It’s no secret that food is political. Everyday products, including food, have the power to uproot, break and recreate societies. A particularly dramatic example of food disrupting the status quo concerns the role of salt in the French Revolution. French cuisine is deeply linked to notions of class, politics and society. The most famous quote from the French Revolution was, after all, a food metaphor: “Let them eat cake.”
In centuries past, salt was even more of a staple than it is today. As Stéphane Hénaut and Jeni Mitchell write in A little history of France, salt was not only used in cooking, but also as an important preservative. Like today, salt also helped people flavor their foods when other spices were too expensive to obtain. It could also be used as currency – according to Hénaut and Mitchell, the word salary “[is derived] from the Latin salarium, the money given to Roman legionaries to buy their salt rations.
Despite the salt mines in France, French royalty began to tax salt in the 1200s as a means of financing the war. The tax, called “gabelle” remained in place for centuries. The Gabelle was applied randomly, and some regions were exempted while others, such as Paris, had to pay twenty times more than other regions of the country. The already troublesome situation worsened quite dramatically in the 18th century when King Louis XIV monopolized all French salt.
King Louis imposed the monopolized supply of salt on the population by instituting a “salt tax”, which required all French people over the age of eight to buy a minimum amount of salt each year, on pain of persecution. Worse still, French royalty kept the gabelle at the top the “salt duty”; however, the nobility and elite were often exempt from paying the salt tax. Naturally, this led to social unrest and rampant salt smuggling.
Hénaut and Mitchell write that the gabelle had been the cause of “periodic peasant rebellions” for several centuries before the French Revolution. Then, at the end of the 18th century, it was the cause of revolution. Once the revolution began, there were many competing visions in play as to what the new France should look like, but one thing roughly everybody agreed was that the gabelle was oppressive and had to disappear. Therefore, it was finally abandoned in 1790.
One of the reasons why the French Revolution is difficult to understand is that, although it had a profound influence on modern society and its political structures, it ultimately did not end with intact democracy – that would take decades and other revolutionary periods to come to fruition. . On the contrary, the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century ended with the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon, ever the bloodthirsty imperialist, reinstated a salt tax for all French people without discrimination in 1806 to help fund his European conquest. The gabelle in its post-revolutionary form lasted until the end of World War II, when France finally abolished it for good.
Thus, like the history of the French Revolution in general, the history of the gabelle is messy and non-linear. Its unpopularity and injustice fueled the revolutionary movement and helped generate democratic reforms that would influence the entire world; its reintroduction by Napoleon sparked further controversy and contributed to even more revolutionary periods and unrest.
The story of the tax reminds us that everyday ingredients like salt and other seemingly mundane products can dramatically shape politics and alter history. On a similar revolutionary note, we are currently witnessing the political consequences food and fuel shortages in Sri Lanka, where, after months of protests, Sri Lankans stormed and occupied the presidential palace July 9 and the same day burned down the Prime Minister’s house.
The revolutionary events around the salt tax of 18th century France teach us that something as simple as salt can be a spark plug for civil unrest and revolution. At a time of deepening climate crisis, unending pandemic and general political chaos, we must challenge ourselves to think of everyday commodities in political terms: how and why they shape our lives and how or what needs to change.