A leading cause of social stress in France during the Revolution was its large population. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, France had 20 million people living within its borders, a number equal to nearly 20 percent of the population of non-Russian Europe. Over the course of the century, that number increased by another 8 to 10 million, as epidemic disease and acute food shortages diminished and mortality declined. By contrast, it had increased by only 1 million between 1600 and 1700. Also important, this population was concentrated in the rural countryside: of the nearly 30 million French under Louis XVI, about 80 percent lived in villages of 2,000 or less, with nearly all the rest in fairly small cities (those with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants).

The foremost exception, of course, was Paris, which was home to about 600,000 by 1789. Only a handful of other cities—notably Lyons, Bordeaux, and Marseilles—had more than 100,000 within their limits. These demographics had an enormous impact, both inside and outside France.

In addition, the eighteenth century saw the intrusion of capitalism into everyday life. Thanks to a large expansion of overseas trade and a longer-term development of domestic trade, the money economy experienced continued growth. Although self-sufficiency or local exchange remained the preponderant way of economic life, these incursions of capitalism began drawing everyone into some form of regional and even international exchange.

Amid these broad economic and population shifts, daily life in the countryside remained much the same, particularly on small family farms. Their owners and workers were known as peasants, although they differed considerably in wealth and status. A few could claim to be "living nobly," meaning they rented their land to others to work, but many were day-laborers desperate for work in exchange for a place to stay and food to eat. In the middle were others, including independent farmers, sharecroppers, and renters. Historians have estimated that in lean years 90 percent of the peasants lived at or below the subsistence level, earning only enough to feed their families. Others inhabited the countryside, most notably small numbers of noble and non-noble owners of manors, conspicuous by their dwellings, at the least. Consequently, documents on life in the countryside at this time reflect the omnipresence of poverty. One of the most well-known observers of the late-eighteenth-century French countryside, the Englishman Arthur Young, considered these small farms the great weakness of French agriculture, especially when compared with the large, commercial farms he knew at home. Others commenting on the lot of impoverished peasants before 1789 blamed the tensions between rich and poor on the country's vast social differences.

Although home to the wealthy and middling, cities tended to be even more unsavory places to live than the countryside. Exposed daily to dirty air and water, urban dwellers could expect to have a shorter life span than their country brethren. Louis-Sébastien Mercier, a writer who adored life in Paris and wrote extensively about all aspects of it, often lamented not only the poor health of city workers but also the strict conditions governing their employment. Guilds regulated almost every sector of the economy and thus limited the number who could enter a trade as an apprentice, become a journeyman, or set up a workshop and retail store as a master. With experience, a worker could theoretically move up the social hierarchy, but in practice such ascent was extremely difficult to achieve, as the limited number of masterships in any given industry tended to be passed down within a family. Thus in some trades and in some cities journeymen complained of feeling restricted and expressed greater solidarity toward their counterparts in other trades than toward their own masters.








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