Water, Grain, and Shortages

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been re-reading Georges Lefevbre’s The Great Fear. France in 1788-90 was an odd place, balancing on the edge of the medieval and the modern. It was the world of Montesquieu, Jacques Necker, Lavoisier, of Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. It was also a world where starvation waited just around the corner, where tens of thousands of people wandered the countryside and into the cities in search of work and food, and where a patchwork of laws and languages divided the country. Even within Paris, the beginning of the modern world walked mere feet from the depths of the Middle Ages.

The Great Fear of 1789 was part of both. It started with rumors that the king had sent troops to break up the meeting of the Estates General. Or that the nobles had taken back their promise to end the feudal dues and taxes. Or that Austria had invaded. Or that armies of brigands and robbers were pillaging and looting. Or that the nobles had raised an army to capture the grain and starve the peasants one and all. Rumor and unrest flowed south from Paris, and north, and all of central France had risen into an uproar of fear and suspicion within two weeks or a little longer. Peasants attacked manor houses and the offices of landlords, burning the feudal records. They also went after church records, destroying the tithe lists. The assumption was that without a list of what people had always been forced to pay, the land owners could not collect. (Historians are still mourning the loss of the records.)

One of the things that touched off the Great Fear was the famine of 1788. Bad weather had afflicted the northern third of France, including terrible hail storms that pummeled the wheat crop in late summer. The standing, green grain had been threshed flat, in many regions destroying the entire year’s crop. A very hard winter followed, and dearth plus cold meant death. Southern France actually had a very good crop year in 1788, but no way existed to move the food from the south to the north. The infrastructure of Early Modern France was, to be charitable, sparse. You had the Loire River, or you could try to sail up the western coast, but no major roads or rivers allowed direct travel from south to north.

Another problem came from tradition and fear of hoarding. People who lived close to the bone worried about grain taken to sell on the market in other places. Where was it going? Why were prices rising when people were starving? What about Just Price? When the French government removed the limits on grain export, peasants who heard about it assumed that nobles and speculators were selling all the grain away, leaving the common people to starve. Any wagon moving grain outside the parish was suspect.

According to tradition, grain had to stay home, lest people die. In times of dearth, it could not be sold for more than the just price, that which allowed farmers to survive but not to make an immoral profit. So it was only just for people to intercept grain shipments and take the grain, leaving the local just price. Or to take the grain as a way to punish those who would deny justice and charity (as the local people saw them.)

France participated in the modern market. But for four fifths of the population, the modern market looked like death, slow, lingering death by starvation and exposure.

In some ways, it was the same mindset that determined the Spanish water laws and their doctrine of sharing the shortage. When all went well and the rivers ran full, the senior water users and junior water users all got their share. As things dried up, the seniors got their full rights and the juniors had to wait. But in times of true scarcity, everyone suffered. The senior rights took less, so that the junior rights could at least get sufficient water to feed their families. Individuals did not profit, but everyone survived. It is a communal, survival-based mindset, very pre-modern. And it worked, although later American observers thought that it was foolish and kept the region from really thriving and being developed.

The people in France watching the grain carts trundle away to unknown places—or even the market three villages away—were the junior water users, watching the water they needed flowing past to satisfy the senior rights. The French peasants demanded that all “share the shortage,” because that meant survival. The people who had grown grain for the market, or who had purchased the grain in one place to sell elsewhere and were only passing through belonged to a different economic world. The peasants couldn’t, and wouldn’t, see that. They saw life rolling away from them and their children, other people growing rich as they starved. Prosperity had come, but not to all, and not to the rural poor.

And then the Revolution came, and the wars of 1792-1815. . .


5 thoughts on “Water, Grain, and Shortages

  1. It’s hard to read a historical situation when you have no sense of the milieu. I think it was on this blog (but maybe something by VDH) that the farmer’s habit of keeping every bit of failed machinery was noted … because that bit might one day be what you need to get a broken machine working at a critical moment. And I’ve written a couple versions of a story in which coal in the stocking was a winter fuel aid to poor families–until cruel people started the rumor that Santa was punishing poor children for being ‘bad’.

    • Probably VDH. I’ve seen old equipment “in the grove,” and heard people making tisking sounds about the neighbor doing it (specks, logs, some assembly required…)

      • No surprise here. My fire trailer was repurposed from a utility trailer made from the back half of a Mazda REPU (rotary engine pickup). I don’t keep used up vehicles, but my scrap stash and odds ‘n ends boxes have saved more than a few 80 mile round trips.

        Woodworking, welding and wrenching are handy skills to have.

  2. One of the reality shows had a segment about how, if you live in the rural South, you have to have lots of spare parts to tinker with..And then they built something. Can’t remember what show.

Comments are closed.