The Poor Country People of Seventeenth Century France

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

Author: Brian M. Nolan · Year of first publication: 1982 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission, no. 5.
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During the past forty years French historians have shifted their attention from the great personages and political movements of their country’s past to the ordinary people among their ancestors. Their key interests include diet, health, education, housing, wage and price scales, commerce, technology, agronomics, climate, parish registers, wills, court records, diaries, peasant and urban lifestyles, and social mobility. Ephemeral popular literature, songs. and broadsheets have shed light on the mentality and concerns of the day. Consequently even a total amateur such as the present writer can glean some interesting information on “the poor country people” so beloved of St. Vincent. Authorised publishing during the 1970s have been consulted in order to profit from recent research. A list of them is appended to place responsibility for the content of these pages where it belongs.

I. The Country People

First, what overtones had “countryside” and “country people” for the contemporaries of Vincent de Paul? Contrary to the situation in Europe and North America today, almost ninety per cent of the French were rural dwellers during the seventeenth century. More surprisingly, scarcely ten per cent of the population was engaged in industry, and much of that activity was based in the countryside, for example, the widespread manufacture of coarse cloth. By 1600 Europe had only forty-two towns with more than 40,000 inhabitants. The figure had risen to a mere fifty-two by 1700. Paris was Europe’s largest city with a population of over 200, (XX). London and Naples exceeded 100,000; and by 1600 Rome. Milan, Venice, Messina. Amsterdam, Antwerp, Lisbon and Seville had reached 100,000. Lyons and Marseilles were near that figure. The towns were centres of royal administration, law courts, commerce, and luxury trades. They provided non-productive services for their rural hinterland, on which they were parasites — and viewed as such by the farming folk. Towards 1640 the population of France had risen to twenty-two millions. Thirty years later it was down to eighteen millions. In comparison, around 1640 England and Wales had 5 millions, Spain 6, The Netherlands 3, Germany 12, and Italy 12. By 1600 France had thirty-four inhabitants per square kilometre. Its open spaces gave the traveller a feeling of immense loneliness. To the French of the time their country was vast. Although a letter could reach Naples from Paris in three weeks, the travel of ordinary citizens was slow, expensive; highly uncomfortable, and often risky due to incessant wars, marauding mercenaries, professional brigands, poor highways and bridges, unhygienic inns, and sporadic revolts in the provinces over excessive taxation. It is not surprising that Vincent counselled Louise sometimes to take the safer river barge.

Most French people of the time lived and died within sight of the church where they had been baptised. They thought in terms of the pays, the ten or twenty villages of their immediate area. The great majority of marriages was between persons of the same or a neighbouring village. The rural world was a closed one. It presented a united front against such outsiders as soldiers, townspeople, travellers, tourists, plague-carriers, and vagrants. These were immediately recognisable by their speech and dress. It may be significant, in this light, that the Daughters of Charity and the Congregation of the Mission were grouped mainly in towns, or in the shadow of institutions like the Benedictine monastery of MoutiersSaint-Jean. When the peasants raised their eyes to wider horizons, it was to their province — Normandy, Burgundy, Picardy, Gascony. Vincent lodged with a judge who was a fellow Gascon. Louis XIII, so conscious of his roots in Béarn, south of Gascony, would presumably have considered Vincent as a neighbour. Rarely did rural dwellers look to France as a whole. Indeed, royal authority was weak in the provinces until Cardinal Richelieu in the 1630s. What population mobility there was came from seasonal migration to help in the harvests, relocation to acquire professional training, and migration to towns, where the newly arrived commonly lodged among those of their pays. Of course the wars and famines of 1635-1659 produced floods of refugees and pauperised peasants. Thieves and vagrants controlled the forests and highways around Paris, and were masters of the streets after nightfall.

The upper classes had their own epithets for the farming people: “state mules” (Richelieu, 1585-1642); “rabble” (Cardinal Mazarin, 16071661); “savages” (Madame de Sévigné, 1626-1692); “wild animals” (Jean de la Bruyère, 1645-1696). With the exceptions of Rembrandt and Louis Le Nain, seventeenth century artists depicted the peasants and the poor as inebriated boors. Despite such urban disdain and misunderstanding, there remained a certain mystique about the country people. European literature of the period enshrines many versions of, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” The peasant was sensed to be the fountainhead of all society, and the ancestor even of the aristocrats. They were recognised as the indispensable producing class, and the mainstay of the economy, of society (replenishing the population of towns), and of the state. In 1601 Sir Robert Cecil made a declaration which would have been accepted in France: “Whosoever doth not maintain the plough destroys this Kingdom.” As will be seen in the second section, the old order was changing. The country people were viewed as the repository of traditional values: sturdy industry, patient endurance, subordination, piety, contentment with their daily bread, independence. In the hungry, brutal France of the seventeenth century, this was largely a myth, but it was a benign and comforting myth.

II. Rural Poverty

The notion of rural poverty will be tackled as physical, economic, and spiritual: physical well-being (diet, health, and life expectancy); economic status (land ownership, taxation, climatic and other disasters); personal development (education; popular culture, religion, and the role of the Church; the advance of pauperisation).

Peasant diet consisted mainly of black bread, vegetable soups with perhaps some lard or offal, milk, cheese, crude pastries, porridge, peas, beans, lentils, and chestnuts. Fruit was rare and vegetables of poor quality. On feast days this may have been supplemented with coarse bacon or poultry. The great majority would have found it difficult to reduce their intake during Lent, since they were chronically undernourished. Lack of vitamin C led to scurvy, and low resistance to cold, infection, and heavy exertion. A deficiency in vitamin D resulted in bony joints and spinal curvature.

The general health of the country (and poorer town) folk was deplorable. They died in great numbers of cholera, smallpox, typhoid, typhus, dysentery, tuberculosis, influenza, and puerperal fever. The death rate of the poor was two to three times that of the rich. In some warmer areas with stagnant water malaria was debilitating. Attacks occurring every two days mark the tertian fever, and those every three days are the quartan fever. A bout of malaria is characterised by high fever with an abrupt onset (usually in the late afternoon), headaches, chills, delirium, muscular pains, nausea, vomiting, and, in extreme cases, fits and coma (Dr. Paddy Neustatter). Louis Abelly records in 1664 that Vincent suffered his “little fever” for periods of three to fifteen days, but did not interrupt his schedule. He sweated it out between jars of hot water, under three blankets even during summer. He refused to compensate his lack of sleep by taking a siesta, but often dozed off even while talking to people of importance. The quartan fever struck him once or twice each year. yet during these fevers he did some of his best work (Abelly, 1891 edition, Volume 1, pp. 350-352). The bubonic plague carried off one fifth and more of the population of some regions. It has been calculated that in France at least two millions were killed by it between 1600 and 1670. Almost five per cent of the populace perished from it during 1628-1632, even though the great cities of northern France were spared. People died in such numbers in the South that crops could not be harvested, and many survivors later died of hunger. Between 1659 and 1673 Molière based four of his plays on the inability of the doctors to cure. Paris and Lyons may have had one doctor for every five thousand citizens, but the countryside had to depend on local wizards, wise women, herbalists, and fair day quacks.

One in four children died before their first birthday, and half did not reach the age of twenty. The statistics for a prosperous area near Beauvais over 1656-1735 are: out of one thousand live births 712 survived the first year. Five years later there were 567; ten years later 529; and twenty years later 489. Men were old at forty. Marriage was postponed until the ages of twenty-seven for men and twenty-four for women by about 1650 — with a consequent drop in fertility. The average family size in seventeenth century France was four children. During the last twenty years of Vincent’s life his fellow countrymen were literally decimated by war, starvation, and disease. In the vicinity of Paris during the civil strife of 1648-1653, the Fronde, there was a succession of seven years of very heavy rainfall. (Vincent nearly drowned in a river in spate at Durtal in 1649). The population loss there was perhaps one third. During the summer of 1652 it was quite common for these villages to lose one quarter of their inhabitants. Nobody could cope with such misery.

How well off financially were the country people? The fact that fully half the land was owned by peasants seems reassuring. In 1663 at Roquevaire in lower Province the clergy owned one per cent of the land, twelve bourgeois owned 19 per cent, nine nobles owned 23 per cent, and one hundred and fifty peasant proprietors owned the rest. Roughly speaking, the bourgeois had three times as much land as the farmers, and the aristocracy had nine times more. Whereas the Church could own ten and even twenty per cent of the land in Normandy, it possessed much less in the South, where there were more peasant proprietors. Jean Jacquart notes, “M. Vincent was realistic enough to endow his congregation with magnificent resources in real estate, whose nucleus was the 345 hectares (about 850 acres) of arable land on the plateau of Saclay” (p. 259). Few of the farmers were freeholders. They had to fulfil various obligations of labour and kind to the lord of the manor. To be economically independent a farmer needed thirty acres in years of plenty, and sixty-five acres in years of shortage. Only one peasant in ten owned sixty-five or more acres. Most farmers had to buy food at inflated prices during lean years.

Another burden was the multiform taxation, which increased dramatically after Richelieu plunged into war against the Catholic Hapsburgs in 1635. The government levied 31 million livres in 1610, 39 million in 1635,44 million in 1641, and some 55 million in 1655. It has been calculated that the taxation roughly tripled between 1630 and 1648. Towards the middle of the century the monarchy was taking one eighth of the gross annual agrarian income, a sum equal to fifteen per cent of the national food supply. Any margin of safety which may have existed in what was at best a subsistence economy was wiped out. By the midseventeenth century the small farmer was supposed to pay 20% of his income to the crown, 8% to the Church (in practice the tithe came to one eleventh of the cereal production), 4% on other taxes, 20% for running costs — and on top of this 52% came the rent to the landlord. They were terrorised into paying by seizure of their goods and animals, by deeming the local community responsible for the debts of individuals, and by the billeting of troops. It is no wonder that tax riots were a recurring feature of 1630-1660, particularly in the South and West of France. Without reciprocal loans and services the whole agricultural system would have collapsed. During the seventeenth century the village assembly lost its democratic character, and became dominated by the handful of strong farmers who were better able to cope with the harsh economic conditions.

A final contemporary calamity was the little ice age that set in over Europe about 1580 and petered out towards the middle of the last century. Particularly chilly, and often wet, conditions were experienced between 1620 and 1710. The analysis of tree rings reveals prolonged bad weather in the 1590s, 1620s, 1640s, and 1650s. A fall of one degree centigrade in average summer temperature restricts the growing season of plants by three to four weeks, and reduces the maximum altitude at which crops will ripen by 500 feet. Currently in Europe every day’s delay in ripening diminishes the cereal crops by sixty-three kilos a hectare. Allied to bad weather and shortage of land for and increased population were the primitive agricultural techniques. Fewer beasts —and these two thirds to a half the size of their modern counterparts— meant less manure and less power to work the land. Restoration of the soil was achieved by the wasteful system of allowing a field to lie fallow for one year in three in the north of France, and one year in two in the South. yoke-oxen represented affluence. (Did Vincent’s father have more than one pair of oxen when he sold “a yoke” to pay for his son’s clerical studies?) Swing ploughs only scratched the surface of the earth, without actually working it. Most of the work was done by hand with spade, hoe, sickle, and flail. When crops were poor rural employment dropped. Simultaneously that half of the adolescent population which hoped to amass enough capital by going into service found less opportunities in the villages and squires’ manors due to the fall in revenue from the fields. About every twelve years there were bad harvests, and consequently greater malnutrition and higher mortality. Actual subsistence crises seem to have occurred on a thirty year cycle in 1597,1630, and 1662. There were intermediate smaller-scale crises in 1622 and 1649-1651. The periods of widespread death in France were 1629-1630, 1636-1637, 1648-1651, and 1660-1662. Vincent worked in a cold, wet, agriculturally depressed France, with a population declining from the ravages of war, plague, and famine.

Moving lastly to what may loosely be described as personal development, the general character of rural culture may be sketched. Parish schools were few until the middle decades of the seventeenth century. Counter-Reformation forces such as the Company of the Blessed Sacrament founded village schools in order to promote lay participation in Church life, and to combat Protestantism, by spreading a more personalised and enlightened, even dogmatic, faith. People from the South had the additional hurdle of having to master official Parisian French. Thirty years after Vincent’s death only 29% of French men and 14% of French women could sign their name.

The rural people saw their environment as hostile and mysterious. They were afraid not only of hunger, but of darkness, forests, brigands, wolves, eclipses, comets, almanac predictions, mad dogs, plague, and Satan. Nature could produce anything — ghosts, changelings, outlandish beasts. Travellers’ tales and oral traditions about violence fed their imaginations. undernourishment rendered them hypersensitive. They were quarrelsome, but easily reduced to pity at the sight of a column of galley slaves or a mourning wife or mother. Village ceremonies (including the licensed violence of ritual pitched battles), and often bacchanalian festivities and dances, provided a minimum of entertainment and fostered a community spirit. Privacy and individuality were almost unknown. Those who stepped out of line were subject to brutal and long-lasting reprisals. Never did they question the superiority of other social groups.

A certain rural communism springing from common land, and shared rights to water, woods, and wasteland for grazing, was compounded by a naive evangelistic sense of being the children of God. There was a vague Christianity of the poor propagated orally during the long evenings at home, the communal recreations after work, and the parish meetings. However, the old institutions and creed were not catering adequately for the people in these dislocated times. Their religious outlook was tinged by magic and semi-Manicheanism. The devil and the saints fought over them. The clergy protected them. Superstitious rituals with consecrated hosts, holy water, and gibberish prayers were common. Confraternities assuring a good funeral and prayers for the dead flourished. Nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that for quite a few sorcery had become a substitute religion and a counter-culture. Jean Jacquart hazards a sketch of what religion meant to the average small farmer and vinedresser: “A very genuine attachment to Christianity, a series of obligatory customary practices which no one thought of omitting. In addition, some naive but sincere devotions, more or less mingled with superstition and an astonishing familiarity with the sacred, which sometimes descends to the grossly material. Bursts of fervour impelling some to set out on distant pilgrimages … In short, an almost total ignorance of dogma, of the very essence of religion, and a radical disregard for Christian morality. The situation was such that doubt has been expressed whether that ‘Christianity’ was ever Christian, despite the Easter communions, the new churches and images of the saints, and the invocations in wills” (pp. 319-320).

The numerous country priests should have been pioneers of renewal. Monastic life had been reformed to a notable extent by 1600, but the diocesan clergy required another century of effort. The Concordat of Bologna (1516) gave the king almost a free hand in appointing bishops to the more than 120 sees. These were normally from the families of nobles or officials, with about a quarter being sons of well-established bourgeois. But a bishop could be anyone from the awkward youngest son of a penurious noble to a zealous royal confessor. At all events the bishop had little control over his pastors, since a good half of the benefices were in the grant of the laity. Too much can be made of the incidence of priestly concubinage. The basic drawbacks were that commonly priests were ignorant and wholly untrained, and that sometimes they were avaricious absentees. The dress of a priest was the insignia of a little-respected profession, which was plied like a routine trade, retaining nothing of the apostolic life save its poverty — and that unwillingly. The lord of the manor often employed the local curates as agricultural day-labours for carting, waxing, milling, or thatching. The clergy numbered perhaps 100,000 in almost 30,000 parishes, and practising Catholics were one hundred times as many. Nevertheless the Church was weak in institutions and trained manpower in the rural areas. Parishes were electoral wards and fiscal districts. The parish priest had to make public announcements from the pulpit, and to issue legal summonses and fill out questionnaires for administrators. Thus he was in some sense a government agent. The parish was the sole known world of most of the landed peasantry. Lay persons were responsible for the upkeep of the body of the church (but not of the choir), and the furnishing of the presbytery. Most priests learned their trade by a brief apprenticeship to a barely literate ordained relative. The parish priest was usually a bourgeois, not a country man. Often he was not a local, and sometimes was an absentee. The least clerical of clerics, he frequently raised animals and went to fairs and taverns. He kept bees, and sometimes a concubine and family. Significantly, in 1645 many parishioners of Autun were surprised to learn that priests were not supposed to keep mistresses. In many dioceses, but by no means all, the parish clergy were undisturbed by their ordinary until about 1620. So they continued to wrangle over tithes, and to offer a truncated Mass on Sundays. There was widespread abstinence from preaching, catechising, and administration of the sacraments of Penance and the Anointing of the Sick. The visitations that did take place revealed no more than three or four books in the average presbytery: a breviary, The Golden Legend, The Imitation. The archbishop of Sens in 1658 was the first of many prelates to order his priests to buy seventeen books and show them to him on his visitation. These included the Bible, Roman Catechism, Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, Borromeo’s Instructions for Confessors, and Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life. The situation had improved since the last-named could complain, “In seventeen years I have only been able to form three priests such as I wish them all to be, and out of those three I have really formed only one and a half.”

A final factor in rural disintegretion was the creeping pauperisation of the seventeenth century. War, plague, and famine, added to technological stagnation, lack of investment in agriculture, insufficient size of farms, increased population, soaring food prices, and snowballing taxation made debtors and then vagrants of many of the peasant proprietors. In sum, the basic taxes could be paid out of funds in 1615, out of borrowing in 1625, and out of the proceeds of selling the farm after 1630. The solid farmers and town people bought them out. Towns were inundated with homeless rural beggars since there was nothing left to scavenge in the countryside. Cannibalism came to within one hundred miles of Paris. Vincent de Paul had to agree with the stern policy of confining the “undeserving” poor in workhouses or hospitals. Public order was invoked to get them off the streets. In 1656 his more humane parallel policy of outdoor crisis relief and distribution of alms was forbidden by the government. Charity itself entered the Iron Age.


  • Robin Briggs, Early modern France 1560-1715. Oxford university Press, 1977.
  • P. J. Coveney, editor, France in Crisis, 1620-75. London: Macmillan, 1977.
  • Jean Jacquart in H. Neveux, J. Jacquart, and E. Le Roy Ladurie, editors, Histoire de la France rurale, II. Paris: Le Seuil, 1975. Pp. 185-350. (Series directed by G. Duby and A. Wallon).
  • Henry Kamen, The Iron Century. Social Change in Europe 1550-1660. Cardinal Series. London: Sphere Books, 1971, revised 1976.
  • Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly, Poverty and Capitalism in Pre-Industrial Europe. Hassocks: Harvester Press, 1979.
  • Robert Mandrou, Introduction to Modern France 1500-1640… Translated from 2nd French edition 1974. London: E. Arnold, 1975.
  • Roland Mousnier, Les institutions de la France sous la monarchic absolue, 15981789, I, Société et Etat. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1974.
  • Geoffrey Parker, Europe in Crisis 1598-1648. Fontana History of Europe. London: Fontana Paperbacks (Collins), 1979.

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