Georges Lefebvre wrote his historical study of the Great Fear during the French Revolution in 1932, and its publication in English is belated but welcome. footnote1 Its subject was a problem which Lefebvre felt had never been explained; yet he regarded it as one of ‘the most important episodes in the history of the French nation’. His detailed study is admittedly inconclusive, but he is at great pains to describe what happened as accurately as may be. At the time they occurred, many hundreds of instances were variously described as ‘the fear’, ‘the panic terror’, ‘the alarm’ and so on. It was later historians who named the totality of these events ‘The Great Fear’. They came upon the peasantry in widespread parts of France, beginning in May 1789, and reached a maximum of frequency and distribution in July. They were quite separate occurrences from peasant revolts, of which quite a number were occurring about the time; and Lefebvre describes five or six of these which actually preceded the fears. It is notable that in the areas which had experienced peasant risings, the fears did not occur.
A general characteristic of the fears was their usually irrational nature. Someone was coming, or indeed had already come, who was to rob people of their bread and corn, and even to kill; but who it was and precisely where, was usually quite vague. They were apt to be labelled as brigands, or foreigners, or sometimes the aristocracy; but Lefebvre points out that the fear of brigands was really a very distinct fear, present throughout the country including those areas where the Great Fear did not occur. The number of vagrants among the poverty-stricken had recently risen from about one tenth to probably a quarter of the population, and these from time to time banded together as brigands. All that was needed to set off a fear was a rumour, a piece of gossip, or an instance of auto-suggestion. A flock of sheep passing through a wood, or causing a dust cloud on a road, would start a panic; or a glow from a limekiln, smoke from burning vegetation, or the glint of the setting sun from the windows of a chateau.
More than two hundred of the fears are detailed, classified into originating panics, or propagating, warning, or relay panics, and the currents of their flow from place to place are traced. The agents of their spread were usually people of no official status, except that sometimes they were spread by local priests. Sometimes officials would transmit information of the actual movements of vagrants, and such incidents seemed rather to allay than create panics. The speed of transmission of the panics was found to gravitate around four kilometres per hour, which Lefebvre suggests would be slow had they been provoked by organized conspiracy, but quick if the outbreaks were spontaneous.
The background of the fears was of poverty, famine and unemployment; but this was common, and not confined to the areas of the fears. One alleged cause of the fears was the belief that there was a conspiracy by the aristocracy to rob the people, and the brigands and the aristocracy would be identified as one. Sometimes it was thought that the bourgeoisie were inciting the peasants against the aristocracy, and at other times that the aristocracy were provoking the peasants to revolt. Some groups of fears can be traced to specific originating centres. One started at Nantes on 20th July: one at Maine on the same day or the 21st: one in Franche-Comté on 22nd: in Southern Champagne on 24th: in Clermontais and Estrées-Saint Denis on 26th: and in Ruffec on 28th.
The direction of flow by which the panics spread was peculiar, in that they did not follow the usual channels of communication—an obvious river valley or so on—but often went by transverse and less familiar routes, sometimes crossing a mountain range. The Great Fear was one gigantic rumour, but it was convincing and ubiquitous, as though there was a widespread predisposition to accept it. Everywhere there was talk of nothing else but brigands and the like.
The parts of France most free from the fears may be significant. They were the coastal areas: Normandy, Brittany, Bordeaux and the Garonne; the Mediterranean from Spain to Montpellier, and from Toulon to the East. There were the frontier areas of Flanders and Alsace-Lorraine, and there was an inland strip running roughly from Rouen to Bourges. Lefebvre does not suggest what was the common feature causing these areas to escape the fears: a possible one may be that these were on the whole those of peasants with somewhat larger holdings of land.
Various historical and literary studies quite remote from Lefebvre’s own subject suggest the conclusion that there is a general experience in the social histories of various peoples which has a profoundly traumatic effect upon them, but is apt to pass unnoticed because it primarily affects that part of the population, albeit the majority, who are the poorest and most inarticulate. When these masses expressed their feelings, it was in just such irrational forms as in the Great Fear. The experience in question was that moment in historical evolution when market forces serious impinged on small producers who for centuries had depended upon a meagre subsistence economy: a local self-sufficiency where almost no money was used, where what was consumed was what had been mostly grown in local fields, and the village seemed nine-tenths of the world. Bad times, a poor season, a harvest failure, were frequent, expected, understood and endured.