A Bread Riot
Bread was the basic staple of most people’s diets, and variations in the price of bread were keenly felt by the poor, especially by women who most frequently bought bread in the marketplace. Women would sometimes protest against what they thought to be unjust price increases for bread in what were known as "bread riots." As this excerpt shows, these were not usually violent, nor did they involve looting, but instead were a collective action designed to force bakers to sell bread at a "just" or "moral" price rather than at whatever price the market would allow. This passage is taken from a well–known chronicle of the reign of Louis XV by Etienne–Joseph Barbier.
(17 July 1725)—On Saturday the fourteenth, a baker of the faubourg Saint-Antoine seemingly tried to sell bread for thirty-four sous which that morning had cost thirty. The woman to whom this happened caused an uproar and called her neighbors. The people gathered, furious with bakers in general. Soon their numbers reached eighteen hundred, and they looted all the bakers' houses in the faubourg from top to bottom, throwing dough and flour into the gutter. Some also profited from the occasion by stealing silver and silverware.
The guards, who are at the city gates during the day, arrived but were driven back by a shower of rocks. They had the presence of mind to close the three gates of the faubourg Saint-Antoine. They sent for a mounted patrol, which forced its way with swords into the midst of the crowd and fired three shots, leading to a general dispersal.
All this is due to the controls on bread. Farmers are forbidden to bring wheat to market and bakers are given only a certain quantity of flour. The kind of bread baked is also regulated. Rolls and soft bread are no longer eaten in Paris.
Several signs have appeared in the mornings, one of them posted in the courtyard of the Palais-Royal, containing terrible rumors against the government and against Monsieur the Duke [of Orléans]. Just very recently, we have had to pay [two new taxes] and bread has been extraordinarily expensive. This is too much at once to take sitting down.
(April, 1724)—Money has been devalued by one-third this year. . . . Order is being reestablished only with great difficulty, which highlights the danger of workers becoming accustomed to increased earnings. It was attractive for them to work only three days and to have enough to live on for the rest of the week.
It is obvious how far these lower-class individuals go in creating factions. In Paris there are perhaps four thousand stocking weavers. When the first devaluation took place, they wanted to have five sous more per pair of stockings, and this the merchants were obliged to give them. With the second devaluation, the merchants wished to reduce this five sous increase. The workers refused, the merchants complained, and the workers rebelled. They threatened to beat up those among them who would work for a lower wage, and they promised one écu a day to those who would have no work and could not live without it. To do this, they chose a secretary who had a list of the jobless and a treasurer who distributed the stipend.
E. J. F. Barbier, Chronique de la regence et du regne de Louis XV ou journal de Barbier, vol. 1 (Paris: G. Charpentier et Cie., 1857), 350–51, 399–403.