By Jorge Sánchez Morales
When Louis XVI failed to reconcile the Estates General during the séance royale of June 23, 1789, the expectations for reform held by a large part of French rural communities, as captured in the cahiers de doléances, faced possible demise. Early on in the French Revolution then, the interests of the countryside and the capital would diverge, in many ways creating two separate revolutions.
On June 28, days after the séance royale, 104 members of the local assembly of the Barony of Thodure near Lyon – made up primarily of male landowners – gathered to reflect on the situation. Before the fiscal crisis, these men had pushed for tax equality and the liberalization of certain feudal obligations; as a privileged few opposed these reforms, deepening turmoil demanded recasting the situation and advancing innovative solutions. Their conclusions were as imaginative as they were logical. Under the feudal Old Regime, lords alone held the right for modifying the terms of their relationships with vassals, but under a new empire of freedom, if communities and lords actually held equal rights, everyone could demand the change or dissolution of social relations – including feudal obligations. Consequences would be devastating. Smaller proprietors would not fulfill their land rents before receiving their acts of concession – pivotal documents that contained the full extent of the lords’ feudal rights over their lands. In claiming further entitlements, rural proprietors challenged the dissolution of preexistent legal obligations as a premise for demanding a wider spread of land rights, arguing that every tenant “must enjoy the advantage” of being released of their feudal commitments. Based on the same reasoning, thousands of rural communities throughout France addressed their lords to denounce and destroy, both physically and symbolically, their feudal contracts. After all, privilege is only unfair when one conceives themselves as equal to the privileged, and inequality only becomes oppression when one perceives themselves as a free human being.
Profound changes in the French countryside – the people’s identities, interests, and actions within a revolutionary context – ensued. In December 1789, Parisian authorities launched a set of major fiscal and territorial reforms, aiming to establish state order throughout France, turning cities and districts into centralizing outposts, and securing the rule of law and freedom for newly minted citizens. Rural communities, on the other hand, decided that they had created their own revolution for the purpose of achieving greater degrees of autonomy – not only from the ancient lords, but eventually, from the new liberal and individualist nation. The situation irreversibly worsened after the approval of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the levy of three hundred thousand men.
For many of the deputies in the National Assembly and the Convention, the Roman Catholic Church represented the last vestiges of the hierarchical, unequal, and superstitious Old Regime. Hence, religious reform intended to rationalize the institutional functioning of the Church, seizing or expelling priests who did not accept the Constitution. When reforms did not suffice, the revolutionary government closed temples and prohibited the practice of Catholicism. However, with new ideals of freedom serving as foundational principles of the new regime, including the freedom of worship, Catholic communities promptly claimed their free and equal right to exercise their beliefs. In Sainte-Anne-d`Auray, Brittany, on February 5, 1791, the people of six rural cantons prepared a three-point petition to the district demanding the abolition of the Domaine congéable; that is, they called for the intangibility of their parishes, and carried forward a genuine anti-feudal agenda in defense of their local religious and fiscal autonomies. Thus, while rural communities had helped create the revolution in the capital, they also came to demand their own French Revolution in the countryside.
As for the levy, in responding to the call of the Republic in the war against European absolutism, rural communities concluded that the nation had made the call to arms under conditions of enduring inequality, exempting prominent patriots from defending the home front. Facing enforced mobilization, many communities of the French countryside considered revolutionary rule as a new tyranny, potentially more disenfranchising than their feudal experiences under the rule of former privilégiés. Thus, large rural areas of the northwest openly revolted against the Republic. For example, on March 13, 1793, the assailants of Ancenís affirmed that: “we do not demand the return of the seigneurial rents, we are not friends of the despots; we are very happy to see our lands and our people free from all servitude”. It is important to note that when rural communities resisted the levy, they were not defending the Old Regime. Instead, the countryside projected a communitarian, anti-feudal identity carved through the revolutionary process itself. The same logic that made communities revolutionary demanded the revolution to be more communitarian.
The examination of French rural history in the midst of a critical conjuncture like the French Revolution not only adds another item to the long list of causes but also sheds light upon neglected historical subjects and their political reflections on a reality that reframed and reshaped their identities, and triggered changes in their political cultures, their interpretations of the past, their participation in the present, and their demands for the future. Thus, on March 14, 1789, communities perceived the writing of the Cahier de doléances as a promise of reform. By July 1789, feudal rights had become unnatural, but by March 1793, the placement of the register of baptisms and deaths under secular management became an attack against the communal freedom of worship – all events and reactions that gave way to a genuine and unique Rural Revolution in France.
Jorge Sánchez Morales is Chief Archivist of the Sección de Archivo de la Consejería de Presidencia, Justicia e Igualdad of the Canary Islands Government in Spain. He is the author of La Revolución rural francesa. Libertad, igualdad y comunidad (1789-1793) (2017), and is currently researching the historical behavior of the French peasantry throughout modernity, from the Wars of Religion to the French Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter at @Jorge_SanchezM.
John Markoff. The Abolition of Feudalism. Peasants, Lords and Legislators in the French Revolution. University Park. The Pennsylvania State University Press. 1996.
Keith Michael Baker. Inventing the French Revolution. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1990.
Miguel A. Cabrera. Postsocial History. An Introduction. Lanham. Lexington Books. 2004.
 This post summarizes the content and conclusions of: Jorge Sánchez Morales. La Revolución rural francesa. Libertad, igualdad y comunidad (1789-1793). Madrid. Biblioteca Nueva. 2017.
 Antonin Mecé de Lépinay, «La Baronnie de Thodure en 1789», Bulletin de l ́Académie delphinale. Académie Delphinale. Grenoble. 1842., pp. 469- 486.
 Roger Dupuy. De la Révolution a la Chouannerie. Paris. Flammarion., p. 160.
 Charles-Louis Chassin. La préparation de la guerre de Vendée, 1789-1793, t. III. Paris. Impr. de P. DuPont. 1892, pp. 374-375.
 Historical analyses must be grounded by concepts specific to each process of historical change. To this end, it is essential to start from the sources and, if need be, to return to them. The aim should not be to reproduce them narratively, but to unravel the intrinsic logic used by the protagonists of historical events. All human behaviors, however incomprehensible they may seem to us, must be considered as historically legitimate, and they must be, and deserve to be, explained from their own perspective.
Title image: Les Vendéens demandent à Cathelineau de prendre la tête de l’insurrection, Jules Gabriel Hubert-Sauzeau, 1900.