Thursday, October 25, 2018


This is the ninth in a series of posts on the history of French bread. The preceding post was on eighteenth century bread. Further information on bread history can be found on Facebook in the Bread History Lounge. - If you want to MAKE medieval and Renaissance bread, click here.

On October 21, 1789, a baker became one of the first victims of the Revolution. Having been accused of holding back bread, Denis François unwisely invited a woman into his shop, where she found loaves he had kept for his own use. He was at once accused of being part of a plot to deprive the people of bread. Despite a hearing which showed his innocence, the crowd dragged him to the Place de Grève and hung him from the iron bracket there which usually held a lantern. Later his head was cut off and his pregnant wife obliged to kiss his bloodied lips.

This was only the first of several spontaneous horrors which preceded the more organized massacres of the guillotine. All other issues aside, it highlights the part bread – or the lack of it – played in inciting the Revolution. This was not the first time France had experienced desperate shortages, which would not end despite the coming of the Revolution. But a combination of circumstances helped make this one fatal to the Old Regime. For one thing, since 1725 various rumors of a “famine plot” – a willful attempt to starve the people – had reappeared, so that what had been accepted as natural catastrophes now were now viewed as something more sinister. The fact that many people believed there was an organized plot to deprive them of bread only highlights the suspicions and escalating distrusts of the period. More than once, such beliefs had come dangerously close to provoking outright revolt.

Later historians have even accused the Duke of Orléans – who would later vote for the execution of his cousin, Louis XVI – of having directed such a plot in 1789. His agents are quoted as saying, “We will do everything we can to make the lack of bread total, and so that the bourgeoisie be forced to take up arms.” Supposedly in October, after the women of les Halles had brought the royal family (“the baker, the baker's wife and the baker's boy”) back to Paris, he sent wagons full of grain after them, only to cut off the supply again soon after. In one account, François and another baker had been attacked, not because they held back bread, but because they had defied secret orders from his agents to do so.

The bread shortage which came to a head (as it were) with François' death had begun earlier. It did not help that Parisians at that point expected to eat white bread: “White bread is that which is most consumed in Paris because there is not a large enough disproportion between its price and that of white-dark bread. White bread is made with wheat flour and a quarter of that of gruau [that is, the most luxurious]."

Arthur Young, an English agriculturalist who traveled through France in the years leading up to the Revolution, made this observation: “The mass of the people, in great cities, are all alike absolutely ignorant of how they are fed; and whether the bread they eat be gathered like acorns from a tree, or rained from the clouds, they are well convinced, that God Almighty sends the bread, and that they have the best possible right to eat it.”

This was as true in London as it was in Paris, but in Paris the expected bread was in increasingly short supply; and not just there. In the spring of 1788 people in the provinces were using corn bread (always rare in France). One writer commented that this would have more taste had it been made with salt, but that that had become too expensive. Soon the Finance Minister Necker claimed that the King himself was having maslin bread served at his table out of solidarity with those who lacked wheat. Further, he wrote:
Bread, already very expensive in Paris, would have considerably climbed in price without the indemnities that the King granted the Bakers and which he continues to pay them. What is more, the King has, either in Paris, or in other places, had sold wheat which he has brought from abroad at prices which cause him immense loss, and these sales have contributed to moderating the claims of other sellers.
Young saw trouble brewing all through the country: “Everything conspires to render the present period in France critical; the want of bread is terrible; accounts arrive every moment from the provinces of riots and disturbances, and calling in the military, to preserve the peace of the markets;” “It was represented to [the king], that the want of bread was so great in every part of the kingdom, that there was no extremity to which the people might not be driven;” “The price of bread has prepared the populace everywhere for all sorts of violence; at Lyons there have been commotions as furious as at Paris, and the same at a great many other places: Dauphine is in arms: and Bretagne in absolute rebellion."; "The answer was in effect the same from all I put this question to: We are a provincial town, we must wait to see what is done in Paris; but every thing is to be feared from the people, because bread is so dear, they are half starved, and are consequently ready for commotion."

These words quickly proved prophetic.

Matters did not greatly improve under the Revolution. Bread was rationed for the first time in French history and it became necessary to have a “bread card” to receive one's ration.

The Revolutionary authorities eliminated the system of trades groups which had come to dominate all industries. This included bread-baking. But they soon found they had to re-institute controls and in July 1791 they passed a law "whose temporary application to baking," Bataillard wrote bitterly in 1869, "still has not been ended in the year of Our Lord 1869." This law reestablished price controls on butchers and bakers while banning them on all other industries. In July 26-28, 1793, the Law of the Maximum established the death penalty for those convicted of having “removed merchandise of first necessity from circulation, of having closed them up in any place whatsoever with putting up for sale daily and publicly.” Such limits applied between regions. A miller who had been storing grain to send to Paris was told Paris had no more right than Versailles to be supplied (he then said he was leaving the profession).

It was during this period that bakers began to put metal bars on their windows to resist assaults by the famished population. A baker's son wrote decades later: “Each bakery was, in a way, a fortress compared to other shops. It is that in fact bakers were obliged to defend themselves against sudden invasions by the people. I who speak to you, I have seen masses pour into my father's shop breaking down the doors to have bread.”

Otherwise, given how thoroughly the French revolutionaries sought to reinvent society – even changing the names of the months – perhaps the most striking thing about bread for much of the period is how little it seems to have changed. In 1794, as the Revolutionary armies invaded Belgium, regulations for that country noted that “the penury of bread increases daily” and ordered bakers who had stopped selling bread to the public to continue baking. It also forbid people from profiteering; that is buying bread from bakers and re-selling it at a higher price. Yet the types of bread it named at this point were not greatly different from breads which had existed before: maslin bread, pain de ménage, even a type of bread called “Gonesse” (no doubt finer, but certainly not from the town of that name). In most localities, this seems to have been the case for several years. In the sixth year of the Revolution, bread in the Aube was still priced as white and dark (though the white may have been stale). There was however one major exception.

Equality bread

In 1793, the Commune decided to establish the uniformity of bread because, they said “rich and poor must equally disappear in a regime of equality.” With this thought, the Commune took, on November 2, a decision which forbade in the future making two sorts of bread, a bread with the best flour for the rich, a bran bread for the poor: “all bakers will be required, under pain of incarceration, to make a single and good type of bread, equality bread.”

On November 16 (Brumaire 26, year II), the Convention ordered that only one type of bread be made: the pain d'égalité (equality bread). The idea was that all classes should eat the same bread. This was not merely an attempt to enforce universal equality; the hope was that eliminating variety in breads would increase supply. Nor was this an entirely revolutionary concept; Necker wrote in 1789: “I would already have proposed to His Majesty to order that only a single dark bread of pure wheat be made in Paris, by means of which the necessary quantity for thirty days supply would have sufficed for forty.” But rather than choosing a common, but average, bread like gros pain, or even the dark bread Necker had proposed, the Convention opted, not for the lowest common denominator, but for something slightly below it.

On November 26 (Frimaire 6), the General Council outlined more specific instructions to take effect on December 6:
Bakers will only cook a single type of bread.
The quality of this bread will be that resulting from a mix of three quarts of wheat and one quart of rye.
Bakers will cook loaves of 8 pounds, of 4 pounds and of one pound; they will not be allowed to use other divisions.
The price of equality bread is fixed as follows:
The 8 pound loaf, 1 livre.
The 4 pound loaf, 10 sols, 6 deniers
The one pound loaf, 3 sols.
By several accounts, the result was equality in at least one sense: people of all classes hated it equally. Several authors mention the expectation of even the poorest people that they would get white bread, at least since the start of the eighteenth century, and this bread is most succinctly described as brown bread (very bad brown bread). Nor can it help that it was said to contain a lot of bran – bran was used to make bread for dogs. Though at the start of 1794 – after a bad harvest –, the journalist Mallet du Pain did write:
In all the kingdom, except Paris, only a single bread is eaten, called equality bread; it is mixed with rye or with barley and bran. It cannot compare to the good soldiers' bread, but the city dweller and the villager are too happy to have this kind, and if a farmer or a burgher had the idea of making better bread for his use, in reserving the equality bread for his valets, he would be denounc'ed, inca'rcerated, pillaged and probably have his throat cut.
Note his unfavorable comparison to the good soldiers' bread. The latter was made in different ways over the decades, but one thing had always held true: it was considered the worst bread in France. Except, apparently, during the period of “equality bread”.

The fact that the sick and fragile were often excused from eating this bread may also be sufficient comment on its quality.

The nationally mandated bread was not the first to be made; several pains d'égalité had been declared in various localities almost from the start, made in different ways:  “As of August 1, 1789, our administrators have prescribed the making of a standard bread, with equal quantities of wheat, of rye and of rice, known by the name of pain d'égalité” In 1792, it was decided in Chartres that “bread must be the same for all; bakers must mix a sack of flour of superior quality, one of inferior quality and another of third quality, to make the pain d'égalité.” In 1794 (Nivoise 9, year III), Saint-Ybars ("Montybars", during the Revolution) in the Ariège, declared that:
No baker can make anything but pain d'égalité, which will be half wheat and half millet; that this bread will only be delivered for coupons for a pound and a half a day; that nonetheless the said bakers can make a quantity of white bread for the sick and the old only, a quantity which will be fixed for them by the municipality and that it will only given to the said sick and infirm recognized and as mandated, all on pain of fifty livres fine.
From November 1793, only equality bread was sold at Guingamp. It was a mix of rye and wheat and the same for all; in February 1794, the bread was made in Verdun with two thirds wheat flour and one third of barley flour; in January 1795, white bread was again made, in Clermont-Ferrand at least, and probably nationally.

The experiment with equality bread was relatively short-lived. The Revolution itself went through so many changes in a short period that it is hard to say if it would have succeeded had the context around it not shifted. But the bread seems to have been unpopular from the start and the experiment has remained unique in French history.

Meanwhile, in 1794, the problem got worse; wheat was even ordered from America, but took too long to arrive.

Pain bénit banned

It is not surprising that, when ordinary bread was reduced to its lowest common denominator, a luxurious bread associated with religion would be banned. For centuries, congregants had shared the pain bénit by one of their number to be distributed at mass. But in the same year, the Directory of the Department of the Côte-d'Or ordered that pain-bénit no longer be made, citing the population's “ill-founded” concern for shortages:
27 Brumaire, year II (17 November), 1793
Order by the Directory of the Department of the Côte-d'Or
The general Council... considering that in a moment where people are alarmed about subsistances, it is the administration's duty, although these alarms are ill-founded, to see to the conservation of flours which are rendered useless by some religious abuses;
That the oblation known by the name of pain-beni, is an abuse of this sort, since the quantity of bread consumed for this oblation comes to over two hundred thousand livres a year in the Department; that this very considerable consumption is a real loss, since it does not nourish a single individual;
That what is more, the oblation of pain-beni being required, by custom, from all the citizens who live in the place where a minister of the catholic religion resides, it can be contrary to the public tranquility in the Commune where one of them rising to the level of the principles of Reason, refuses the said oblation; that it is onerous for several citizens who take from their necessaries the expenses occasioned by this oblation;
Art. I – That starting on the day of the publication of the present order, the oblation of pain-beni will end in all the temples of the Catholic cult
Still, years of shortages and revolution had not made the French any less particular about their bread. On 5 ventose year II (February 23, 1794), a local group in the Var complained to their town fathers that the local baker made “an insipid bread, badly kneaded, badly risen and badly baked” and asked that he be replaced and the new baker obliged to make “a good household bread and not a luxurious one, but a republican bread.” In general, even as the Revolution gave way to an emperor, the French would remain unhappy about their bread for some time.


The end of the Reign of Terror brought some softening of controls but in October 1801, the prefect of police got permission from Napoleon (still First Consul) to put baking directly under the administration's control. In 1811, the old system of price controls was reestablished, to the enduring displeasure of Parisian bakers.

Otherwise, the period between the Revolution and the end of Napoleon's rule is something of a Bermuda triangle in French bread history. Details survive certainly, but none fully explain how different bread was in many ways before the Revolution and after Napoleon's time. A modern visitor to an eighteenth century bakery would have seen some bread that looked familiar, yet different, but still more that would not; the same visitor might give different names to some of those in a nineteenth century bakery, but would not for the most part find them unfamiliar.