Society at the time of Saint Vincent de Paul (II)

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoAt the time of Vincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: José María Ibáñez, C.M. · Year of first publication: 2008 · Source: Third Asian Vincentian Institute (Mother House, Paris, September-December 2006).
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I. Demographical aspect

The society of Vincent de Paul’s era was solidly rooted in a territory of almost one half million square kilometres. In this territory there were about twenty million inhabitants. These statistics show that France was by far the most highly populated kingdom in Europe, with the exception of far away Russia. This demographical strength helps explain its political power.

Such a large population helped guarantee that the King of France would have substantial material resources. Among these twenty million inhabitants, at least twelve million, approximately, would have been producers, and thus, contributors.

This is where the most solid goldmine of French power for King Louis was located. It sufficed that his subjects not be miserable and that they pay their taxes, in order for the government enterprises including war to be assured, but also for the future of the country to be foreseen without serious concern. In spite of reluctance on the part of the contributors, the fiscal system in the end was tolerated, even if from our perspective it seems unequal, mediocre and oppressive. The reality of it allows one to conclude that the inhabitants continued to live, work and pay, with the exception of certain social categories and regions and some specific years. This almost constant population of twenty million inhabitants leads us to affirm that in spite of so many miserable aspects and so many tragic events, the relative richness of the country constituted one of the great factors of its stability. To this richness, must be added the varied climate, the land and the water as well as the courage and ingenuity of those who worked on the land.

For such an extensive kingdom, a population density of forty inbitants per square kilometre constituted an acceptable transform­ation, even if it seems modest by today’s standards. This optimal equilibrium between the economy and the population was what France was able to maintain, given its type of production, technical level, forms of consumption and commerce, physical customs and mentalities.

Notwithstanding the maintenance of some twenty million in­habitants, in order to examine it on a long term scale, it is important to note that this population was not young, because it aged very rapidly. The average lifespan was thirty-five years, and infant mortality claimed one in four children below the age of one year.

In a number of years, and especially over a longer course of time, the rural population would be transformed as it underwent abrupt oscil­lations that were at times quite severe. Insufficient harvests, followed by epidemics, accompanied by war, all decimated the population by claiming numerous victims. Death came in the form of three apoca­lyptic faces, at times distinct but frequently interrelated. These three forms of calamities, dreaded by humanity since the beginning of time, struck the subjects of the King of France.

1. War

War, which is always atrocious and is carried out in the forms of atrocity of the era, brought about a great number of victims, especially in the regions of Lorraine, Champagne, Picardy and the surrounding areas of Paris. The disasters of war disconcerted and destroyed the people, prevented work, commerce and trade. The armies often left in their wake, especially in the North and the East, disease, devastation, misery and death. The violent acts and the excessive abuses of the armies knew no limits.

2. Plague

Until 1650, the geography of France was affected by “the evil that spread terror.” The bubonic or pulmonary plague frequently recurred and spread through regions with devastating force. In some summers, with its brief but terrible outbreaks, it would decimate one quarter or one third of the inhabitants of a region or province. As soon as a serious epidemic erupted, panic would spread among the population. Despite the precautions and attempts to fight it, this evil invaded bodies and was transmitted across areas.

Other epidemics, less “spectacular” but perhaps more dan­gerous, brought about other “crises of mortality” in several provinces. Smallpox outbreaks took the lives of children between the ages of three and seven every five years. Influenza, malaria and dysentery cost thousands of lives, especially in times immediately following severe food shortages.

3. Hunger

Hunger made an appearance frequently and regularly especial­ly in the North, Center and East of France. Its origin was related to weather phenomena and was the consequence of an economy too dependent on grain production, an assortment of economic and social customs which created a structured mentality.

The diet of the majority of French citizens of this time consisted primarily, and sometimes solely on boiled stews, soup and bread. The diet of poor persons was predominantly grains.

The wheat harvest, at least in a part of the kingdom, was insuf­ficient to satisfy immediate needs. The land deprived of fertilizer and poorly worked produced little. The slow spread of information and limited transportation prevented rapid delivery of aid. Whenever rumors of “food shortages” spread, threats ensued and prices doubled or even tripled. It was impossible to be able to buy what was needed. Half of the population would seek out other means of sustenance, often contaminated, sending their children to beg or steal, and be­coming violently angry against those who monopolized the supplies. This led to threats, which led to attacks. Hunger during the 1630’s provoked many illnesses.

The disasters of 1649-1653 caused by four bad harvests and four consecutive famines were aggravated by bands of vagrants at the time of the Fronde civil war and by the insecurity on the roads. The correspondence written to Vincent de Paul described scenes of canni­balism and other miseries. In reality, the majority of the population had a deficient and insufficient diet. Without a doubt, the “shortage” was the main cause of the population crisis at the time of Vincent de Paul.

The fact that after one or two years of insufficient harvest, the majority of the population was reduced to disease and weakness due to hunger clearly shows the essential deficiencies of this economy and this society. At the same time, it demonstrates that the majority of the citizens did not enjoy economic independence and that they did not harvest enough to live on. The world of craftsmen and small artisans in the city did not possess sufficient resources to make up for what was lacking. Although it was harsh, this shortage made obvious both the mediocrity of economic mechanisms and the extreme inequality of the different social levels.

The great economic crisis of 1630 and those of 1648-1653 coincided with the great economic crises unleashed by the cyclical rise in the price of wheat. Consequently, it is not an exaggeration to claim that the price of wheat was a true demographic “barometer” and that a demographical crisis in its oldest form directly resulted from an economic crisis in its oldest form. If the life and death of the people depended on the price of wheat, it was because grain dominated the economy and society. This implies that the majority of the population could not harvest sufficient quantities of wheat to sustain them or that they did not have enough resources to buy it when its price increased considerably. An agricultural crisis thus led to an economic crisis, which in turn unleashed the dangers of expensive bread, hunger, unemployment, misery and death.

Nevertheless, this population, undergoing these severe repercus­sions, tried to overcome an obsession with death by a special force of vital importance: human reproduction increased at a sufficient rate to overcome the threat of death and to maintain the human race.

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