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The Great Fear (French: la Grande Peur) was a general panic that took place between 17 July and 3 August 1789, at the start of the French Revolution. Rural unrest had been present in France since the worsening grain shortage of the spring, and, fueled by rumors of an aristocrats' "famine plot" to starve or burn out the population, both peasants and townspeople mobilized in many regions.
In response to these rumors, fearful peasants armed themselves in self-defense and, in some areas, attacked manor houses. The content of the rumors differed from region to region—in some areas it was believed that a foreign force was burning the crops in the fields, while in other areas it was believed that robbers were burning buildings. Fear of the peasant revolt was a determining factor in the decision to abolish feudalism.
French historian Georges Lefebvre has demonstrated that the revolt in the countryside can be followed in remarkable detail. The revolt had both economic and political causes, pre-dating the events of the summer of 1789. As Lefebvre commented, "To get the peasant to rise and revolt, there was no need of the Great Fear, as so many historians have suggested: when the panic came he was already up and away." The rural unrest can be traced back to the spring of 1788, when a drought threatened the prospect of the coming harvest. Harvests had in fact been poor since the massive 1783 Laki volcanic eruption in Iceland. Storms and floods also destroyed much of the harvest during the summer, leading to both a decrease in seigneurial dues and defaults on leases. Frosts and snow damaged vines and ruined chestnut and olive groves in the south. Vagrancy became a serious problem in the countryside, and in some areas, such as the Franche-Comté in late 1788, peasants gathered to take collective action against the seigneurs.
In early 1789, the King's financial minister Jacques Necker warned that the countryside risked a general uprising, and by April, peasant uprisings had become increasingly organised and anti-seigneurial in character. Demands were made for the cancellation of harvest payments and the restoration of rights, such as the right of grazing. The drawing up of the Cahiers de doléances and subsequent elections contributed to the general expectation of reform. While Lefebvre argued that fear of aristocratic conspiracy was a contributing factor in the peasant revolts, Timothy Tackett has recently demonstrated that the rumours circulating in Paris could not possibly have traveled across the countryside quickly enough to have caused the uprising. Tackett posits a fear of anarchy, rather than of aristocratic conspiracy, as the "mystical multiplier" which Lefebvre originally set out to uncover. Peasants began to arm themselves, rang church bells to warn of danger, and took to attacking the symbols of the seigneurial regime, reclaiming tithes and grain.
The panic began in the Franche-Comté, spread south along the Rhône valley to Provence, east towards the Alps and west towards the centre of France. Almost simultaneously, a panic began in Ruffec, south of Poitiers, and travelled to the Pyrenees, toward Berry and into the Auvergne. The uprising coalesced into a general 'Great Fear' as neighbouring villages mistook armed peasants for brigands. Although the main phase of the Great Fear died out by August, peasant uprisings continued well into 1790, leaving few areas of France (primarily Alsace, Lorraine and Brittany) untouched.
Although the Great Fear is usually associated with the peasantry, all the uprisings tended to involve all sectors of the local community, including some elite participants, such as artisans or well-to-do farmers. Often the bourgeoisie had as much to gain from the destruction of the feudal regime as did the poorer peasantry.
As a result of the "Great Fear", the National Assembly, in an effort to appease the peasants and forestall further rural disorders, on 4 August 1789 formally abolished the "feudal regime", including seigneurial rights. This led in effect to a general unrest among the nobility of France.
Historian Mary K. Matossian argued that one of the causes of the Great Fear was consumption of ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus. In years of good harvests, wheat contaminated with ergot was discarded, but when the harvest was poor, the peasants could not afford to be so choosy.
Peasant revolt was clearly not a phenomenon new to late eighteenth-century France: the fourteenth century saw the Jacquerie in the Oise Valley, and the seventeenth century saw the Croquant rebellions. Yves-Marie Bercé, in History of the Peasant Revolts, concludes "peasant revolts of the years 1789–92 had much in common with their seventeenth-century counterparts: unanimity of the rural community, rejection of new taxation to which they were unaccustomed, defiance of enemy townsmen and a belief that there would be a general remission in taxes, particularly when the king decided to convene the estates general. In spite of all that is suggested by the political history of the period, the peasant disturbances at the beginning of the French Revolution did not depart from the typical community revolt of the preceding century."
The usual cause of communal violence was “an assault launched from outside upon the community as a whole” whether that outsider be those profiting from unfairly high bread prices, marauding bandits, witches, or magistrates abusing power. This statement about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century uprisings appears, at first, to apply equally to the Great Fear of 1789. However, one distinctive aspect of the latter was fear of an ambiguous outsider at the outset of the disturbance. Whether the brigands were English, Piedmontese or merely vagabonds was not easily determined and, when the Great Fear had spread to its largest expanse, it was a system, feudalism, rather than a specific person or group, at which its animosity was directed. Earlier revolts had not been subversive, but rather looked to a golden age that participants wished to see reinstated; the socio-political system was implicitly validated by a critique of recent changes in favour of tradition and custom. The Cahiers des doléances had opened the door to the people’s opinion directly affecting social circumstances and policy, and the Great Fear evidenced this change.
The most glaring difference between the Great Fear of 1789 and previous peasant revolts was its scope. Spreading from a half-dozen or so separate nuclei across the countryside, almost all of France found itself in rural uproar. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, revolt was almost always contained within the borders of a single province. This change in magnitude reflects to what extent social discontent was with the entire governmental system (and its ineffectiveness) rather than with anything particular to a locality. While, as Tackett argues, the specific manifestation of the fear of brigands (who they were, and what they were most likely to attack) may have been contingent upon local contexts, the fact that the brigands were perceived as a genuine threat to the peasants across the country in a wide-variety of local contexts speaks to a more systemic disorder.
Comparing the peasant revolts of the Tard Avisés with the Great Fear of 1789 reveals some key similarities and differences. From 1593–1595, in Limousin and Périgord, groups of peasants rose up against the armed forces that occupied the countryside and raised funds by levying taxes and ransom. In a series of assemblies, the Croquants, as they were pejoratively called, worked on a military plan for action and successfully expelled the garrisons from their lands. The letters between these assemblies justified their armed resistance as opposition to unjust claims on their property. When the chaotic political situation was stabilized with the coronation of Henry IV, the revolts ended and the peasants were eventually accorded the tax rebate they had demanded earlier. The Tard-Avisés had specific goals and achieved them; the same cannot be said of the participants in the Great Fear.
The Great Fear of 1789 broke with another pattern typical of peasant revolts in earlier centuries. The panic lasted for more than a few weeks, and took place during the most labour-intensive months of the year, whereas the Tard-Avisés and other revolts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries occurred during the Spring months when the peasants had spare time. The specter of brigands destroying the harvest was so great in 1789 that peasants actually chose to forego working on the harvest in late June and July. The pragmatism of the previous revolts, which had produced real results, had disappeared by the end of the Ancien Régime.
Communal violence was but one tactic of many for opposing an enemy, and the peasants of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, drawing on a heritage of communal justice, might rise up to prevent enclosement of a communal grazing space, like a marsh, to demand lower bread prices, or to evade their taxes. During the reign of Louis XIV, however, popular revolt became an ever-less viable option for reform, as the state both became better able to respond to insurgency and also addressed many of the issues at the heart of peasant revolt. Reforms in the military structure prevented French soldiers from plundering French soil, and armed conflict with other powers was not fought at home. Thus, the threat of roaming bandits was a particularly poignant one – it evoked an era of lawlessness which the French monarchy had successfully countered in previous years.
There was much in common between the Peasantry in the Great Fear of 1789 and the peasants of the revolts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but they were neither unmalleable nor unchanged by the experience of Bourbon rule and its subsequent dissolution. Without the monarchy or a replacement government to administer and protect the people, the harvest, and with it, life itself, was in grave danger.