Ok I give up: Why were peasants starving in Ancien Regime France? They had farms didn't they?

In Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, he writes

Also there is constant references to hunger in Les Mis (although I think that is Bourbon Restoration France).

Ok, I don’t get it. France was the most powerful country in Europe, with the largest population (except maybe then backwards Russia), with the biggest economy. Lots of Arable land.

So why the starvation? Why didn’t the leadership at least have bread lines to keep the peasants from revolting?

A lot of folks lived in cities and did not grow food. But they still had to be fed. That no doubt contributed to food shortages. But you make a point. You’d think that those growing the food would at least get to eat.

Yes, this is from Wikipedia. Perhaps the experts will show up to enlighten us?

The article goes on to explain that potatoes would have been a better source of nutrition than wheat. But you don’t want to get too dependent on any one source…

The key point is that many foods are only available for a short time – during the harvest. Everyone must store food for the long periods of time when there is none. Representatives of the land owners would come around just after the harvest and take their share in the form of taxes. If there wasn’t enough left over to support the family through the winter, someone, or everyone, starved. This happened often enough that starvation was a constant, and very real, possibility.

The implication of the quote is that if the King did not take so much in taxes, the poor fellow might not have died of starvation.

The events of Les Miserables begin in 1815, the year of the Mt. Tambora volcanic eruption which resulted in the 1816 Year Without Summer which caused famine and associated problems throughout the world for years to come (no seed crop, disease epidemics, etc).

I am reminded of Sam Kinison’s "MOVE TO WHERE THE FOOD IS!! rant.

What does that have to do with Ancien Regime France, which by definition was ended by the Revolution in 1789?

They had farms didn’t they?

No, they didn’t have any farms. The land was owned by the royals and the people working the land were like indentured servants or share croppers working land for the benefit of the owners while remaining too poor to do anything else. Slavery by another name.

IIRC from high school history, the nobles were exempt from taxation; that left the burden of supporting the lazy class to the peasants. In times of poor harvest, they starved so that there was not a shortage of lace in Versailles.

Even so, the French government was slowly going broke. Several finance ministers eventually came to the same conclusion - tax the nobles too - only to be fired one after the other by the King… until it was his turn.

In the modern world, there are a few contributors to hunger, and I imagine they are similar to what affected farmers in the past:

  1. Seasonal shortages and weather-related shortages: The period before harvest is generally a lean time as your yearly grain stores start to get low. Imagine having a set amount of food for the entire year, and knowing that if you ran out you wouldn’t have cash (which, if you got any, would come at harvest time and would doubtlessly be long gone by the end of the season) or anything to get more. Of course droughts, crop diseases, etc. can make this worse.

  2. Cash crops: If people start growing cash crops and counting on selling them to buy food, they are going to be in a much more precarious position if something goes wrong. Furthermore, even if your neighbor is growing food crops, it may become economically better for him to sell it in the city for more money than to a poor farmer like you. This is doubly true if the rulers subsidize grain in the city (which is a shrewed political move- support for a regime comes from the urban elites). It’s like how a guy may mine diamonds but he’ll never own one. Your own crop can become too expensive for you to ever have.

  3. Transportation: A lot of crops end up rotting in the ground simply because for whatever reason there is no good way to get it to markets.

Also remember that death from hunger is rarely about starving to death because there physically isn’t any food. It’s more likely to come from diseases that your weakend body cannot fight off.

I imagine Hello Again mentioned it because **sassyfras **mentioned it in the OP.

So be it, but why didn’t the nobles make sure their servants were fed properly? It would be in their own self-interest. The slaves of the United States (during the brief interval of say 1783-1789, when both the US and the Ancien Regime were around) were fed, if not by the love of massa, then Massa’s self-interest.

I dont get how the regime didn’t do more, if only for its self interest. Why not exempt the peasantry from taxes for the famine year? Or sell off a chateau and win their affection? Were they that deaf to the public sense? Carlyle talks about how different (hostile) the public opinion became from the middle of the Reign of Louis XV, to the time of his death.

So did Versailles really really need the services of Gallop? Wasn’t it obvious that things had gotten so bad they needed to do something? I dont get it.

With slaves, you were already getting the maximum output, and you had a good investment in if they live or die. With serfs, you are basically getting something for nothing, so if they die it’s no biggie. Furthermore, you don’t really have a good idea of what the maximum output is, so you may take more than the system can handle without knowing it.

Remember, it’s not just one guy eating all the extra grain. That grain goes to the cities, where it supports the traders, artisans, soldiers, clergy and nobles. If you give more grain to the peasants, you give less grain to cities. This is problematic, since they peasants aren’t really in a position to challenge your power- they’d probably keel over just walking to the castle. But if you lose support in the cities, you are in serious danger.

If something has to give, it’s going to be the peasants.

Again, you can see this in the modern day. It’s said that during the Ethiopian famine in the 80s, farmers were still exporting food from their starving villages into the cities. Major famines rarely cause major political instability, but rising global food prices (which affect city dwellers who buy rather than grow food) lead to instability such as that we are seeing now. Saavy dictators of all stripes subsidize grain movements into cities. Egypt ran a very strong bread subsidization program. It’s the farmers who get the short end of these efforts, but they don’t have enough political say to fight back.

Just for the record, there were no serfs in eighteenth-century France; serfdom had been abolished centuries earlier. What there were were dues and taxes - payable variously to the crown, the church, provincial courts and privatised agencies like the infamous Farmers-General, and of course for the peasants who did not own land there was rent.

What was to be done?
Raise taxes? The government gets really unpopular and the economy (in the short term) gets worse.
Cut taxes to stimulate the economy? The government goes broke.
Borrow money to cover the deficit? It has to be paid back and compound interest sets in.

Even if the government accepted that the peasants are over-taxed, it’s not clear that cutting taxes would mean more bread in the short term - quite likely less, as the peasants consume more and stop sweating over every marginal acre.
Let prices rise to encourage production? Bread riots in the cities.
Impose price controls? Falling production, hoarding and black marketeering and eventually no grain at any price.
Subsidies? Imports? With what money?

Another thing to remember was that France wasn’t some totalitarian autocracy where the king only had to raise his finger to Make Things Happen. Royal power had effectively been sold off to the nobles and the provincial courts - and having paid good coin for their legal privileges, they were understandably unkeen to give them up. Umpteen attempts at reform were made in the last years of the ancien regime - most of which ran into well-connected special interests and sank.

Why didn’t the British do more during the Irish Potato Famine?

A book called The Little Ice Age also covers a lot of agricultural issues. Famine was very common throughout Europe at the time, with every third harvest being bad and many total crop failures. France was particularly behind in agricultural practice - England was rather advanced. Before they figured out how to plant clover during the winter they let land lay fallow, which meant that 1/3 of their land was out of production at any given point. This is especially bad for small farms. The use of forage crops led to being able to feed animals over the winter instead of killing them, and also had the side effect of the animals producing manure over the winter which enriched the soil. (This from Bill Bryson’s At Home. )
Famine was the norm, and the nobles often lived far from the farms, and so were not directly affected. If this were not GQ I’d comment that we may not be all that much better ourselves.

And that was why the Revolution happened. The French government had weathered famine and peasant revolt in the past. But by threatening to tax the nobility and clergy, and failing to conciliate the cities, the government found itself under real threat.

Insufficient cake.

Ok, but what about a Roman solution? Money could be raised by attainting powerful families with treason, confiscating their estates. This was done a lot (Will Durant, “Story of Civilization”) in the empire/principate in order to pay the bills.

It would have blowback, but the alternative is the guillotine, cmon dude, accuse some nobles!

That is funny, thank you!

Crop yields were much lower then than they are today - this was before modern fertilizers, before modern high-yield hybrids, just generally before anyone understood how plants grow and what could be done to encourage this in more than a general sense (“water and fertilizer are good”). A farm that could just barely feed the family in a good year would leave everyone hungry in a less good year, let alone an outright bad year. And when food ran short, there was no emergency food aid coming in from elsewhere. Governments didn’t think that way, there were no international aid organizations, and anyway there wasn’t exactly a food surplus anywhere else.

Compound that with what has already been said about taxes and duties that must be paid no matter how little grain you harvested this year, and you’ve got a recipe for chronic hunger punctuated by periods of outright famine.