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Poverty, Crime & Revolution

Soboul was a student of Georges Lefebvre; and having taken over Lefebvre’s chair in the history of the Revolution, he acts as guardian of the Revolution’s historiography. He can expunge a deviationist with a stroke of the pen: “One cannot, on several counts, consider R. Cobb as a disciple of G. Lefebvre.”4 Soboul is such a faithful disciple of Lefebvre, in fact, that he never strays far from the classic formulas in his French Revolution:5

Lefebvre on the Brissotins:

This second revolutionary generation…was recruited in part from the educated but poor petite bourgeoisie of lawyers and nouvellistes…. They were in contact with the bourgeoisie d’affaires….


Nouvellistes, lawyers, professors, the Brissotins formed the second revolutionary generation. Having come most often from the moyenne bourgeoisie, they were in relation with the grande bourgeoisie d’affaires….

Another stroke of the pen and an important group of revolutionary leaders is promoted from the petite to the moyenne bourgeoisie. To read Soboul’s book next to Lefebvre’s is to watch history harden. Blurred lines of interpretation become sharp and rigid, loose groups of persons coalesce into firm parties, open questions close, and the past freezes into dogma.


The Poor of Eighteenth-Century France by Olwen Hufton represents the best in the English style of writing French history. It has little of what the French call “science.” It lacks the French structure which usually takes this form: Part I, economics and demography, Part II, society, Part III, culture and collective mentalities. It is short on charts and graphs, although it has maps and some impressive statistics tucked discreetly into footnotes. And it meanders through its subject, taking up themes and dropping them as the occasion arises and keeping to a low key, despite the dramatic character of the material. It offers nothing but English empiricism, the distillation of vast archival research, imagination, understanding, and good prose.

Like Chevalier, Hufton sized up her subject from a neo-Malthusian point of view. The French population rose from about twenty million in 1720 to twenty-seven million in 1800, she observed, while neither agriculture nor industry underwent anything comparable to the dual revolution that was then transforming England. When France’s revolution struck, it hit a country where one-third, perhaps one-half of the population had sunk into poverty, though it did not necessarily recruit its striking force from the poor.

This interpretation now seems pretty well established, although historians differ on the extent of the disparity between population and productivity; for too great a margin between demographic and economic growth would not leave room for a classic, capitalist-bourgeois revolution. Rather than enter the debate on that thorny problem, Hufton raised a new set of questions: Who constituted the submerged third of the population? How did society treat them? And what were their own ways of coping with their condition?

Hufton found the answer to the first question to be as complex as French society itself. There were rural poor and urban poor, poor from mountain regions and poor from flatlands, poor landowners and sharecroppers in the pays de petite culture and poor laborers in the rich, open field grainlands. Each area developed its own kind of poverty. But Hufton found it possible to draw two lines through the bewildering heterogeneity of the Old Regime. Geographically, a line from Pau to Belfort separated different styles of migration and hence of supplementary activities, from begging to banditry. Socially, the poor fell into a kind of hierarchy, according to the degrees of misery that the Old Regime codified in a rich vocabulary, which ran from the respectable pauvres honteux to the down-and-out gueux. Deserving poor (the old, the orphaned, the invalid) were distinguished from “bad” poor (vagabonds, loafers, criminals), and one’s own from other people’s poor. But everyone differentiated the merely poor from the indigent.

When a family fell on hard times, it would borrow and beg. But when it collapsed into indigence, it would usually break up. The children would disappear into gangs of beggars and thieves, and the mother might turn to prostitution, at the father’s urging, if he had not already taken to the open road, marauding as he went. The distinction between poverty and indigence also became a psychological barrier; for the indigent lost hope of crossing back into respectable pauperism, and the poor lived in fear of indigence. Given the narrow margin by which most families survived, it took only a few unforeseeable incidents—a hailstorm, an illness, an additional child—to drag them under and sweep them out into the vast tides of the floating population. This human flotsam and jetsam drifted across the countryside, beating at the doors of peasant hovels and demanding bread and a place in the hayloft. To refuse might mean to have the hayloft burned. So the indigent seemed doubly menacing—one of Chevalier’s “facts of opinion” which helps explain the panic that seized huge sections of the country during the Great Fear of 1789.

The distinction between the poor and the indigent explains more than the distinction that Kaplow made between the master artisans and journeymen, which for him marks the great divide between rich and poor. In his view, poverty acted so powerfully as a common denominator for those who were not master artisans “that workingmen and women were conscious of belonging to the same social group as the beggars into whose ranks they might fall at any moment.” Hufton shows that the poor were the greatest victims of the very poor, that to have a job and “bread in the house” (the proudest boast of the little people) was to inhabit a different world from that of the floating population—a difference far greater than that between those who owned the modes of production and those who received wages.

Hufton also shows how poverty was a family affair, with its own pattern of life cycles and its own domestic economy. A healthy laboring man could support himself quite easily. But few fathers, even among the small landowners, could bring in enough to feed a family of three. The family depended on the mother’s labor, in the fields and at the spinning wheel, and also on the children’s, even when they were too small to do anything but hold a begging cup at the church door. Hufton weighs and measures poverty, by family budgets, bread prices, earnings, and testaments. She cites a typical will, from a journeyman of Troyes in 1776: “a wooden table, five spoons and eight lead forks, six bottles, two dishes and four plates, two beds and four pairs of sheets, a chest containing wretched clothes.”

Because an extra child could destroy the family economy, the poor often abandoned their children, either by leaving them on the doorsteps of the local hôpital or by shipping them off to the Hôpital des Enfants Trouvés in Paris. For a few livres, a carter would cram the infant with a half-dozen others into a wicker basket on a donkey. He would feed it with milk or stop its mouth with a rag soaked in wine. If it died, he would toss it out and replace it at his next stop, where a matron would have assembled a fresh supply. Few babies could survive the trip from Brittany or Lorraine, but the carter tried to keep his baskets full in order to collect the sum fixed for every live child he delivered to the foundling hospital in Paris.

Most of the few who made it that far died soon after their arrival, for they were stuffed into fetid rooms, which were swept by epidemics. The survivors were carted back to country wet nurses, who could be more dangerous than the hôpital; for nursing was another occupation of the poor, and a nurse might take in a half-dozen babies, though she barely had enough milk for one. Sometimes, too, she contracted syphilis from one of her charges and communicated it to the others, before being forced to retire to the hôpital herself, where her chance of survival was not much better than that of the babies. The whole system broke down in 1779, when the Enfants Trouvés of Paris, which had barely been able to cope with 890 infants in 1680, was overwhelmed with almost 11,000. The nuns persuaded the government to stop the out-of-town shipments, which were diverted to equally lethal hôpitaux in the provinces.

The Old Regime’s handling of child abandonment shows how poverty degraded the poor; for a large proportion of the abandoned babies were legitimate—the offspring of parents who were teetering on the edge of indigence, rather than those of prostitutes and seduced servants—and it was the poor who manned the system for disposing of them, that is, who lived from disguised infanticide. But the system also illustrates the inadequacy of the institutions by which the regime attempted to cope with the problems of the poor.

Most of those institutions had been established during the seventeenth century in the spirit of the Counter Reformation. They were meant to save the souls of their rich benefactors, not to solve the problem of poverty, to care for limited numbers of deserving poor in the towns, not to contain the flood of paupers from the country. Yet as that flood began to crest, the state attempted to transform the voluntary poor house or hôpital into a prison for beggars and vagabonds. The hôpitaux could not cope with beggary any better than the foundling hospital handled child abandonment. The problem was rooted in demography and economics, not in sin and laziness, as the men of the Counter Reformation and Enlightenment explained. In the last two decades of the Old Regime, when the Malthusian crisis reached a peak, the government tried desperately to solve a dilemma it could not comprehend. Nothing worked, not ateliers de charité, nor dépôts de mendicité, nor variations on ancient types of almsgiving. When the revolutionary Comité de mendicité investigated the situation in 1790, it found that resources were worst where the need was greatest, and that in many areas the total expenditure divided by the number of the needy would not provide each pauper with a pound of bread a year.

The poor therefore provided for themselves. In the most original sections of her book, Hufton reconstructed their “makeshift economy,” showing their patterns of migration, their genius for finding odd jobs, and especially their function as a family unit, in which the ability of mothers and children to bring in pennies and crusts of bread made the difference between poverty and indigence. But ingenuity was often inadequate to prevent the family’s members from going their separate ways down a road that led from tramping to begging, vagabondage, and banditry.

The indigent lived by ploys. They stole shoes off sleeping farmhands, clipped tails off horses (sellable for mattress stuffing), pinched laundry drying on hedges, and milked cows in the fields. Occasionally they formed into gangs and pillaged large areas of the Beauce, Champagne, and Burgundy. Rural police could not cope with crime. Chartres, a city of 13,000, and its surrounding territory had a police force of six. These flea-bitten “cavaliers” apparently spent most of their time in cabarets; but even if their nags could get them to a crime on time, they could not stand up to a force like the Hulin gang, which included 100 deserters, beggars, and bandits and which enjoyed some support from the local peasantry.

Hufton’s book therefore complements Chevalier’s. Her poor developed into his dangerous classes. In fact they were so dangerous and degraded that they might have hit bottom before they could join the quarante-huitards or even the sans-culottes. Of course the Parisian situation was special, but Chevalier may have exaggerated the differences between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poverty. Pauperization probably remained a constant threat to half the population of France throughout the century of revolution, from 1750 to 1850.

But the connection between poverty and revolution still seems open to question. Some connections certainly existed. It was no accident that the Bastille fell when the price of bread in Paris had risen to its highest point in half a century. At the same time, the peasants scored a victory against indigence by destroying tithes, seigneurial dues, and the ancient taxation system. Some of the small peasants managed to purchase nationalized Church land. Many of them learned to limit the number of their offspring. And the unplanned progeny drifted into the cities, for the savages of Chevalier did not descend in a direct line from Kaplow’s laboring poor and Soboul’s sans-culottes. They came from the country, shifting the weight of poverty and of revolution toward Paris during the first half of the nineteenth century. Having regained their Malthusian balance, the peasants failed to support the Parisians in 1848.

But the new urban poor did not necessarily become revolutionaries. They lived in a world of their own, by coping and by crime, and they lived by their own code, in their own way. Their ways cut them off from comfortable society, where politics made sense. Perhaps the preindustrial poor never developed much political consciousness. Perhaps they considered revolution a luxury that only the bourgeois could afford.

  1. 4

    Albert Soboul, “L’Historiographie classique de la Révolution française,” Historical Reflections, vol. 1 (winter, 1974), p. 143. On Cobb’s years of study with Lefebvre, see Richard Cobb, “Georges Lefebvre” in Second Identity: Essays on France and French History (Oxford, 1969).

  2. 5

    Georges Lefebvre, La Révolution française (Paris, 1951), p. 225, and Albert Soboul, Précis d’histoire de la Révolution française (Paris, 1962), p. 189. The full text of these passages should be compared in their original French editions.

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