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How Bread Shortages Helped Ignite the French Revolution

September 30, 2019 in History

By Una McIlvenna

When Parisians stormed the Bastille in 1789 they weren’t only looking for arms, they were on the hunt for more grain—to make bread.

Voltaire once

As the monarch was required to ensure the food supply of his subjects, the king was nicknamed “le premier boulanger du royaume” (First Baker of the Kingdom). His Finance Minister Jacques Necker claimed that, to show solidarity with those who lacked wheat, King Louis XVI was eating the lower-class maslin bread. Maslin bread is from a mix of wheat and rye, rather than the elite manchet, white bread that is achieved by sifting wholemeal flour to remove the wheatgerm and bran (and which meant one had enough wheat at one’s disposal to discard a bulk of it in the process).

But such measures were not enough, and bread (or the lack of it) was exploited as a weapon by revolutionary minds. A plot drawn up at Passy in 1789 to foment rebellion against the crown, allegedly proposed several articles, the second of which was to “do everything in our power to ensure that the lack of bread is total, so that the bourgeoisie are forced to take up arms.” Shortly thereafter the Bastille was stormed.

READ MORE: How Did the American Revolution Influence the French Revolution?

Origins of the French Revolution (TV-PG; 3:38)

Bread may have helped spur on the French Revolution, but the revolution did not end French anxiety over bread. On August 29, 1789, only two days after completing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the Constituent Assembly completely deregulated domestic grain markets. The move raised fears about speculation, hoarding and exportation.

On October 21, 1789, a baker, Denis François, was accused of hiding loaves from sale as part of a plot to deprive the people of bread. Despite a hearing which proved him innocent, the crowd dragged François to the Place de Grève, hanged and decapitated him and made his pregnant wife kiss his bloodied lips.

As Turgot, an early economic adviser to Louis XVI, once advised the king, “Ne vous mêlez pas du pain”—Do not meddle with bread.

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