Arthur Young on conditions in July 1789 (1789)


Writing in his 1792 book Travels in France, the English chronicler Arthur Young reports on conditions in early July 1789:


(July 9th)

“This spirit of reading political tracts, they say, spreads into the provinces, so that all the presses of France are equally employed. Nineteen-twentieths of these productions are in favour of liberty, and commonly violent against the clergy and nobility… Is it not wonderful that while the press teems with the most levelling and even seditious principles, that if put in execution would overturn the monarchy, nothing in reply appears, and not the least step is taken by the court to restrain this extreme licentiousness of publication. It is easy to conceive the spirit that must thus be raised among the people. But the coffee houses in the Palais Royal present yet more singular and astonishing spectacles; they are not only crowded within, but other expectant crowds are at the doors and windows.

(July 10th)

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. The prices reported are the same as I found at Abbeville and Amiens – five sous a pound for white bread, and three-and-a-half to four sous for the common sort eaten by the poor. These rates are beyond their faculties [ability to pay] and occasion great misery. It appears plain to me that the violent friends of the commons [radical revolutionaries] are not displeased at the high price of corn, which seconds their views greatly and makes any appeal to the common feeling of the people more easy and much more to their purpose than if the price was low.

(July 12th)

Walking up a long hill… I was joined by a poor woman, who complained of the times and that it was a sad country. Demanding her reasons, she said her husband had but a morsel of land, one cow, and a poor little horse, yet they had [to pay] a franchar [approximately 20 kilograms] of wheat, and three chickens as a quit-rent to one seigneur… and four franchar of oats, one chicken to pay to another, besides very heavy tailles and other taxes. She had seven children, and the cow’s milk helped to make the soup… It was said, at present, that something was to be done by some great folks for such poor ones, but she did not know who nor how…

An Englishman who has not travelled cannot imagine the figure made by infinitely the greater part of the countrywomen in France. It speaks, at the first sight, hard and severe labour: I am inclined to think, that they work harder than the men, and this, united with the more miserable labour of bringing a new race of slaves into the world, destroys absolutely all symmetry of person and every feminine appearance. To what are we to attribute this difference in the manners of the lower people in the two kingdoms? To government.”