The Great Fear of 1789 or Similar Song, Second Verse?

The past few weeks I’ve been trying to find a historical parallel to the mood in the US media. Tulipomania came to mind, especially while watching the stock market. Then I got to thinking about panic and uncertainty, two things the markets hate. What panic had not been associated with financial bubbles? The Great Panic (or Fear) in France from July-September of 1789. Rumors swept over the country with a speed that later historians doubted possible, causing peasant uprisings, people fleeing into the woods, and rural upset across the entire country. Given the lack of transportation and the huge number of dialects and languages spoken in France at the time, it’s amazing how quickly the mood engulfed France.

Sound like modern times, minus the internet? It’s not the first odd panic in history, and the English had one in 1688. However, it is one of the best documented, and one that offers some parallels. The situations are not identical – history does not repeat exactly, but people are people, and rhymes are possible.

Early-modern France was a hard place to live, for a lot of the population. Especially around harvest time, people became especially anxious and wary. Vagrants, traveling harvesters, grain buyers, grain-requisitioners, smugglers, starving beggars or armed and vengeful beggars, all could be found on the roads of France and the numbers grew in times of regional dearth or other trouble. Workers demanded that farmers hire them or they would destroy the crop. Others begged for food, and anyone who turned them away would find his barns and crops burned to the ground. Some people harvested at night, as quietly as possible, even if the crop were slightly unripe. It was better than losing everything.

Into this annual fear add the previous year’s terrible weather and crop losses. Northern France had suffered terrible hail that had threshed the wheat and other grain crops, while other places had early freezes that afflicted the grape harvest.

Now dollop on political concerns and rumors of various kinds that came with the calling of the first Estates General in 150 years, and worries that the nobility (or perhaps the urban bourgouise) intended to usurp the king, or add on new taxes, or demand all the old medieval privileges, or some thing. People expected trouble of some kind. The Prince of Conde and others would not easily give up power, even to the king himself.

Come the Tennis Court Oath in June, and the tensions of early July, and it was no wonder that something happened. That something was waves of fear that rippled through much of France (aside from Normandy, Brittany, and the far south). It started in different places at different times, but clustered in July-August, just before harvest began. Alarm bells clanged, messengers raced through the countryside with news of armies of brigands, or foreign invaders, or noble armies, or that two towns had already burned, or . . . Over and over, alarm cries rose, over and over people scattered, or demanded arms to fight off the brigands, or shut and barricaded city gates, waiting for the army of a hundred, four hundred, a thousand, forty thousand attackers to arrive.

They never did.

Nobles and regional leaders who who tried to stem the panic sometimes had success. In other cases they were assaulted, or accused of being part of the noble or foreign plot. The messengers insisted that they be taken seriously, that their personal honor be respected. To deny the truth of their stories was to insult and demean them. And so the fear spread. Only in those areas where a lot of trust existed between the rural peasants, the towns, and local leadership escaped the Great Fear. It bounced back and forth, as waves do, sometimes following trade routes and rivers, at other times going overland.

By September, when the harvest had passed without any invasions or armies of brigands, the Great Fear subsided.

Other concerns replaced the annual harvest worries. In time, worse things than panic would engulf France, and the Great Fear became on of those historical oddities that historians and “wiser, modern people” shook their heads over and used to show how ignorant and backwards peasants really had been and were.

So, what characteristics do I see in common between 1789 and 2020? A place where informal communications systems are trusted more than official news. A time when people have been worried about lots of things, and are expecting something. A sense of looming trouble. Hard economic times in recent memory.

No, they are not the same. Not at all. But we’re seeing the pattern repeat, with some modern twists. The peasants and townsfolk of France were not stocking up on toilet paper or bombarded by 24/7 “news.” We are not menaced by hordes of armed people threatening our crops and homes and families. Both stories are far more complicated than can be told in 800 words or so, but the moods, the speed of rumor, all of that rhymes.

The best single-volume history of the event that I’ve found was written in 1935, by Georges Lefebvre. It is entitled The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France, and translated by John Albert White. It was not written as a popular history, but as a corrective to some trends in French historical works of the time.

For more about 12 different mass hysteria waves or panics, try this series at the History Collection.


6 thoughts on “The Great Fear of 1789 or Similar Song, Second Verse?

  1. The same reactions are visible to this day in tribal Africa, and, I’m sure, in similarly primitive parts of Asia and South America. Rumors spread like wildfire, carried by credulous, uneducated, superstitious tribesmen. “The (insert threat name here) is/are coming! It/they are just behind me!”

    That leads to attacks on strangers, “witch-finding”, and even wholesale massacres. It’s also behind the attacks on Ebola health workers in the Congo over the past year. Strange, deadly disease for which there’s no known explanation? It must be those outsiders! They aren’t trying to cure us – they’re trying to kill us! Kill them instead!


  2. My takeaway is that a certain mad intuition this morning is not something I should be developing and spreading.

    I ask “What good is this supposed to do?” The positive outcomes would be from deterrence, and it is neither uniquely suitable for deterring, nor likely to be effective at deterring those that need it most. Lots of possible negative outcomes.

    Now, it is not likely that I am the sole ‘discoverer’, and it might be that there are flaws that I could discover and teach about if I did develop the idea.

    I need to work on personally being calm. If I participate in the online discussion, I should try to consider whether my input could damp things, or would only serve escalate/excite things. On the other hand, too much self censorship has a way of getting me excited about the thoughts I hold back.

    • When the people trying to bring light and calm are getting yelled at, then yes, holding back can be a good thing. I’m trying to limit myself to “This I know, this source I trust, breathe.” Since part of my Day Job is to be calm, rational, and a source of the Straight Scoopâ„¢ for others, I’ve gotten good at faking the calm part. It does wear, though.

Comments are closed.