Famine and Inflation in France

The economic downturn that began in France with the Wars of the League of Augsburg in 1688 was capped by a great famine. Killing up to one-tenth of the population, the famine, combined with expensive warfare, helped to empty the French treasury. It also convinced the Crown to step up its incarceration of the poor and of vagrants, and it exposed the weaknesses of the French economy and its tax system.

Summary of Event

The famine of 1693-1694 has seared itself into the social imagination as one of the worst events in French history. The weather had changed, marked by colder than usual temperatures for several years. It was the beginning of what historians have labeled a “mini-ice age,” when mean summer temperatures dropped by about 1 degree centigrade. [kw]Famine and Inflation in France (1689-1694)
[kw]France, Famine and Inflation in (1689-1694)
[kw]Inflation in France, Famine and (1689-1694)
Economics;1689-1694: Famine and Inflation in France[2900]
Natural disasters;1689-1694: Famine and Inflation in France[2900]
Government and politics;1689-1694: Famine and Inflation in France[2900]
France;1689-1694: Famine and Inflation in France[2900]

Beginning in 1692, however, a series of wet, cool summers and shorter growing seasons devastated the grain harvest. Wheat especially was left rotting or unripened in the fields, and the previous year’s wheat supply was barely sufficient to hold off famine. The harvest of 1692 was terrible, and that of 1693 catastrophic. In Normandy, travelers and royal officials described corpses lying unburied along the roads, with those still alive subsisting on acorns and grass. With a weakened population and unhealthy food sources, intestinal disorders, infections, and various pestilences sickened and killed many of the survivors. Population decreases;France Between 1.3 million and 2 million men, women, and children, roughly one-tenth of the population, perished in less than 3 years. Historian Joël Félix has pointed out that the deaths were equivalent to the losses sustained by the French in World War I.

The regional, and even local, nature of subsistence crises like those of 1693-1694 cannot be overemphasized. France during the ancien régime was a collection of local economies, each circumscribed by the lack of transportation, roads, and regional markets. It was not unusual to find one village plunging into famine, while another scarcely thirty miles away was virtually unscathed. Subsistence crises in France were typically wheat crises. They were often less severe in areas such as coastal Brittany or the Mediterranean littoral, where fish made up a significant part of the diet, or in regions where buckwheat or chestnuts could be used for bread flour. Where wheat was dominant, though, especially in the cereal plains of the north, the crises could be fearsome. The more generalized crises of 1660-1661 and of 1693-1694 thus left some regions relatively untouched, while devastating others. Lower Languedoc and Brittany fared better than Normandy during the great famine of 1693-1694. Paris, with its powerful state officials and developed transportation system, did far better than many small cities and towns.

The economic crises of 1688-1694 and the great famine were also knit into larger demographic patterns in the seventeenth century. Since the Black Death of the fourteenth century had devastated the European population, subsistence crises and full-scale famines had recurred at irregular intervals. Population and resources remained in precarious balance, even though the long-term trend was one of slow population growth. The seventeenth century was, on balance, far worse than the sixteenth century had been. There had already been a previous, widespread famine at the outset of King Louis XIV’s Louis XIV;economy and personal reign in 1661-1662. There were poor harvests and serious food shortages at the outbreak of the Wars of the Fronde (1648-1653) Fronde, Wars of the (1648-1653) , and yet another in 1698.

The subsistence crises provoked by nature were exacerbated, however, by human-made crises. The disorders and violence of the Fronde devastated large swaths of the French countryside. Steeply rising taxation from Louis XIV’s wars placed increasing burdens on the peasantry, who paid the vast majority of French taxes through the taille, or hearth tax. Between 1688 and 1697, the Wars of the League of Augsburg League of Augsburg, Wars of the (1689-1697) stretched French finances and the tax burden to the breaking point. The league pitted the combined forces of the Habsburgs, the Dutch, and the English against French claims to new territory. The costs of prosecuting a war against so many opponents forced the king to collect tax revenues in advance from future years’ taxation. The consequences in the countryside were plain to see. Increasing numbers of peasants fell into the class of landless or nearly landless laborers, while a few wealthy peasants concentrated more land into their hands.

The spiraling price of bread by 1692 also had a domino effect on the entire French economy. A typical family spent 50 percent to 60 percent of its income on bread alone; and when the supply failed, bread prices doubled and then quadrupled in many areas. As food prices escalated, the sale of cloth dropped off dramatically, throwing textile workers out of production. From cottage spinners and weavers to the urban workshops of dyers, drapers, and finishers, their looms and workshops went silent. Since textiles and agriculture were the mainstays of the French economy, the ripple effect spread into other crafts and mercantile operations as well. This set off two apparently contradictory movements in the economy. When inflation struck bread prices, deflationary trends set into other sectors. Prices fell as demand fell for goods other than bread, and the economy as a whole became depressed. Deflationary, rather than inflationary, prices marked most of the reign of Louis, until after his death in 1715.

Ordinary people were far from passive in the face of recession, famine, and death. Local court records show that poaching increased in the countryside, along with food theft and begging; and both urban and rural commoners took to the streets in riots that alarmed authorities everywhere. The food riot was the most characteristic form of popular disturbance in early modern Europe. More than one hundred of them were recorded in 1690’s France, in which women played prominent roles. These often took the form of angry mobs gathering at bakeries or mills, where they would insist that grain or bread be sold at what they considered a fair price.

The French state was more aware of the scale of the catastrophe than contemporaries gave them credit for, but their tools were limited. State charity scarcely existed in seventeenth century France, and private charity was insufficient to meet the crisis. François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon La Mothe-Fénelon, François de Salignac de[LaMothe Fénelon, François de Salignac de , soon to be archbishop of Cambrai, sent a famous letter in 1694 to Louis XIV’s second wife, Madame de Maintenon, Maintenon, Madame de for the king to see. “All of France is no more than a huge hospital,” he wrote, “desolate and without provision.” On October 20, 1693, the king had published an ordinance requiring each community to feed its poor, but wealthier residents often resisted the large contributions that were expected of them.

In the provinces, parlements issued decrees requiring bakers to sell bread, and they organized massive almsgiving to calm the food riots that were breaking out in every quarter. Nearly one-third of the population of Rouen received daily alms and thousands more begged at the height of the crisis. In Paris, the Louvre palace courtyard was converted into an enormous outdoor bakery, producing 100,000 loaves per day to be distributed to the poor. In their urgency to supply the cities and prevent widescale urban disorder, however, officials stripped bare many rural areas and left the villagers to starve. One northern village recorded the deaths of 60 percent of its inhabitants in 1694 alone. The state’s most permanent response was to incarcerate what it called the deserving poor and vagrants in state hospitals, reportedly to prevent disorder and theft.


The famine of 1693-1694, and the subsequent losses to the French treasury from peasants who could no more afford to pay the taille than they could afford to feed themselves, added to the French state’s fiscal woes. The mounting costs of the Wars of the League of Augsburg finally became insupportable. In September, 1697, the French and the Dutch negotiated the Treaty of Ryswick, Ryswick, Treaty of (1697) ending the Nine Years’ War. Louis XIV gave up many of his territorial conquests of the past thirty years, although he kept Strasbourg. The double burden of war and famine had proved too much for even Europe’s largest state to sustain.

While famine stalked parts of France again in 1709-1710 (the famously cold winter in which it was said that wine froze in the king’s glass at Versailles) and in 1740-1741, the years 1693-1694 saw the last great famine mortality in France. Population growth resumed, lands were brought back into cultivation, and communities slowly reconstructed themselves. Within a decade, the demographic losses had been recouped. However, the possibilities for disorder during food crises never were far from the minds of officials. French ministers were fitfully mindful of the need to build more roads and canals and to better understand the distribution of population and food, but there were too many other pressing demands upon state revenue in the eighteenth century. The poor harvest of 1788 would again help fuel popular unrest and bread riots in 1789, and would become one of many streams of discontent flowing into the French Revolution.

Further Reading

  • Collins, James B. The State in Early Modern France. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. The best modern study of the French state in this period, revising many old assumptions about seventeenth century government and the economy in particular.
  • Felix, José. “The Economy.” In Old Regime France, 1648-1788, edited by William Doyle. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. An excellent chapter addressing the nature and limitations of the French economy and tax system.
  • Kettering, Sharon. French Society, 1589-1715. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. This work describes the human consequences of plagues, famines, and the French economy in villages and towns.
  • Treasure, Geoffrey. The Making of Modern Europe, 1648-1780. New York: Methuen, 1985. Treasure places the French experience in the context of the European economy and climate of the time.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Jean-Baptiste Colbert; François Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon; Louis XIV; Madame de Maintenon. Economy;France