Yesterday, I was dismayed at the lack of stocking in my local Giant supermarket. Voltaire once remarked that Parisians required only “the comic opera and white bread.” But bread has also played a dark role in French history and, namely, the French Revolution. The storming of the medieval fortress of Bastille on July 14, 1789 began as a hunt for arms—and grains to make bread.
The French Revolution was obviously caused by a multitude of grievances more complicated than the price of bread, but bread shortages played a role in stoking anger toward the monarchy. Marie Antoinette’s supposed quote upon hearing that her subjects had no bread: “Let them eat cake!” is entirely apocryphal, but it epitomizes how bread could become a flashpoint in French history.
Poor grain harvests led to riots as far back as 1529 in the French city of Lyon. During the so-called Grande Rebeyne (Great Rebellion), thousands looted and destroyed the houses of rich citizens, eventually spilling the grain from the municipal granary onto the streets.
Things only got worse in the 18th century. Since the 1760s, the king had been counseled by Physiocrats, a group of economists who believed that the wealth of nations was derived solely from the value of land development and that agricultural products should be highly priced. Under their counsel the crown had tried intermittently to deregulate the domestic grain trade and introduce a form of free trade.
It didn’t work. In late April and May 1775, food shortages and high prices ignited an explosion of popular anger in the towns and villages of the Paris Basin. Over 300 riots and expeditions to pillage grain were recorded in the space of a little over three weeks. The wave of popular protest became known as the Flour War. The rioters invaded Versailles before spreading into Paris and outward into the countryside.
The problems became acute in the 1780s because of a range of factors. A huge rise in population had occurred (there were 5-6 million more people in France in 1789 than in 1720) without a corresponding increase in native grain production. The refusal on the part of most of the French to eat anything but a cereal-based diet was another major issue. Bread likely accounted for 60-80 percent of the budget of a wage-earner’s family in the ancien regime—so even a small rise in grain prices could spark tensions.
So, all politics aside, those who make and impede government policy should well consider that when the masses are hungry, when we are not well taken care of, we are apt to take up staves, pitchforks, and the like and demand restitution. An army may well march on its belly but when the people’s bellies are not full, they revolt.