Great Fear

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The Great Fear (French : la Grande Peur) was a general panic that took place between 17 July and 3 August 1789, at the start of the French Revolution. [1] Rural unrest had been present in France since the worsening grain shortage of the spring, and, fueled by rumors of an aristocrats' "famine plot" to starve or burn out the population, both peasants and townspeople mobilized in many regions. [1]

French language Romance language

French is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, as did all Romance languages. French evolved from Gallo-Romance, the spoken Latin in Gaul, and more specifically in Northern Gaul. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and in southern Belgium, which French (Francien) has largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Northern Roman Gaul like Gallia Belgica and by the (Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian Creole. A French-speaking person or nation may be referred to as Francophone in both English and French.

French Revolution Revolution in France, 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.


In response to these rumors, fearful peasants armed themselves in self-defense and, in some areas, attacked manor houses. The content of the rumors differed from region to regionin some areas it was believed that a foreign force was burning the crops in the fields, while in other areas it was believed that robbers were burning buildings. Fear of the peasant revolt was a determining factor in the decision to abolish feudalism.

Manor house country house that historically formed the administrative centre of a manor

A manor house was historically the main residence of the lord of the manor. The house formed the administrative centre of a manor in the European feudal system; within its great hall were held the lord's manorial courts, communal meals with manorial tenants and great banquets. The term is today loosely applied to various country houses, frequently dating from the late medieval era, which formerly housed the gentry.

Feudalism combination of legal and military customs in medieval Europe

Feudalism was a combination of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour. Although derived from the Latin word feodum or feudum (fief), then in use, the term feudalism and the system it describes were not conceived of as a formal political system by the people living in the Middle Ages. In its classic definition, by François-Louis Ganshof (1944), feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs.

Causes and course of the revolts

French historian Georges Lefebvre has demonstrated that the revolt in the countryside can be followed in remarkable detail. The revolt had both economic and political causes, pre-dating the events of the summer of 1789. As Lefebvre commented, "To get the peasant to rise and revolt, there was no need of the Great Fear, as so many historians have suggested: when the panic came he was already up and away." The rural unrest can be traced back to the spring of 1788, when a drought threatened the prospect of the coming harvest. Harvests had in fact been poor since the massive 1783 Laki volcanic eruption in Iceland. Storms and floods also destroyed much of the harvest during the summer, leading to both a decrease in seigneurial dues and defaults on leases. Frosts and snow damaged vines and ruined chestnut and olive groves in the south. Vagrancy became a serious problem in the countryside, and in some areas, such as the Franche-Comté in late 1788, peasants gathered to take collective action against the seigneurs.

Georges Lefebvre French historian

Georges Lefebvre was a French historian, best known for his work on the French Revolution and peasant life. He coined the term "history from below", which was later popularised by the British Marxist Historians, and the phrase the "death certificate of the old order" to describe the Great Fear of 1789. Among his most significant works was the 1924 book Les Paysans du Nord pendant la Révolution française, which was the result of 20 years of research into the role of the peasantry during the revolutionary period.

Laki volcanic fissure in the south of Iceland

Laki or Lakagígar is a volcanic fissure in the south of Iceland, not far from the volcanic fissure of Eldgjá and the small village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. The fissure is properly referred to as Lakagígar, while Laki is a mountain that the fissure bisects. Lakagígar is part of a volcanic system centered on the volcano Grímsvötn and including the volcano Thordarhyrna. It lies between the glaciers of Mýrdalsjökull and Vatnajökull, in an area of fissures that run in a southwest to northeast direction.

Iceland Island republic in Northern Europe

Iceland is a Nordic island country in the North Atlantic, with a population of 358,780 and an area of 103,000 km2 (40,000 sq mi), making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The capital and largest city is Reykjavík, with Reykjavík and the surrounding areas in the southwest of the country being home to over two-thirds of the population. Iceland is volcanically and geologically active. The interior consists of a plateau characterised by sand and lava fields, mountains, and glaciers, and many glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has a temperate climate, despite a high latitude just outside the Arctic Circle. Its high latitude and marine influence keep summers chilly, with most of the archipelago having a tundra climate.

The panic began in the Franche-Comté, spread south along the Rhône valley to Provence, east towards the Alps and west towards the centre of France. Almost simultaneously, a panic began in Ruffec, south of Poitiers, and travelled to the Pyrenees, toward Berry and into the Auvergne. The uprising coalesced into a general 'Great Fear' as neighbouring villages mistook armed peasants for brigands. Although the main phase of the Great Fear died out by August, peasant uprisings continued well into 1790, leaving few areas of France (primarily Alsace, Lorraine and Brittany) untouched. [2]

Provence Historical province in Provence-Alpes-Côte dAzur, France

Provence is a geographical region and historical province of southeastern France, which extends from the left bank of the lower Rhône River to the west to the Italian border to the east, and is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the south. It largely corresponds with the modern administrative région of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, and includes the départements of Var, Bouches-du-Rhône, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and parts of Alpes-Maritimes and Vaucluse. The largest city of the region is Marseille.

Alps Major mountain range system in Central Europe

The Alps are the highest and most extensive mountain range system that lies entirely in Europe, separating Southern from Central and Western Europe and stretching approximately 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) across eight Alpine countries : France, Switzerland, Italy, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, and Slovenia. The mountains were formed over tens of millions of years as the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided. Extreme shortening caused by the event resulted in marine sedimentary rocks rising by thrusting and folding into high mountain peaks such as Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. Mont Blanc spans the French–Italian border, and at 4,810 m (15,781 ft) is the highest mountain in the Alps. The Alpine region area contains about a hundred peaks higher than 4,000 metres (13,000 ft).

Ruffec, Charente Commune in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France

Ruffec is a commune in the Charente department in southwestern France.

Although the Great Fear is usually associated with the peasantry, all the uprisings tended to involve all sectors of the local community, including some elite participants, such as artisans or well-to-do farmers. Often the bourgeoisie had as much to gain from the destruction of the feudal regime as did the poorer peasantry. [3] [4]

As a result of the "Great Fear", the National Assembly, in an effort to appease the peasants and forestall further rural disorders, on 4 August 1789 formally abolished the "feudal regime", including seigneurial rights. [5] This led in effect to a general unrest among the nobility of France.


Historian Mary K. Matossian argued that one of the causes of the Great Fear was consumption of ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus. In years of good harvests, rye contaminated with ergot was discarded, but when the harvest was poor, the peasants could not afford to be so choosy. [6]

Comparison to previous peasant revolts

Peasant revolt was clearly not a phenomenon new to late eighteenth-century France: the fourteenth century saw the Jacquerie in the Oise Valley, and the seventeenth century saw the Croquant rebellions. Yves-Marie Bercé, in History of the Peasant Revolts, concludes "peasant revolts of the years 1789–92 had much in common with their seventeenth-century counterparts: unanimity of the rural community, rejection of new taxation to which they were unaccustomed, defiance of enemy townsmen and a belief that there would be a general remission in taxes, particularly when the king decided to convene the estates general. In spite of all that is suggested by the political history of the period, the peasant disturbances at the beginning of the French Revolution did not depart from the typical community revolt of the preceding century." [7]

The usual cause of communal violence was “an assault launched from outside upon the community as a whole” whether that outsider be those profiting from unfairly high bread prices, marauding bandits, witches, or magistrates abusing power. [8] This statement about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century uprisings appears, at first, to apply equally to the Great Fear of 1789. However, one distinctive aspect of the latter was fear of an ambiguous outsider at the outset of the disturbance. Whether the brigands were English, Piedmontese or merely vagabonds was not easily determined and, when the Great Fear had spread to its largest expanse, it was a system, feudalism, rather than a specific person or group, at which its animosity was directed. Earlier revolts had not been subversive, but rather looked to a golden age that participants wished to see reinstated; the socio-political system was implicitly validated by a critique of recent changes in favour of tradition and custom. [9] The Cahiers des doléances had opened the door to the people’s opinion directly affecting social circumstances and policy, and the Great Fear evidenced this change.

The most glaring difference between the Great Fear of 1789 and previous peasant revolts was its scope. Spreading from a half-dozen or so separate nuclei across the countryside, almost all of France found itself in rural uproar. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, revolt was almost always contained within the borders of a single province. [10] This change in magnitude reflects to what extent social discontent was with the entire governmental system (and its ineffectiveness) rather than with anything particular to a locality. While, as Tackett argues, the specific manifestation of the fear of brigands (who they were, and what they were most likely to attack) may have been contingent upon local contexts, the fact that the brigands were perceived as a genuine threat to the peasants across the country in a wide-variety of local contexts speaks to a more systemic disorder.

Comparing the peasant revolts of the Tard Avisés with the Great Fear of 1789 reveals some key similarities and differences. From 1593–1595, in Limousin and Périgord, groups of peasants rose up against the armed forces that occupied the countryside and raised funds by levying taxes and ransom. In a series of assemblies, the Croquants, as they were pejoratively called, worked on a military plan for action and successfully expelled the garrisons from their lands. The letters between these assemblies justified their armed resistance as opposition to unjust claims on their property. When the chaotic political situation was stabilized with the coronation of Henry IV, the revolts ended and the peasants were eventually accorded the tax rebate they had demanded earlier. The Tard-Avisés had specific goals and achieved them; the same cannot be said of the participants in the Great Fear.

The Great Fear of 1789 broke with another pattern typical of peasant revolts in earlier centuries. The panic lasted for more than a few weeks, and took place during the most labour-intensive months of the year, whereas the Tard-Avisés and other revolts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries occurred during the Spring months when the peasants had spare time. The specter of brigands destroying the harvest was so great in 1789 that peasants actually chose to forego working on the harvest in late June and July. The pragmatism of the previous revolts, which had produced real results, had disappeared by the end of the Ancien Régime.

Communal violence was but one tactic of many for opposing an enemy, and the peasants of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, drawing on a heritage of communal justice, might rise up to prevent enclosement of a communal grazing space, like a marsh, to demand lower bread prices, or to evade their taxes. During the reign of Louis XIV, however, popular revolt became an ever-less viable option for reform, as the state both became better able to respond to insurgency and also addressed many of the issues at the heart of peasant revolt. Reforms in the military structure prevented French soldiers from plundering French soil, and armed conflict with other powers was not fought at home. Thus, the threat of roaming bandits was a particularly poignant one – it evoked an era of lawlessness which the French monarchy had successfully countered in previous years.

There was much in common between the Peasantry in the Great Fear of 1789 and the peasants of the revolts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but they were neither unmalleable nor unchanged by the experience of Bourbon rule and its subsequent dissolution. Without the monarchy or a replacement government to administer and protect the people, the harvest, and with it, life itself, was in grave danger.

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  1. 1 2 John Merriman, A History of Modern Europe, volume 2: From the French Revolution to the Present (1996), 481.
  2. Albert Goodwin, The French Revolution, London, UK: Hutchinson Univ. Library, 1970 ed, 71. ISBN   0-09-105021-9.
  3. Peter M. Jones, The Peasantry and the French Revolution, Cambridge, 1988, ch. 3
  4. Wiliam Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 114-5.
  5. John Merriman, a history of modern Europe from the French revolution to the present, volume 2, 1996, page 482.
  6. Matossian, Mary Kilbourne, Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, and History. New Haven: Yale, 1989 (reedited in 1991) ISBN   0-300-05121-2
  7. Yves-Marie Bercé, History of the Peasant Revolts (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990), 339.
  8. Bercé, 39.
  9. Bercé, 332.
  10. Bercé, 322.

Further reading