It’s no secret that food is political. Everyday commodities, including food, have the power to uproot, shatter and recreate societies. A particularly dramatic example of food upending the status quo involves the role of salt in the French Revolution. French cooking is deeply intertwined with notions of class, politics and society. The most famous quote of 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 Stephane Hénaut and Jeni Mitchell write in A Bite-Sized History of France, salt was not merely 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 legionnaires to buy their salt rations.”
Despite France’s salt mines, French royalty began taxing salt in the 1200s as a way to finance war. The tax, called “gabelle,” remained in place for centuries. Gabelle was haphazardly enforced, and some regions were exempt while others, like Paris, had to pay twenty times that of other areas in the country. The already troublesome situation worsened quite dramatically in the 18th century when King Louis XIV monopolized all French salt.
King Louis forced the monopolized salt supply on the population by instituting a “salt duty,” which required all French people over the age of eight years old to buy a minimum amount of salt each year or else suffer persecution. Worse yet was that French royalty retained la gabelle on top of the “salt duty;” however, nobility and the 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 multiple centuries before the French revolution. Then, at the end of the 18th century, it was a cause of revolution. Once the revolution had begun, there were many competing visions at play as to what the new France should look like—but one thing just about everyone agreed on was that the gabelle was oppressive and had to go. Consequently, it was finally discontinued in 1790.
One reason that the French revolution is difficult to make sense of is that while it was profoundly influential on modern society and its political structures, it did not ultimately conclude itself with a democracy intact—that would take decades and further revolutionary periods to come to fruition. Rather, the French revolution of the late 18th century concluded itself 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 finance 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 story of the French Revolution in general, the story of gabelle is messy and nonlinear. Its unpopularity and unfairness fed the revolutionary movement and helped generate democratic reformations that would influence the entire world; its reintroduction by Napoleon sparked further controversy and contributed to still more revolutionary periods and turmoil.
The story of gabelle reminds us that everyday ingredients like salt and other seemingly mundane commodities can dramatically shape politics and alter history. On a similar revolutionary note, we are currently witnessing the political consequences of food and fuel scarcity in Sri Lanka, where, after months of protests, Sri Lankans stormed and occupied the Presidential Palace on July 9 and on the same day burnt the Prime Minister’s home to the ground.
The revolutionary events around the salt tax of 18th-century France teach us that something as deceptively simple as salt can be a spark plug for civil unrest and revolution. In an age of a worsening climate crisis, unending pandemic and general political chaos, we must challenge ourselves to think about everyday commodities in political terms: how and why they shape our lives and how or what needs to change.