Tag Archives: French Revolution

Revolutionary Tourists

In the summer of 1790 William Wordsworth was 20 years old, and half way through a fairly undistinguished Cambridge degree, when he and a friend, Robert Jones, set out to walk across France from Calais to the Alps. It was to be a gap year, an opportunity to postpone the serious business of growing up and settling down. Each of them had just £20 to pay their way, and most of their journey was on foot, walking 12 to 15 miles before breakfast.

The French Revolution had broken out a year before – they reached Calais on 13 July, the eve of the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille – but the revolution was still largely a constitutional affair, and in the countryside they weren’t seriously affected by the political changes going on around them.

More than a year later, Wordsworth went back to France, reaching Paris at the end of November 1791. By this time, the French Revolution had moved on – and so had Wordsworth. He fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon, and when she got pregnant in the spring of 1792, followed her south, first to her home in Blois, then to Orleans. While Annette prepared for the shame of an illegitimate birth, Wordsworth went back to Paris. Continue reading

Crane Brinton, Egypt, and The Anatomy of Revolution

More than 2 years ago, I wrote this post on the historian Crane Brinton and his theory of revolutions. The Arab Spring was just beginning.
In Egypt today, that first phase of revolution is well and truly past now, but Brinton’s idea of phases seems worth revisiting, now that the army is once more engaged in the political process (did it ever go away?) Napoleon Bonaparte notoriously said that it only took ‘a whiff of grapeshot’ to silence popular protests in the streets of Paris. Is the next step the emergence of the Man on Horseback? If so, who? Brinton’s ideas were simplistic and reductive, but influential, and perhaps they still are in driving outside perceptions.

Historians are Past Caring

‘Alligators and revolutions both eat their children’, wrote one letter writer to The Australian yesterday, one of many commenting on events in Egypt at present.  I suspect this may be a slander against alligators, but it does sum up what many people feel, consciously or unconsciously about the idea of revolution: all revolutions have a lot in common, and it is very easy for the process to go pear-shaped very quickly.

I know just enough about Egyptian history to understand all those cartoons with Hosni Mubarak being fitted for a sarcophagus, and to know that a lot has happened since the last pyramid was built, which tends to be ignored, at least by cartoonists.  (Pyramids are very easy to draw)

But Revolutions are another thing.  Academics in the humanities love revolutions, in art and literature as well as history.  Which is odd, really, when you consider how anti-democratic most universities…

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Does knitting have a future?

It was brave of the PM to say recently that she knits as a relaxation – even if it was a soft interview for the Australian Women’s Weekly.  Not just because powerful women tend to be wary of revealing a more girly side, but because it was such a gift to the cartoonists: a red-haired Madame Defarge, knitting in a blood-soaked Place, as the tumbrils roll by, loaded with the finest flower of carbon-emitting mining aristocrats.  If there was such a cartoon, I missed it.  Maybe nobody reads A Tale of Two Cities anymore.

Public figures tend to go for blokey hobbies, even the women, with a heavy emphasis on sport: jogging or cycling, following cricket or the AFL.  It’s not long ago that politicians would have run a mile (or in the case of Anna Bligh, a marathon) from such overt signs of domestic behaviour.  And not only women: a former Archbishop of Canterbury was regularly mocked in the British press because his hobby was tapestry.

Knitting is a soothing choice of hobby, and I imagine Julia Gillard could use some soothing these days.  Repetitive and largely mindless, it’s something to do with your hands while your brain is otherwise engaged – or disengaged – and you produce something useful.  I used to knit on long flights until knitting needles were banned as potential weapons.

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Food riots

Food prices are rising at the moment.  Everyone is feeling the pinch, but for the vast majority of us in Australia, it’s not a matter of life and death.  And while we may grizzle in the supermarket or on talk back radio, we’re not rioting in the streets about the price of bananas – you can put a mandarin in the kids’ lunch boxes instead.

Others don’t have the luxury of choice – of foods or of governments.

Rising food prices recently helped to trigger the Arab spring, just as they played a role in the French – and many other – revolutions.  Revolutionary ideas are all very well, but ‘a hungry belly has no ears’, as a Turkish proverb has it.  In other words, people who are hungry won’t – and can’t – listen to reason.  But they make a fine back up mob for those who do.

Food security, which has always been a source of anxiety for the poor, is becoming a global concern again.  The term may be new – but the concept is as old as Famine, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

A few staple foods – bread or rice, and cooking oil – account for most of the diet of the urban poor, and most of their disposable income.  This limited diet makes minor perturbations in price far more critical than they are in the developed world.  Whether in 18th century France or in 21st century Egypt, when food prices rise, people starve.

One of the key components of the French Revolution was the rising cost of bread.  At a rough estimate, about 80 percent of the income of workers in Paris was spent on food, and about 80 percent of that food was bread.  These figures are roughly comparable with those for the urban poor across the Middle East.

Histoire des Revolutions Sociale

Amedee Charles-Henri de Noe, n.d., from Yale Digital Commons

So when successive harvests failed and prices rose, tensions rose too.  Revolutions tend to occur in the spring and early summer, when heat drives people out of their tenements into the streets, and when food is scarce ahead of the next harvest.  Bastille Day was 14 July.

Food riots have a long history.  In pre-industrial Europe, they followed a traditional pattern.  The riots were – and are – an urban phenomenon. A dispersed rural population is less likely to riot, because you need a critical mass of people to form a mob.  There were surprisingly few food riots in rural Ireland during the Potato Famine, though mobs sometimes rallied to fight evictions.

Women's March on Versailles

The Women March on Versailles, from Wikimedia Commons

Women usually played an important role in food riots, too.  In traditional societies, feeding the family is women’s work – so rallying against rising food prices was women’s work too.  Besides, while the authorities might try to contain and control a riot, most ordinary soldiers baulk at shooting women – they have mothers too.  It was women who marched out to Versailles to bring the King and Queen – ‘the baker and the baker’s wife’ – back to Paris.

In pre-revolutionary France, the authorities knew that the people were hungry, and that high bread prices meant trouble.  But what could the state do in the face of civil disobedience?  The traditional responses were (and largely still are): bring in food from elsewhere, bring in price control on staples, and crack down hard on the opposition.

These solutions are only temporary expedients.  They didn’t work for Louis XVI in the end – or for Hosni Mubarak.  Price control can only work if farmers are subsidised, or they have no incentive to continue production.

The Roman Emperors kept the urban mob at bay by subsidising bread (and circuses) but at a ruinous cost, relying on grain shipments from Egypt, ironically enough.  Egypt has no surplus grain these days, and effectively there is no ‘elsewhere’ from which to import food.  Today individual states have little control over food supplies, for markets are global and food prices are set by supply and demand.

And food supplies are under pressure again: the heat wave in Russia last year – and a heat wave now threatening the harvest in America this northern autumn.  Grain is also used as animal fodder, to meet the growing demand for meat in those parts of the world where incomes are rising.

Then there is biofuel.  Making alcohol from sugar cane trash may be a sensible use of a wasted resource, but in America and Brazil, most biofuel comes from corn.  French aristocrats fed grain to their horses while the people starved; biofuels similarly prioritise transport over people.

In the long term, strong states kept a reserve of food for emergency distribution.  In the centre of Florence is the church of Orsanmichele.  Inside, the church looks like a normal Renaissance church dedicated to St Michael; go outside, and you can see that the church has an upper level, a hidden granary where Republican Florence stockpiled the city’s grain, discreetly protected by God from rats and its always hungry workers.  When supplies ran short, and prices rose high enough to trigger violence, the city rulers could release grain to keep prices within limits.  This month the Chinese released stockpiled supplies of pork, on the same principle, after pork prices rose over 50 percent.

But it takes a strong government to hold back food in this way – and an honest one as well, that won’t sell the stockpile for armaments, as has happened in the Horn of Africa.  Sometimes the rats come in a human form.

Note: a version of this post appeared in The Weekend Australian on 6 August 2011.  As a result, I received the following comment from Prof Lindsay Falvey:

Dear Marion
Your piece in the Australian about Food Prices and such related matters as historical and current food-induced riots is apposite. The global situation is precarious. Two central issues that international agencies charged with addressing food security (that’s real food security – very basic often unappetising food necessary to sustain life in famines where Western food surpluses may not be available) form the basis of my recent book. I mention it since it opens with an historical picture – a free pdf version is available at
Also, Julian Cribb’s excellent book, ‘The Coming Famine’ and his blog aim to motivate some responsible action.
Thanks for raising the matter in a public forum
Lindsay Falvey
(C/-Former Dean and Chair of Agriculture, University of Melbourne, 3010 Australia, or Life Fellow, Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, Hershel Rd, Cambridge UK.)

[I would also add another good book on the history of hunger: David Arnold, Famine: Social crisis and historical change (1988) – Marion]

Lindsay Falvey’s website is http://lindsayfalveysbooks.yolasite.com/small-farmers-secure-food.php