1715: new roads open Burgundy trade
In the early years of the 18th century, France would commence building a system of a national highway system, which when finished over a half a century later, would be the finest in Europe. The province of Burgundy had been at the vanguard of these road building efforts and quickly found reward for its efforts, in the vastly improved connectivity with other economies across northern Europe. It was not long before commissioned agents, known as “voyageurs”, were canvassing Europe for willing markets for Burgundy’s finest product, wine. Then, with contracts in hand, caravans of wagons were dispatched on road from Dijon, heavily loaded with casks of wine from negotiants cellars. Some of these caravans went westward to Paris, but many made their way north, either to trading ports along the Atlantic, or turning eastward toward the hungry German markets. On their return trip to Burgundy, the wagons came back loaded with all manner of goods, notably “fabrics, canvas, and cash” (Bazin 2002). As the reputation of Burgundian wine grew, so did both the wine’s value and almost overnight, fortunes were made.
There was a darker backdrop to this story, however. Despite the tremendous benefit these roads provided to the region, their construction had come at a heavy cost the peasantry. These farmers, both men, and women, were pulled from their fields and vineyards, often during the critical times of planting and harvest, and forced build these roads without recompense. This duty, which was employed through much of the 18th century, was known as corvée royale; and it’s implementation caused tremendous hardship and widespread resentment within the peasantry. For some Burgundian peasantry, this resentment may have been short-lived, as the increased trade made the wine they produced far more valuable. This was especially true if their plot happened to in a famed vineyard or village. With such luck, their fortune, and future of their families may have changed completely. Others, however, were not so positively affected. If they did not farm grapes, or their plots were in lesser areas, their lives continued to be difficult. Most critically, with the coming revolution, it was these peasants whose future in Burgundy would become less secure. This begins the modern era of the Burgundian winemaker.
Once the nobles had finally submitted to the absolutist rule of the king, the stage was at long last set for the first major road building effort since the Romans had subjugated Gaul. But unlike the road constructed by the Romans, these roads would be designed for the connectivity of France, not to link a conquered province to the conqueror’s empire. The development of this highway system was such a key step in the nation building of France, that historian Julian Swann would write that its completion was to be King Louis XV’s greatest achievement.(Swann 2003). While Louis XV was certainly was on board in completing this project, (by 1757 he was spending 7 million livres (7 million pounds of silver) on road and bridge construction , (Sée 1927), it could be argued that Swann may have mislaid credit for the highway system at the feet of young Louis.
The passing of the torch: the regency and the minority of Louis XV
Kingship had passed from the 77-year-old Louis XIV (who had outlived both his son, as well as his grandson), to his 5-year-old great-grandson. Having inherited the throne himself while a young child, Louis was keen to the challenges his great-grandson would face.
Nearing his death, Louis XIV would name his nephew, Philippe II, who was the duc d’Orléans, to be regent. The regency was a position with king-like powers, charged with the duty of administering and safeguarding the kingdom until the young monarch would be old enough to reign himself. This was slated to occur in seven years time, in February of 1723, when Louis would turn 13.
Around this same period, the aging king would also choose André-Hercule de Fleury, the 67-year-old the bishop of Fréjus, to be his great-grandson’s tutor. Although the word tutor today would seem to be beneath a nobleman and bishop, this was a very important position. His job would be to mentor and prepare the young prince to rule a powerful European power, and this could only be done by someone who knew something about leadership, law, and the politics of the royal court.
These two men, both handpicked by Louis XVI, would in their turn, administer the French State for the next twenty-five years. During this quarter century, France would become an even greater power on the world stage.
Initially, the duc d’Orléans betrayed the trust that King Louis XIV had placed in naming him, by attempting to temper the absolutist state. Philippe II reversed several edicts such as noble’s the right of remonstrance which allowed the nobility to challenge and delay decrees of the crown. But more importantly, he replaced state ministers with councils made up of nobles, in a system referred to as Polysynody. By 1718, however, it had become clear that the Polysynody was mired by the conflicting interests between the various powerful ducs and comtés on the council, not to mention clashes of their egos. It also became apparent that the noble’s deep-seated self-interest, often, if not typically, overrode the interests of the nation. And as a final coup de grace, rampant absenteeism by nobles on the council, stymied its ability to function. After three years, Philippe II had come to accept that the councils consisting of noblemen, had been a failure, and in 1718 he restored the ministerial system which he had inherited.
In 1723, when Louis XV had gained his “legal majority” at age 13, and was now officially the reigning king, and unsurprisingly, he had little interest in politics. He desired that the duc to remain as regent, and although the duc did remain in the position, he would die that December, at the age of 49. With the position of first minister vacant, Louis would appoint Louis-Henri, duc de Bourbon-Condé to this role, but after three years he would replace him with his trusted tutor, André Hercule de Fleury, the bishop of Fréjus, to act essentially as his regent. Although a nobleman, and in a high position in the clergy, Hercule’s borne position was not equal to the others in the royal council. To balance this inequality, Louis XV, would make Hercule a cardinal 1726. Additionally, Louis appointed him as first minister, a title that Hercule would not use. Much like the strong hands of the cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, before him, Andre-Hercule provided stable, authoritarian rule over France until his death in 1743 at age 90. It would not be until 1743 that Louis XV would truly assume the role of king.
Forced labor of the peasantry and road building
The influential French political writer, Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (1805-1859), wrote at length about the corvée in his book L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution.* He wrote that before the death of Louis XIV, the roads were either maintained by the state, or by the nobles who’s estates the roads passed through. This meant, by any true measure, that the roads were virtually not maintained at all. “Around this time,” de Tocqueville penned, the roads “began to be repaired with the aid of the corvée alone, that is, at the sole expense of the peasantry.” De Tocqueville lays this application of the corvée, utilizing the forced labor of the peasantry, in order to build the roads, at the feet of Controller-General Philibert Orry. In 1737, claimed de Tocqueville, Orry applied the corvée “to all of France”.** To better frame this statement, however, it is well documented that it was Jean-Baptiste Colbert who first enlisted the peasantry for the corvée royale in the mid-1600’s.
It must be assumed, however, that the plans to expand the road system had already been laid out Louis XIV ministers, since it was in 1715, the year that the king died, that the élus of Burgundy*** had already commenced their road construction in Burgundy (Swann 2003). The budget at that time was 60,000 livres per year, but these funds would prove to be enough since it would only need to cover the cost of the construction mat, because by utilizing the corvée royale, labor would be essentially free. This construction apparently continued despite the ministerial shakeups in Versailles, that occurred during the first years of Philippe II’s regency. The Burgundians must have been particularly motivated, as they appear to have led road building efforts in France by perhaps as much as two decades. Indeed, Voltaire wrote in 1751 before the construction, that “the high roads were almost impassable.” For the landlocked economy of Burgundy, it was realized that prosperity could only come to the region if far better roads could be built.
An increased in trade commenced almost immediately, if the establishment of the first wine trading firms in 1720 (M. Marey and Champy) were any indication. Encouraged by this success, the élus had continued to increase investments into provincial roads and bridge construction until it had reached 100,000 livres per year in 1757 (Swann 2003). Whether they had been pressured to make the road improvements by Versailles, as Swann writes, or they self-motivated, as I believe, the élus had thrown the weight of the provincial government into the project.
(*) It is important to note that de Tocqueville’s writings about the ancien régime were neatly colored by the intellectual thought and politics of his time, as well as by his own innovative thoughts and perceptions. As indicated by his noble title, (de Tocqueville is his title, not his name) he was of an old Norman family of noblesse d’épée, which escaped the guillotine by escaping to England. The family returned to France with the reign of Napoléon and was restored to their nobility under the Bourbon restoration. That said, he despised the return of France to a monarchy, in which a Bourbon king was restored to the throne for 18 years, between 1830 and 1848.
(**) Jean-Baptiste Colbert, King Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance, was actually the first minister to institute the corvée royal in the mid-1600’s, although it was only implemented to build roads within central France, and did not extend to any of the provinces.
(***) the élus were the full-time council which governed the province (pays d’état) of Burgundy, following guidance outlined by sessions of the états généraux. The états généraux was the convening of representatives of the three ‘estates’: the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners (commoner representatives were most likely comprised of the bourgeoisie).
Subverting the intention of the corvée
The corvée had begun as part of the feudal seigneurial tenure agreement, which required the peasant to perform a certain number of hours of corvée per year. While many are quick to say this work was given without receiving pay, in actuality it was a payment by the peasant, to the seigneur, for the ongoing possession of the plot that they farmed. The corvée was initiated to maintain the lord’s communal properties, however large. These included roads, bridges, churches, ditches for water runoff, all which might be wiped away by a storm or had simply been degraded by the passing of years.
In earlier times, security was a very important aspect of the seigneurial agreement and the through the corvée, the peasants maintained the stronghold (castles/chateau or other fortifications) while it was the lord, and his nobles, whose profession was soldiering, did the actual fighting.
In times of danger, be it from mercenaries or other invaders, the local population could retreat within the walls of the chateau, where the lord would protect them. There, a store of wheat would be kept, and the lord’s ovens would produce bread for those that he protected. As such, the seigneur, held rights to possess ovens (often referred to as four banal ovens), and the lord charged banalités for their use. The same held true for wine presses and grist mills, which only the lord had a right to own; there were banalités for their use as well. The lords often provided the horses, or oxen, as well as plows which made farming more efficient, for it was in the interest of both parties that production be as high as possible. Without the seigneur’s investment in these items, most peasants could never have afforded them.* There was a mutual dependence of noble and peasant, for one could not exist without the other, and as such, the ancient compact between noble and peasant continued for centuries. The peasants would farm the land with the materials provided by the seigneur, and it was the noble’s responsibility would protect and secure his realm, and his people. As such, the use of corvée in France was generally rare and light, when compared to corvées elsewhere in the world, such as Germany. (de Tocqueville 1851)
As the security of France was slowly assured by the end of the 1600’s, it is easy to see how, slowly over time, the corvée morphed into more of a civic duty, as an obligation of the village had as a whole. And although in name these were the lord’s lands, they were in actuality the village “commons”. At some point, the villages became what are termed as having “corporate” identities, owned communal lands, and could be sued in judicial courts. (Sée 1927) There was a real sense that they were “in it together”.
(*) There is an indication in de Tocqueville’s writings in “The Old Régime and the Revolution”, that wealthier commoners, who did not fall into one of the many exemptions, may have been allowed to send their horses and oxen to work in their place. Exact details of this are not clear.
The birth of the corvée royale
So, when Jean-Baptiste Colbert, King Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance, initially confiscated the corvée for national projects in the mid-1600’s, it was a true perversion of seigneurial dues. It is ironic, that by this time, the seigneurial corvée was now rarely exploited by the nobility in the 18th century (de Tocqueville 1851). It wasn’t long into the 18th century that Controller-General Philibert Orry, whose position as bâtiments du roi (“the king’s buildings”) expanded the corvée from exclusively road building to a wide array of government projects. After 1737, it was used for many military and state constructions, as well as the most hated duty of providing the transport of military goods and supplies particularly in wartime (de Tocqueville 1851). This duty required the use of personal oxen and horses, no doubt many of which were maimed or died on the road. This work was paid for but at impossibly inadequate rates. (Carlyle 1902)
The greatest resentment came from the timing of this backbreaking and often dangerous work, which was typically conducted in the spring and fall, avoiding the heavier summer rains, coinciding precisely with the times necessary to plant and harvest (Swann 2002).
The consequence of refusing to work the royal corvée was arrest. And, according to de Tocqueville, the peasantry was constantly being arrested for various reasons: “due to the corvée, the militia, begging, crime, a thousand other circumstances.” “Armed with the right to imprison recalcitrants at will, or send marshals to fetch them.” (de Tocqueville 1851 p.186) authorities implemented a harsh rule over the people. That said, the governmental infrastructure was limited in size, so controlling the populace was a bit like “whac-a-mole”, and insurrections and riots were rampant.
Note: It is important to understand when reading de Tocqueville however that he had a particular liberal ax to grind when writing about society. Regardless whether what he says is true or not, his bias can be seen in the following two sentences: De Tocqueville wrote that the ‘intendants’* found it “useful to refuse to employ peasants in repairing the roads of their own villages, in order that they be reserved for only the great highways…” and then de Tocqueville comments that was a “strange idea that it was suitable to have the poorest, and those who were least likely to travel, pay for the roads, this idea, even though novel, entrenched itself so naturally in the minds of those who benefited from it, that soon they could no longer be done any differently.”
The economic impact of corvée, and the food riots 1693-1853
France, being an agricultural economy, must have acutely felt the burden of this demand upon its peasantry. There is some corollary evidence of this. It is written that the corvée left peasants unable to plant or harvest crops, which may have regionally affected the food supply, and the price of food. There is little doubt this affected the future ability of individual farmers to buy seed, pay the tithe, pay tailles (taxes), to buy wood for heating over the winter, and to feed their families. It is not clear that the corvée was widespread enough to impact the price of grain and other foods to rise, but all through this period there were widespread “food riots”.
The economic numbers do not support a correlation between the food riots and high food prices at a national level (Rotberg 2000), so we might also assume there was not a correlation between the corvée and high food prices. However, there may well have been regionally price fluctuations that were behind the riots, and there may have been a correlation between the regional application of the corvée and the food riots. While this is unknowable given the incomplete information available now, over 250 years later, we do know there was tremendous resentment surrounding the corvée, and there were riots relating to food scarcity during the same period.
These riots were short in duration, but they did involve large numbers of people (Rotberg 2000). Each event was unique, and not organized, or part of a collective conscience. Each riot, depending on the region, seems to have consisted of a homogeneous segment of France’s most impoverished societies, the agricultural peasantry in some riots, and urban poor, or the industrial workers, in others. One such instance occurred along the Saône and in Macon in 1709, when peasants forced grain shipments to be halted.** In Troyes in 1740, (in the Champagne region just north of the Burgundy border), 600-700 industrial workers protesting the bailli of the bailiff (a bailiff was essentially a sheriff) for the lack of bread. After protesting, the workers invaded houses suspected of containing grain (Bouton 1993). Roteberg lists that food riots occurred in the following years: 1693/94, 1698, 1709/10, 1725, 1739/40, 1749, 1752, 1768, 1770, 1775 (the year of the Flour War), 1788/89, 1793, 1799, and these continued on through half of the 19th century until the last occurred in 1853/54.
Historian Daniel Roche wrote that the intendant of Dauphine remarked at the time, most disorders began with “the people’s misery” (Roche 1998). In earlier times, these riots were flamed by the nobility to attempt to shake the authority of the king. But after the death of Louis the XIV, the nobles were no longer involved in such subversion. Now the “diffuse, sporadic, and scattered protest movements erupted in the rural areas, less often, in the cites” (Roche 1998). You may notice this observation is slightly at odds with Bouton, who wrote of various segments of the poor participated in each individual riot, but it is clear that unlike the rebellions fermented by the nobility against the crown (usually about taxes – Roche 1998), uprisings would now comprise solely the poor, that as Roche notes, are best explained by social class distinctions.
This might be interpreted as that the feudal relationship between the noble and the peasant had broken down. Previously, the noble provided security, land and equipment for a peasantry who provided labor. As the nobles contribution lessened, because the security element had been eliminated, there was now an inequity within this relationship. The nobility was now living off of the peasantry, yet contributing virtually nothing to the peasantry in return.
(**) It is notable that the food riots of winter of 1709/10, was the year following “The Great Winter” of 1708/1709 where the average temperature rested at 9 degrees below zero for weeks, and there were tremendous crop failures across Europe. These food riots occurred after a more normal harvest.
Protecting the taille and addressing the burden of the corvée
Riots and unrest, as well as constant application of the corvée, all diminished constant flow of tailles (taxes) into the king’s treasury. It is easy to see that there was a constant balancing act that the intendants must have had to address, as the application of the corvée directly lessened the amount of taxes that could be collected. From de Tocqueville: “In 1751 a receiver was apprehensive lest “the expense to which the peasantry were put for the repairs of the roads, would incapacitate them from paying the taille.” Throughout this time period, the intendants will be seen, repeatedly, standing against nobility for the rights of commoner, referring cases to judicial courts (known as during the ancien régime as parlements) (Root 1992).
Behind the scenes, the motivation began with preserving the revenue stream to the king, but one senses that the intendants, truly felt an obligation of fairness and good governance. An example of this comes from intendant Monsieur Ducluzel, of Tours (240 km southwest of Paris). In defending his decade-long disregard of the Minister of Marine’s demands for peasant labor, Ducluzel wrote in December of 1775, that he defied the requests based of the abuses of the corvée, to both men and animals. The conditions of the work that such corvée involved can be garnered from this snippet of his letter: “the cattle are often lamed by drawing heavy logs over roads as bad as the weather in which this service is usually required of them.” (de Tocqueville 1851)
There were those in Burgundy’s provincial assembly (the États-Généraux) who were not unaware, or unsympathetic to the abuses of the corvée. In 1739, after many years of heavy corvée implementation, there were finally calls in by assembly members to limit the number of days worked and exemptions during periods where planting and harvest was taking place (Swann 2002). Swann writes that one alcade, (a mayor with judicial powers), advanced the need to “lighten a yolk that the peoples…find extremely difficult to support.” The weight of the alcade’s statement, was biblical, referring to Kings 12.4 “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now, therefore, lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you.” * Given the deeply devout culture of the French at that time, and that a third of the États-Généraux was made up of the clergy, there is no doubt that these words resonated with many members of the assembly. What is not clear to what effect these efforts to reform the estates corvée requirements were successful. In either case, the need for the heavy use of forced labor subsided after the roadways had been completed (Swann 2003)
But despite these efforts by some to reform the corvée, it is notable that the corvée still was in place in Burgundy in 1769. This 54 year period represents two full generations of the peasantry who had been conscripted to labor upon the province’s roads. It is clear that there was a real division of opinions regarding the use of the corvée, with impassioned critics referring to it as “a real evil in itself.” Some suggested that a system of payment should be instituted, as it had been in other provinces such as Limoges,** Swann writes that “the reaction was at best lukewarm”.
(*) here from the King James bible, although the French during that period were likely using the Port Royal bible)
(**) It is important to note that some regions never adopted the corvée, but used contractors to perform the labor. Languedoc (where there was already a history of agrarian revolt) and Limoges are two such examples.
Attempted reforms to the corvée under Louis XVI 1774-1789
There were those who fought to end the corvée system, such as the intendant of Limoges, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot. Turgot held the powerful position of contrôleur général under the newly crowned king, Louis XVI, from 1774 to 1776. Among his more innovative, even revolutionary programs, he had attempted to end the corvée, as well as suggesting the abolition of privilege. Needless to say, both of which were vehemently opposed by the majority of the nobility. The radical nature Turgot’s proposals are attested to by the brevity of his tenure. However, Turgot’s ideas would persist and flourish among the intelligentsia in this Age of Enlightenment and spread among the bourgeoisie. Toward the end of the decade, these ideas would be addressed again by the King and his ministers.
In 1779, king Louis XVI would, in response to calls from the bourgeoisie “capitalists, merchants, manufacturers, and other businessmen or financiers” who were “…resolutely bent on reform” (de Tocqueville 1851), make a grand suggestion that he would lessen the load of the royal corvée on the peasantry. This was le Siècle des Lumières, and repression was to be scorned; thus Louis XVI, the final Bourbon to sit on the throne, would seemingly loosen the yoke of the peasantry. The king would make this speech announcing the end of the corvée.
“With the exception of a few provinces (pays d’états), nearly all the roads of the kingdom have been made gratuitously by the poorest portion of our subjects. The whole burden has fallen upon those who have no property but their labor, and whose interest in the roads is very slender; the landowners, who are really interested in the matter—for their property increases in value in proportion to the improvement in the roads—are privileged exempts. By compelling the poor to keep the roads in repair, to give their time and their labor for nothing, we have deprived them of their only safeguard against poverty and hunger, in order to make them toil for the benefit of the rich.” King Louis XVI, 1779
This great pronouncement amounted to little more than lip service, however. A few months later, writes de Tocqueville, the corvée was resumed. The nobility and the monarchy had work that needed to be done, and they couldn’t imagine another way to achieve it (de Tocqueville 1851). As such, in most of the country, the corvée labored on until the revolution began in 1789.
For some peasants who were fortunate enough to have tenant plots in top crus in Burgundy, the trade expansion that these new roads provided, had brought an unforeseen prosperity. This money allowed them to take on plots from other peasants who were struggling, and to hire day laborers. In this way, the peasant could manage far more acreage than they could farm alone. As their wealth and position increased, these peasants were known as fermiers (farmers), which had a strong affinity to the traditional French gentleman’s position which had long been the sole position of the seigneur, the lord. This was an unheard of time of economic mobility in Burgundy, with this rudimentary capitalization occurring in the fields. Additionally, new faces were appearing on the Cote, as exceptionally wealthy bourgeoisie from Dijon and Paris were beginning to purchase valuable vineyard plots in the Côte-d’Or. These two groups, along with the nobility which would either survive the revolution or gain nobility after the revolution, would form the basis of the families who farm the vineyards of Burgundy today.
But for other peasants, whose backbreaking work built the “highways” of France, received little, if any benefit from the highways. They did not travel, and their Gamay, or wines from lesser known appellations, did not fetch the kind of money as those that farmed a plot of Chambertin, or Volnay, which were gaining in popularity and value as their fame spread across Europe. These peasants would find that neither their fortunes, nor their future would improve, and most would eventually lose their small holdings once the security of the seigneurial tenure was broken by the coming revolution.
(*) The états généraux was the provincial convention of representatives from the three estates, the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners (who were typically bourgeoisie) which every three years convened to debate the direction of Burgundy for the following three years. The élus were appointed council tasked to fulfill the administration of those goals. There were two other important positions to be cognoscente of, the Governor of the province who was always a great lord, and as well there was the intendant, who was a royal civil servant. Both of which were royally appointed. The governor lived at Versailles, always courting the favor of the king for personal and provincial business, while the intendant lived in the province, in this case, Dijon, and ensured the province was run in the interest of the king, reviewing court cases, tax collection, as well as regional and municipal issues.
References for this article
Evolution du métayage en France, L. Durousseau-Dugontier, Impr. Crauffon, 1905
Provincial Power and Absolute Monarchy: The Estates General of Burgundy 1661–1790 Julian Swann, Cambridge University Press 2003
Economic and Social Conditions in France During the Eighteenth Century, Henri Sée Professor, University of Rennes 1927
Histoire du Vin de Bourgogne, Jean-François Bazin, Editions Jean-Paul Gisserot, 2002
The Old Regime and the Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville, trans John Bonner (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856) Modern Translator: George Gerald Reisman
The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XII (Age of Louis XIV) Voltaire, (1751)
Social Mobility and Modernization: A Journal of Interdisciplinary History Reader, Robert I. Rotberg MIT Press, 2000
The Flour War: Gender, Class, and Community in Late Ancien Régime French Society, Cynthia Bouton, Penn State Press, 1993
Peasants and King in Burgundy: Agrarian Foundations of French Absolutism, Hilton Root, University of California Press, 1992
The French Revolution: A History in Three Parts I. The Bastille; II. The Constitution; III. The Guillotine, Volume 1, Thomas Carlyle G.P. Putnam, 1902
France in the Enlightenment Daniel Roche Harvard University Press, 1998