Bread and the Bastille

Students taking online baking courses might wonder why dirt, sawdust and hay might have a home in a bakers shop. But after a poor harvest in July of 1788, French bakers found themselves using additives such as these to prolong the life of their grains, reported Professor Lynn of Purdue University. While this somewhat disturbing fact about bread may seem like a detail to be forgotten, it was crucial in the development of the French Revolution.

Peasant survival
The lower class of France, known as the Third Estate, was made up of mostly peasants. Bread being a staple to the average peasant’s diet, any rising costs were sure to be met with protests. However, the term “affordable” is relative as a worker would spend as much as half of his income on bread even before the poor harvests, the Smithsonian Magazine reported. The magazine also stated that a worker would spend nearly 88 percent of his wages on bread in the two years preceding the revolution. If dusty and dirty breads were costing peasants this much, you can only imagine the costs of meat or dairy.

The bread riots
Bread and grain prices naturally rose due to economic forces brought on by the poor harvesting seasons. However, peasants refused to believe this and instead believed the nobility were hoarding grains or purposely increasing prices. Adamant for a “just” or “fair” price of bread, peasants would take over local bake shops and sell bread at the proper prices rather than at their inflated prices. A riot could start in one town and spread quickly throughout a section or county. The bread riots and the storming of the Bastille aren’t quite overtly connected. Peasants broke into the Bastille in search of gun powder for weapons they had previously stolen. But the rising cost of bread and the riots which resulted from it fueled the anger and fire that drove the peasants to revolt. In time they would show Marie Antoinette that cake wouldn’t suffice. The peasants wanted their bread and not at Poilane costs.

We may call the French a little strange for their odd insertions to lengthen the life of their bread, but imagine what an 18th century Frenchman would think of today’s ingredients. While local bakeries and small bread businesses today might include gourmet ingredients like seaweed, apples and currants, mass produced breads aren’t so clean. These type of breads may use a sneaky ingredient in their dough softeners, an amino acid called L-Cysteine, which Business Insider reported can be made up of 80 percent human hair!

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