Flour War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Riots swept the provinces surrounding Paris, caused by the lifting of government controls over the price of grain following the poor wheat harvest of 1774. Ultimately, two French armies quelled the riots. However, the event was indicative of the poverty and poor economic management that would bring about the French Revolution at the end of the following decade.

Summary of Event

Bread Food;bread consumption was the staff of life in early modern Europe. In 1775, a French laboring family of four ate 1.2 tons of grain per year, 80 percent of which came from the Paris basin, a rural area extending to a ninety-mile radius around the city. Town workers in France normally spent half their salary for the purchase of bread. While wages for most common laborers were structured to support their basic subsistence, periodic steep rises in the price of grain caused by poor harvests often meant death for family members, particularly in towns and cities. Eighteenth century France was in the midst of urbanization and rapid population growth, leaving it vulnerable to periodic starvation. There was no corresponding growth in new land under cultivation or improved agricultural techniques to increase productivity. Yet with only five exceptions, harvests in France were good prior to 1774. [kw]Flour War (Apr. 27-May, 1775) [kw]War, Flour (Apr. 27-May, 1775) Flour War (1775) Poverty and government Grain [g]France;Apr. 27-May, 1775: Flour War[2180] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 27-May, 1775: Flour War[2180] [c]Economics;Apr. 27-May, 1775: Flour War[2180] Turgot, Anne-Robert-Jacques Louis XVI Louis XV Necker, Jacques

Royal price control Economics;price control of grain was an integral part of mercantilist economic policies, and France’s absolutist monarchy was Europe’s leading mercantilist power. Hence, in times of scarcity the people looked to the monarchy for protection. French aristocrats too welcomed stable grain prices, because they led to social stability and protection of their privileged position in society. When the government was slow to respond, local grain riots did occur, but these were sporadic and usually led to angry protesters intimidating merchants to absorb a short-term lowering of prices. Such disturbances did take place from 1763 to 1770, following a partial lifting of price controls, an act that helped to make Louis XV one of France’s most detested monarchs.

With the coming to power of the twenty-year-old Louis XVI in May, 1774, expectations for reform reverberated among the population. Louis’s appointment of Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot as controller-general of France seemed to underline a commitment to promoting economic efficiency by cutting unnecessary expenditures, reducing the nation’s debt, and reestablishing its credit. One of Turgot’s plans, hailed by Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire (who viewed physiocratic Physiocracy policies as inherently progressive), was to stimulate agricultural production by establishing free trade in grain. Unfortunately, Turgot’s policy, instituted on September 13, 1774, came at exactly the wrong time, since all indices pointed to the fact that the autumn harvest would be poor. The price of grain rose steadily over the winter. By Spring, 1775, when grain reserves had to be apportioned for spring planting, the cost of grain had skyrocketed.

Disturbances began on April 27, 1775, with a riot in the market town of Beaumont-sur-Oise. Rioters, consisting of common townspeople, dunked the leading grain merchant in a fountain, seized his grain, and paid about one-third of the asking price. Local authorities did not intervene. Instead of being contained, riots spread over the next three weeks to more than three hundred separate locales in the Île de France and the four adjacent provinces. While rioters often paid what they defined as a fair price, in other instances grain was just looted in market towns. As town markets closed, crowds of rioters from diverse towns attacked grain shipments on overland routes and waterways.

Grain was seized from granaries located both in towns and in the countryside, from mills and bakeries, from rural monasteries, from stocks held in farms, and even from flour merchant’s homes. Within a week of the first incident at Beaumont-sur-Oise, the royal family had to be evacuated, as mobs seized half of the grain supply of Versailles. The prince de Poix, commander of the Royal Guard, permitted the mob to set their own fair price for grain, rather than risk escalation of the rioting. The following day, more than one thousand bakeries were raided in Paris. In response, on May 4 two armies consisting of twenty-five thousand troops were ordered to restore order in town markets and the countryside, while a third army was garrisoned in Paris to restore order there. The sweeping nature of the events led to their popular appellation, the Flour War (guerre de farines).

Turgot’s strong stand in using the army did result in suppression of the disturbances by mid-May. Of 548 rioters arrested, only 2 received the death sentence. There appear to have been no fatalities among the 447 individuals classified as having been victimized by mob action. With his official coronation set for early September, Louis XVI was most interested in establishing order. Moreover, conditions over the late spring and summer of 1775 pointed to a bumper grain crop and a dramatic lowering of prices.

Other factors, too, argued for a policy of leniency. Many French aristocrats advocated government grain price regulation and viewed Turgot’s physiocratic policies as the cause of public disorder. Moreover, rioting was directed mainly at merchants, not aristocrats, and appeared symptomatic of the immediate distress of the working poor. Women concerned about the survival of their children formed a large part of the rioting mobs. Ironically, no connection was seen at the time to any looming threat to the given social order: What the common people seemed to want were the traditional paternalistic policies of the Old Order, not new reformist free market policies, when it came to purchasing food staples. This desire was answered in 1776 by the unceremonious firing of Turgot and the reversal of free trade policies by his successor, the Swiss banker Jacob Necker.

Significance

While the bread issue took backstage for more than a decade, other aspects of the French economy, such as the national debt and international credit, continued to deteriorate. By 1789, the French monarchy was threatened with bankruptcy. With the failure of the grain crop over two successive years (1788-1789), the French capital and its environs were faced with a situation even more volatile than that of 1775. Government policy again came under public scrutiny, as the price of bread rose to record heights. Grain riots began in April, 1789, and continued throughout the summer.

As is seen in the list of grievances (cahiers) brought by individual delegates to the Estates-General convened by Louis XVI to remedy France’s economic problems, the king was held responsible for both the price and availability of bread. When the early months of the French Revolution did not resolve the grain issue, a mob of several hundred whose main core was the women of Paris marched to Versailles and demanded that Louis resolve the bread issue. The event, known as the Women’s Bread March (October, 1789), resulted in the king’s permanent return to Paris. Along the return route, the mob is reported to have sung “We have the baker, the baker’s wife, and the baker’s son. Now we will have bread.”

The Flour War and the French Revolution are linked through the price and supply of bread and the potential social upheaval that can occur when people are deprived of a basic staple of life. Similar links between inflationary bread prices or bread shortages and revolution can be seen in the revolutionary storm that swept across Europe in 1848 and in the Russian Revolution of 1905. The Russian Revolution of February, 1917, which toppled czarism, also originated in bread riots which got out of control. It is no coincidence that along with “peace and land,” Lenin promised the people of Russia “bread” if his Bolsheviks ever obtained power. This came to pass in October, 1917.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bouton, Cynthia A. The Flour War: Gender, Class, and Community in Late Ancien Regime French Society. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. A scholarly in-depth sociohistorical analysis, with copious footnotes, extensive bibliography, index, and appendicies
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doyle, William. Oxford History of the French Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. An excellent background to the French Revolution and its major events. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fagan, Brian. The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850. New York: Basic Books, 2000. An interesting steady of the relationship between climatic changes, food supply, and major events. Chapter 9 deals with the issue of revolution. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaplan, Steven L. The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question, 1770-1775. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. An extensive analysis of the political policies and implications of the bread issue in prerevolutionary France. Illustrations, tables, appendices, footnotes, bibliography, and index.

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