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How Did the Price of Bread Change During the French Revolution?

The French Revolution was a period of radical political and societal change in France that began with the Estates-General in 1789 and ended with the formation of the French Consulate in November 1799, but did you know that it had an impact on the price of bread at the time?

Bread went from costing about 50 percent of a laborer’s daily wages to about 88 percent of their income in the years leading up to the French Revolution.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution began in 1789 and finished in the late 1790s with Napoleon Bonaparte’s ascension, was a watershed event in modern European history. French populace demolished and remade their country’s political landscape during this time, demolishing centuries-old institutions like absolute monarchy and the feudal system. The revolution was sparked by widespread unhappiness with the French monarchy and King Louis XVI’s disastrous economic policies, which led to his death by guillotine, as did his wife, Marie Antoinette.

The French Revolution was significant in building contemporary governments by proving the force of the people’s will, even though it did not achieve all of its goals and at times descended into a massacre. (Source: History)

The Effects of the Shortage in Supply of Bread 

Bread shortages played a role in fuelling anger at the monarchy. However, the French Revolution was clearly driven by many issues more complicated than the price of bread.

Upon hearing that her subjects had no bread, Marie Antoinette’s supposed quote: “Let them eat cake!” is entirely apocryphal, but it epitomizes how bread could become a flashpoint in French history.

In the French city of Lyon, riots erupted in 1529 due to poor grain harvests. Thousands robbed and burned the homes of wealthy inhabitants during the so-called Grande Rebeyne or the Great Rebellion, dumping grain from the municipal granary onto the streets.

In the 18th century, things only worsened. The king had been advised by Physiocrats, a group of economists who believed that nations’ prosperity was entirely derived from land expansion and that agricultural products should be high priced since the 1760s. 

The crown had tried to deregulate the domestic grain trade and adopt a sort of free trade on several occasions under their counsel’s guidance.

It was ineffective. Food shortages and excessive prices sparked a popular uprising in the Paris Basin towns and villages in late April and early May 1775. Over 300 riots and grain pillaging excursions were reported in just over three weeks. The Flour War was the name given to the surge of public outrage. The rioters first attacked Versailles before moving on to Paris and the countryside.

English agriculturalist, Arthur Young, who was traveling through France in the period leading up to the Revolution, could see that the seeds of revolution had been sown. 

Everything conspires to render the present period in France critical; the want of bread is terrible; accounts arrive every moment from the provinces of riots and disturbances and calling in the military, to preserve the peace of the markets.

Arthur Young, English Agriculturist

(Source: History)

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