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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Price of Bread

“Ne vous mêlez pas du pain.” ("Don't meddle with the bread.")

Anne-Robert Jacques Turgot to Louis XVI

Inflation measures the rate by which prices rise over a period of time. Prices are linked to supply and demand. As demand increases, merchants know they can charge more for goods and services. If supply outstrips demand, then merchants must lower prices to stimulate demand. Governmental policies, natural disasters, monopolistic business practices, and regional conflicts are some of the complications that can influence the marketplace and prices. Inflation is always a key concern for leaders, and modern industrial nations utilize different tools to help keep inflation in check and mitigate its effects. Once more, inflation is a hot topic in the political debate. The inflation rate is the highest in several decades as the world emerges from a global pandemic and grapples with supply chain issues and warfare. At the center of this is the rise in energy costs. Our modern world is overly dependent on fossil fuels, and the prices of oil and gas are often out of the control of national governments. Higher food and energy costs disproportionately affect lower-wage earners. This situation brings to the fore a continuous struggle for societies. Do all people have a right to affordable access to necessities such as food and energy? What role should government play in ensuring that access when the marketplace fails to do so? This is at the heart of such policy debates as universal health care and drug pricing. Food security, the physical and economic access to sufficient food, has been a long-standing global concern. Many international organizations and agencies are trying to address this issue. But the cost of bread has always had a direct impact on history.

On April 22, 1775, farmers gathered in the marketplace of Beaumont-sur-Oise, a small village north of Paris. On that day, the price of grain was two livres for a setier, about 4 1/2 bushels. The villagers complained that the price was too high, but they paid it if they were able. A week later, on April 27, they found that the price had risen to 32 livres despite grain being in good supply. Arguments broke out between the farmers and the grain merchants. Harsh words were exchanged, tempers flared, and the market descended into a riot. Rioters forced merchants to abandon their stalls, and the mob began to help themselves to the grain. But they took only what they needed and left what they felt was a fair price of 12 livres. Satisfied, the crowd dispersed. News of what happened at the Beaumont-sur-Oise marketplace spread to neighboring villages. The next day at Méru, a group composed of mostly women seized the sacks of grain, slit them open, and filled their aprons with as much grain as they could carry home. On the following day, hundreds ambushed grain carts and looted the homes of merchants in the town of Pontoise. Historian Cynthia Bouton describes the next few days as “once lit, the conflagration spread rapidly and in many directions at once."

Initially confined to the countryside around Paris, the riots flared up in Normandy in early May. On May 3, rioters descended upon a vital grain and flour warehouse in Vernon, Normandy. They demanded lower prices, but the clerk responded by closing and locking the doors. The people began hacking at the gates with knives and hammers. They continued even after police arrived, and the furious mob pelted authorities with stones and looted three mills before heading home. The riots would hit a peak a few days later when rioters targeted fourteen markets in forty-two different towns in one day. Most of the anger was directed toward wealthy millers, grain merchants, members of parlements, and perceived profiteers. In many cases, the rioters left behind the 12 livres per setier.

The city of Paris was not immune to the disgruntlement of the local citizens over the price of bread. At the beginning of May, thousands marched towards Versailles, much to the concern of King Louis XVI. But the protesters were not heading for the palace but towards the royal flour stores. The royal warehouse held over 900 sacks of flour in reserve in case of shortages. The crowd pillaged nearly half the sacks before the military arrived. The military governor of Versailles, Prince de Poix, promised to lower flour prices. Satisfied, the crowd dispersed back to their homes. But news traveled quickly through Paris, and on the next day, the city was confronted by villagers from the surrounding countryside. They raided bakeries throughout the city. It was only then that French royal authorities began to make an effort to quell the unrest. Nearly 25,000 soldiers were deployed to patrol the countryside and guard marketplaces and places of business. Police were free to make arrests of agitators and suspected leaders. The king offered amnesty to any who returned stolen goods or made financial restitution. By the end of May, the riots had subsided.

As the series of riots would be known, the Flour War resulted from a confluence of social, economic, and political factors. By the early 1700s, bread made up nearly 75% of the French lower-class diet. Even in good economic times, the poor could spend half their income on it. Even modest fluctuations in price or supply could mean starvation for a large population segment. Though France had not suffered a countrywide famine since the latter half of the 16th century, localized hunger and the fear of starvation induced an obsession with obtaining grain. Grain grew into the most popular crop grown in the country. Newer crops introduced from the New World, such as maize and potatoes, were not widely accepted. One reason was these crops required extensive amounts of fertilizer, and France lacked the number of well-nourished livestock to produce sufficient manure. Many peasants also viewed these crops as unfit for animal and human consumption. After 1750, harvests began to fail more often, and this lack of diversity made each one more disastrous.

The lower classes were always protective of their access to bread. They believed this access to food was a natural human right and therefore expected the king to protect the food supply of his subjects. The king was dubbed le premier boulanger du royaume ("prime baker of the kingdom.") Royal police inspected flour quality and purity, regulated the import and export of grain across regions, and discouraged hoarding. The lower classes operated according to what is called the moral economy. The British social historian E.P. Thompson was the first to develop this concept as means to explain pre-industrial age unrest in Britain. Moral economies are based on social norms and shared community obligations and responsibilities. The economies are built around customs that are presumed to be fair and equitable. These customs and behaviors focus on the local economy in relation to food supply and prices, taxation, and forms of charity. The idea is that economic and social institutions should respect the needs of the poor. Except in rare cases, this is why most rioters attacked only wealthy merchants, hoarders, and those they felt were manipulating prices for their own profit. This is why they did not steal grain and flour outright but often left what they felt was a fair price in exchange.

But these social norms of the marketplace were being challenged by the 1760s. A young Louis XVI, not yet officially crowned, appointed Anne-Robert Jacques Turgot as the kingdom’s Controller-General. Turgot was known as a physiocrat. Physiocracy was an economic philosophy born out of the French Enlightenment. Physiocrats believed that productive work was the primary source of wealth for a nation. This contrasted with mercantilism, in which the emphasis was on the balance of trade, and value was created at the point of sale. The physiocrats valued labor, but they felt only agricultural labor made value in the products of society. Agriculture and land development were the basis of a nation's wealth. Physiocrats argued that a person would work harder for their own benefit rather than the benefit of others. Workers would be more productive for more profit. This would increase supply which in turn benefited consumers. They saw this as natural law, and therefore any meddling with the economy meant disturbing this natural order. Physiocrats under Louis XV in the 1760s had removed the various grain regulations, which created immediate grain shortages. Riots in 1767 and 1768 forced the restoration of regulations on the grain market. Turgot, tasked with stabilizing a floundering French economy, was convinced that physiocratic economic principles would work given a chance. On September 13, 1774, he abolished all regulations and established the free trading of grain.

Turgot’s mandate was passed in time for a poor harvest. Although he was aware of the possibility, he decided to proceed anyway. But the poor harvest didn’t impact every region of France equally. Some areas fared better than others. Merchants, unconstrained by regulations, began purchasing grain supplies in those areas where grain was plentiful and then sold the grain at higher prices in regions experiencing shortages. This attempt to corner the market sparked the riots of April and May 1775.

The lower classes began to believe that the king and his advisers were holding back the grain supply to suppress them. On the other hand, the upper classes blamed the riots on the lack of moral character of the poor. This added to the deepening social tensions that would continue to worsen over the next decade. Food riots were not an uncommon occurrence, but their frequency increased in the years leading up to the French Revolution. Harvests would continue to be poor, and changes in the short-term weather patterns attributed to an Icelandic volcano did not help improve the agricultural situation.

Turgot and the physiocrats were predecessors to Adam Smith, who introduced the world to what we know as classical economics. In his Wealth of Nations, Smith described the workings of a capitalist economy driven by individual self-interest. He believed in the “invisible hand” of the marketplace, and that prosperity would arise from the market's self-correcting mechanisms. For Smith, governments should not interfere in the activities of the market and advocated unrestricted free trade. Smith’s work formed the foundation of many modern economic theories. The amoral character of capitalism stood in stark contrast with the moral economy of the pre-industrial age.

The tensions between the belief in unfettered capitalism and the existence of a moral economy continue even today. Are we obligated as a society to ensure access to vital commodities such as food, water, and fuel for all people? What role should government play in meeting this obligation? Or do we trust that the “invisible hand” of the marketplace will achieve that goal in the end? The authorities in Ancien Régime France struggled to answer these questions to devastating results.


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