Peasants, Rise Up! The Croquants of the 17th Century

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This article
is excerpted from An
Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1,
Economic Thought Before Adam Smith
. An MP3 audio file of
this article, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available
for download
.

Seventeenth-century
French kings and their minions did not impose an accelerating burden
of absolutism without provoking grave, deep, and continuing opposition.
Indeed, there were repeated rebellions by groups of peasants and
nobles in France from the 1630s to the 1670s. Generally, the focus
of discontent and uprising was rising taxes, as well as the losses
of rights and privileges. There were also similar rebellions in
Spain in mid-century, and in autocratic Russia throughout the seventeenth
century.

Consider, for
example, the remonstrances of the peasants in the first great French
rebellion of the seventeenth century, the croquants’ (literally,
"crunchers") revolt in 1636 in south-western France. The
croquants’ rebellion was precipitated by a sudden near-doubling
of direct taxes upon the peasantry to raise funds for the war against
Spain. The intendant La Force, sent to investigate the disturbances,
reported on the peasants’ grievances and demands. The peasants focused
on the eternal and accelerating increases of taxation. They pointed
out that in the reign of Henry IV more taxes had been collected
than in all previous reigns of the monarchy taken together; and
that in but two years of the reign of Louis XIII they had paid more
than in all the years of Henry IV.

The peasants
also protested that the royal tax-collectors carried off their cattle,
clothes and tools, merely to cover the costs of enforcement, so
that the principal of the tax debt could never be reduced. The result
was ruin. Deprived of their means of labor, the peasants had been
forced to leave their fields untilled, and even to leave their ancient
lands and beg for bread. In a letter to his superior, La Force feels
compelled to endorse their complaints: "It is not, Monseigneur,
that I am not, by natural feeling, touched with very great compassion
when I see the extraordinary poverty in which these people live."

The peasants
protested that they were not subversives; they were willing to pay
the old customary taxes, provided the recent increases were repealed.
New taxes should only be imposed in extreme emergencies, and then
only by the states-general (which hadn’t met since 1615, and was
not to meet again until the eve of the French Revolution). Like
deluded subjects at all times and places, the peasants placed the
blame for their ills not on the king himself but on his evil and
tyrannical ministers, who had led the sovereign astray. The peasants
insisted that they had had to revolt in order that "their cries
may reach the ears of the King himself and no longer just those
of his Ministers, who advise him so badly." Whether a ruler
be king or president, it is convenient for him to preserve his popularity
by deflecting protest and hostility to advisers or prime ministers
who surround him.

But despite
this unfortunate limitation, the croquants had the insight
and the wit to zero in on the "public interest" myth propounded
by the royal ministers. The "needs of the state," the
peasants declared, were only a "pretext for enriching a few
private persons" – the hated tax farmers, who had bought
the privilege from the Crown of collecting taxes which then went
into their pockets; and the "creatures of the man who rules
the state," i.e., Richelieu and his entourage. The peasants
called for the abolition of courtiers’ pensions, as well as the
salaries of all the newly created officials.

The
following year, 1637, the croquants of the neighboring region
of Périgord rose in rebellion. Addressing King Louis XIII,
the commune of Périgord set forth its reasons for the revolt:
"Sire … we have taken an unusual step in the way we have
expressed our grievances, but this is so that we may be listened
to by Your Majesty." Their overriding grievance was against
the tax farmers and tax officials, who "have sent among us
a thousand thieves who eat up the flesh of the poor husbandmen to
the very bones, and it is they who have forced them to take up arms,
changing their ploughshares for swords, in order to ask Your Majesty
for justice or else to die like men."

Shaken by the
rebellion, the Crown organized its faithful servitors. The royal
printer, F. Mettayer, published a statement by the "inhabitants
of the town of Poitiers," denouncing the "seditious"
commune of Périgord. The Poitiers men declared that "We
know, as Christians and loyal Frenchmen, that the glory of Kings
is to command, while the glory of subjects, whoever they may be,
is to obey in all humility and willing submission … following
God’s express commandment." All the people of France know that
the king is the life and soul of the state. The king is directly
guided by the Holy Spirit, and further, "by the superhuman
decisions of your royal mind and the miracles accomplished in your
happy reign, we perceive plainly that God holds your heart in his
hand." There is therefore only one explanation for the rebellion,
concluded the Poitiers loyalists: the rebels must be tools of Satan.

Not all the
Catholics agreed, nor even the Catholic clergy of France. In 1639,
an armed rebellion broke out in Normandy, resting on two demands:
an opposition to oppressive taxation, and a call for Norman autonomy
as against the centralized Parisian regime. It was a multiclass
movement of the relatively poor, grouped together in an "army
of suffering," and calling themselves the Nu-Pieds –
the barefoot ones – after the salt-makers in the southwestern
Norman region of Avranches, who walked barefoot on the sand. The
general of the army was a mythical figure named Jean Nu-Pieds; the
actual directorate of the army consisted of four priests from the
Avranches area, of whom the leader was Father Jean Morel, parish
priest of Saint-Gervais. Morel called himself "Colonel Sandhills,"
but he was a poet-propagandist as well as army commander. In his
"manifesto of the High Unconquerable Captain Jean Nu-Pieds,
General of the Army of Suffering," directed against the "men
made rich by their taxes," Father Morel wrote,

And
I, shall I leave a people languishing

Beneath
the heel of tyranny, and allow a crowd of outsiders [non-Normans]

To oppress
this people daily with their tax-farms?

The reference
to "outsiders" shows the continuing strength of particularist,
or separatist national movements in France, in this case Normandy.
The Norman and croquants movements were rising against centralizing
Parisian imperialism imposed only recently on independent or autonomous
nations as much as against the high taxes themselves.

Reprinted
from Mises.org.

Murray
N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic
vice president of the Mises
Institute
. He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell —
of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor.

The
Best of Murray Rothbard

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