Death’s Arbitrary Empire — McManners Essay
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On this day 220 years ago, a group of French insurgents stormed a national arms house, the Bastille, and set off the events of the French Revolution. This changed France forever, bringing an end to the monarchy that had dominated the political landscape for years, bringing about the Napoleonic period and ultimately, Democratic France that we see today. Perhaps the driving force behind the movement could be pointed at the period of oppression rained down on the French peasantry by the nobility in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In a time period dominated by French excesses and lavish living by the nobility, most notably during the reign of the Sun King Louis XIV, more than 85% of the population was living in shackles of poverty. The social stratum was shaped like a pyramid with the wealthy elite occupying the top of the triangle. Most of the people spent their lives mired in the lowest level, and social movement was very unlikely. The richest members of this society had a 10-17 year life advantage over those who lived in extreme poverty.
Economic prowess meant a better diet, better nutrition, and thus a better overall quality of life. Elite bourgeois dined on fine cheeses and meats and drank expensive bottles of wine from the Chateau region while peasants drank contaminated water and ate grain often harvested from diseased crops. Water for the peasants was often dug from shallow wells and poured through linen for sanitary purposes. Most French noblemen knew better, and kept a “wine-only” drinking policy. Diseased crops were fed to peasants in time of paucity, and often caused the deaths of many from diseases like tuberculosis and dysentery.
Also, the more status and economic power one had, the more likely it was the patriarch would be able to carry out the family name. Peasants barely had children and when they did, 9 out of 10 did not live past the age of ten. Surgeons and midwives were often responsible for the mangling of a child at birth. Many mishandlings resulted from these early medical practitioners, leaving children maimed, humpbacked, or even worse, dead. Women were encouraged not to reproduce for the fear of the childbirth experience. The wealthy were able to hire the best of midwife and birthing assistants to see that their children were particularly cared for. Hospitals also became breeding grounds for disease as all the children who made it through childbirth were kept in the same quarters oftentimes.
Another perk of being of high society was that most likely, one would avoid the unsanitary conditions of the inner cities in the time period. Human excrement lined the streets and human corpses were often found put out with the trash. Crowded households jam-packed with many poor families often had corpses in beds the same day they were slept in later that night. These terribly unsanitary conditions lead to the massive spread of disease and the death once the disease overwhelmed an area.
The center of every French town in the time period contained a cemetery, and they were certainly busy. Disease and “Death’s dark armies” lurked in the streets of Paris all the way out to the countryside. It was just a part of daily life in the 1600s and 1700s. Families could have 5 to 7 children buried at the local cemetery, none of which lived past the age of ten. Death was everywhere, and it was out of control due to the habits of the population. Feces lined the streets from Paris to even the gilded halls of Versailles.
A very interesting point can be illustrated by the study of this time period. The terrible living conditions and disease and famine were directly brought about by the behavior of the French citizens. The modern concept of the “accident” in daily life – like a technology failure, mixed-up signal, etc. had not even been invented yet. Daily life was a free-for-all, with almost no rules governing the areas in which the peasants lived, and no one around to enforce them. Vagabonds littered the streets, begging or stealing anything they could find, and in turn, creating garbage and spreading disease. Until the French citizens got themselves under control, life would still continue to be a daily struggle for most.
It is decidedly easy to be critical of the French’s plight in this time period. The population was directly responsible for the situation it was in, and the habits of people caused this disease and death ravaged atmosphere. However, the efforts of the early physicians, like the surgeons and midwives, cannot be ignored for their attempts to reverse the spread of these terrible diseases and death plagues, no matter how in vain they were. A physician of the time period put it best when relating the cause of a disease in patients – a patient with an already poor base in nutrition was much more susceptible to disease and the resulting death. Although it has been proven in current third world countries that a small diet can maintain the nutritionally balanced body chemistry that might starve someone from America, these peasants lacked even the bare essentials for a diet. They lived mostly on bread and poor water, some cheese if they were lucky. The prescription for most diseases was hot meat stew, oftentimes not doing anything.
Certainly the French citizens living in poverty needed to escape their terrible living situations, and eventually began to organize against the monarchy and nobility that had oppressed them for so many years. Groups inspired by the American triumph ten years before began to emerge promising a better life for the poor French, and the movements gained strength. A crowd of about one thousand French peasants were mobilized on July 14th, 1789, as they stormed the monarchy’s arms house, the Bastille. Seven prisoners were released, but the shockwaves from the event hit even the far reaches of the country, thus changing the French political landscape forever, as well as the rest of Western European history, and the effect on the increasingly connected world.
“Death’s Arbitrary Empire” By John McManners