We’ve talked about the Storming of the Bastille, the key turning point in the French revolution- but what was going on outside of Paris? Today we take a look at the Great Fear that took place in the French countryside and cities, and what happened afterward.
So while the elites and the middle class were enjoying the good life in Paris and the cities, the majority of the French people were still rural peasants living in the countryside. Life has never been easy for a peasant, and certainly not for a French peasant under the ancien regime. In 1787 and 1788, harvests had been poor. This was a problem, especially between July and August when crops had just been planted and farmers were dependent on supplies from the previous year. But with bad harvests the previous year- famine became a real problem.
With little grain around, prices escalated and people could ill afford them. Another problem added was that thousands of people were migrating into the rural areas- people who were out of job in the cities, beggars and foreign laborers looking for a job. Certainly not a time that would lessen paranoia. A bad enough situation for ordinary times, but 1789 was, rather decidedly, not an ordinary time. With the Storming of the Bastille, the political situation was in uproar and uncertainty was in the air.
Finally, add to this a series of rumors that just served to worsen the whole situation. Tales of roaming bands of workers, stories of armed bandits funded by the aristocrats to damage peasants, and a general higher-class plot to starve the peasants to death made everyone go crazy. Not that all of these tales were even true, but in such desperate situations, what did it matter?
With events like the Tennis Court Oath and the Storming of the Bastille so recent and fresh on people’s minds, the peasants in many regions went into a general uprising. Many peasants decided to take action against the seigneurs, who the peasants had to pay feudal dues to. (Sounds really medieval, doesn’t it. Well, that’s what the ancien regime was all about). The local leaders had mostly gone away to attend meetings in the cities, like the Estates-General, so the only local authorities were hastily-set up committees that acted with great rashness. Peasants began to attack the seigneurs. Things were going on a downward spiral- not just in Paris, but now in the countryside too. This might be known as the ‘Great Fear’- fear of the rumors, possibly- but if anything the nobles had more to fear than the peasants.
The noble homes were looted (with the wine-cellar often being the first room to be attacked), some of the higher class were held captive until they renounced their feudal rights over the peasants, and records of debts and feudal obligations were all searched for and burned. The whole structure was collapsing. The French peasants would no longer even tolerate living under such medieval societal systems. The uprising spread from southwest France and soon engulfed the whole country into chaos. This only exposed the anarchy of times with the central government and monarchy’s inability to do anything.
How to solve such a desperate situation, then? Well, remember the National Assembly that grew out of the Third Estate’s meeting? In August 1789, the National Assembly decided to take a series of steps to appease the revolting peasants. On August 4, the National Assembly finally announced the abolishment of feudalism. Gone with the wind was the medieval concept! At a stroke, ALL the special privileges that the First and Second Estate had held over the Third were gone. Equality had been fulfilled.
That wasn’t yet enough for the National Assembly though, and they went one step further: on August 26, they adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Woah, that’s a long name, but basically it was a manifesto of principles that defined the rights of all of the estates of the realm. A proto-human rights declaration, it could be called. The Declaration said:
The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected, and, lastly, in order that the grievances of the citizens, based hereafter upon simple and incontestable principles, shall tend to the maintenance of the constitution and redound to the happiness of all. Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen:
The Declaration then went ahead to proclaim various rights. You can read the full document here. It seemed to proclaim a new, happier future for the French people.
Such irony, then, that the bloodshed that will soon ensue meant that the French revolution did an exceptionally poor job of protecting the very rights they declared.