Do You Hear The People Sing: Bread Riots in 18th-century France

Do You Hear The People Sing: Bread Riots in 18th-century France

As long as Gonesse bread is not lacking… the commotion will not be significant; but if two market days passed without Gonesse bread, the uprising would be universal; and it is impossible to calculate what this great multitude of Parisians would do, reduced to the last extremity, when it had to save itself and its children from starvation.

French dramatist Louis Sébastien Mercier wrote these words in the essay collection Tableau de Paris in 1783, merely six years before the fateful formation of the National Assembly that sparked the French Revolution. Coming from a man who was publicly optimistic about the peaceable nature of Parisians, this quote indicates a festering tension in 18th-century France’s food security, and echoes a sour sentiment shared by both Mercier’s contemporary Voltaire and ancient Roman satirist Juvenal: that the common people are satisfied by (or held at bay with) ‘panem et circenses’ - bread and entertainment.

The growing displeasure of France’s working class in pre-revolutionary times is easily understood. Imagine subsisting primarily on simple grain porridges and maslin, a coarse whole wheat or rye bread – even as you received word of lavish sixteen-course royal menus. Imagine spending over half your annual salary on that meager diet, barely managing to feed yourself and your family. Then imagine a failed harvest, rising grain prices set to keep rising through laissez-faire political edicts, and the hoarding of produce by the relatively affluent in place of relief for the famine-stricken. Little wonder, then, that the Old Regime of France experienced bread riots both in urban markets – decrying the lack of a sufficient grain supply – and in the form of an entrave, a form of rural protest involving the seizure of provisions before they left a community, allowing the populace to make use of the grain whilst setting their own prices. The taxation populaire was a structured extension of an entrave whereby citizens would seize either bread or produce, and then sell it in an orderly fashion, paying the owner of the goods the profits. The caveat was that they themselves set the ‘fair price’. 

These were not isolated incidents, or the result of a single generation of food insecurity. France has a long history of food riots, stretching from close to a century before the French Revolution to the mid-1800s. In 1775, a food riot now known as the Flour War broke out across nearly the entire kingdom, marked by widespread looting of warehouses and bakeries in an atmosphere of conspiracy. Many of the stricken poor believed in the Pacte de Famine, the idea that the establishment was deliberately starving its citizens. Despite regulation of grain prices by erstwhile Finance Minister Jacques Turgot, public discontent continued to simmer, coming to a head in the famous October Days of 1789, when a crowd of nearly 30,000 marched on Versaille, their numbers dominated by politically-minded working women. They aimed to lead non-violent action to curb the grain and bread shortage in Parisian markets, amongst other political and economic ills. After a tense stand-off with the National Assembly, King Louis the XVI, and by some accounts, Marie Antoinette in her own chambers, the crowd retreated with ‘all the bread in Versailles’, and the assurance that their overlords would return to Paris and institute grain reforms. 

Bread persists as a metaphor for a country’s financial health, and for its faith in its government. The staple also finds its way into the cultural artifacts of displaced or troubled populations. Take, for instance, the origin of crispy matzo crackers: outside of their numerous uses in comfort food, they are eaten during Passover to commemorate the exodus from Egypt. The Torah rules that celebrants must forgo any leavening, as the Jews would not have had the time or equipment to make risen bread as they fled Egypt. Thus, matza, the ‘bread of affliction’. 

In a fascinating cultural exchange, during the British Mandate for Palestine between 1918 and 1948, imprisoned Palestinian men are said to have received coded messages from their wives in the form of modified Arabic songs designed to confuse the jailers. The connection to bread? These songs were sung to the Ritmo de Panaderas, the ‘rhythm of the bakers’, a folk beat developed in Spain to fine-tune and enliven the process of kneading dough.    

More recently, in January 1977, innumerable working class Egyptians took to city streets in a vehement protest against the termination of state subsidies on staple foods such as flour, oil and rice. These riots came to be known as The Bread Intifada, and they targeted changes enacted on the advice of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, causing the price of food to rise by up to 50%. The army intervened in the widespread protests, but Anwar Sadat’s government was eventually forced to rescind the economic changes, bringing the bread riots to an end. 

BreadEx is in many ways a venture shaped by the pressures of the pandemic, food security chief among them. Our roots lay in a drive to fundraise and break bread together, to work toward widespread accessibility to healthy artisanal products, and to continually enshrine our local community. Running parallel to our acknowledgement of the crucial role bread played (and continues to play) in French history is an immense gratitude for our ability to serve the BreadEx family in DFW. 

Perhaps when we take a bite of a gibassier this month, we’ll think on how a Parisian fisherwoman from the 1700s made that bite possible. 


* Picture credit: The Bread Famine in 18th-century France. Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

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