Having begun in the 1950s to rewrite history “from below” and having dug deeper and deeper into the lives of anonymous masses throughout the 1960s, historians have finally hit the bottom of early modern society. They have uncovered the irreducible, irredeemable poor. Although there are signs of a revival of interest in the rich and powerful, the fascination with the history of poverty is now at a peak.
The books by Chevalier, Kaplow, Soboul, and Hufton represent this trend at its strongest, as it applies to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. Chevalier and Hufton investigate the relations between destitution and crime, while Kaplow and Soboul try to disentangle the connections between conditions of the poor and the revolutionaries. Taken together, their books illustrate the complexity of relating poverty, crime, and revolution; and they also suggest some variations in two historical styles, the Anglo-American and the French.
For the French historian Louis Chevalier, the history of poverty reveals the poverty of history as a record of human experience. Previous historians had made body counts of the poor, but they had never shown how indigence tightened its grip on the population between 1815 and 1848, corrupting both mind and body, and shaping the cultural as well as the biological bases of existence. Chevalier analyzed this dual process in Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes, which has remained one of the most important contributions to social history since it first appeared in French in 1958.
He had uncovered the biological element in an earlier book, La formation de la population parisienne au XIXe siècle (1950), which analyzed the way the city’s population doubled during the first half of the nineteenth century, while its physical and institutional structure remained essentially the same. In his subsequent book, Chevalier moved from demography to urban pathology. He showed how the nineteenth-century population sickened within the shell of the eighteenth-century city, how sewers overflowed, the water supply gave out, housing deteriorated, and disease raged, especially in districts where humanity was densest and poorest. Poverty, he concluded, produced a fundamental inequality before life and death. That is why infant mortality was twice as great in the slums along the rue Mouffetarde as in the mansions of the rue Saint-Honoré, why the cholera epidemic of 1832 decimated poor neighborhoods and spared the rich, why native Parisians tended to be too weak for heavy labor, too sickly for military service, and too undernourished to replace themselves by reproduction.
Their replacements came from the provinces, strange men and women in bizarre costumes, muttering unintelligible dialects as they did the city’s heavy work and dirty work. The Parisian bourgeois saw these outsiders as an alien “race,” the “barbarians within”; for biological inequality was construed in racial terms, by the barbarians as well as the bourgeois. Chevalier suggested that the barricades of 1848 did not merely divide rich against poor but separated two hostile populations in a city whose structure had finally collapsed.
Paris rose again, of course, but only after Haussmann had razed the slums of the center city, after industry had developed around the periphery, after railway supply lines had improved its provisioning, and after some balance had been restored between demographic and economic forces.
More Malthusian than Marxian, this picture of urban decay may look familiar to the modern American reader, although it was original in the 1950s. What still sets Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes apart from other urban histories is its emphasis on culture and collective consciousness. Chevalier interpreted the history of Paris as a dialectic between “facts” and “opinion.” By facts, he meant the objective conditions of life: the density of human beings per square meter in each district; the composition, age structure, and sex ratio of the population; the number of calories in average diets; and the incidence of suicide, infanticide, theft, and murder. Chevalier produced statistics on all those subjects by digging through census data and other sources, including the works of early nineteenth-century social scientists. Although the social science literature had nearly been forgotten, he found it to be so rich that it raised a new question: how did contemporaries make sense of the facts they had uncovered?
When it came to “opinion of the facts,” Chevalier found that the nineteenth-century experts understood the present in the light of the past. To them, as to their forerunners of the Enlightenment, poverty could be reduced to a problem of beggary. Find work for the sturdy beggar and bread for the deserving poor and you would make the problem go away. The nonexperts, however—journalists, novelists, contemporary letter writers—often saw poverty as a fundamental condition of urban life. They watched working men and women sink deeper and deeper into indigence, then strike out in desperation, seizing a purse or clubbing a passer-by or stuffing an unwanted baby down a drain. It seemed to these nonprofessionals that the laboring classes were merging into the criminal or “dangerous” classes and that poverty was assuming a modern form—not beggary but crime.
Chevalier had come to the same conclusion after his great trek through the statistics, and so he concluded further that the connection between poverty and crime emerged in contemporary consciousness long before it dawned on the experts, who remained prisoners of their professionalism until the 1840s. How then did collective consciousness take shape and express itself? Chevalier found ways to formulate this problem in the works of Durkheim and Halbwachs, but where could he find evidence of “collective representations” and “collective memory” as they had actually existed in the past? The most important general assumptions could have been those that went without saying or at least without being recorded.
Chevalier attacked this problem in a very French manner: he reread the French classics. But he reread them in an original way. Instead of sifting social comment from Les Misérables, he looked for passages where Hugo did not mean to pronounce on crime and poverty but was merely telling the story of Jean Valjean. When the great man relaxed his pose of social prophet and slipped out of his role as literary genius, he filled his tale with casual remarks about things everyone knew—things, that is, that the historian has the greatest difficulty in knowing: the feel of the barrière Saint-Jacques where the guillotine was kept, the look of chain gangs leaving the Bicêtre prison for work at dawn, the strange noises that rose from sewers and cellars everywhere, the stench from the monstrous mouth of the drain in the rue de la Mortellerie, and the resonance of the name of that street, where death struck deepest during the cholera epidemic of 1832.
In such observations, in contrast to his unconvincing attempts to describe the professional underworld, Hugo unknowingly articulated attitudes that he shared with his audience. He let the collectivity speak through him, as storytellers have done since the time of Homer. And without intending to do so, he communicated a sense of criminality as a social condition and a mental atmosphere, something that was smothering one half of the population and terrifying the other.
This view of Hugo’s writing sounds suspiciously spiritual, and one’s suspicions mount as Chevalier descends from La Comédie humaine and Les Misérables to Les Mystères de Paris, a book, he asserts, that expressed “the will of the laboring classes themselves as conclusively and surely as if the workmen and artisans of Paris had taken it in turns each day to guide Sue’s pen.” But even if he failed to strip the veil off the collective unconscious, Chevalier revealed a collective and an unconscious element in authorship. He did so by developing an eye for blind spots and by learning to find meaning where none was intended. Although those methods may be peculiar to his way of working, his work belongs to an important genre of literary scholarship. He studied Hugo as Bakhtin studied Rabelais and as Soriano studied Perrault: in order to understand the cultural dimensions of storytelling by following the interplay between author and audience.1
Historians have not made much of Chevalier’s attempt to see the common elements in culture through the texts of great books. Instead, they have tried to study popular culture directly, and their results, so far, do not confirm Chevalier’s view of criminality. After passing through a “picturesque” phase, Chevalier argued, crime became a basic element in working-class life and culture—so basic, in fact, that the laboring classes came to see themselves as dangerous classes and acted accordingly in 1848. But historians of popular literature, from Charles Nisard to J.J. Darmon, have failed to find much social criminality in the primitive paperbacks read (or heard) by nineteenth-century peasants and workers. These “blue books” treated their reader-listeners to crime at its most picturesque: derring-do by Cartouche, Jean Bart, Tiel Ulespiègle, and Gargantua. Another popular genre, the canard, a semifictitious broadsheet, specialized in horrendous crimes, which it announced in enormous headlines:
Un Crime sans Précédent!!!
UNE FEMME BRULEE VIVE
Par ses Enfants
Not much of a social message here; or in early popular journalism from La Presse (1836) to Le Petit Journal (1863); or in the horror literature rented out for three francs a month in the cabinets de lecture; or in the popular theaters of the boulevards; or in the Catholic and Bonapartist fairyland of the images d’Epinal.
Popular culture probably provided more escapism than anything else for the laboring classes, but it still remains unexplored territory. Despite some suggestive preliminary studies, we lack exact information on literacy; on the production, distribution, readership, and ideological content of popular literature; and on the other popular genres: the chanson, the image, the conte, and the fête. And when everything is catalogued and counted, it still may be true that Chevalier picked up a message implicit in these genres, like the hum one does not hear on the radio.
Even so, the consciousness or subconsciousness of criminality may not have contributed much to the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. Chevalier did not establish clear connections between poverty, crime, and revolution. He ended his book with a call for historians to incorporate his work into political narrative; but that has not been possible, perhaps because the day-to-day violence he analyzed did not feed directly into political explosions. Also, his compassionate but unflattering picture of the laboring and dangerous classes had nothing to please the left, which was anxious to see the revolutionaries become more and more part of the proletariat rather than merely pauperized. And subsequent research on revolutionary crowds has shown that the indigent fought on both sides of the barricades in 1848. In fact, the social composition of the revolutionaries during the June days of 1848, the July days of 1830, and the series of “days” between 1789 and 1795 seems to have been pretty much the same. The street people supplied cannon fodder whenever there was fighting in the streets but they never developed a political consciousness of their own. They probably remained too miserable—too intent on picking through garbage, rags, and pockets—to enroll en masse in revolutions.
Why then does Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes remain such an important book? In moving from demography to urban society and literature, it opened up a new kind of history. Not only did it explain the mechanism of poverty, it revealed the historical meaning of misere.
Jeffry Kaplow’s book ends near the point where Chevalier’s begins. It attempts to provide a total history of the Parisian poor during the last century of the Old Regime; and it also bears on the work of Albert Soboul, whose studies of the Parisian sans-culottes revealed the importance of ordinary men and women during the French Revolution. Kaplow makes a descriptive tour of Paris, pointing out the various living and working conditions of the laboring classes. He examines the institutions by which the rich attempted to contain the poor, and takes a fresh look at the questions of beggary and criminality. And he concludes with an explanation of why the poor did not revolt before 1789: they had been trapped in a prepolitical “culture of poverty.”
Although Kaplow borrowed the phrase from Oscar Lewis, his emphasis on the cultural aspects of poverty probably owes more to Chevalier than to American sociology. Kaplow’s poor, however, were destined to become the sans-culottes of Soboul rather than the dangerous classes of Chevalier, and that destiny provides the central problem of his book. “How and why did the laboring poor develop a political consciousness in the course of the eighteenth century?” Kaplow asked. Culture and consciousness: the themes evoke Chevalier’s but the conclusion points toward Albert Soboul’s: something in their experience under the Old Regime “first prevented and then prepared” the poor to serve as the shock troops of the Revolution.
The attempt to put his finger on that something leads Kaplow to consider promising subjects. He finds that popular Jansenism raised the consciousness of the poor for a while. So did the antiministerial propaganda of the Parlement of Paris and the struggle for daily bread during the last years of the Old Regime, when wages fell disastrously behind prices. But Kaplow fails to find any rise in the political temperature of the poor sections of Paris. The origins of sans-culottisme appear as mysterious at the end of the book as they did in the beginning.
The mystery deepens if one looks closely at some of Kaplow’s data. The faubourg Saint-Antoine, which became the revolutionary district par excellence, had an unusually small proportion of wage-earning workers as opposed to self-employed artisans and merchants. Its population density was lower than that of most of the wealthy sections, not to mention the slums. It carried on its business without interference from the guilds, which constrained production in the center city, and yet it was not a district of high social mobility. In short, the revolutionary faubourg evidently enjoyed more breathing space, prosperity, and stability than the sections around Notre Dame, the Hôtel-de-Ville, the Halles, the Port au Bled, and the Place Maubert, where the poor congregated. The connection between poverty and political militancy thus seems as shaky as it did in Chevalier’s work. It seems conceivable that the revolution of 1789, like that of 1848, took place above the heads of the very poor.
If so, the answer to Kaplow’s question—how did the laboring poor develop political consciousness?—may be found in the new translation of Albert Soboul’s history of the French Revolution—that is, in the course of the Revolution itself. Soboul told the great story as he had learned it from the work of Jean Jaurès, Albert Mathiez, and Georges Lefebvre; but it can be read as the story of the political education of the “little people” of Paris, the artisans and shopkeepers who intervened in each of the great “days” and forced the Revolution to the left by an explosion of popular violence. In spite of this leftward course, the little people acted at first in a defensive and even conservative spirit. They wanted to “save” the Revolution from counterrevolutionary conspiracies, and ironically each of their journées seemed in its aftermath to be a “journée des dupes.”
The insurrection of July 14, 1789, saved the National Assembly, but it left the king free to conspire to restore the Old Regime. The October Days prevented him from making a counterrevolutionary coup; but they pushed him into conspiracies with former radicals (Feuillants and Fayettistes), who wanted to clamp down on political and social unrest by creating a strong constitutional monarchy that they could control. The insurrection of August 10, 1792, smashed all such projects by destroying the monarchy, but it reinforced a new left (Brissotins or Girondins), which began to behave like the old right.
The little people, now known as sans-culottes, struck again on May 31, 1793, and overthrew the Girondins, who had allowed the war, the economy, and the counterrevolution to spin out of control. But the replacement of the Girondins by their rivals, the Montagnards, did not produce a government dedicated to sans-culotte objectives, and the situation continued to deteriorate under the first Committee of Public Safety. So on September 4, 1793, the sans-culottes took to the street once more. This time they forced the Convention to accept a truly revolutionary form of government, thereby setting France on the great experiment of the Year II, the Reign of Terror.
Such, in synopsis, is Soboul’s account of the radicalization of the Revolution. It argues that the man in the street acquired political consciousness in the street itself and in his sectional assembly. Three years of manipulation and betrayal taught him to distrust politicians and to take politics into his own hands. Why then did he lose his grip on events?
Soboul explained the rise and fall of the man in the street in his monumental thesis, Les sans-culottes parisiens en l’an II (1958), which forms the basis of the most original chapters in his general history of the Revolution. He showed that by September 1793 the Montagnard politicians could save the republic and themselves only by accepting the demands of the sans-culottes. The revolutionary government owed its existence to the popular revolution. Yet the two were dialectically opposed. In order to crush the internal and external enemies of the Revolution, as the sans-culottes desired, Robespierre and his colleagues had to centralize power in their own hands. The sans-culottes stood for decentralization: they advocated neighborhood democracy and a rough-and-ready egalitarianism, which they wanted to realize through the institutions of the Parisian Sections. For Robespierre, sectional sovereignty raised the danger of a popular “federalism” that could fragment the republic as disastrously as the federalist revolt associated with the Girondins.
So gradually through the winter of 1793-1794 (Year II), the revolutionary government undermined the Sections, co-opting their leaders, purging or drafting their hotheads, and rerouting their institutions into the new, centralized bureaucracy of the Terror. By 9 Thermidor (July 27, 1794) it also had succeeded in turning back the enemy invasion and quelling domestic rebellions. But this double victory robbed the Terror of its raison d’être. The moderates of the Convention reasserted themselves, overthrew Robespierre (who had increased the guillotining just when it no longer seemed necessary), and repudiated revolutionary government, including price controls.
By the spring of 1795, the sans-culottes were driven desperate by inflation, scarcity, and unemployment. Without leadership, without effective Sectional institutions, and without allies in the Convention, they rose in a last round of helpless rioting (the “tragedy of the Year III”), only to be crushed and silenced and replaced, at least in the function of providing the violence required to break through the bottlenecks of revolutionary politics, by a new element: the army. Thus popular revolution and revolutionary government, whose existence had been mutually dependent, ultimately destroyed one another and paved the way for Bonapartism. That is the logic of events that Soboul disentangled in his thesis, a masterpiece of historical analysis.
Soboul’s interpretation suggests that Kaplow may have fallen into one of those insidious French traps, the faux problème or the question mal posée. For the “little people” evidently learned their political lessons the hard way, in the course of a painful apprenticeship in the Revolution, rather than from their experience in the Old Regime. They only rose to the surface of events for a few “days” before the Year II. And after they had had their year, they sank into poverty that was as brutal as anything they had known before 1789. Moreover, as Kaplow himself acknowledges, the sans-culottes contained an important proportion of master artisans and professional people, whom he excluded from his study on account of their wealth. Soboul did not equate the sans-culottes with the poor, and some subsequent research makes them look even more bourgeois than he was willing to admit.3 Once again, it seems that the Revolution passed over the heads of the poor, though it sometimes made use of their bodies.
The difficulties of linking poverty with sans-culottisme aside, it should be said that Kaplow has produced a valuable book. He has synthesized a vast and varied body of material, from scattered archives and obscure secondary sources like the mini-theses for the French Diplôme d’Etudes Supérieures. He writes with a sense of adventure, turning up new questions rather than resolving old ones, and he writes very well. Perhaps he would have done better to explore certain aspects of his subject in depth, as Arlette Farge did in Le vol d’aliments à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (1974) or as Erica-Marie Bénabou is doing in her thesis on Parisian prostitution, because the history of the common people in pre-Chevalier Paris may not yet be ripe for synthesis. Yet Kaplow’s book gives the English reader an excellent introduction to the eighteenth-century city and to some open-ended, unresolved questions of social history.
Soboul’s French Revolution, unlike his Sans-culottes, gives the opposite impression, especially in its sections on the origins and the general significance of the Revolution. Every point is riveted to an iron argument about the logic of events. Nothing seems open to question, nothing debatable. In fact there appears to be nothing left to say about the subject. Soboul has got it all in place, all nailed down.
True, the book first appeared in French in 1962; so it could not take account of the work done since then, especially by English and American scholars who have incorporated new material in new analyses of the Old Regime. None of them has found evidence to support the classic French interpretation, which identifies the Old Regime with feudalism, the revolutionaries with a new economic class, the bourgeoisie, and the economy with modern capitalism. Lest unsuspecting readers be misled by this recent literature, Soboul wrote a foreword for the American edition of his book. The Revolution was a bourgeois affair, it explains, which carried France “from feudalism to modern capitalism.” There is no problem. It is as if George Taylor, Robert Forster, David Bien, Norman Hampson, John McManners, J. F. Bosher, C. B. A. Behrens, Colin Lucas, and William Doyle had never written a word; as if an entire new generation of revolutionary historians, the students of Cobb and Cobban, Palmer and Brinton, Gottschalk and Gershoy had not come into existence.
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.
October 2, 1975
Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, Helene Iswolsky, tr. (Cambridge, Mass., 1968) and Marc Soriano, Les Contes de Perrault, culture savante et tradition populaire (Paris, 1968). For information on other works in this genre, see Walter J. Ong, “The Writer’s Audience Is Always a Fiction,” PMLA vol. 90 (January 1975), pp. 9-21. ↩
Jean-Pierre Seguin, Nouvelles à sensation: Canards du XIXe siècle (Paris, 1959), p. 169. ↩
Richard Andrews, “The Justices of the Peace of Revolutionary Paris ,” Past and Present, no. 52 (August 1971), pp. 56-105. ↩
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). ↩
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. ↩