Mass panic outbreaks can shape historic events – for worse, but sometimes for the better. On the bad side, as is true for most panic outbreaks, the results are awful. The Salem Witch Trials and other literal witch-hunts are prime examples. Sometimes, however, there is a silver lining, as occurred in 1789 when a mass panic driven by false rumors ended feudalism in France. Following are thirty fascinating things about such historic mass panics.
30. The Aptly Named “Great Fear” That Swept Through Revolutionary France
Ancien regime France’s peasants and urban poor, abused for centuries, came to see their aristocratic oppressors as more than a parasitic class that lived in luxury off their toil and sweat. Many began viewing them as demonic, doing evil for the sake of being evil. Conspiracy theories abounded about what the elites were up to, chief among them the Pacte de Famine, or Famine Plot. It was born of a poor understanding of the economics of supply and demand. From 1715 – 1789, France’s population had increased by 6 million, from 22 million to 28 million, without a similar increase in grain output. Higher demand for the same amount of grain led to higher prices.
However, many attributed the price increases not to basic economics, but to a plot by the elites to deliberately withhold grain in order to starve the poor into subservience. In 1789, grain shortages led to higher bread prices that hit the lower classes hard. In their distress, the poor’s belief in the Famine Plot evolved to include not only diabolical schemes to starve them but to murder and burn them as well. Driven by a panic aptly named “The Great” Fear, France’s poor took matters into their own hands and went after the elites. To be fair, France’s upper classes had it coming for centuries of exploitation. However, they were innocent of the Hunger Plot.