Great Fear

Great Fear

The "Great Fear" ( _fr. la Grande Peur) occurred from July 20 to August 5, 1789 in France at the start of the French Revolution. Rural unrest had been present in France since the worsening grain shortage of the spring, and the grain supplies were now guarded by local militias as bands of vagrants roamed the countryside. Rumors spread among the peasantry that nobles had hired these vagrants to prey on villages and protect the new harvest from the peasants.

In response, fearful peasants armed themselves in self-defense against the imaginary marauders and attacked manor houses. Aristocratic property was ransacked, and documentation recording feudal obligations were destroyed. There were isolated incidents of violence against the aristocrats, but the peasants mostly wanted to destroy the records in which the feudal dues were recorded. Grain supplies were attacked and merchants suffered serious losses as peasants helped themselves to much needed supplies. The hysteria spread across the country but gradually burned itself out as militias imposed law and order.

Causes and course of the revolts

As the French historian Georges Lefebvre pointed out, the revolt in the countryside can be followed in remarkable detail. The revolts had not only economic but political causes, pre-dating the events in Paris and Versailles in 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. Storms and floods also destroyed much of the harvest during the summer, leading to a fall in seigneurial dues and defaults on leases. Frosts and snow damaged vines and wrecked chestnut and olive orchards in the south. Vagrancy became a serious problem in the countryside and in some areas, such as the Franche-Comté in late 1788, peasants had gathered to take collective actions against the seigneurs.

In early 1789, the king's financial minister Jacques Necker was warned that the countryside risked a general uprising, and in April peasant uprisings were increasingly organised and anti-seigneurial in character. Demands were made for the cancellation of harvest payments and the restoration of rights, such as that of grazing. The drawing up of the "Cahiers de doléances" and subsequent elections contributed to the general expectation of reform. The political temperature rose drastically in July, with news of events in Versailles and riots in Paris and elsewhere contributing to rumors of plots to starve the people. The great numbers of strangers on the roads seeking work could also be taken as brigands in the pay of an unpatriotic aristocracy. In five different regions, peasants began to arm themselves, ringing church bells to warn of danger, and took to attacking the symbols of the seigneurial regime, reclaiming tithes and grain.

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, towards 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 untouched (Alsace, Lorraine and Brittany remained largely untouched). [Albert Goodwin, "The French Revolution", London, UK: Hutchinson Univ. Library, 1970 ed, 71. ISBN 0091050219.]

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 participation, such as artisans or well-to-do farmers. Often the bourgeoisie had as much to gain from the destruction of the feudal regime as the poorer peasantry. [Peter M. Jones, "The Peasantry and the French Revolution", Cambridge, 1988, ch. 3] [Wiliam Doyle, "The Oxford History of the French Revolution", 114-5.] .

Chronology and centres of revolt

*Franche-Comté (from late 1788, and especially 19-31 July 1789)
*Dauphiné (Feb-June and from 27 July 1789)


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, wheat with ergot was thrown away, but when the harvest was poor, the peasants could not afford to be so choosy. [ Matossian, Mary Kilbourne, "Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, and History". New Haven: Yale, 1989 (reedited in 1991) ISBN 0-300-05121-2 ] .

The Great Fear was most intense between 20 July and 6 August, and partly explains why the nobility and the clergy surrendered their privileges on the "Night of 4 August".

This event led to the abolition of serfdom and feudal obligations, and brought up the need for a new social structure. Even during months of July and August many communities took legal action against their feudal lords which forced them to submit their feudal titles for judicial review, and refused to pay their dues during the trial.

The Great Fear was largely responsible for the National Constituent Assembly's dismissal of feudal rights and obligations; this in effect led to the general unrest of the nobility of France.


External links

* [ Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: exploring the French Revolution - Social Causes of the French Revolution]

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