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Mass Psychosis in France's Great Fear

In my last blog, I wrote about the Dancing Plague, a mass psychosis of mysterious origin. Since then I’ve become fascinated by other events of mass psychosis that have plagued humanity through the centuries.

Once such event was La Grande Peur (The Great Fear): a state of hysterical unrest and panic that had affected the peasants in France prior to the French Revolution. Though The Great Fear reached its apex in 1789, the beginnings of the revolt, according to French historian Georges Lefebvre, can be traced back to 1783.

Known as an annus mirabilius, or the year of wonder or awe, 1783 was a remarkable year. It was filled with an unusual amount of natural disasters (earthquakes, violent thunderstorms, volcanic eruptions, etc.) that destroyed crops and left people in dire straits--especially the peasantry who were already struggling.

First, there was the eruption of the Laki Fissure in Iceland. The ashes, chemicals, and gasses released were incredibly toxic, poisoning fields, crops, livestock, ponds, and other waterways in Iceland. As a result of the eruption, a destructive famine, called “the famine of the mist” enveloped Iceland and killed 20% of the population with starvation, malnutrition, and disease.

But the reach of the eruption extended far beyond Iceland in the form of a dry fog.

The fog was observable from around June 16, 1783 in most parts of Europe and beyond, reaching as far away as North America, Syria, Lebanon, and the Altai Mountains where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan converge. Notably, the dry fog was strange, long-lasting, smelled like sulfur, caused blood red sunrises and sunsets, and may have had some negative impacts on crops and human health in Europe--especially people suffering from pre-existing respiratory or heart issues. In several regions, people complained about sore eyes. Further, the fog left behind a sticky substance, called “honey dew,” on the leaves of plants.

Benjamin Franklin speculated, in May 1784, that the dry fog caused the extremely cold winter of 1783-1784 in both Europe and North America. In Europe, there was heavy snow, which resulted in major floods along several central and western European rivers in February and March of 1784. In Germany, the water levels of late February 1784 produced the highest or second highest flood markers ever recorded for some regions. In North America, the winter was unusually long and rich in snow; it even froze the Mississippi River at New Orleans and created ice floes in the Gulf of Mexico.

Additionally, there were an unusual number of storms and floods that destroyed harvests and crops and extremely heavy frosts and snows that damaged vines and ruined chestnut and olive groves in the south. Whether or not the volcano eruption was the sole cause of the climactic disruption, the effects were devastating to the French economy and social fabric. Because of the horrible harvest, food scarcity, and rumors that bands of armed men looking for food were roaming the countryside, villagers all over France felt compelled to take up arms to guard and protect their homes and remaining food stores.

The reduced harvest meant reduced income for the peasants and many peasants couldn’t afford to pay their seigniorial dues (remember pre-Revolution France was a feudal system) and peasants defaulted on their leases. Such conditions caused vagrancy to skyrocket. Because of the extreme vagrancy, by 1788, citizens in Franche-Comté gathered to take collective action against the seigneurs.

From there, the unrest and panic spread south along the Rhône valley to Provence, east towards the Alps, and west towards the center of France. Almost simultaneously, a panic began in Ruffec, south of Poitiers, and traveled to the Pyrenees, toward Berry and into the Auvergne.

In some areas, peasants didn’t stop at arming themselves for self-protection. Rumors were swirling that the king and nobility wanted to overthrow and kill the Third Estate, which basically consisted of majority of the French population; causing paranoia and panic to intensify.

But they were just rumors. The king and nobles never actually had plans to overthrow and kill the peasants or to keep them away from the new harvests. Nevertheless, the peasants believed the misinformation; partly because hysteria and panic keeps humans from thinking straight, and partly because the French Revolution was in talks of bringing new rights for them.

As a result of their growing panic, the peasants went so far as to also attack manor houses. Many aristocratic properties were ransacked and looted mainly for grain, wine and seigniorial documents which provided privileges to the nobility over the peasantry. In addition to looting, the attackers searched out and destroyed records of the due dates for their land-payments. In some cases, the manor houses were burned along with the documents.

In most cases, the peasants simply left when the letters of feudal privileges had been destroyed. The members of the feudal aristocracy were either forced to leave or they fled on their own initiative. In some cases, aristocrats were captured, beat, and humiliated. In three cases a landlord was actually killed during the uprising.

Though the Great Fear is usually associated with the peasantry, there were participants among all classes, including the elites, artisans, and wealthy farmer. The middling and upper classes had as much to gain from the destruction of the feudal regime as did the poorer peasants.

By August, the main phase of the Great Fear had died out. Nevertheless, peasant uprisings continued well into 1790, leaving few areas of France (primarily Alsace, Lorraine, and Brittany) untouched. Communications traveled slower in those days and they likely hadn't learned the fight was essentially over. Or, humans being human, were enjoying their moment of power in knowing they'd incited terror in the hearts of the elite.

As a result of the "Great Fear," the National Assembly, in an effort to appease the peasants and prevent further rural unrest, formally abolished the "feudal regime,” including seigniorial rights on August 4, 1789.

Really, The Great Fear doesn’t sound any different than many of the peasant revolts that typified feudal France, but for one exception: the system of feudalism itself seemed to be the cause. In prior centuries revolts occurred from outside stressors such as taxation, starvation or food shortages. Earlier revolts had not been subversive, but rather hoped for the reinstatement of a previous Golden Age (has the longed-for Golden Age ever truly existed? But I digress).

However, the Great Fear was different than the revolts of yesteryear because it wanted to change the entire status quo. Though it may have been sparked by outside stressors, when the peasants had heard rumors that the elite wanted to destroy them, it flipped a switch--and a desire in their hearts to form an entirely different system.

Further, the greatest difference between the Great Fear of 1789 and previous peasant revolts was the scope of its reach. Spreading from a half-dozen or so separate nuclei across the countryside, almost all of France found itself in rural uproar. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, revolt was almost always contained within the borders of a single province and soon sputtered out or were quickly snuffed out; whereas the Great Fear lasted for weeks during the most important farming and harvest months. This change in magnitude reflects to what extent social discontent was with the entire governmental system rather than with anything particular to a locality.

One historian, Mary Kilbourne Matossian, has argued that one of the causes of the Great Fear was consumption of ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus. In years of good harvests, rye contaminated with ergot was discarded, but when the harvest was poor, the peasants couldn’t afford to be choosy. This isn’t the worst theory. It might explain how people became so hysterical and panic-stricken that they couldn’t seem to rein in their behavior and emotions.

However, this theory might be a little short-sighted in its understanding of human nature and how quickly humans can descend into hysteria and panic, overcome and ruled entirely by their emotions. In such a state, humans rapidly develop an irrational mindset where they often lose grip on truth, reality, and rational behavior. It could be that the ergot poisoning theory is true and the ergot simply exacerbated an already intensifying fear and paranoia.

Nevertheless, with the National Assembly’s dissolution of the feudal system, the August Decrees were issued and militias finally established order and control. That is, until 1792 when the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars erupted and threw all of Europe into turmoil for the next twenty-three years.

For further information about the volcanic eruption in Iceland:

KLEEMAN Katrin (2022), The Laki Fissure eruption, 1783-1784, Encyclopedia of the Environment, [online ISSN 2555-0950] url : https://www.encyclopedie-environnement.org/en/society/laki-fissure-eruption-1783-1784/.

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