Intoxication and the French Revolution

“Intoxicating Revolution” Roundtable – Post #3

By Noelle Plack

Wine and revolution are key aspects of French national identity and they certainly became intertwined during the upheaval of 1789. Alcohol and its consumption were central to eighteenth-century French society at all levels.  The popular classes drank in taverns and wine shops, while elites frequented the grand cafés in Paris and other large cities. Drinking was essentially an act of sociability, a way for people to relax and spend time together. Intoxication did occur, of course, but it was often a by-product of drinking rather than its goal.

Wine was the most frequently consumed alcoholic beverage among all groups, with cheap poor quality wines for the commoners and luxury crus from Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne for the rich. Perhaps around 300 liters of wine were drunk in Paris per year per adult male on the eve of the Revolution, as opposed to 20 liters of beer and six liters of cider.[1]  By 1789, wine had become a daily item of consumption for most Parisians.

The traditional view of wine’s role in the French Revolution is one of excess. This is largely due to the nineteenth-century conservative historian Hippolyte Taine.  In his work The Origins of Contemporary France, he portrayed the revolutionary crowd as dangerous, bloodthirsty, irrational, and above all, intoxicated.[2] Scarcely a riot erupts in his account that is not accompanied by alcoholic debauch. By painting revolutionary crowds as ‘drunken savages’, Taine made popular actors both larger and lower than life.[3] Thus, intoxication was used to delegitimize the actions of ordinary people and to eschew the social and economic conditions that led them to revolt.    

The social and economic context of the French Revolution is particularly relevant when it comes to alcohol.  Not only was wine a vital element of everyday life, the taxes levied upon alcoholic beverages were some of the most important during the ancien régime.  More revenue came from taxes on alcoholic beverages entering Paris than from all other commodities combined. The rate of tax was also very high, with the price of a barrel of wine tripling as it passed through the city’s tollgates. These taxes and the customs barriers of Paris became the focus of revolt in July 1789.

Often overshadowed by the events at the Bastille, the customs’ wall that encircled Paris was attacked on 11-14 July 1789 with 40 out of the 54 tollgates destroyed.  Wine was both a catalyst and a lubricant in these assaults. Groups of armed crowds drove away customs agents and brought cartloads of wine into the city tax-free. On the morning of 14 July, someone at the barrière de Neuilly had graffitied ‘finally we will drink wine at 3 sous, for too long we have been paying 12’.[4]

Alcohol often oiled people’s resolve, released constraints and pushed them to do or say things they had not dared to otherwise.  Wine barrels were opened and their contents consumed, often accompanied by music from drums and violins, while the tollhouses were set afire.  By freeing people’s inhibitions and bolstering their confidence to transgress authority, wine did play a role in these events; but this should not be conflated with deranged inebriation, as this only fuels Taine’s negative characterization of popular revolutionary actors.     

Opposition and resistance to these taxes grew once the revolutionaries promised equality in taxation. After sustained popular protest, legislators finally abolished taxes on consumer goods in February and March 1791. When these laws came into effect on 1 May 1791, Paris and other large cities witnessed prolonged and exuberant celebrations. Wine was at the center of these festivities as drinking was a social and communal act that commemorated newly found freedoms. 

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Promenade aux Champs-Elysées, le jour de l’entree libre des barriers (1791).

The association of drinking and the conquest of power by ‘the people’ was remarkable in 1791 – by articulating demands in terms of consumption, ordinary citizens insisted that liberty and equality be made material, physical and substantive – in essence, that they could be tasted.

Wine drinking and popular culture also became fused in some of the songs composed to commemorate the Revolution. One of the most striking was a parody of La Marseillaise.  The opening line recalls and celebrates the attacks on the barriers of July 1789: ‘Come, children of la Courtille, the day to drink has arrived.’ Then the famous refrain is turned into: ‘To the table citizens, empty all the bottles: drink, drink a good pure wine which waters our lungs’.[5] 

The consumption of wine was suffused with political meaning as the Revolution progressed. The color and type of wine became symbolic of political allegiances. Jacobins and sans-culottes drank common red wine in taverns, cafés and sectional meetings, while white wine and champagne was associated with the Bourbon monarchy, aristocracy and luxury. Ostentatious consumption of luxury wines (grands crus) was forbidden during the years 1792-1795, when vin rouge became the patriotic beverage of choice representing the egalitarian ideals of the new republic. Under the Directory and Empire, luxury wines, like Champagne, made a come back and elites would drink them to distinguish their consumption and delineate social boundaries. 

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Jean-Baptiste Lesueur, Repas républicain à Paris (c. 1794)

Wine, then, was essential to the revolutionary experience for (at least) three reasons. Firstly, it was central to sociability and as such was woven into the fabric of daily life. Secondly, it sparked off protests and raised consciousness around the issue of taxation, pushing ordinary citizens to participate in the making of a new fiscal regime. And finally as an article of consumption, red wine became a symbol of liberty, equality, and French republicanism.

Noelle Plack is Reader in French History at Newman University, Birmingham UK.  She is interested in the social and cultural history of alcohol in eighteenth and nineteenth century France, as well as Buddhism and yoga!

Title image:

Jean-Baptiste Lesueur, Des Citoyens chantants l’hyme des Marseillais (c. 1794)

Endnotes:

[1] G. Garrier, Histoire sociale et culturelle du vin. (Paris: Larousse-Bordas, 1998), 164-65.

[2] H. Taine, Origins of Contemporary France. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974) see pages 113-14 for example.

[3] See S. Barrows, Distorting Mirrors: Visions of the Crowd in Late Nineteenth Century France. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981), see chapter 3.

[4] R. Dion, Histoire de la vigne et du vin en France. (Paris: CNRS Editions, 2010), 522.

[5] The original is ‘Allons, enfants de la Courtille, Le jour de boire est arrivé’ & ‘À table, Citoyens, videz tous les flacons; Buvez, buvez, qu’un vin bien pur abreuve nos poumons’ Chansonnier révolutionnaire, ed. Paul-Édouard Levayer (Paris: Gallimard, 1989), p. 277.  See as well H. Hudde, ‘“Le jour de boire est arrivé”: Parodies burlesques de La Marseillaise (1792-1799)’ Dix-huitième siècle 17 (1985), 379-95. 

Suggested Readings:

T. Brennan, Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

S.H. Haine, The World of the Paris Café: Sociability among the French Working Class, 1789-1914. (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

N.Plack, Liberty, Equality and Taxation: Wine in the French Revolution’ Social History of Alcohol and Drugs 26:1 (2012), pp. 5-22

N. Plack, ‘Drinking and rebelling: wine, taxes and popular agency in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1791’ French Historical Studies 39:3 (2016), pp. 599-622

3 thoughts on “Intoxication and the French Revolution

  1. I will never look at the wine barrels that fall down at the start of ”A Tale of Two Cities” the same way from now on.
    Very informative!
    Great post!

    Like

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