Same Panic, Different Century? by Alma Boykin
Wet weather the year before had damaged the northern wheat harvest, causing prices to rise and farmers to fear bankruptcy. A trade fight hurt luxury exports, causing more economic uncertainty. People heard rumors of trouble, of outside agitators, of old enemies moving to disrupt the country, and new enemies planning to assault the rightful ruler. People aired their complaints and fears in messages to the government, voicing concerns about the economy, defense, trade. Uncertainty filled the air, and people glanced over their shoulders, waiting, just waiting as rumors trickled out of the capital. Trustworthy news was hard to come by. All the fire of fear needed was a spark . . .
No, not the US in 2020. France in July of 1789. Change a few words, however, add in the internet, and you can see some very strong similarities. History never repeats exactly. However, when similar combinations of elements form, similar results result.
A lot of things troubled France in the spring and summer of 1789. Some had been simmering for years, decades, probably centuries in some regions. Others stemmed from more recent causes. If you could go back to late April of 1789 in France and talk to people in the cities, towns, and rural areas, you’d find fear and uncertainty, resentment, and growing tensions. Traditional societies and change do not get along well, and this was one of those times when too much change met with too many old problems.
Hunger had afflicted much of northern France the previous year. Heavy storms had destroyed wheat and other grain crops in the north. Wine makers had yet to recover from the price collapse of the 1770s-80s, and an early freeze didn’t help them. The government had tried to improve the internal marketing of grain, but people did not believe that things were getting better. They saw wagons of grain going . . . Where? Away, and so they attacked the caravans, paying only the “just price” for the grain that they took. Towns sent people into the country side to confiscate grain, lest the townsfolk go hungry. Taxes consumed much of what was left.
Groups of beggars demanded food, shelter, and other things or they would destroy property, murder, assault, all the horrors one could imagine. Dearth and beggars had existed for ages, but the unease made the problem worse. Any outsider was suspect, and people feared the worst as large numbers of people took to the roads for survival.
Combine all of that with the calls for a meeting of the legislature, the Estates General, and tension increased. The people wanted changes in the taxes, especially the labor and salt taxes. They wanted feudal dues ended. They wanted grain to stay at home, and order. If only the king knew, he’d fix the nobles. If only the king knew . . .
As some news came from Paris and Versailles about the meeting of the Estates General, tension eased in some places and increased in others. After the Tennis Court Oath on June 20th and the renunciation of feudal rights by the nobles, some of the Second Estate fled France. The Prince of Condé was rumored to be gathering support to come back with an army of mercenaries, as were others. Or perhaps it was the queen’s brother, the Holy Roman Emperor, just as it had been in the 1640s. Or the English were coming? Rumor whispered as the grain ripened.
In late July, a combination of political events (the dismissal of the popular finance minister Jacques Necker and stories that the king had sent troops to disperse the parliament), the closeness of harvest, and who-knows-what triggered waves of mass panic. They began, as best historians can tell, around July 20 and subsided by early September. Alarm bells rang, cows in tall grass became armies of brigands, and fear ran through much of France. In some places, peasants destroyed manors and church records on the assumption that without documents, the old rights could not be enforced. In other places, they locked town gates and barricaded them, or marched as a militia to rescue the next town from the beggars and brigands, only to be mistaken for the rumored army and send fear flying to another place. The panic seemed to spread between ten and twenty miles a day, some days perhaps thirty, going both along trade routes and overland, over mountains and across rivers.
Some people tried to stop the fear. They asked for more information, or refused to sound the warning bells. In areas that had either already had their peasant uprisings, or conversely where the people trusted local authorities, nothing much happened. Normandy and parts of Brittany, the far southwestern corner of France, other areas remained unmoved by the panic. In many cases, those who urged calm faced accusations of being in league with the nobles, or of insulting the messengers. How dare they demand proof? Would the man have ridden so far so fast if he had not truly seen a farm burning and an army of brigands moving through the forest? To question his account was to question his courage and honor, and the skeptical often found themselves shouted down.
Then it faded away. No armies of brigands or mercenaries marched through France. The harvest of 1789 proved to be a good one, and the hunger eased. Paris reached a peaceful compromise, although tensions remained. The fear melted away, and contemporary writers dismissed it as further proof of the stupidity and gullibility of rural people. Later historians took much the same approach, with a few supposing a conspiracy of rumors deliberately planted.
Jump ahead to 2020. We see a country swept by a great fear of a foreign invader, a virus. What led up to the fear, as best I can tell?
- Media talking about a looming recession and economic doom, and foreign meddling with US politics. Neither of which proved to be quite what rumor had claimed.
- A leader who irritates the elites and challenges their “divine right to rule.”
- A disease that breaks out in a country infamous for its approach to the well-being of its people, but that the American elites seem to venerate.
- Rumors of people dropping dead in the streets, of people locked into their homes to die.
- Pronouncements of coming doom if the US government doesn’t “do something.” When it takes a sensible step, the media
- Declare that action to be foolish, racist, and wrong, and demand that the government do the something they want.
- And then the disease appears in the US, hits already vulnerable populations very hard, and the media and elites demand a panic.
- Panic appears.
The people calling for calm and reasonable behavior are shouted down, in some cases literally, by others who insist that they know better. To question the fearful is to be on the side of the virus.
We’ve seen viri before. We’ve seen Great Fears before. The lack of real data and the desire by some for a reason to panic combined to create the Great Fear of 2020. How will it end? I’m a historian, not a prophet. I hope it subsides with a minimum of economic damage, although I’m not holding my breath. We’ll come up with better tests, discover that the fatality rate of the virus is lower than the percentage forecast for the population as a whole, and we’ll bring a lot of biotech back to the US. A lot of people will be irked at the mess, in hindsight, and biologists will mutter about virgin-soil epidemics and hysteria.
Wash your hands, cough into your elbow, don’t go to work or school if you feel like crud. And be not afraid. We’ve seen this before. Build under, build around, be not afraid. Fear is of the Enemy.
For more on mass hysteria in history: https://historycollection.co/12-historys-baffling-mass-hysteria-outbreaks/
On the Great Fear: https://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/great-fear/
On the French Revolution: Simon Schama. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. It is a tome, but well written. An accessible survey, if a touch out of date.
On the French Revolution outside of the cities: Peter McPhee. Living the French Revolution: 1789-99 A more recent (2006) description of life in rural France at the time.
The best single book I’ve encountered on the Great Fear: Georges Lefebvre. The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France. It is an older work, but goes into detail and is pretty readable.
 Lefebvre, 12; Schama, 62-63.
 Lefebvre, 14, 17-18.
 Shama, 631, describes a nearly identical event in 1703 with William III of England and Holland rumored to be attacking. He had been dead for a year and more.
 Lefebvre, 125.
 Schama, 629-30; Lefebvre, 152-153.
 Lefebvre, 153-54.