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

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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II. Economic aspect

At times, one wonders if the juridical and political systems in the society in the time of Vincent de Paul as in all of the Old Regime was “determined” by the type of economy and “means of production” where they developed. The existence of connections among the economic, social, political and even the psychological domains are surprising only to the most naive.

Frequently, the criteria of theorists, authors of “memoirs,” government officials and administrative correspondence are the sole sources used to reconstruct the old economy. This consists only in listening to and reproducing the systems of some and the declara­tions and justifications of others. All theory is first of all a testimony of the theorists and their setting. Similarly, legislative texts as well as the reams of paper from official administration testify primarily to its production site.

Another method that is slower and more humble, practiced patiently for over twenty years, seems more reliable. It consists of pain­staking analysis of parish archives. This is the sole method of achieving a quantitative way of understanding the economic aspects of society in the time of Vincent de Paul. This means that the patient historian gains in certitude what he or she loses in extension or pretension. Multiple local and provincial analyses over a twenty-year period end up constructing a view of the French economy of the 17th century that can provide a provisional synthesis.

From a current human perspective, that is, at a distance, 17th century France can be represented as an agriculturally rich land, but with greatly outdated technique. Its textile industry or “manufactu­ring,” the term used at that time, was mediocre but worthwhile for providing the peasants with economic assistance and significant national riches; however, it was not mobilized and consequently, it was sterile.

1. An economy with an overwhelming agricultural focus

To understand France at the time of Vincent de Paul, and thus its economic realities, we cannot forget that it was a rural country. Between 80 and 85% of the French in the 17th century lived in rural areas and had rural occupations. Moreover, at least 50% of textile manufacturing took place in the countryside.

This overwhelming agricultural focus translated not only into an almost anxious search for sustenance, in the form of grain, but also created a need to exchange or sell, in other words, to “buy” the money needed to pay the royal tax collectors. We will speak more about this when we refer to the topic of the social realities.

2. Mediocre industry or “manufacturing”

“Manufacturing” in the 17th century in France calls to mind a loose conglomeration of scattered workers, each relatively specialized in a simple natural product such as wool, rather than a concentration of buildings and workers grouped together.

It is necessary to emphasize the mediocrity, subordination and dependence that characterized manufacturing in relationship to the predominantly rural economy that we mentioned previously. It should also be noted that those who worked in the rural setting as wool weavers were more numerous than the salaried workers in the cities. Only those who worked in laundering, dyeing and selling had a larger work force in the city than in the countryside.

Given the fact that the metal industry was limited and that construction fluctuated, manufacturing at the time of Vincent de Paul was primarily based on textile. This predominance of textile was due to internal consumption and exportation. In requiring a significant work force, this provided a supplemental salary to several hundred thousand peasants. The textile industry, both massive and dispersed, played a much greater role that what would be imagined solely based on its production value, even though its value was only 5% of the gross national product and even though the total number of workers was only 5% of the population.

3. Transportation

Transportation, one of the means for mobilizing goods, was slow, uncomfortable and costly in 17th century France.

Transportation that was provided by the roads or routes or royal highway,” besides being unreliable, was also expensive and slow. Either dust or mud, depending on the seasons of the year and the lack of repairs due to negligence made travel interminably pro­longed. The average speed was about four or five kilometres per hour. The only form that was more rapid, the “mail transport system” could reach the dizzying rate of twenty kilometers per hour, but it required that the horse be changed at each stage. The most rapid transportation forms could travel between forty and fifty kilometers a day.

Numerous taxes or “tolls” increased the costs of transportation. Only merchants and official organizations sent merchandize by this method. And only the well-to-do travelled in horse-drawn carriages. These conditions explain the exploitation that occurred by businesses that monopolized the mail delivery system and transportation routes since the era of Louis XIII. Those exploited included Vincent de Paul.

The major form of transportation at that time was carried out on navigable rivers and by sea. If we take into account that the rivers were only navigable less than half of the year due to droughts or flood­ing, we can see that even this form of transportation was quite limited. Moreover, all the river ports were controlled by agents who demanded multiple duties and taxes, especially along the Loire River. These duties and taxes were so numerous and complicated that the best specialists today have not been able to explain them.

Mediocrity, insecurity and the elevated costs of transportation helped to reinforce the reality that France at the time of Vincent de Paul was a nation composed of an irregular mosaic of peasants in predominantly localized provinces between which communication was poor. In addition, this helps to explain very precisely the difficulty of governing it and to what extent the decisions made at the central level had difficulty reaching the extended areas of the kingdom in order to be understood and carried out. This contributed to maintain­ing the sense of provincial independence and individualistic passivity that was predominant in this era.

4. An antiquated and complicated monetary system

It is difficult to understand the monetary system of 17111 century France. All that relates to money and its history is so complicated that it can only be spoken about with an “almost scandalous simplification.”

The livre (pound) of Tours, the French monetary unit used in the 17th century had no consistent monetary value. The value of the pound in grams of silver was about eighteen towards the year 1500, eleven at about the year 1600 and about eight between the time of Richelieu and Colbert. The value plummeted by twelve. Higher in value than the pound of Tours, was a “golden ecu” and “Louis gold” which appeared beginning in 1640. There were also small coins having less value than a pound, not of any particular interest for the upper classes. Nevertheless, this was the money with which people were paid, the money that at times could better their condition. Gold and silver money, the foundation of the riches of the country, was not very abundant in France because there was little precious metal available.

Several factors made this simple monetary framework com­plicated. First of all, the value of each monetary unit was set by royal decree. This was an easy way of decreasing its value. Secondly, until 1640, the coins were poorly made, allowing skillful artisans to plunge them in acid in order to extract part of the gold or silver contained in them. In addition, different forms of foreign currency circulated in France, especially Spanish, English, Italian or imperial copper coins. This circulation of foreign currency, unlawful in theory, in the end was not only tolerated but became legal. This diversity of currency promoted frequent trading of money, even in opposition to the currency of the kingdom. At times it led to the disappearance of a market for gold coins or even at times for gold itself. All this created complicated transactions that were not always in favor of the French economy. Merchants, especially foreign traders, had particular prices set for monetary exchange: an imaginary ecu with a value of three French pounds, for example, represented the French currency on the foreign markets, principally in Amsterdam. It cannot be forgotten, however, that the Bank of Amsterdam, more stable than the rest, sustained and controlled the economy of all the United Provinces as it was the trading center for the world market. This was where merchants and French politics found wheat of the Baltic region, during times of “food shortages,” Swiss artillery and cork powder during war times, even herring for the season of Lent, and Spanish wool. Of course, they also found lenders charging high interest.

Let us note in conclusion that France in the 17th century had no State Bank, nor even a stable private bank. There were certain powerful merchants called bankers who carried out exchanges, provided loans at high interest rates and participated in complicated and unclear business affairs with the principal objective of profiting from the State that had neither budget nor regulated finances. There was nothing at all resembling a Stock Exchange at that time.

We know that economical analyses remain at the abstract level if they are not related to their social support. In the same way, the financial phenomena are only understood when they are situated in their social setting. In relation to this, it is certain that in the France of Vincent de Paul’s era there were very distinct levels of riches. And this is where financial problems interacted in very different ways:

– for the majority of French citizens, made up of the poorer and average peasant class, their fortune lay in harvests in all their forms. Everything else that they needed in order to live was obtained by trading products, by supplemental work, by other services received or by return of debts owed to them. They only had need of cash in order to pay the royal taxes. The method for acquiring this money was by the sale of small goods produced in their homes in acquiring commit­ments of work, or by contracting debts with those who possessed the said money through the mortgaging of their land. In the popular setting, money shone because of its rarity, because it was commonly lacking or absent.

– financial problems in France presented themselves very differently in the highest levels of society, particularly among the powerful merchants and financiers. With one another, along with several ministers, they would lament about the rarity of stable currency in the form of gold or silver. One could question the truth of their complaints. The following serves as proof of this: whenever there were significant estates or inheritances difficult to manage, suddenly hundreds of thousands of ecus or Louis gold would appear, along with silver pounds. The same phenomenon occurred when spectac­ular marriages were arranged, and especially when tenant farm’s royal taxes were paid to the king by the powerful financiers. In these cases, the notaries would come into the homes, into the courtyard of the wealthy or the minister of finance, with carriages or coaches transporting an abundance of gold or silver coins.

Only at the highest level of merchants and financiers did paper money, that is, letters of exchange or bills represent royal finances. These finances depended on the existence of merchandise and especially on credit, meaning trust between the merchants and financiers since they were known by all. Financiers were among the most renowned figures at that time. They represented the clearest proof of the inability of the French establishment to organize its budget and its finances. Even though they were the leeches of the kingdom, according to an expression of Richelieu, the Old Regime could not overcome them, just as they themselves could not overcome the State.

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