Peasants In The 18Th Century Essay, Research Paper
When studying 18th century history one will often read about insightful intellects, powerful leaders, or even great military figures, but generally overlooked are the common people. These men, women, and children that make up the peasant society paid the taxes that supported militaries, upheld the land, and, in turn, contributed to history equally to the aforementioned figures. In the 18th century French peasants made up eighty to eighty five percent of the population, yet their presence in the culture is not focused on. The hardships that peasants went through, from poverty to malnutrition and even death, molded the peasant society into a culture of its own.
People with an abundance of wealth and power have been redundantly dominant throughout history. With this domination a social ladder unfolds itself, with the wealthiest and most powerful at the top and the commoners at the bottom. The French commoners of the 18th century, from begging peasants to wealthier peasants, were dominated in every aspect of their life by anyone who felt they were above them. While the monarchy was putting the burden of taxes on their shoulders, the noblemen were raping them of whatever remains they had through obligations and fees. The poverty that followed peasants led them to a life not fit for humans. In Professor Gerhard Rempel’s “The 18th Century Town and Its Inhabitants” it shows that in France by the end of the century ten percent of the population were dependent on charity or begging for food for survival (2). In one incident the French authorities attempted to round up vagrants and beggars and incarcerate them for eighteen months, but this accomplished virtually nothing because the problem was socioeconomic (3). In Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History he speaks of peasant village life as being a “struggle for survival” (26). The family’s expenses and responsibilities included taxes, tithes to the church, and feeding the family. By the end of the 18th century millions of these people in poverty went searching for a better life, but found themselves in a life of smugglers, highwaymen, pickpockets, and prostitutes (26).
Along with poverty came a problem for virtually all peasants: diet. In Merry E. Wiesner’s “A Statistical view of European Rural Life 1600-1800” it shows that the common peasants diet included bread, cheese, and butter. Because of strict laws forbidding hunting, meat was rarely part of their diet, which led them to be malnourished, since they did not meet the daily requirements in all of the food groups needed for a healthy person, which constitutes 2,500 calories to function normally. Also a part of the peasants diets was alcohol, as stated in Jerome Blum’s “The Peasants”, in large amounts of consumption by men, women, and often children (58). According to Document 4 of Wiesner’s study, the salary of the typical agricultural worker would remain fairly consistent, but the problem peasants faced was that food prices kept rising, therefore they could not afford to purchase enough, if any, food (106). Primitive techniques of farming kept the diet below standards by producing a negative grain yield. At a ratio of about five to one farmers could not raise enough grain to feed large numbers of animals, and they did not have enough livestock to produce the manure to fertilize the fields to increase the yield (Darnton 25). The diet of the peasant caused them to be unhealthy and weak, in addition to being more susceptible to disease.
With poverty and a malnourished society a large number of mortality rates became abundant. The life expectancy of the common peasant was around forty-five years of age. About forty-five percent of the French born men in the eighteenth century reached death before the age of ten and few of those men reached adulthood before having lost at least one of their parents (Darnton 27). Weisner‘s statistics showed that the months that had the highest mortality rate were February through April, and the month of October (111). October was during harvest time, and perhaps people had the most contact with each other, causing them to be more vulnerable to spreading and catching diseases. During February to April, temperatures were freezing, which would lead to death by the cold or by starvation. Another statistical view shows the infant and child mortality rate in France during the 17th and 18th centuries vary from 580 to 672 deaths out of every one thousand births, due to sanitation and lack of decent technology (110).
The eighteenth century was a time of revolution in which even poor peasants were given the opportunity to excel and become wealthy, but the struggling peasants at the bottom rarely saw changes, in which their life was a constant battle. These peasants were treated as mere cattle, and therefore went through tremendous hardships and struggle. These men, women, and children faced poverty, malnutrition, and death in their everyday lives. Through these struggles a new culture arose that represented the majority of France.