The Great Fear and French Revolution: Making Sense of Mass Hysteria

The Great Fear (grande peur in French) was one of the stranger episodes in the French Revolution – a period known for being pretty crazy. For about two weeks in July 1789, almost the entirety of France became swept up in what can best be described as a craze.

But what exactly was this panic about, and why did it begin in the first place? To answer those questions, we need to being our narrative in the days of Louis XIV. 

The Seeds of Revolution

In the years leading up to the French Revolution, the French king, Louis XVI, was in a bad a way. He was an absolute monarch of one of Europe’s most powerful kingdoms… but his predecessor and grandfather, Louis XIV, had spent France into the ground. In order to establish the absolutism at home and the power at arms abroad that propped up the Bourbons for the better part of a century, Louis XIV had spent enormous amounts of money. And, while that was fine and dandy for him, it came back to haunt his grandson. 

Eventually, France’s financial woes brought Louis XVI to his wits’ end and the king felt forced to summon France’s representative body, the Estates General. This was the first time in over a century this body had been called into action. Those who were chosen as representatives were ecstatic. The nobility who came in with power hoped to grab a hold of even more of it, while the lower classes aimed at securing true representation for themselves within the halls of government. 

Unfortunately, France’s social caste system of the time did not readily allow for the less well off to get their piece of the power pie. A system known as the Three Estates, France’s population was split into three groups: First Estate (clergy), Second Estate (nobility), Third Estate (everyone else). The Estates General was composed of elected members of these three classes, theoretically giving the French people fair representation. But, in the real world, the first two estates ganged up on the third and won every decision.

A classic political cartoon depicting the Three Estates (and the Third Estates burden)

Tired of the hypocrisy (and having been literally locked out of the Estates General) members of the Third Estate began meeting on their own, calling themselves the National Assembly. And so the French Revolution began.

The Lead Up to the French Revolution and the Great Fear

The elation the people of France felt over the founding of the National Assembly quickly gave rise to anxiety and fear. Rumors began to spread throughout Paris that the king was mounting a counter attack on the National Assembly, keen on restoring his firm control of the kingdom. The panic this rumor created reached such a high level that on July 14, 1789, the people of Paris stormed the Bastille, a medieval, mostly out of use, prison in the heart of the city. After the Bastille was taken, the people of Paris took it apart brick by brick – literally.1

A painting of the Storming of the Bastille that lead up to the Great Fear in the French Revolution
Storming of the Bastille

While most people were probably pretty excited to hear that the old prison for political enemies of the king had been destroyed, this did not last long. Soon, just as the people of Paris had feared reprisals for the forming of the National Assembly, the rest of revolutionary France feared that the nobility would launch a counter attack throughout the provinces. 

On top of all this civil unrest emanating out of the capital, France was going through something of a demographic issue. For close to two decades, the kingdom had suffered from unpredictable harvests. This meant that every summer, as the year’s crops began to ripen, the Third Estate held its collective breath, hoping it would be able to eat this year. The uneven nature of these harvests also caused food prices to surge, increasing by as much as 25% in some areas of France. Then, to keep piling on, between 1770 and 1790, France’s population increased by 2 million people.2

By the time 1789 rolled around, France found itself hungry, and getting hungrier. This seemed to lead to a dangerous combination of anger at the status quo and anxiety over where their next meal was going to come from.

Cue the Great Fear. Or in French, cue the grande peur.

The Great Fear Begins Amid the French Revolution

Much of the Great Fear revolved around groups of ‘brigands’ wandering the countryside. Both sides of the French political spectrum feared the coming of these armed mobs. The aristocrats were afraid their homes and lands would suffer the same fate as the Bastille at the hands of armed peasants. The common folks and peasants were worried that aristocrats were seeking revenge against the Third Estate for having the gaul to rise up in revolution.

The fear of these brigands spread so fast, that towns even went through the trouble of arming themselves and building fortifications. One anonymous contemporary remembered the Great Fear spreading through the countryside as follows:

“Everybody took up arms because of the rumors of brigands pillaging the seigneurs’ châteaux. People were said to be blocking or closing wells for fear that they would be poisoned. Bells were rung throughout the Michaeille as were fires to warn everybody to be alert for the brigands.”3

Trouble is, while one can underside the anxieties that played on everyone’s mind in this pretty insane time, the brigands weren’t actually real. They were phantoms produced by the mass hysteria that the first few months of the French Revolution had brought on.

But, while the brigands weren’t real, there were people roaming the French countryside. During the eighteenth-century in France, where food shortages were common, it wasn’t unheard of for groups of landless peasants to go from town to town in search of work, shelter, or food. And, as result of another poor harvest, more people than normal had to take the roads in search of food in 1789.

As fear of revolution or counter-revolution (depending on your Estate) spread through France, the appearance of these wanderers may have been the root cause of the bigrands rumors. Unlike the fabled brigands, though, these groups of landless peasants were not seeking to ransake farms or châtueax – they simply sought a little charity.

Peasant Revolts Come After All…

Though marauding groups of brigands never actually appeared over the horizon, the militias that were formed when townspeople mobilized in response to these rumors didn’t go to waste. Emboldened by the news of revolutionary victories in Paris, villagers across the kingdom began making stands of their own.

Some started out peaceably enough. In certain areas, peasants began refusing to pay tithes to the Church and feudal privileges to local aristocrats, known as seigneurial dues. A priest in one such town recorded how:

“When the inhabitants heard that everything was going to be different they began to refuse to pay both tithes and dues, considering themselves so permitted, they said, by the new law to come.4

In other areas, the first two estates did not get off so easy. In many regions, manors had their barns raided, as peasants sought to repossess the food the aristocratic classes had already taken from them as part of old, feudal dues. While this was bad for the aristocrats, in the French provinces of Normandy, Burgundy, Hainault, Alsace, Franche Comté, and Dauphiné it got even worse.

Attacking the Feudal Regime

The above regions have become famous for the raids and peasant revolts that their populations perpetrated against the castles and manors of the aristocratic families. Interestingly, these weren’t simple smash and grab operations. These peasant riots that rose up against the holdings of the Second Estate were concentrated attacks meant to further the cause of the French Revolution. 

A depiction of the French peasants burning châteaux and feudal dues during the Great Fear and the French Revolution
The burning of châteaux and feudal dues

Once the villagers in these regions breached the manorial walls, they made straight for the symbols and records of France’s feudal past. They destroyed wine-presses, seigneurial ovens (in the medieval era, French peasants couldn’t own their own ovens and were forced to rely upon local feudal lords to bake their bread), and other symbols of wealth and oppression. They also tried to sever their connections with local lords forever by burning records of feudal privileges and obligations that had kept their families in service to aristocrats for generations.5

The Duke of Montmorency’s steward, writing from a town northeast of Paris, recorded how: 

The populace, attributing to the lords of the kingdom the high price of grain, is fiercely against all that belongs to them. All reasoning fails: this unrestrained populace listens only to it own fury and, in all our province, the vassals are so outraged that they are prepared to commit the greatest excesses… 

Some of these excesses, according to the steward, included stealing “the titles of rents and allowances of the seigneurial [French lord], and demolished her dovecotes.” Following this destruction the steward noted that the peasant mob left “a receipt for theft signed The Nation.”6

Why the Great Fear Mattered to the French Revolution

Though the Great Fear largely amounted to widespread rural panic over fictitious mobs that lasted for just a few weeks, it highlights the tensions at play during this period of the French Revolution. 

On the one side, you had aristocrats who felt their power slipping away. Power, it should be noted, that many of their families had wielded for centuries. And, when you’re used to being on top, while having to put in little to no work to stay there, it’s probably easy to feel threatened by Third Estate intellectuals declaring the rights of all mankind from the capital. 

On the other side, you had farmers and peasants who yearned for greater freedoms. It was their families, after all, that the aristocratic class had held in serfdom and poverty for all those centuries. So, when word got out that a revolution was on, some feared reprisal from their feudal lord while others shot their shot at overthrowing the ancien régime

Thus, it was the tension between the entrenched feudal status quo and the oncoming of a more modern, representative republic that defined the Great Fear. 

Want learn more about the French Revolution? Check out book recommendations by us and our friends at The Archive!

Sources on the Great Fear and the French Revolution

  1. “Great Fear,” britannica.com
  2. Georges Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973), 8-9.
  3. Peter McPhee, Living the French Revolution, 1789-99 (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), 41.
  4.  William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, Second Edition (New York, Oxford University Press, 2002), 114.
  5.  Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 115.
  6.  McPhee, Living the French Revolution, 44-45.

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