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All historians acknowledge the importance of the royal general Farms in the financial and political landscape of the French Old Regime, and all deplore the partial nature of the understanding on this large company. Considered a true “State within a State”, to this day it has never been the subject of a global study integrating all the historical issues involved in its activities: political and financial issues, economic and social issues, even cultural issues, while it is true that the royal general Farms left its impression in the XVII and XVIII centuries, during the French Revolution and to the present day. The mention of the Farmers-General immediately conjures strong images such as salt smuggling and the salt customs officers, the Mandrin tales, property searches, Paris’ mur d’octrois, the partisans and their profits, the King’s shares and those of his favourites, the revolutionary processes, etc., but also the patronage of rich financiers, the multiplicity of customs, the remarkable organisation across the country, the export of the administrative model to the rest of Europe, etc. It constitutes a real lieu de mémoire (P. Nora) which cannot be reduced to the numerous traces, Octrois barriers, greniers à sel, complaints and songs, etc. that it left behind. The royal general Farms alone embodies the miseries of the Old Regime. It symbolises injustice, whilst showing its bureaucratic efficiency. The political protests by those most humble through to the most entitled were crystallised by this characteristic institution of complex financial set-ups from an era which blended the archaic with the modern.

The ambition of the blog is to understand the royal general Farms in its entirety through appreciating the institutions relationship to the individual. It starts with aquestion: Did the royal general Farms, stripped of symbolic attributes of power, but bestowed with means of coercion (judged important to this day), set a form of arbitrary governance of the territory and of society, understood both as a rational means of management and as a process of civilisation?    

To appreciate the power of this organisation, its geographic, political, economic, social and cultural influence in the Kingdom and in Europe, one must proceed in an exhaustive manner. The Encyclopaedic Dictionary of the royal general Farms (Dictionnaire encyclopédique de la Ferme générale) will deal with this expectation. They will fill a wide bibliographic and scientific gap, in so far as the community today does not have access to any global work in the French language on the subject.

Currently the only general work is that of George-T. MATTHEWS:   The royal General Farms in eighteenth century France, published in New-York in 1958, 60 years ago. The study of the royal General-Farmers in the XVIII century (Yves DURAND, 1971 and republished in 1996) presents the social origin, the alliances, the level of fortune and the cultural practices of a group of financiers. It does not present in itself the royal general Farms and its relationship with society even if the author provides precious elements of analysis. In 1996, Francois Monnier lamented this absence of research into the Farms itself[1]. Three other very comprehensive works deal on one side with the customs office (Jean-Claude BOY 1976), with the clerks (Vida AZIMI, 1987, p. 176) and with the management of the Hainaut Farms (Jean CLINQUART, 1996), the most recent work to date.        

Also, we have access to two unpublished historical theses (that of Micheline Huvet-Martinet on the fake salt merchants and the salt customs officers at the end of the Old Regime, 1975; that of Philippe Savoie on the inspection shifts of the Farmers-General, 1982). Works that are more than a hundred years old and specialised articles principally on the most well-known Farmers or on smuggled goods, complete this extremely thin bibliography (list at the end of this presentation). No colloquium or specific study day has been set up on the subject. On the other hand, we are indebted to American economist Eugene White (Rutgers University) for two new articles on the economic efficiency of the Farms.

From a scientific point of view, the Dictionary will meet 3 main criteria:

  • a comprehensive approach to a subject of major study, and not a fragmented or dispersed one. This approach covers all aspects of the subject, both the most well-known and the lesser known (the diffusion of expert accountants, the impact of the controle des actes tax law on the people, the defence of smugglers against the clerks through forged records…revising an ambiguous institution/individual dialectic).
  • an analytical approach: a description of the fiscal activities of the royal general Farms alone is not sufficient to understand the political and socio-cultural issues of its history. It is important, in the records concerned, to present the most comprehensive case studies in order to help the reader understand the depth of influence the institution had on society.
  • an all-encompassing approach: the activities of the royal general Farms easily illustrate the Foucauldian notion of gouvernementalité, in so far as they expose the individual to state authority in multiple ways.  Behind the Farms we find the State, that we understand not purely from legal categories, but from a complex diagram of very varied power relationships, which are both simultaneously constricting and liberating.

The Encyclopaedic Dictionary of the royal general Farms proposes, therefore, to complete the researchers’ information, and at the same time to also give a renewed interpretation of the modern State through one of the most engaging actions of the socio-political structure: tax 


[1]    François Monnier, L’administration des finances de l’Ancien régime, conclusions, Paris, Comité pour l’histoire économique et financière de la France, 1997, p. 385.