The Great Fear, 1789
The storming of the Bastille soon sparked troubles that spread throughout the countryside, lasting through July and August. Following a drought and the hailstorms of 1788, there had been a poor harvest followed by a harsh winter, Snow and frost damaged the vineyards and orchards in the south and frozen rivers made it difficult for importation of needed foodstuffs. Vagrancy had become rife in the rural areas as agricultural workers lost their role.
The events in Paris were fermented by La Grande Peur, or Great Fear, uprisings were fuelled by rumours that the nobles were despatching armed groups to steal crops, burn fields and attack villages. These actions would create a famine so local groups formed armed militia to defend the countryside. There was growing frustration that the Estates-General and the National Constituent Assembly had been promising reform but little was yet evident.
All this pent-up frustration was released by attacks on manor houses, against local nobles and their functionaries, against landlords and tax collectors. These actions soon drove many of the nobility out of France.
The sans-culottes (without breeches) were the lower class who protested their poor quality of life under the Ancien Régime. They were held up to be authentic exemplars of the French Revolution, living models of the revolutionary spirit. They proved to be the principal supporters of the two far-left factions of the Paris Commune, the Enragés (Enraged ones) and the Hébertists (political group associated with the journalist Jacques Hébert),
Ergotism – No nothing to do with René Descartes and his Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am!
One historian, Mary Matossian, suggested that some of the fury of the period was due to the consumption of ergot. This hallucinogenic alkaloid fungus often grew on rye and in times of strong harvests the affected crops were rejected. But as the harvest was poor the infected rye grain was used in the making of bread and thus ingested.
Ergotism has been cited as a cause of bewitchment and cited as responsible for the Salem witch trials. The fungus has been shown to cause headaches, mania and psychosis, seizures and spasms. In the Middle Ages the monks of the Order of Saint Anthony were able to treat a gangrenous effect of ergo and this led to it being named as ‘Saint Anthony’s fire’.