When the French Ate Grass

Boulangerie in Paris
A bakery with the sign 'Artisanal' -
means bread is made on its premises.

Bread for All Seasons, All Meals - If There Was Any

Paris:- Wednesday, 7. May 1997:- This job I've got is getting to me. All my time is spent on it, and lately I've been spending some of my spare time reading about the French and France.

It's an old case of the more you know, the more you know how little you know - or why. Why is it like this or that? I was asking myself these questions before the current elections started, and now that they seem to be dancing to a familiar waltz, I want to know why. Maybe I'll find out some day, when it's possible to look back and see the big picture.

The cliché of the French eating bread has been in front of my nose so long that I no longer see it.

So I was not surprised to read 'that the French eat a lot of bread.' What has surprised me, at one time most of the French ate nothing else. Until recent times, France did not produce enough grain to feed itself, and Display of Bread its history is riddled with the words penury, shortage, famine, grain riots and revolts - all referring to bread.

No bread shortage today - except possibly in the late afternoon.

When things got really bad, as they did in 1652 in Lorraine, eye-witnesses said people there were eating grass like cattle. If they had cattle to eat, they wouldn't have had to eat grass, but they didn't.

This eating of grass was also observed in Burgundy in 1662, and cannibalism was reported there. In 1694 near Meulan, people were eating grass again; in the same year peasants crowded into Lyon looking for food; they stole grain and bread and tossed it over the walls to their hungry comrades outside.

Peasants hoarded what they thought they needed, but if a crop failed or a harvest was ruined by bad weather, then they had nothing else to fall back upon. If crops failed over two harvests, then famine was certain. Towns had grain reserves as well as other assistance, but out on the land there was often neither.

In 1691, in the Auvergne, bread was distributed once a week at four different towns within the district. On 8. June at Aurillac, the crowd was so great that eleven were crushed to death. There were about 6,000 people there on average distribution days, and the bread was given out in the other three towns on the same day, so nobody could collect twice.

France has recorded 13 nationwide famines in the 16th century, 11 in the 17th and 16 in the 18th century; not counting local famines. The 19th century was not immune: there was a terrible shortage in half the country in 1811-12, when the grain price doubled. In 1816-17 there was famine on a nationwide scale. There were bad harvests in 1820, 1830 and 1846-48.

This last helped push the 'July Monarchy' out of the way - and the authorities were forced to reduce import duties on incoming Russian wheat. This measure could not be repeated to cover the poor harvest of 1853, because the Crimean War stopped all shipments from Odessa from 1854 to 1856. Baron Haussmann had to run a 'bakery fund' in Paris for three years.

These shortages of food - of grain - were not only fairly recent, but also a common feature of the distant past. There were famines in 1412, 1438-39, 1454-57 and the worst of all was the famine of 1481-83.

The 'Valois' branch of the monarchy had maneuvered itself - France rather - to have the grain trade bypass it on account of internal anarchy and highway bandits.

The usual routine was grain shortage, causing rising prices, and when people were weak enough, then epidemic - the Black Plague - which first appeared in 1347 in Marseille. In 1352 an estimated quarter of the entire population of France died. The last bad outbreak was in 1669 and the last cases were seen in Marseille, in 1720.

During Louis XIV's time, there was a general famine every decade; starting with the beginning of his reign in 1661. He also had peasant uprisings to deal with; which were mainly protests against taxes and brought on by need. These revolts spread like wildfire, could last a fair length of time and required a lot of force to put down. Peasants were killed.

After 1680, things calmed down a bit, with only sporadic bread riots, which did not last long or spread far. The monarchy had gathered more control to itself, in order to raise ever-more money, but in this way became more responsible for providing subsistence. Poverty, bread shortage and fear of famine, motivated the uprisings.

Well-being was a fragile state; it could be easily undermined by a new tax, an increase in social exploitation, a downturn in the economy, a fall in the price of grain - or even a rise in its price in case of shortage - and one could suddenly be plunged into poverty, beggary, and hunger; which totalled misery and despair.

While people were hungry the authorities would export grain; and subsequently be surprised by resistance, pain 'Poilaine' or even looting. The export of grain was a sort of tax; its purpose was to raise money for the crown.

Whole-grain, country-style bread, once a staple, is now a specialty.

Starving peasants cared little for the crown's greed when their own needs were immediate. These sort of troubles were a constant occurrence, causing by a bungling administration - and France's total dependance on grain for sustenance. The country did not produce enough.

According to witnesses and records, the French ate more bread and less vegetables, meat and dairy products, than 'Poilaine'-type bread any other Europeans. Since a peasant had only grain as a source of food, cultivation of it was a top priority. If there were a surplus, the peasant could sell it; if there were not, then there was the usual cycle of trouble.

'Pain Poilaine,' is sold whole, or in half or quarters. Good stuff!

In the mid-18th century, grain consumption per head was estimated to be about 400 kilos a year. Calculations indicate that this was about the same amount consumed in the Middle Ages - and this amount may have continued until the 1850's.

It is only since the 1950's that the eating of bread has fallen off - to less than 50 percent of that of 1800. While the population has risen dramatically, so has grain production, and there are now usually surpluses available for export - not essentially for raising money for the state; but handy for subsidizing over-producing farmers and for helping to depress world grain prices for all producers.

It is not unusual that we imagine France as being a country blessed by location and climate, well able to more than produce ample food for its inhabitants. Sully thought the same thing in 1603. Antoine Montichrestien thought so too in 1615 - writing that, "France is alone in being able to do without what she receives from neighboring countries, while her neighbors cannot do without her."

Vauban, a bit more cautiously, thought France could do without importing from foreigners - except for items to satisfy a craving for luxury.

The financier, Paris Duverney, thought otherwise in 1750. Thoroughly familiar with the grain trade, he countered the rumor that France could feed itself for three years off one harvest, by pointing out the results of the mediocre harvests of 1740, 1741, 1747 and 1748. But nobody wanted to know this.

As late as 1913, about 12 percent of French grain consumption was imported, and it was not a year of abnormally-low harvest. "The myth of France cozily ensconced inside her frontiers has always been false," wrote the historian Alfred Sauvy.

Exports were taxed going out and imports were taxed coming in. Changes in taxes caused changes in income for French peasants and landowners; changes caused food or livestock to be either expensive or inexpensive, even to be available or not.

So far I have not mentioned the fact, that before the advent of the railways and the expansion of canal shipping, the prime means of transporting grain was on mule-back - hardly efficient. Therefore, even if harvests were bumper, grain could often be carried no further than the nearest village or town. And grain does not keep well; it cannot be used as a reliable hedge against years of poor harvests.

Visitors passing the windows of butcher shops today in Paris should know that in 1836, the agricultural society of the Aube thought that livestock cultivation should be increased. At the time, meat production amounted to only 90 grams per head a day, and not enough leather was produced in a year to provide a pair of shoes for every inhabitant. Wool production was 390 grams per head of population. Cattle, sheep and horses were imported in vast quantities.

France did not produce enough butter or cheese either. Cheese came from Holland in tremendous quantities, and providing food for the royal fleet meant massive imports of beef, pork or butter - from Ireland.

Horses were the motor-power of the day and France did not produce enough to avoid having to import these for the French army, from Germany and Switzerland. If France was having a spat with Germany, then the horse trading stopped, and the French army became less mobile. The French army was still using horses in 1939; and the German army used them too during the invasion of Poland.

But generally, public prosperity increased after 1815, and the average wealth of the French increased 4.5 times between 1825 and 1914. For Parisians the increase was 9.5 times.

The McCormick reaper-binder was introduced into France in 1855, four years after the first steam-powered thresher. Guano arrived from Chile about 1850, followed by superphosphates in 1867. Wheat yields rose steadily, even if they lagged behind Belgian, German or Danish yields.

French society remained profoundly rural until 45 years ago. This has been turned upsidedown - this, for history's measure, has been an abrupt change, and has inevitably shaken the social structure of France to its roots.

What is the point to all this earnestness? On one hand, there is an national election currently being contested - one that will fresh baguettes hold the keys to further change in French society as it approaches the 21st century. Is France a self-sufficient country, needing no interchange with its neighbors? Or is this a self-perpetuating self-delusion?

Fresh baguettes represent white bread in France - by far the most popular sort.

France has played this 'self- sufficient' card throughout its history; and has constantly had to get aid from abroad; although there has never been force enough to get the French to admit it.

As far as food goes today, France is in fat city. If agricultural France has moved to first-class world-status, are the other foundations of a modern society - industry and commerce - going to follow?

For agriculture, there is no doubt. France is no longer embarrassed to import - those 'luxuries' it craves - because the cost is covered by exports, rather than by tax-payer's subsidies.

In the vast transformation that has taken place, agriculture no longer needs 80 percent of the population to ensure its production.

Doubt lingers about industry and commerce's ability to employ the French; doubt lingers about France's ability to compete globally in these areas as successfully as it has done with agriculture.

Does France want to? Or does it think its agricultural transformation alone is a sufficient cushion? Might we residents end up saying, we may be poor, but there's lots of bread?

Visitors may be the only ones able to afford cake, but who cares? We've got billions of baguettes!

Sources used for this article were 'The Identity of France, Volume Two' by Fernand Braudel
and 'The Course of French History' by Pierre Goubert.

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