How did the 18th century French aristocracy regard the poor?
December 29, 2014 2:17 PM   Subscribe

The popular perception of Versailles and the 18th century French aristocracy holds that they showed a casual disregard for the the struggles of the poor. This surely has truth to it, but the famous "let them eat cake" anecdote quite likely never happened – so can you point me to any other evidence (letters, anecdotes, trial proceedings, etc) of how the French ruling class actually regarded the poor?
posted by dontjumplarry to Society & Culture (4 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I read a question about Marie Antoinette specifically on /r/AskHistorians some time ago. The asker was pointed to the memoirs of Madame Campan, some of which are summarized here along with some secondary sources. Of particular interest:
The King and Queen were patrons of the Maison Philanthropique, a society which helped the aged, blind and widows. The queen taught her daughter Madame Royale to wait upon peasant children, to sacrifice her Christmas gifts so as to buy fuel and blankets for the destitute, and to bring baskets of food to the sick. Marie-Antoinette started a home for unwed mothers at the royal palace. She adopted three poor children to be raised with her own, as well overseeing the upbringing of several needy children, whose education she paid for, while caring for their families. She brought several peasant families to live on her farm at Trianon, building cottages for them. There was food for the hungry distributed every day at Versailles, at the King’s command.

During the famine of 1787-88, the royal family sold much of their flatware to buy grain for the people, and themselves ate the cheap barley bread in order to be able to give more to the hungry. There were many other things they did; what I mentioned here is taken from Vincent Cronin’s Louis and Antoinette, as well as Marguerite Jallut’s and Philippe Huisman’s biography of the Marie-Antoinette. The royal couple’s almsgiving stopped only with their incarceration in the Temple in August 1792, for then they had nothing left to give but their lives.
Of course, none of this speaks to the aristocracy in general, but might be somewhat illuminating in the case of the king and queen's attitudes toward the poor.

The "let them eat cake" thing was possibly in reference to Joseph Foullon de Doué, who was Louis XIV's Controller-General of Finances. Again, it was an unsubstantiated rumor, but he supposedly said, "If those rascals have no bread, let them eat hay." He attempted to escape when the trouble began, but he was caught and eventually beheaded, and his mouth was stuffed with hay before his head was attached to a pike.
posted by xyzzy at 2:46 PM on December 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

One of the most profound and impactful concepts that informed the class system is The Great Chain of Being.

The basic idea is that each thing on the earth was born exactly where God wanted it to be. To aspire above your station was seen to be heretical. This served the class system very well. So those born into royalty or high classes assumed their rank to be God-given. Those born in poverty were seen to be less favored by God, deserving of their lower status.

The aristocracy were responsible for the lower classes and were charged with providing for them.

This is why the Industrial Revolution was so disruptive, it allowed people to work hard and improve their class. In an agrarian society this really wasn't possible.

And this friends is what my English degree with a concentration in Victorian Literature is good for.

Some modern Christians still subscribe to this theory. They believe that they are favored by God and that's why they have wealth and power and prosperity. They blame the poor and lower classes for their situation, and the assumption is that God wants them to be there. The weird thing is that they DON'T have the responsibility to provide for the poor, in fact, they believe that they are robbing the poor of God's potential favor by providing charity to them.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:31 AM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

This isn't really a direct answer to your question, but there's a great, ongoing podcast called Revolutions, which has covered the English Civil War and the American Revolution and is now in the midst of covering the French Revolution.

One thing that's struck me about it is how little the events of the revolution were driven by the poor. It largely started as a tax revolt by wealthy landowners who wanted to limit the power of the king to tax, and wanted to reform an unbearably convoluted system of internal tariffs and local governments. By the time the mob got heavily involved, it was after years of the newly wealthy middle class, nobles and clergy going after each other tooth and nail , while the king was essentially held hostage, until the government was completely non-functioning.

I'd wager that the aristocracy didn't really consider the poor at all until it was too late.

If you want a detailed examination of the topic, I think the book you want is this one.

A bit of trivia: Most people in France didn't speak French until the 20th century. In the 18th century, it was something like 12%.
posted by empath at 7:21 AM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

empath: A bit of trivia: Most people in France didn't speak French until the 20th century. In the 18th century, it was something like 12%.
On this aside: they spoke instead regional French languages like Walloon, Picard, Norman, various langues d'Oc, etc - most of which were highly differentiated French dialects or sister-languages.

They were probably unable to communicate in either direction with residents of l'Isle de Paris, so: different languages, but it's not like they spoke German and Spanish, instead.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:18 PM on December 30, 2014

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