73 What caused the French Revolution?

Posted on March 9, 2012 by

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Few historical events have been studied as sedulously as the French Revolution. Mostly we are told that “intrinsic reasons” triggered it. Louis XVI was signally inept, and his wife a spendthrift. The privileges of the first and second estate were growing larger. The state was failing the nation: taxes overburdened the populace, while tax farmers grew rich. There is no dearth of such reasons, and all look equally plausible. As revisionist analysis follows one the previous one, we include it in our understanding of the process. “This is it!” we exclaim: “Now we know”. And we make predictions about countries with similar conditions.

Recently I got hold of a couple of unusual explanations. From June of 1783 until February of 1784, the Laki volcano in south-central Iceland erupted. Although the event didn’t produce large amounts of volcanic ash, it did spew an estimated 122 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide gas into the sky — a volume slightly higher than human industrial activity today produces in the course of a year. SO2 not only is a poison, but it causes bad weather and massive crop failures. Historical records suggest that in the 2 years after the Laki eruption, approximately 10,000 Icelanders died — about one-fifth of the population — along with nearly three-quarters of the island’s livestock. Parish records in England reveal that in the summer of 1783, when the event began, death rates were between 10 percent and 20 percent above normal. The Netherlands, Sweden, and Italy reported episodes of decreased visibility, respiratory difficulties, and increased mortality associated with the eruption. According to one study, an estimated 23,000 people died from exposure to the volcanic aerosols in Britain alone. But elsewhere in Europe, it’s difficult to separate deaths triggered by the air pollution from those caused by starvation or disease, which were prominent causes of death at the time[1].

France must have suffered just as much as anyone else in Europe. And indeed, the years leading up to the French Revolution were years of poor harvests. People rioted for want of bread – which caused Marie-Antoine to quip: “let them eat brioche, then”. It may be slander, but it portrays well the haplessness of a self-centred court when faced with famine. Britain behaved in similar fashion when confronted with Ireland’s potato famine. The Irish moved to the US. The French could not migrate, so they revolted. Sounds plausible, right?

Emmanuel TODD studies “family systems[2]. He links them to religion, education, revolution, and contemporary political affiliation. According to him, the Paris Basin just before the French Revolution was changing rapidly. The male population has become literate. Religion’s influx was declining. The details are complex, but according to him, it was very much a regional, rather than a national affair, driven by the primal experience of family systems peculiar to the Paris basin. That this regional development became a French affair is historically an accident: the capital and the king happened to be “captive” of the Paris region. Had the king resided in Aix-en-Provence, or Montpellier – things may have turned out quite differently. Again, when confronted with this unusual evidence, one is struck by its plausibility.

So what caused the French revolution? One could simply mutter: all of the above. But that’s just akin to the policeman gathering “the usual suspects” in a room. Each will point to the other. As explanation is piled upon explanation, their relative influence fades, and we move toward a “before” and “after” description of the historical process. Curiosity will kill the cat – and even more historical curiosity.

I chose the wording “usual suspects” for a reason. The policeman who rounds them up “knows” for a fact that the culprit is among them – he just does not know who. Hercule Poirot’s task is lucidly to deduce the true culprit. That’s the basis of every whodunit.

Hercule, in other words, works within a given frame. We readers are just too stupid to “connect the dots” the author has deftly and surreptitiously placed within this frame. That’s what we expect from a mystery. Were we to discover, at the end of the story, that the murder had been perpetrated by total outsider – why, we would be  disappointed. Why waste reading time if the murder was utterly incidental?

History, and life, never provides us with a closed “frame” – it never delivers the closed list of potential culprits – usual or unusual that they might be. Many reasons intersect and interact. We may never find the end of glorious explanations; sometimes they contradict each other. A nagging feeling remains that we may have missed something. Karl POPPER[3] made a big point of the fact that induction can never prove a theory, just disprove it.

That’s why there are always fare more conspiracy theories than explanations, and why each generation of historians reads history differently. We extrapolate from current experience into the past – transforming the past into “future just waiting to happen”.


[2]           See Emmanuel TODD (1990) : L’invention de l’Europe. Seuil, Paris. Also : Emmanuel TODD (2011) : L’origine des systèmes familiaux. Gallimard, Paris.

[3]           See: Karl POPPER (1968): The logic of scientific discovery. Harper & Row, New York.

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