The petitions from rural communities decried the abuse of seigneurial dues that peasants owed to lords in exchange for which they were supposed to receive protection and supervision. But by 1789, as these excerpts demonstrate, peasants had come to see their lords not as protectors, but as creditors, constantly turning the screws on them for ever more rent or other payments.
Upper Alsace, Bailliage de Belfort
To His Grace, Monsieur Necker, Minister of Finances
Statement concerning the unjust, onerous, and humiliating dues and other unheard of burdens which the undersigned inhabitants of the seigneury of Montjoye-Vaufrey are made to endure by the Count of Montjoye-Vaufrey. The seigneury of Montjoye-Vaufrey is small with almost inaccessible mountains, covered in large part by forests of beech and fir trees. The soil is naturally barren and produces nothing but brambles and thorn bushes. It is part of Upper Alsace and enclosed by the diocese of Basle, lying on the kingdom's border.
Close to one thousand individuals live in this region, which is almost wild because of its location. There they stagnate, living in misery, crushed beneath the entire weight of the most inhumane and detestable feudal system and the victims of the thousands of abuses that the seigneur of Montjoye heaps upon them. The truth of these statements will be found to be more than convincing once we have outlined the rights that the [seigneur] claims to have over them and the manner in which these rights are exercised.
The Tithe of the Sixth Sheaf
The seigneur demands one of every six sheaves produced on the majority of the lands of the seigneury. The other sheaves are left to the owner, who uses one and a half sheaves for seed because the soil only yields four sheaves for every sheaf planted. The remaining three and a half sheaves constitute his only profit from sowing and are used to feed himself and to pay other seigneurial dues.
The Right of Mortmain
The same lands on which the seigneur collects this unusual tithe are also subject to mortmain [death duty], and he exercises this right with such cruelty that the poor unfortunate owner cannot sell his land, even when reduced to a state of destitution deserving of the greatest compassion. We have seen infirm persons, possessing land, but forbidden to sell it by the seigneur, who are led by their charitable fellow-citizens from village to village begging for alms. Gardens, houses, and orchards were once exempt from this duty, but today he takes everything in case the owner dies without an heir.
It would seem that the owners of these same lands should be left to enjoy their produce in peace, obliged as they are to submit to such an outrageous tithe and to the odious exercise of the right of mortmain. But far from it. In addition, this seigneur requires five days of work from them, and if he obliges them to perform this service in actual labor, he assigns the work when it is convenient for him. It is often the case that those subject to the corvée are not able to fulfill their tasks in a day, whereupon they are obliged to continue their work the next day, even though only one day of work is counted. If he does not require actual labor from them, someone who has two oxen is forced to pay him six livres. . . . Some people have preferred to endure this additional charge rather than to provide the actual labor, but the worker with no beasts of burden performs the corvée with his own hands. Or, if he wants to commute his work into money, he is forced to pay three livres fifteen sols, whereas before he would only have paid thirty-three sols. Poor beggars are not exempt. They are seen going from door to door asking for bread in order to go and work for the seigneur, because recently he refuses all food to those required to work at the corvée.
Taxes, Hens, the Sale of Wine, Residence Rights
For each journal of land [a measure of land equal to the amount a plowman could plow in a day] he takes eight deniers in taxes, three hens for each hearth, and the poor are no more exempt than the richest inhabitant. He collects a tenth of the wine sold in inns, whereas the king only takes a twentieth. He makes each person who moves to a new community pay a florin a year for this right. Outsiders are also subject to this payment.
For approximately ten years, he has assumed a withholding right with respect to most of the land sold in the seigneury. He sells this right to whomever he wants; therefore the heir can be banished from the land. The rights of family are held in just as much contempt as those of humanity.
His greed leads him to appropriate all of the communal forests, selling them for his own profit. This usurpation has already been seen in the communities of Montjoye, Monnoiront, and Les Choseaux. He gives them to whomever he pleases. The distribution is never in proportion to the needs of the individual, demonstrating his absolute mastery. However, individuals pay royal taxes and even the subsidy, a tax which in Alsace is particularly heavy on forests.
The same observations can be made with regard to communal pasturelands. The seigneur does not allow land to be cleared at all unless one agrees to plant and give him a sixth of what is produced. Otherwise it is forbidden to touch the smallest bramble or thorn. Sometimes he seizes certain portions of these pasturelands that meet his needs, and at other times he cedes them to different individuals.
Beating the Woods
Nothing demonstrates the slavery in which he holds these unfortunate people, and the odious use that he makes of his power, more than their obligation to cater to his whims. When it pleases him, and as often as it pleases him, he obliges them to beat the woods in order to satisfy his desire to hunt. As he does all of the others, he exercises the right arbitrarily. The farmer who is thus forced to wander through the woods for a whole day receives neither sustenance, nor a bonus, nor payment. If he refuses to do this work, the seigneur levies a fine to compensate for his loss of recreation, and his judge never fails to rule in favor of the plaintiff. . . .
For more than a century, they have taken their seigneur to court in order to oblige him to produce the legal titles which give him the right to oppress them. To thwart these just measures, the predecessors of the current seigneur had the deputies of the leading communities clapped in irons and imprisoned, charging them with insubordination and holding them in custody at the seigneur's will. The current seigneur has again outdone his predecessors. For two months, he has kept . . . an entire family composed of six heads of household in prison, and he has charged each fifteen gold louis. He has had several others imprisoned. This kind of violence holds all of these unfortunate people in the cruelest fear and slavery. Until now, each imprisonment has been the signal for the creation of a new tax, and it is in this very unusual manner that he perpetuates these different humiliations and creates new ones.
Source: Patrick Kessel, La Nuit de 4 août 1789 (Paris: Arthaud, 1967), 30712.