The Little Ice Age and Other Causes of the French Revolution

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The Storming of the Bastille in July 1789 is widely regarded as the most iconic event of the Revolution.

The impact of the Little Ice Age, 600 years ago, when average global temperatures declined, had a significant impact on world politics.

More and more, historians point to the Little Ice Age as one of the major causes of the French Revolution.

Caused by the ashes and dust spewed into the atmosphere by great active volcanoes as well as by a reduction in solar activity, the reduction was from 3 to 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit ( 1 to 1.5 Celsius), but that was enough to cause havoc. Harvests were unsuccessful, cattle died of exposure, tree growth was stunned and in Europe alpine glaciers grew enough to invade and destroy mountain villages. Deprivation, disease –including bubonic plague- and famine spread all over.

France, besieged by other problems, was particularly hard hit t by the cold spell. Its basic fare, bread, became scarce and expensive. The poor of France, especially, were starving to death.

Further Causes for Revolution

The other causes for the French Revolution are perhaps better known. These were:

Hatred of royal absolutism. Under absolutism, the French Second State – the nobility – owned land but were forced to live at court and their domains were managed by royal appointees. The nobility had little income and feared losing their tax exemptions

Resentment of the manorial system. Peasants, salaried workers and the growing middle class were obliged to pay a manor tax, which went to sustain the noblilities’ way of life style rather than to the French state. Furthermore, only the nobility had the right to hunt, preventing the poor people from complementing their diet with wild game

Low wages. The earnings of farmers and city workers were meagre.

Taxes. The French Third State – peasants and workers – bore a disproportionately larger share of the tax base.

Deficit spending. Wars, inflation , and the extravagant court life forced the king to borrow capital creating a huge national debt

Weak leadership. Louis XV and Louis XVI were the wrong kind of leaders for the difficult times. Louis XV was more interested in his personal amusement than on the affairs of state. Louis XVI was just irresolute.

The Enlightenment. The ideas of the Age of Reason, or Enlightenment, which endeavored to use the power of reason to change society, led many members of the French intellectuals to question the validity of divine monarchy and the power of the Church.

What happened next?

Royal power was gradually reduced, eventually ending. A radical, secular republic put an end to the privileges of the church and the nobility.

A political system based on the Enlightenment philosophy was established. At least for a while the human rights of the majority were respected as well as the principles of citizenship and democracy. Nationalism also became very important. However by 1899, after some 10 years of turmoil, the Revolution had turned into an authoritarian, militaristic system.

The French Revolution also gave rise to Napoleon Bonaparte and conflict with other European nations that lasted close to 20 years.