The Great Fear of 1789
BETWEEN July 20 and August 6, 1789, waves of panic swept over the French countryside. The new rye crop was just harvested, but there were rumors that brigands were coming to seize it. Many people believed they had glimpsed these bandits and feared it was already too late: women would be raped and murdered, children massacred, homes set afire. As tocsins rang, the peasants, weeping and shouting, fled into the woods to hide or armed themselves with pitchforks, scythes, and hunting rifles.
In Dauphiné, a region of France in the upper Rhône Valley, peas­ants looted and burned châteux, but this was an isolated "political" incident: most peasant behavior was disorganized; la Grande Peur was not a rising of the masses. When the panic was over, some peas­ants blamed the rich, calling it a trick to deprive them of their daily pay.1
This brief episode might have been forgotten had it not been part of the French Revolution, by which we date the end of absolute rule of the privileged classes in France and the emergence of one of the first strongholds of the idea of popular sovereignty. The "Great Fear" among the landless aroused a great fear among landowners, an ap­prehension that the peasants might seize property and turn upon their masters. To forestall any such catastrophe, the National Con­stituent Assembly met on the night of August 4 in Versailles, in what one contemporary observer called a strange state of "patriotic drunk­enness/' and voted to abolish what was thereafter to be called the ancien régime. Fearing further peasant disorders, the nobles re­nounced their seigneurial dues, others gave up the clerical right to collect tithes, and the Assembly ended the sale of public offices and
privileges. King Louis XVI took no part in this affair, but the assem­bled delegates proclaimed him "the man who restored liberty to
In recounting the events of those eighteen days in 1789, historians often record one very puzzling fact: the peasants' fears were exagger­ated. At the time of the Great Fear, vagrants were roaming the coun­tryside in search of food, but they were apparently neither organized nor dangerous. Passing over this inconvenient fact, some scholars explain the Great Fear as an insurrection of peasants who resented paying taxes and tithes.3 In the spring of 1789 there were peasant protests against the food shortage and "feudal" practices, but the Great Fear of July and August was mainly a panic, not a protest.
Presenting a detailed chronology and a map illustrating the spread of the panic in his study, The Great Fear of 1789, Georges Lefebvre argued convincingly that there had been no conspiracy among the peasants. The panic did not spread from house to house but affected whole communities simultaneously. Undaunted by obstacles that would stop a human traveler, it appeared even to scale mountain peaks without difficulty. Citing local documents, Lefebvre stated that outside the Dauphiné the panic was not an expression of re­sentment against injustice. Rather, the country people were terrified. Although Lefebvre reconstructed the mental state of the peasants, he could not account for either the location or the timing of events— why the panic had occurred in some parts of France and not in others, in the summer of 1789 and not at some other time.
There is an explanation for these puzzling facts, although histo­rians have generally overlooked it. The clues are buried in eighteenth-century French provincial records, which show that in the summer of 1789 many French citizens may have suffered from ergot poison­ing. These same records also mention that in the region of Artois and in the Maisonnais parish, in the commune of Champniers-et-Reillac, many women miscarried in these summer months.4 And in the His­toire et mémoires de la Société Royale de Médecine of the same year, one Dr. Geoffrey chronicled a marked deterioration in public health in the second half of July, reporting that jaundice, diarrhea, and nervous attacks were common, especially among women. Within the space of two weeks, he said, he had seen five patients who had
lost their heads" - become manic or imbecile or appeared dazed. Later in August and September, he found many cases of stomach pain, diarrhea, and colic. Geoffrey attributed all of the symptoms to me consumption of "bad flour" and reported that all were relieved
The Great Fear of 1789 • 83
by a change to ''better bread."5 Two Paris physicians also chronicled an increase in illness, especially nervous diseases, in the second half of July. When their patients, many of them pregnant women, suffered "apoplexies, paralysis, anxiety, fear, visceral upset, depression, slow fevers, and erysipelas," these doctors, like Geoffrey, suspected that "bad bread" might be to blame.6
An especially promising clue to the mystery of the Great Fear appears in a 1974 study of public health in Brittany by Jean-Pierre Goubert. Goubert quotes a physician living in the town of Clisson as saying that in July 1789 the rye crop was "prodigiously" affected by ergot. Although Goubert drew no inferences about the Great Fear, he reported that toxic ergot horns were found on about one-twelfth of all ears of rye.7 This was indeed a prodigious amount; rye flour containing one percent ergot is sufficient to cause a full-blown epi­demic.
Physicians were slow to recognize that contaminated rye was dan­gerous. In 1602, to be sure, a French physician recommended that nursing women eat white bread in order to keep their babies from having spasms.8 Several eighteenth-century observers described epi­demics of what we now know to be dystonic ergotism, mentioning symptoms of "delirium" but failing to identify rye as the cause.9 In 1758 Joseph Raulin, a Paris physician, wrote about a disease, which he called "vapors," whose victims manifested all the symptoms of dystonic ergotism. "Clouds of different colors," he said, "appear to the eyes like a rainbow"— that is, the victims hallucinated — but Rau­lin, too, missed the connection with contaminated rye.10 Other learned men of the 1770s linked ergot with gangrene and spasms but overlooked its power to produce mental disorders.11 It was not until 1785, when Johann Taube's study of the dystonic ergotism epidemic of 1770-1771 was reviewed in France, that any French physicians recognized this danger.12
A Russian study of psychic disturbances associated with ergotism, published in 1893, revealed that unpleasant hallucinations and panic were more common than pleasant hallucinations. The victims "be­lieve themselves to be drowning, or they see a fire and fear to be burned alive. Again others believe that someone is attacking them in order to butcher or strangle them. Some see robbers attacking their homes and others see devils, demanding they give up their faith."13 One might wonder why so many peasants ate bad bread in 1789. First of all, they ate a great deal of bread every year — two or three pounds of it a day when they could afford it. The average daily intake
among the poor was only between seventeen hundred and two thou­sand calories, of which 95 percent came from cereals.14 Moreover 1789 was an "ergot year" in northern France. Since 1697, when rea­sonably complete records were first kept, France had not seen weather conditions so favorable to the growth of ergot on rye. The unusually cold and snowy winter of 1788-1789 weakened the rye, and the cold and humid spring allowed fungus to grow on the plants. In early May a dry, warm period set in, promoting the spread of spores by wind from one plant to another, followed by a warm, wet summer ideal for alkaloid formation. In Paris it rained twenty out of thirty days in June.15 There had been a disastrous crop failure in 1788, and the hungry peasants probably consumed the newly harvested rye of 1789 hurriedly, without carefully cleaning it. Immediately after har­vest the ergot was at maximum toxicity.
No physician, then or since, has suspected that ergot in rye was to blame for the peasants' visions and panic on the eve of the French Revolution, but the sequence of panic outbreaks in July and August could be accounted for as follows: (1) Ergot was more likely to form on rye in the moist climate of northern France. Hence the five centers of panic diffusion were in the north (see Figure 13). (2) Yields of rye were higher in northern than in southern France, so in a year of dearth, surpluses were sent from the north to southern markets. Panic symptoms appeared later in the south than in the north. In Figure 13 the distribution of panic symptoms is imposed on that of rye and maslin (a mixture of rye and other grains) production. The map is based on yields in the later 1830s, the earliest available systematic data on crop distribution, corrected to represent produc­tion in 1789 on the basis of both contemporary writings and modem studies of the area.16
Some areas in which rye and maslin were grown were exempt from panic but this may be explained. Most of the rye grown in 1789 in Vannes (Brittany) (letter A in Figure 13) was used to pay taxes and exported: the commonfolk ate mainly buckwheat. When the rye was locally consumed, it was mixed with oats and barley. In 1789, on account of excessive summer rains, most crop harvests were poor: wheat was one-half normal; rye, seven-twelfths; oats, two-thirds. Only the buckwheat harvest was normal. So rye consumption in the summer of 1789 in Brittany was probably insignificant.17 This may also have been true of the area north of Nantes. The cultivation of rye in the landes of Bordeaux (letter B) was mainly a development after 1789.18 In the Sologne (letter C) cultivated rye was carefully
figure 13. Distribution of episodes of panic, July 20 - August 6, 1789, and production of rye and maslin, as percentage of acreage per arrondissement, 1836-1838, corrected to approximate acreage of 1789. Numbers indicate what Lefebvre thought were the centers of diffusion of rumors. For sources see notes 17-21 of this chapter.
cleaned. Ergot here normally caused gangrenous rather than dystonic ergotism.19 In Roussillon (in the eastern Pyrenees) disturbances oc­curred, but later, in September and October 1789.20
Other rye-growing areas that were exempt from panic were areas in which alternative starches were more abundant: buckwheat maize, wheat, oats, and potatoes (see Figure 13). The availability of these foods meant that the peasants did not have to eat the rye crop as soon as it was harvested, before proper cleaning, when ergot tox­icity was maximal. Moreover, fungal infections of crops are less se­vere in areas in which several crops are grown instead of one.
In Normandy (and probably elsewhere) the areas affected by the Great Fear were not only areas in which the poor ate rye bread, but also areas in which hallucinations and spasms were endemic.21
Unfortunately I have not had the opportunity to sift archival data in search of precise sequences of harvesting rye —> consumption of rye —> appearance of panic. I have been presenting a series of inter­esting coincidences that make a causal connection plausible.
Panic was not the only symptom to appear: during 1789 and 1790 other unusual mental states were widespread in France. In Grenoble a group of "convulsionaries" made a stir. In keeping with apocalyptic beliefs of the time, they were convinced that the return of the Jews was imminent, that "Elias has come, that he is getting ready to carry out his mission very soon," and that the "reign of a thousand years of Jesus Christ is at the point of beginning." In Périgord, after the Great Fear, the prophetess Suzette Labrousse began to gain a follow­ing. As Clarke Garrett declared, "in 1789 and 1790, it was widely believed in France that religion and revolution would triumph to­gether."22 It may be recalled that ergot retains its toxicity for up to eighteen months; perhaps some of these later examples of mass hys­teria are simply delayed effects of the blight of ergot of 1789-
If the Great Fear of 1789 was a manifestation of ergotism in France, one would expect this disease to appear in the neighboring countries where rye was also a staple food at this time. Some rye was grown in northwestern Italy, and in 1789 an ergotism epidemic was reported in a conservatory for young ladies in Turin, a city where mortality was 43.4 percent above normal that year.23 Rye was still a staple food in parts of the Midlands and in northern England, and in Manchester and Selford (in the wettest part of England) symptoms of ergotism were reported in 1789.24 James Jenkins, a Quaker merchant, observed that 1789 was "a time of strange delusions in which Friends were too much concerned—I was myself one of very many who re-
The Great Fear of 1789 • 87
sorted to Richard Brothers, the Prophet."25 In England that year, how­ever, spring rainfall was only average and the mean summer temper­ature only 15.30 C, too cool for ergot alkaloid production.26
In Germany, a country of high rye consumption, the symptoms of ergotism were not reported. The mean July temperature in Berlin was 19.00 C—too high for ergot alkaloid production; in Vienna, it was 21.40 C; and in Vilna, 20.00 C. Moreover, after the widespread ergotism epidemic of 1770-1771, the Germans learned how to diag­nose the disease and local governments took steps to prevent the consumption of toxic grain.27
In summary, then, it appears likely that certain ergot alkaloids created a suggestible state of mind among rye-eating populations in several European nations in 1789 and 1790. Cultural factors deter­mined the precise nature of the interpretations that victims placed upon their symptoms. In some cases, the suggestible mental state manifested itself as visions of brigands coming to steal crops; in oth­ers, as apparitions of the millennium. Cultural factors, varying by time and place, gave these visions shape and color and conditioned reactions of fear or of religious fervor.
The mental symptoms of ergot poisoning may be dramatic, but in most cases they are transitory. In the next chapter I will show how undramatic dietary changes reduced the incidence of mold poi­soning and reshaped the population history of Europe. The Great Fear of 1789 was among the last of the bizarre events of European history that may be explained by food poisoning.

ex from Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, and History by Mary Kilbourne Matossian

Yale University Press, 1989