Episode 13: The Great Fear


Episode 13, “The Great Fear” examines the fallout of the storming of the Bastille. Paris celebrates, the countryside revolts, and across the nation a municipal revolution takes place.

Response of the Court

With Paris in open rebellion against the crown, all eyes turned to the King. Louis was greeted with applause by the Assembly’s deputies once his peaceful intentions were clear. Upon hearing the news of their safety, the Electors of Paris, the self-installed municipal government of the city, cemented their authority by naming Jean Sylvain Bailly mayor of the city. Furthermore, the Marquis de Lafayette was named the commander of the city’s new militia, shortly to be known as the National Guard.

The lack of a military option

On the 16th of July, the Comte Artois argued forcibly for the King to recommit his troops to the fight. Yet the War Minister Marshal de Broglie argued against Artois’ plan. Stating that he lacked enough reliable men to subdue Paris, Broglie argued that the insubordination which festered within the army prevented suppression from being a viable option. For that same reason, the Queen’s plan of transferring the court to a frontier city like Metz was also unachievable. In short, the King was advised that the military force available was just too unreliable to be of any use. The King had no choice but to back down.

Historian Hilaire Belloc argues that the reliability of royal troops was just part of the problem. The other part was their insufficient number to tame a city the size of Paris.

“The foreign mercenary troops who were mainly employed in the repression of the popular feeling therein, were not sufficient to impose anything like a siege. They could at the various gates have stopped the provisioning of the city, but then at any one of those separate points, any one of their detachments upon a long perimeter more than a day’s march in circumference would certainly have been attacked and almost as certainly overwhelmed by masses of partially armed civilians.

Could the streets have been cleared while the ferment was rising ? It is very doubtful. They were narrow and tortuous in the extreme, the area to be dealt with was enormous, the tradition of barricades not forgotten, and the spontaneous action of that excellent fighting material which a Paris mob contains, had been quite as rapid as anything that could have been effected by military orders.

The one great fault was the neglect to cover the Invalides, but even had the Invalides not been looted, the stock of arms and powder in the city would have been sufficient to have organised a desperate and prolonged resistance.

The local auxiliary force (of slight military value, it is true), the “”French Guards,”” as they were called, were wholly with the people. And in general, the Crown must be acquitted of any considerable blunder on the military side of this struggle. It certainly did not fail from lack of will.” – Historian Hilaire Belloc

Necker’s return & The King’s trip to Paris on the 17th

Having accepted the necessity of retreat, the King recalled Necker.  However, the return of Necker would not be enough to solidify the King’s concessions and restore calm to Paris. King Louis would need to go to the capital. 

Foreign ambassadors noted the humiliating scene that Louis found himself in as he entered the city, and Mayor Bailly exacerbated the King’s humiliation as he presented Louis with the keys of the city.

“The Revolution in the French Constitution and Government may now, I think, be looked upon as completed, beyond all fears of  any further attempts being made by the Court Party to defeat it. The entrance of the King into Paris was certainly one of the most humiliating steps that he could possibly take. He was actually led in triumph like a tame bear by the Deputies and the City Militia.” – The British Ambassador 

“It is certain that during his journey there were very few cries of ‘Vive le Roi!”… whereas on all sides there were shouts of ‘Vive la Nation!'” –  The Austrian Ambassador 

“These are the same keys that were presented to Henri IV; he had conquered his people; now it is his people who have conquered their King.” – Jean Sylvain Bailly 

Impact of the fall of the Bastille

Outside of Paris and Versailles the fall of the Bastille created a huge disruption to everyday life. In both the towns and the countryside, anarchy was about to be unleashed.

“If, however, the insurrection had been confined to the capital, the Revolution could never have developed to the extent of resulting in the demolition of ancient privileges. The insurrection at the centre had been necessary to strike at the central Government, to shake it down, to demoralise its defenders. But to destroy the power of the Government in the provinces, to strike at the old régime through its governmental prerogatives and its economic privileges, a widespread rising of the people was necessary in cities, towns and villages. This is exactly what came about in the course of July throughout the length and breadth of France.” – Historian Peter Kropotkin

“A new reign commenced. The head of the great house of Bourbon, the heir of so much power and glory, on whom rested the tradition of Louis  XIV., was unfit to exert, under jealous control, the narrow measure of authority that remained. For the moment there was none. Anarchy in the capital gave the signal for anarchy in the provinces, and anarchy at that moment had a terrible meaning.” – Historian John Dalberg-Acton

Unrest in the urban communities and the municipal revolution

News of the events of Paris mixed with the already deadly combination of empty stomachs and conspiracy-induced fear. Before long, millers and farmers who the mob deemed to be hoarding grain were attacked or killed, forests were ravaged for deer and rabbits, ponds were drained for fish, pigeons killed en masse. Inevitably the scope and severity of the violence expanded over time. In Agde, the Bishop made the mistake of refusing to surrender the rights to the local mill and was killed as a result. In Troyes the mayor was killed, and in Marseilles the garrison was disarmed, while across the country prisons were liberated, forts occupied, and arsenals ransacked.

The violent disturbances of Paris had rippled throughout France, and many in the Third were worried that things were getting out of hand. In response to the violence, and as news spread that the Electors of Paris had taken over the city and established a new city government, many towns established their own municipal governments. 

The Great Fear

The unrest in the urban communities paled in comparison to the chaos that began to unfold in the countryside. Rumours spread throughout the countryside that brigands, bandits and mercenaries had been unleashed upon France by the evil Comte Artois, the sinister Queen and other members of the counter-revolution. In response to this alarming series of events, real and imagined, the French peasantry unleashed an event we know as the Great Fear.

In response to the rumours, peasants gathered in large numbers, armed themselves, and began patrolling nearby territory for brigands, bandits, mercenaries and foreign troops.

“It is said that several thousand armed brigands coming from Montmorency plains are causing considerable damage, cutting the green wheat, pillaging people’s houses, even murdering anyone who opposes their designs. Women and children who fled the bloodshed arrive in tears from these places: orders are already given and the civic militia hasten to these places, along with cannon; after a forced march they finally arrive; there is general alarm, and the tocsin can be heard in every parish. And then, who would believe it? There are no enemies and no brigands, and it is hard to know how the alarm could have started.” – Revolutions de Paris, 27th of July 1789

Stories of armed militias and peasants finding no bandits are common. One amusing story orginitating near Angouleme details how a dust storm was interrupted as a sign of an impending brigand army preparing to attack. Another story, from the 24th of July, details how three thousand men assembled to hunt down brigands only find a herd of cows. No evil forces of the counter-revolution were found. The peasants were readying themselves to fight against the counterattack of abouslism, yet royal absolutism was still in shell shock. It would be some time until the forces of counter-revolution could marshall its troops onto the field. 

“The revolutionary consciousness, from 1789 on, was informed by the illusion of defeating a state that had already ceased to exist.” – Historian Francois Furet

The defeat of feudalism

Feudalism created many hardships for the peasants. In short, feudal rights were an all-encompassing burden on the peasantry, and with royal authority non-existent, the newly assembled armed peasants bands decided to rectify centuries of injustice. Chateaux were ransacked and burnt, dovecotes were destroyed, free pasturage was reclaimed, common areas were taken back, tools and animals were distributed amongst the raiding peasants. Those who tried to stop this application of common justice were assaulted or killed. Perhaps most importantly, the peasants seemed to possess a homing beacon on feudal dues. 

“There was not one action in rural life that did not require the peasants to pay a ransom. I shall simply cite with no further commentary: the right of assise over animal used for ploughing, the right of seigniorial ferries for crossing rivers, the right of leide that was imposed on goods at markets and stalls, the right of seigniorial police on minor roads, the right of fishing in rivers, the right to dig wells and manage ponds…, the right of fire, fouage and chimney which imposed a kind of building tax on all the villages houses, and finally the most hated of all, the exclusive right to hunt…Feudal rights thus extended their clutches over every force of nature, everything that grew, moved, breathed; the rivers with their fish, the fire burning in the oven to bake the peasant’s poor bread mixed with oats and barely, the wind that turned the mill for grinding corn, the wine spurting on from the press, the game that emerged from the forests or high pastures to ravage vegetable plots and fields.” – Historian Jean Jaures

“There no longer exists either executive power, laws, magistrates or police” – The Venetian Ambassador

A horrible anarchy prevails.” – The Venetian Ambassador

“The populace, attributing to the Lords of the kingdom the high price of grain, is fiercely against all that belongs to them. All reasoning fails: this unrestrained populace listens only to its own fury….” – The Duke of Montmorency


One key debate surrounding the Great Fear revolves around class warfare. Is all this aristocrat hanging, chateaux burning, feudal right destroying activity an example of class warfare, or does this great anarchy merely result in only some wealthy elites being targeted simply because they happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? 

Historian Peter Kropotkin argues for the case that the Great Fear is not an example of blatant class warfare.

“For a large number of the poorer nobles, residing in the country and perhaps loved by those round them, the revolted peasantry showed much personal regard. They did them no harm but the registers and title-deeds of feudal landlordism they never spared. They burned them, after compelling the lord to swear that he would relinquish his rights. Like the middle classes  of the towns) who knew well what they wanted and what they expected from the Revolution, the peasants also knew very well what they wanted; the lands stolen from the communes should be given back to them, and all the dues begotten by feudalism should be wiped out. The idea that the rich people as a whole should be wiped out, too, may have filtered through from that time; but at the moment the jacquerie confined its attention to things, and if there were cases where the persons of some lords were ill-treated, they were isolated cases, and may generally be explained by the fact that they were speculators, men who had made money out of the scarcity. If the land-registers were given up and the oath of renunciation taken, all went off quietly: the peasants burned the registers, planted a May-tree in the village, hung on its boughs the feudal emblems, and then danced round the tree. Otherwise, if there had been resistance, or if the lord or his steward had called in the police, if there had been any shooting — then the châteaux was completely pillaged, and often it was set on fire. Thus, it is reckoned that thirty châteaux were Plundered or burnt in the Dauphiné, nearly forty in the Franche — Comté, sixty-two in the Mâconnais and the Beaujolais, nine only in the Auvergne, and twelve monasteries and five châteaux in the Viennois. We may note, by the way, that the peasants made no distinctions for political opinions. They attacked, therefore, the houses of “patriots” as well as those of “aristocrats.” – Historian Peter Kropotkin

The personal experience of Arthur Young contradicts Kropotkin’s opinion. The Englishmen was traveling the countryside when it fell into disarray, and far from being left alone, his experience of peasant mobs was quite different. 

“The whole country is in the greatest agitation; at one of the little towns I passed, I was questioned for not having a cockade of the tiers etat. They said it was ordained by the tiers, and, if I was not a Seigneur, I ought to obey. But suppose I am a Seigneur, what then, my friends?—What then? they replied sternly, why, be hanged; for that most likely is what you deserve. It was plain this was no moment for joking, the boys and girls began to gather, whose assembling has every where been the preliminaries of mischief; and if I had not declared myself an Englishman, and ignorant of the ordinance, I had not escaped very well.” – Arthur Young

Young’s experience lines up more with those historians who, unlike Kropotkin, believe that the wealthy were targeted as a general rule, and that class tensions were a core fuel for this revolt.

“Here the situation is more tragic, for it is war in the midst of peace, a war of the brutal and barbaric multitude against the highly cultivated, well-disposed and confiding, who had not anticipated anything of the kind, who had not even dreamt of defending themselves, and who had no protection….. Throughout the country scattered chateaux are swallowed up by the popular tide, and, as the feudal rights are often in plebeian hands, it insensibly rises beyond its first overflow.  — There is no limit to an insurrection against property. This one extends from abbeys and chateaux to the “houses of the bourgeoisie.” The grudge at first was confined to the holders of charters; now it is extended to all who possess anything.  Well-to-do farmers and priests abandon their parishes and fly to the towns. Travelers are put to ransom. Thieves, robbers, and returned convicts, at the head of armed bands, seize whatever they can lay their hands on. Cupidity becomes inflamed by such examples; on domains which are deserted and in a state of confusion, where there is nothing to indicate a master’s presence, all seems to lapse to the first comer.  A small farmer of the neighborhood has carried away wine and returns the following day in search of hay. All the furniture of a chateau in Dauphin is removed, even to the hinges of the doors, by a large reinforcement of carts. — ” It is the war of the poor against the rich,” says a deputy, “and, on the 3rd of August, the Committee on Reports declares to the National Assembly “that no kind of property has been spared.” – Historian Hippolyte A. Taine

Grey History