“Agriculture is an occupation of steady anxiety and privation, in which thousands of men are obliged to painfully vegetate." In a village in Normandy, “nearly all the inhabitants, not excepting the farmers and proprietors, eat barley bread and drink water, living like the most wretched of men, so as to provide for the payment of the taxes with which they are overburdened.” In the same province, at Forges, “many poor creatures eat oat bread, and others bread of soaked bran, this nourishment causing many deaths among infants." People evidently live from day to day; whenever the crop proves poor they lack bread. Let a frost come, a hailstorm, an inundation, and an entire province is incapable of supporting itself until the coming year; in many places even an ordinary winter suffices to bring on distress. On all sides hands are seen outstretched to the king, who is the universal almoner. The people may be said to resemble a man attempting to wade through a pool with the water up to his chin, and who, losing his footing at the slightest depression, sinks down and drowns. Existent charity and the fresh spirit of humanity vainly strive to rescue them; the water has risen too high. It must subside to a lower level, and the pool be drawn off through some adequate outlet. Thus far the poor man catches breath only at intervals, running the risk of drowning at every moment.
II. THE PEASANTS.
The condition of the peasant during the last thirty years of the Ancient Regime. — His precarious subsistence. — State of agriculture. - Uncultivated farms. — Poor cultivation. — Inadequate wages. — Lack of comforts.
Between 1750 and 1760, the idlers who eat suppers begin to regard with compassion and alarm the laborers who go without dinners. Why are the latter so impoverished; and by what misfortune, on a soil as rich as that of France, do those lack bread who grow the grain? In the first place many farms remain uncultivated, and, what is worse, many are deserted. According to the best observers “one-quarter of the soil is absolutely lying waste. . . . Hundreds and hundreds of arpents of heath and moor form extensive deserts." Let a person traverse Anjou, Maine, Brittany, Poitou, Limousin, la Marche, Berry, Nivernais, Bourbonnais and Auvergne, and he finds one-half of these provinces in heaths, forming immense plains, all of which might be cultivated.” In Touraine, in Poitou and in Berry they form solitary expanses of 30,000 arpents. In one canton alone, near Preuilly, 40,000 arpents of good soil consist of heath. The agricultural society of Rennes declares that two-thirds of Brittany is lying waste. This is not sterility but decadence. The régime invented by Louis XIV has produced its effect; the soil for a century past has been reverting to a wild state.
“We see only abandoned and ruinous chateaux; the principal towns of the fiefs, in which the nobility formerly lived at their ease, are all now occupied by poor tenant herdsmen whose scanty labor hardly suffices for their subsistence, and a remnant of tax ready to disappear through the ruin of the proprietors and the desertion of the settlers.”