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- The Eve of the French Revolution - 30/64 -


necessary therefore to believe that in three generations a great nation has emerged from savagery. Let us see what part of La Bruyere's description may be set down to rhetoric, and to the astonishment of the scholar who looks hard at a countryman for the first time. Undoubtedly the peasant is sunburnt; unquestionably he is dirty. His speech falls roughly on a town-bred ear; his features have been made coarse by exposure. His hut is far less comfortable than a city house. His food is coarse, and not always plentiful. All these things may be true, and yet the peasant may be intelligent and civilized. He may be as happy as most of the toilers upon earth. He may have his days of comfort, his hours of enjoyment.

While the French writers of the eighteenth century find fault with many things in the condition of the peasant, their general opinion of his lot is not unfavorable. Voltaire thinks him well off on the whole. Rousseau is constantly vaunting not only the morality but the happiness of rural life. Mirabeau the elder says that gayety is disappearing, perhaps because the people are too rich, and argues that France is not decrepit but vigorous.[Footnote: La Bruyere, _Caractères_, ii. 61 (_de l'homme_). Voltaire, _passim_, xxxi. 481, _Dict. philos. (Population)_. Mirabeau, _L'ami des hommes_, 316, 325, 328.]

"The general appearance of the people is different to what I expected," writes an English traveler, to his family, in 1789; "they are strong and well made. We saw many most agreeable scenes as we passed along in the evening before we came to Lisle: little parties sitting at their doors; some of the men smoking, some playing at cards in the open air, and others spinning cotton. Everything we see bears the mark of industry, and all the people look happy. We have indeed seen few signs of opulence in individuals, for we do not see so many gentlemen's seats as in England, but we have seen few of the lower classes in rags, idleness, and misery. What strange prejudices we are apt to take concerning foreigners! I will own that I used to think that the French were a trifling, insignificant people, that they were meagre in their appearance, and lived in a state of wretchedness from being oppressed by their superiors. What we have already seen contradicts this;[Footnote: Observe that this was written in French Flanders. Note by Dr. Rigby.] the men are strong and athletic, and the face of the country shows that industry is not discouraged. The women, too,--I speak of the lower class, which in all countries is the largest and the most useful,--are strong and well made, and seem to do a great deal of labor, especially in the country. They carry great loads and seem to be employed to go to market with the produce of the fields and gardens on their backs. An Englishwoman would, perhaps, think this hard, but the cottagers in England are certainly not so well off; I am sure they do not look so happy. These women with large and heavy baskets on their backs have all very good caps on, their hair powdered, earrings, necklaces, and crosses. We have not yet seen one with a hat on. What strikes me most in what I have seen is the wonderful difference between this country and England. I don't know what we may think by and by, but at present the difference seems to be in favor of the former; if they are not happy they look at least very like it."

"We have now traveled between four and five hundred miles in France," says the same traveler in another place, "and have hardly seen an acre uncultivated, except two forests and parks, the one belonging to the Prince of Conde, as I mentioned in a former letter, the other to the king of France at Fontainebleau, and these are covered with woods. In every place almost every inch has been ploughed or dug, and at this time appears to be pressed with the weight of the incumbent crop. On the roads, to the very edge where the travelers' wheels pass, and on the hills to the very summit, may be seen the effects of human industry. Since we left Paris we have come through a country where the vine is cultivated. This grows on the sides and even on the tops of the highest hills. It will also flourish where the soil is too poor to bear corn, and on the sides of precipices where no animal could draw the plough." [Footnote: Dr. Rigby, 11, 96. See also Sir George Collier, 21.]

Let us now turn to the other end of France, and hear another traveler, one generally less enthusiastic than the last. "The vintage itself," says Arthur Young, "can hardly be such a scene of activity and animation, as this universal one of treading out the corn, with which all the towns and villages in Languedoc are now alive. The corn is all roughly stacked around a dry, firm spot, where great numbers of mules and horses are driven on a trot round a centre, a woman holding the reins, and another, or a girl or two, with whips drive; the men supply and clear the floor; other parties are dressing, by throwing the corn into the air for the wind to blow away the chaff. Every soul is employed, and with such an air of cheerfulness, that the people seem as well pleased with their labor, as the farmer himself with his great heaps of wheat. The scene is uncommonly animated and joyous. I stopped and alighted often to see their method; I was always very civilly treated, and my wishes for a good price for the farmer, and not too good a one for the poor, well received."[Footnote: Arthur Young, i. 45 (July 24, 1787).]

These descriptions would give too favorable an idea if they were taken for the whole of France. All peasant women did not powder their hair and wear earrings. Those of France did much more field-work than those of England. Their figures became bent, their general appearance worn; an English observer, accustomed to the more ruddy faces of his countrywomen, might set them down for twice their age. They often went barefoot, and on their way to market carried their shoes on a stick until they drew near the town. They had to be thrifty, and might be seen picking weeds on the wayside into their aprons, to feed their cows. All provinces were not so rich as Flanders. There were vast stretches of waste land in France, given up to broom and heath. Wolves and bears were still a terror to remote farms. There were, moreover, times of famine, which the foolish regulations of the government aggravated, by preventing the free movement of provisions within the country. In some provinces these seasons of famine were often repeated. Then the wretched inhabitants sank into despair. Young people would refuse to marry, saying that it was not worth while to bring unfortunate children into the world. But in general the country people were laborious and happy, with enough for their daily needs, and often merry,--resembling in that respect the English before the Puritan revival rather than the Anglo-Saxons of more modern times.[Footnote: A. Young, i. 6 (May 22, 1787). Ibid., i. 45 (July 24, 1787), i. 18, (June 10, 1787), i. 28 (June 28, 1787). D'Argenson, vi. 49 (Oct. 4, 1749), vi. 322 (Dec. 28, 1850), vii. 55 (Dec. 22, 1751), viii. 8, 35, 233, ix. 160. Turgot (iv. 274) reckons that in Limonsin, 1766, the laborers' families did not have more than 25 to 30 livres per person per annum for their support, counting all they got. This is but 1 64/100 sou a day, and bread cost 2 1/2 sous per lb. A. Young, i. 439. This does not seem possible. The people lived partly on chestnuts.]

In the country, as in the towns, prosperity and material well-being were slowly increasing. The latter years of King Louis XIV. had been years of depression and misery. External wars, and the persecution of the Protestants at home, heavy taxation and bad government, had reduced the numbers and the wealth of the French nation. But with the accession of Louis XV. in 1715, a time of recuperation had begun. During the seventy years that followed, the population increased from about sixteen to about twenty-six millions. The rent of land rose also. The natural excellence of the soil, the natural intelligence of the people, were bringing about a slow and uneven improvement.[Footnote: Clamageran, iii. 464. Bois-Guillebert, 179, and _passim_. Horn, 1. The improvement was not universal. Lorraine is said to have lost prosperity from the time of its union with France in 1737. Mathieu, 316.]

One third of the soil was covered with small farms, which at the death of every proprietor were subdivided among his children. By a curious custom (arising in I know not what form of jealousy or caprice), the subdivision was wantonly made more disastrous. It was usual to divide not only the whole estate, but every part of it among the heirs. Thus, if a peasant died possessed of six fields and left three children, it was not the custom that each child should take two fields, and that he who got the best should make up the difference in money to his brethren. Perhaps cash was too scarce for that. But every one of the six fields would be divided into three parts, one of which was given to each child, so that instead of six separate plots of ground, there were now eighteen. This process had been repeated until a farm might almost be shaded by a single cherry-tree.[Footnote: Sybel, i. 22. Chérest, ii. 532. Turgot, iv. 260. English writers, from Arthur Young to Lady Verney, wax eloquent over the evils of small holdings.]

The class of middling proprietors was very small. The incidents to the holding of land by all who were not noble drove rising families to the towns. The great change that has come over the French country during the last hundred years consists, in a measure, in the formation of a class of men owning farms of moderate size.

A large part of the soil belonged to the nobles and the clergy. The exact proportion cannot be ascertained. It has been stated as high as two thirds; but this is probably an exaggeration. These proprietors of the privileged classes seldom cultivated any very large part of their land themselves, by hired workmen, although certain privileges and exemptions were allowed to such as chose to keep their farms in their own hands. A few of them let their lands for a fixed rent in money. But the greater part of the cultivated soil which was owned by the nobility and clergy was in the hands of _metayers_, lessees who paid their rent in the shape of a proportionate part of the crops. Sometimes the landlord made himself responsible for a portion of the taxes; sometimes he furnished cattle or farming implements. His share of the gross crop was usually one half. The system, which is still common in some parts of France, is considered a good one neither for the landlord nor for the tenant, but is devised principally to meet the want of capital on the part of the latter.[Footnote: Young reckons that the price of arable land and its rent are about the same in France as in England. The net revenue is larger in France, because there are no poor-rates and the tithe is more moderate in that country. The price of arable land he calculates to be on an average 20 Pounds per acre; rent 15 shillings 7d. per acre = 3 9/10 per cent. of the salable value. From this deduct the two vingtièmes and 4 sous per livre (taxes paid by the landlord) and other expenses, and the net revenue remains between 3 and 3 1/4 per cent. The product of wheat in France is, however, much worse than in England, so that the proportion obtained by the landlord is greater and that of the tenant less. In France the landlord gets one half of the crop; in England, one fourth to one sixth, sometimes only one tenth. A. Young, i. 353.]

We may imagine the country-houses of the nobles scattered over the face of the country so that the traveler would come upon one of them once in two or three miles. Sometimes the seat of the lord was an ancient castle, with walls eight feet thick, rising above the surrounding forest from the top of a steep hill, dark and threatening, but no longer formidable. Within, the great hall was stone-paved. Its walls were hung with dusky portraits and rusty armor. From the hall would open a spacious bedroom, with tapestried walls and a monumental bedstead. Curtains and coverlets showed the delicate embroidery of some ancestress, long since laid to rest in the family chapel. The very sheets had perhaps been woven by her shuttle. This bedroom, according to old custom, was still the living-room of the family. Sometimes the lord's house was modern, elegant, and symmetrical; it was flanked with pavilions and in front of it was a stone terrace, with a balustrade, on which stood vases for growing plants. Inside the house were high-studded rooms with white walls and gilded mouldings. High-backed, crooked-legged chairs, in the style of the last reign, were ranged against the walls; and near the middle of the dark, slippery, well-waxed floor, were


The Eve of the French Revolution - 30/64

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