Travels in France

Date: 1892

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France on the Eve of the Revolution



Poverty and Misery of the People


Poverty and poor crops as far as Amiens; women are now ploughing with a pair of horses. The difference of the customs of the two nations is in nothing more striking than in the labors of the female sex. In England, it is very little that women will do in the fields except to glean and make hay; the first is a party of pilfering and the second of pleasure; in France, they plough and fill the dung-cart.

The same wretched country continues to La Loge; the fields are scenes of pitiable management, as the houses are of misery. Yet all this country is highly improvable, if they knew what to do with it; the property, perhaps, of some of those glittering beings who figured in the procession the other day at Versailles. Heaven grant me patience when I see a country thus neglected — and forgive me the oaths I swear at the absence and ignorance of the possessors.

Pass Payrac, and meet many beggars, which we had not done before. All the country people, girls and women, are without shoes or stockings; and the ploughmen at their work have neither sabots nor feet to their stockings. This is a kind of poverty that strikes at the root of national prosperity; a large consumption among the poor being of more consequence than among the rich. The wealth of a nation lies in its circulation and consumption; and the case of poor people abstaining from the use of manufactures of leather and wool ought to be considered as an evil of the first magnitude. It reminded me of the misery of Ireland.

As far as Combourg the country has a savage aspect . . . the people almost as wild as their country, and their town of Combourg one of the most brutal, filthy places that can be seen: mud houses, no windows, and a pavement so broken as to impede all passengers, but ease none — yet here is a château, and inhabited. Who is this M. de Chateaubriand, the owner, that has nerves strung for a residence amid such filth and poverty?

To Montauban. The poor people seem poor indeed; the children terribly ragged, if possible worse clad than if with no clothes at all; as to shoes and stockings, they are luxuries. A beautiful girl of six or seven years playing with a stick, and smiling under such a bundle of rags as made my heart ache to see her; they did not beg, and when I gave them anything seemed more surprised than obliged. One-third of what I have seen of this province seems uncultivated, and nearly all of it in misery. What have kings, and ministers, and parliaments, and states to answer for their prejudices, seeing millions of hands that would be industrious are rather idle and starving, through the execrable maxims of despotism or the equally detestable prejudices of a feudal nobility.

Nangis is near enough to Paris for the people to be politicians; my hair-dresser this morning tells me that everybody is determined to pay no taxes, should the National Assembly so ordain. But the soldiers, I said, will have something to say. No, Sir, never — be assured that French soldiers will never fire on the people. If they should, it is better to be shot than starved. He gave me a frightful account of the misery of the people: whole families in the utmost distress; those that work have pay insufficient to feed them, and many find it difficult to get work at all.

Walking up a long hill, to ease my horse, I was joined by a poor woman, who complained of the times and said that it was a sad country. Asking her reasons, she said her husband had but a morsel of land, one cow, and a poor little horse, yet they had forty-two pounds of wheat and three chickens to pay as a quit-rent to one noble; and one hundred and sixty-eight pounds of oats to pay to another, besides very heavy taxes. She had seven children, and the cow’s milk helped to make the soup. But why, instead of a horse, do not you keep another cow? Oh, her husband could not carry his produce so well without a horse; and asses are little used in the country. It was said, at present, that something was to be done by some great folks for such poor ones, but she did not know who nor how, but God send us better times, "for the taxes and the duties crush us."

This woman, at no great distance, might have been taken for sixty or seventy years of age, her figure was so bent and her face so furrowed and hardened by labor — but she said she was only twenty-eight. An Englishman, who has not traveled, cannot imagine the figure made by the greater part of the countrywomen in France; it indicates, at the first sight, hard and severe labor. I am inclined to think that they work harder than the men, and this, united with the more miserable labor of bringing a new race of slaves into the world, destroys absolutely all symmetry of person and every feminine appearance. To what are we to attribute this difference in the manners of the lower people in the two kingdoms? To Government.

1 , edited by Miss Betham-Edwards. 4th edition. London, 1892. George Bell and Sons.

2 Young, , pp. 8–9, 19, 27, 123, 125, 189, 197–198.


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Chicago: Miss Betham-Edwards, ed., "Poverty and Misery of the People," Travels in France in Readings in Modern European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1926), 208–209. Original Sources, accessed September 29, 2023,

MLA: . "Poverty and Misery of the People." Travels in France, edited by Miss Betham-Edwards, in Readings in Modern European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, D.C. Heath, 1926, pp. 208–209. Original Sources. 29 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: (ed.), 'Poverty and Misery of the People' in Travels in France. cited in 1926, Readings in Modern European History, ed. , D.C. Heath, Boston, pp.208–209. Original Sources, retrieved 29 September 2023, from