connections between distant cities to the level of transport prices (89).
  47. There are several lapses in the logic of Labrousse’s argument on the lack of national market and his exclusive reliance on a national aggregate price series which is an unweighted average of the average yearly prices of fourteen generalities and the city of Paris. See Esquisse, I, 102n, I6-18, 63-85. If grain markets were so local, what can an unweighted average of them mean? Labrousse states that it is wheat’s “importance in the national market as a product of exchange” (5) that explains the attention he pays to wheat prices.
  48. Thompson’s argument, summarized here, appears in the unpublished paper cited above, fn. 10. Natalie Z. Davis, in Strikes and Salvation in Lyon (forthcoming), argues that there was a felt “right of rebeine” (revolt) in sixteenth-century Lyons, which although vaguer than Thompson’s moral economy, played the same role in legitimizing revolt. There was a similar vague justification for market riots of the seventeenth century and earlier which was based on the claim that the monarch, and by extension, municipal governments, had an obligation to see that food at reasonable price was available to all, at all times. This was, after all, at base simply a popular statement of the consumer-protection which was accepted government policy and the theory behind market regulations. The moral economy, as an alternative model with a very specific content as to how government should act in reference to the commerce of grains and food prices, only appeared when governments stopped intervening in traditional ways.
  49. Boislisle, Correspondence, I, No. 1310, and No. 1829. The only reference I have found to taxation populaire before this period is in Michel Caillard, “Recherches sur les soulèvements populaires in Basse Normandie (1620-1640) et spécialement sur la Révolte des Nu-pieds,” in Michel Caillard, et al., A Travers la Normandie des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (Caen, 1963), 38-39. There was one protest in Caen in 1630 against the export of grain, and one in 1631 which attacked bakers and merchants, took grain “au prix qu’ils voullaient,” and forced officials to set a “normal” but uneconomic price on grains. The beginnings of Normandy’s long struggle with problems of conflicting demand and grain distribution probably antedated the late seventeenth century period on which this paper focuses, and during which similar problems can be seen throughout France. Perhaps this was due to, on the one hand, Normandy’s maritime economy, through which export trade demands were felt, and, on the other, its closeness to Paris and the wheat-growing Norman Vexin which bordered regions which were normal Paris supply regions. R. B. Rose, “Eighteenth Century Price Riots and Public Policy in England,” International Review of Social History, VI (1961), 279, notes that the first price-fixing riot which he can find occurred in April 1693.
  50. Jacques St. Germain, La vie quotidiene en France à la fin du Grand Siècle (Paris, 1965), 216.
  51. Deyon, Amiens, 472.
  52. Lehoreau, Cérémonial, 194.
  53. Bretagne, 55-56.
  54. Guy Lemarchand, “Les troubles de subsistances dans la Généralité de Rouen (seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle),” Annales historiques de la Révolution française, XXXV (1963), 413, 423.
  55. Rudé, “La taxation populaire,” 164. See also George Rudé, “La taxation populaire de mai 1775 en Picardie, en Normandie et dans le Beauvaisis,” Annales historiques de la Révolution française, XXXIII (1961), 305-326; Darnton, “Le Lieutenant de police.”
  56. Rudé, “La taxation populaire” (1956), 165.
  57. “Troubles de subsistances,” 413, 423.
  58. Robert Triger, L’Année 1789 au Mans et dans le Haut-Maine (Mamers, 1889), 293; François  Mourlot, La fin de l’Ancien Régime dans la généralité de Caen (1787-1790) (Paris, 1913), 312; Daniel Solasseau, Histoire de Baugé (Baugé, 1960), 277-278. See also Richard Cobb, Terreur et subsistances, 1793-1795 (Paris, 1964).
  59. René Gandilhon, La politique économique de Louis XI (Paris, 1941), 150-151, 156.
  60. Lavisse, Histoire de France, VIII, pt. I, 227.
  61. Boislisle, Correspondence, III, No. 346 (incident in 1709).
  62. Ibid., I, No. 1873 (1699).
  63. Rivière, Précis, 79.
  64. Letaconnoux, Bretagne, 332.
  65. Daniel Mornet, Les Origines intellectuelles de la Révolution française, 1715-1787 (Paris, I933), 444-445, lists about 100 “émeutes de pain” between 1715 and 1787. I mapped these for Mornet’s three periods—1715-1747, 1748-1770, 1771-1787—and found that the riots were by no means randomly distributed. For the first two periods, over 50 per cent are in Brittany and Normandy. The increasing involvement of Brittany in the export of grain in the eighteenth century is one of the themes of Letaconnoux’s Bretagne. In the period, seven out of thirty-five events were in Brittany, ten more were in the western areas from which grain was exported through La Rochelle and Bordeaux. There were practically no riots in central, southwestern, or southeastern France. If we add the city of Lyons, and the Lyonnais, Champagne, Languedoc, and Alsace to the western areas listed above, we can account for over 90 per cent of the riots.
  66. Germain Martin and Paul Martenot, “La Côte d’Or. (Etude d’éonomie rurale.)” Offprint from Revue Bourguignonne, XIX (1909), 312, and St. Jacob, Les paysans de la Bourgogne du Nord, 195.
  67. Ibid., 190; Usher, History of the Grain Trade, 187.
  68. Henri Hours, “Emeutes et émotions populaires dans les campagnes lyonnaises au XVIIIe siècle,” Cahiers d’histoire, IX (1964), 139.
  69. Delamare, Traité, III, 915-916.
  70. Saint-Brieuc entrave in Letaconnoux, Bretagne, 328; Paimpol, Usher, History of the Grain Trade, 35.
  71. Lehoreau, Cérémonial, 191-193.
  72. Lemarchand, “Crises économiques,” 253, 263.
  73. Martin, “Les famines de 1693 et 1709,” 168.
  74. Chabert, Essai, 406-416; Robert Marjolin, “Troubles provoqués en France par la disette de 1816-1817,” Revue d’histoire moderne, VIII (1933), 426-427.
  75. Paul Gonnet, “Esquisse de la crisie économique en France de 1827 à 1832,” Revue d’histoire économique et sociale, XXXIII (1955), 251, has an excellent description of a taxation populaire in 1829 which illustrates this ritualization of form.
  76. Chabert, Essai, 408-409. See also Marjolin, “Troubles,” 428, 431, 436.
  77. Ibid., 438; Chabert, Essai, 410-414.
  78. Marjolin, “Troubles,” 436.
  79. Chabert, Essai, 414.
  80. Maurice Lévy-Leboyer, Las banques européenes dans la première moitié du XIX siècle (Paris, 1964), also links unemployed textile workers with popular protest, 530-531n.
  81. Barbara Herman, “Some Reflections on the Grain Riots in France, 1839-1840,” seminar paper, Harvard University (January, 1967).