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The Great Fear

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The Great Fear

You know what they say, hunger and misconception lead to insurrection, or at least it did when the French peasants mistakenly decided that the government was trying to purposely starve them to death. The moral of the story? If you ever become the ruler of France, make sure not to deprive your subjects of bread or prepare for a revolution!

Great Fear keywords

Keywords

Definition

Curé

A French parish priest.

The Storming of the Bastille

The Storming of the Bastille took place on the afternoon of 14 July 1789 in Paris, France, when revolutionaries stormed and took control of the medieval armoury, castle, and political jail known as the Bastille.

Cahiers

Between March and April 1789, the year the French Revolution began, each of the three Estates of France compiled a list of grievances which were named the cahiers.

Edict

An official order issued by a person of authority.

Sous

The sous was a type of coin used in 18th-century France as coinage. 20 sous made up a pound.

Feudal privileges

The unique birthrights enjoyed by the clergy and the elite.

Bourgeoisie

The bourgeoisie is a sociologically defined social class that includes people from the middle and upper-middle classes.

Feudal system

The hierarchical social system of medieval Europe in which lords provided people of lower rank with land and protection in exchange for work and loyalty.

Seigneur

A feudal lord.

Estate

Social classes: the First Estate was made up of the clergy, the Second the nobles, and the Third the other 95% of the French population.

Estates-General

The Estates-General or States-General was a legislative and consultative assembly made up of the three Estates. Their main purpose was to propose solutions to France's financial problems.

National Assembly

The French legislature from 1789–91. This was succeeded by the Legislative Assembly.

Vagrant

A homeless, jobless person who moves from place to place begging.

The Great Fear Summary

The Great Fear was a period of panic and paranoia that reached a climax between July and August 1789; it included peasant riots and the bourgeoisie frantically creating militias to prevent the rioters from destroying their property.

Causes of the Great Fear

So, what caused this period of panic in France?

Hunger

Ultimately, the Great Fear came down to one thing: hunger.

The Great Fear mainly took place in the French countryside, which was much more densely populated than it is today, meaning that land for farming and food production was scarce. This meant that farmers struggled to feed their families; in the north of France, for example, 60-70 out of 100 people held less than a hectare of land, which could not feed a whole family.

This varied significantly from province to province. For example, in Limousin, the peasants owned about half the land but in Cambresis only 1 in 5 peasants owned any property at all.

The situation was only made worse by the rapid population increase. Between 1770 and 1790, France's population grew by about 2 million, with many families having as many as 9 children. The villagers of La Caure in the Châlons region wrote in the cahiers of 1789:

The number of our children plunges us into despair, we do not have the means to feed or clothe them.1

Although French peasants and workers were not unfamiliar with poverty, this situation worsened due to a particularly poor harvest in 1788. The same year, European warfare made the Baltic and the eastern Mediterranean unsafe for shipping. European markets gradually closed, leading to huge unemployment.

The financial policies of the Crown only worsened the situation. The edict of 1787 had removed all forms of control from the corn trade, so when the harvest failed in 1788, producers increased their prices at an uncontrollable rate. As a result, labourers spent around 88% of their daily wages on bread during the winter of 1788-9, compared to a typical 50%.

High unemployment and price increases led to an increase in the number of vagrants in 1789.

Begging vagrants

Begging was a natural extension of hunger and was not unusual in eighteenth-century France, but rose sharply during the Great Fear.

The North of the country especially was very hostile to vagrants and beggars whom they called coqs de village ('village roosters') due to their pleas for help. This state of poverty was thought to be noble by the Catholic Church but only perpetuated vagrancy and begging. The increase in numbers and organisation of vagrants led to disruption and accusations of laziness.

The presence of the vagrants became a perpetual cause of anxiety. The farmers they encountered soon became afraid to refuse them food or shelter as they frequently attacked the farmers' premises and took what they wanted if they judged the help given to be insufficient. Eventually, they started begging by night, frightfully waking up the landowners and farmers.

As the 1789 harvest drew near, anxiety reached a peak. Landowners and farmers became paranoid that they would lose their harvest to wandering vagrants.

As early as 19 June 1789, the Commission of the Soissonnais Regiment wrote to Baron de Besenval asking him to send dragoons (light cavalry often used for policing) to ensure the safe gathering of the harvest.

The famine plot

As well as the vagrants, the peasants also suspected the Crown and the First and Second Estate of purposely attempting to starve them. The origin of this rumour was from the Estates-General which had started in May 1789. When the nobles and the clergy refused to vote by the head, the peasants started suspecting that they knew they could not win unless voting by order was imposed.

Voting by head meant every representative's vote was weighted equally, whereas voting by order meant the collective vote of each Estate was weighted equally, although the Third Estate had double the amount of representatives.

Remember that the Estates-General itself had been convened because of France's severe economic issues that had affected the Third Estate the most. The suspicion that the other two Estates wanted to shut down the assembly and not give the Third Estate proper representation led them to the conclusion that they did not care about the peasants' well-being, but on the contrary, actively wanted them to suffer.

The rumours were exacerbated by the gathering of 10,000 troops around Versailles in May. The curé of Souligne-sous-Balon commented that:

The many great lords and others occupying the highest places in the state have planned secretly to collect all the corn in the Kingdom and send it abroad so that they might starve the people, turn them against the Assembly of the Estates-General and prevent its successful outcome.2

Did you know? 'Corn' can be used to mean any kind of grain crop, not just maize!

The Great Fear Begins

The Great Fear consisted of largely unorganised peasant revolts. The peasants would attack everything and everyone indiscriminately in a desperate attempt to make their demands for financial alleviation heard.

The Bastille and the Great Fear

The alarming intensity with which the peasants rioted in July – the start of the events of the Great Fear – can be attributed to the Storming of the Bastille in Paris on 14 July 1789. The urban women who stormed the Bastille were largely motivated by economic hardship and the lack of grain and bread, and the peasants of the countryside took this as their cause's raison d'être (reason for existence). The peasants started rampaging through every site of privilege suspected of holding or hoarding food.

Great Fear Demolition of the Bastille StudySmarterDemolition of the Bastille, Musée Carnavalet

The Peasants' revolt

The most violent uprisings were sighted around the French mountains of Macon, the Normandy bocage, and the grasslands of the Sambre, as these were areas that grew little corn and so food was already scarce. The insurgents attacked the King's representatives and the privileged orders. In the region of Eure, the peasants rioted, demanding the price of bread to be brought down to 2 sous a pound and to suspend excise duties.

Soon the riots spread eastwards across Normandy. On 19 July, tax offices in Verneuil were ransacked and on the 20th the market of Verneuil saw terrible riots and food stolen. The riots spread to nearby Picardy where grain convoys and shops were looted. The fear of looting and riot became so high that no dues were collected between Artois and Picardy that summer.

In some areas, peasants the inhabitants demanded title deeds from the nobility, and in some cases burned them. The peasants had found the opportunity to destroy the papers that entitled the nobles to seigneurial dues.

The riots spread in most of the provincial areas of France. It was practically a miracle for an area to remain unscathed. The lucky areas included Bordeaux in the southwest and Strasbourg in the east. There is no definitive explanation as to why some areas did not experience the Great Fear but it seems to be one of two reasons; either the rumours were taken less seriously in these regions or they were more prosperous and food secure, therefore had less of a reason to revolt.

The Significance of the Great Fear in the French Revolution

The Great Fear was one of the foundational events of the French Revolution. After the storming of the Bastille, it showed the power that the people held and set the course of the French Revolution in motion.

The Great Fear strengthened the communal defence system which, until this point, was still nascent. The Great Fear forced local committees to organise and saw ordinary people take up arms in solidarity. It was the first attempt in France at a mass levy of able-bodied men. This would be seen again in the mass conscription of the levée en masse, during the Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s.

The members of the Third Estate rose in solidarity to an extent never before witnessed. The widespread panic helped lead to the formation in July 1789 of the 'Bourgeous Militia' in Paris, which would later form the core of the National Guard. It was a humiliating defeat for the aristocracy because they were forced to give up their privileges or face death. On 28 July 1789 d'Arlay, the steward of the Duchesse de Bancras, wrote to the Duchess that:

The people are the masters; they know too much. They know they are the strongest.3

Great Fear - Key Takeaways

  • The Great Fear was a period of widespread panic over food shortages that lasted from July to August 1789.
  • The main events of the Great Fear were disordered riots in the French Provinces with the aim of securing food or destroying seigneurial dues.
  • The main reasons for the Great Fear were hunger, the poor harvest of 1789, increased vagrancy, and the spread of rumour about a potential plot by the aristocrats.
  • The Great Fear strengthened the bonds of the Third Estate and empowered them as political agents. The Aristocrats were embarrassingly defeated.

1. Cited in Brian Fagan. The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850. 2019.

2. Georges Lefebvre. The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France. 1973.

3. Lefebvre. The Great Fear of 1789, p. 204.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Great Fear

The Great Fear was caused by :

  • Widespread hunger due to a poor harvest in 1788.
  • Rumours of a plot by the aristocrats to starve the Third Estate and shut down the National Assembly
  • Increased vagrancy which created amplified fears of an imminent external threat.

The Great Fear was important because it was the first instance of mass Third Estate solidarity. As the peasants banded together in search of food and to have their demands met, they managed to force the aristocrats to bend to their will and give up their privileges. This had not been seen before.

The Great Fear was a period of mass fear over food shortages. The French provinces became terrified that outside forces of their King and the nobles were trying to starve them. As this fear was so widespread around France, it was called the Great Fear.

During the Great Fear, the peasants in several French provinces looted food stores and attacked the property of landowners.

The Great Fear took place between July and August 1789.

Final The Great Fear Quiz

Question

What was the Great Fear?

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Answer

A period of widespread panic over food shortages in late France during the late 1780s.

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Question

Which of these was NOT a cause of the Great Fear?

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Answer

The threat of war with Austria and Great Britain.

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Question

How did vagrancy impact the Great Fear?

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Answer

The increased presence of beggars, vagrants, and other landless, itinerant groups caused fear and anxiety among peasant farmers.

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Question

What was the 'Famine Plot'?

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Answer

A conspiracy theory that aristocrats were driving up prices to starve peasants.

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Question

What was the tipping point that caused the Great Fear to turn into a popular revolt?

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Answer

The Storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789.

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Question

How did changing French demographics (population trends) help fuel the Great Fear?

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Answer

The population of France grew by about 2 million during the period 1770-90, worsening poverty and food scarcity.

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Question

What happened during the Great Fear?

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Answer

French peasants in several provinces looted food stores and attacked the property of landowners.

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Question

How did the peasant uprisings of the Great Fear influence later Revolutionary armies?

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Answer

The need for local defence and the large involvement of ordinary men helped lay the groundwork for the levée en masse of the French Revolutionary forces and would play a role in the formation of the National Guard.

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Question

True or False: the French aristocracy were able to consolidate their position despite the turmoil of the Great Fear.

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Answer

False: the Great Fear was an embarrassing political defeat for the French nobility.

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Question

True or False: the Great Fear ultimately strengthened the position of the Third Estate.

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Answer

True: the Third Estate made significant political gains at the expense of the nobility.

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