«Money in the Roman Republic»

Change of Climate and the French Revolution 1789



You think climate change is a modern phenomenon? Well, climate has always changed, and it has so entirely without human intervention. At some point at the beginning of the modern era for instance, a Medieval Warm Period ended and a Little Ice Age started. This had dramatic consequences. The winters were cold and they lasted for a long time. The summers stayed cool and there was an above-average amount of rain. While nowadays we would only take a sullen glance at the weather map, people’s existence was at risk at the time. Everyone was dependent on harvests: farmers, day-workers, urban workers as well as priests and aristocrats. However what people on top merely perceived as a little less luxury meant a lot more to simple labourers. They were facing hunger – hunger until starvation. Such hunger also bears revolutionary potential, which I would like to show you by the example of the French Revolution.


The year 1788 was bad, even worse than the years before. Extreme droughts alternated with short, heavy downpours. And then came the winter! Due to the extreme cold, not only did the winter seed freeze, but perennials like grapevines and fruit trees died as well. The crisis became existential, because of the fact that the previous winters had not had good harvests either and thus supplies were gone and the prices were already at the very limit.


In 1785, a city worker had not done well, but could at least live of his daily work. But then, the big rise in price came. The price for wheat increased by 66%, rye 71%, meat 67% and firewood even 91%. Wages had only increased by 22% in these four years.


This posed an existential problem for city worker households. In 1788, the portion of wages which had to be used for the staple food bread was at 58%. In 1789, it rose to an incredible 88%. Only 12% of wages were left for all other costs, like rent, clothes, fire wood and other food.


In addition, there were seasonal top prices. In early summer, when all supplies of food were gone and the new harvest was not brought in yet, crop-adventurers wanted to make their profit. Thus, on 14 July 1789, the price of bread reached its peak of the entire 18th century.


And this had an impact on the event we have come to know as the French Revolution. It was actually several revolutions in which the bourgeoisie was fighting the hungry masses for the former power of the king.


Remember, the Estates General had declared themselves as the National Assembly and were jovially discussing, what a new constitution could look like, while Louis XVI was dismissing the very popular minister of finance Necker. The starving population had thrusted Necker to improve the economic situation. So they demonstrated in the streets, to make themselves heard. The military forcibly broke up the demonstration and arrested the ringleaders. Thus it became clear, that those on top were not willing to take action against the gnawing hunger. And so, the hungry took matters into their own hands. What did they have to loose, after all?


Looking for weapons, the people stormed the Bastille. In the countryside, the peasants burnt their seigneurs’ castles. The deputies of the National Assembly were startled. They were land owners themselves, after all. They issued a few conciliating laws, gave up a few status symbols. The core question however, the question concerning the feudal rights, was only solved half-heartedly. It was decided that one should have the option to buy oneself out of the feudal system. But how should a peasant, who had never been able to put away savings, buy himself out? 


The people had to watch the rich grow even richer. Wealthy businessmen bought church property for a ridiculously low price. While crop prices were still staggeringly high, the parliament debated and failed, because the king was not willing to sign their resolutions. He only signed, when he was forced to do so by an angry crowd. Journalists called them the poissardes or fishwives mockingly stressing the fact that women were among them. Nevertheless, it was not the National Assembly who forced the king to cooperate but the poissardes who brought the royal family, who had gone to Versailles, back to Paris, triumphantly screaming: “We bring the baker, the baker’s wife and the baker’s boy!”


It was always about bread, even when the value of Assignats collapsed in the spring of 1793. The Jacobins promised the hungry public a maximum price, an appropriate price for bread, which everyone would be able to afford, which is why the public supported their reign of terror. It cost many lives, especially those of crop adventurers, capitalists, monopolists and merchants for luxury goods. Robespierre took care of the executions, so they would be state-run, preventing the hungry from taking matters into their own hands. And he simultaneously forbade and broke up organisations of the public.


The political landscape had thus changed when Robespierre and his most trusted supporters died on the guillotine on 28 July 1794. The bourgeousie returned. Hunger? The deputies did not know hunger. This is the only way to explain deputy Francois-Louis Bourdon’s appeal ending the last people’s revolt: “People!” this representative of the bourgeoisie exclaimed. “People! I beseech you in the name of the liberty you have seized. Do not dishonour the fame of such a big achievement. How can you refuse to bear some more difficult moments for the sake of liberty?”


For the bourgeouisie, the world was thus in order again. The hungry masses were brought to reason. Napoleon ruled with an iron fist and an utterly effective police state. But the disposition to revolution has always continued in France. Politicians witnessed this in 1830, 1848, and 1871 – and not least in the last years, during the violent revolts of the people in the banlieus.