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Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


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Transcribed Sources


Thomas Brennan, Burgundy to Champagne;

The wine trade in Early Modern France

Reviewed in 1997

As the force driving the command economy of the Soviet Union withered away not a few journalists wrote (and commented on television) about a market economy that would quickly spring up to replace it. Television reports included shots of vegetable sellers in cold market halls selling their produce, as journalists described the capitalism that was developing.

Not since Jean Meuvret's Le problème des subsistances à l'époque de Louis XIV, 3 vols. Paris, l977-l988, have I really pondered the cultural complexities of markets in history. I accepted to review the Meuvret because I had known him, and he had been helpful in the long monologues he gave me as we stood together around the statues of the librarians in the BN foyer. And I would listen to Braudel about the same subject, and read his very interesting reflections in Identité de la France that came out late in his overall work, but in his historical understanding measurement and complexity were handmaidens to adventure and physical movement. For Meuvret, in the end, the relationship between state building with its fiscal power, and market extension seemed to be in push- pull relation across the early modern centuries, with there always being a considerable amount of accident and question about the trend. Braudel's lack of discussion about the state sometimes left me bored; adventure and risk for me have never been as interesting as power. Meuvret's findings, though tentative, are very impressive. I was asked by Herb Rowen many years ago to review Steve Kaplan's first (2 vols.) book, and I did so (at Panat, where the copy of the book still is) but the journal for which he had asked me to write ceased publication before my review could be published. Someday, I shall have to look to see if it would be worth putting on here. My review of Meuvret appeared in Agricultural History, 63(1989): 95-96.

With Thomas Brennan's Burgundy to Champagne; the wine trade in Early Modern France (Baltimore, l997) I return to the history of the analysis of markets by saying that many of the older histories of the subject were quite reductionist. This or that theory seemed to be refuted or confirmed (here I am not thinking of Meuvret, Braudel, or Kaplan) and the human as well as social elements so often barely counted. Brennan's study of the wine market in Northern France is full of people, of social relations, and of an immensely important cultural glue, wine, its production, and sale. This is a work full of nuances, subtleties, and tentative conclusions. Personally, I am usually more convinced by the tentativeness of a conclusion, than by one that is socially scientifically irrefutable. That's just the way I am; I just do not like too much authority overlaying what happened in the past. As a historian I am not terribly interested in the authority of non-statistically grounded social scientific knowledge. Brennan's is a work on the cultural history of markets; the economic is there, to be sure, but only as layered and grounded in the social, geographic, political, and cultural conditions of Northern France. There is nothing triumphalist about it. Some brokers flourish, others do not. There is nothing Social Darwinist in the market forces, or state coercion, either. And all along, there is attention to the special characteristics of the product sold. My neighbors in Panat, who are part-time vignerons continually talk of their product in the trade-off of quantity v. quality as they make, evaluate, drink, and sell their wine. That is exactly what was also being talked about in Northern France about wine as it was produced, sold, and drunk in the l8th century.

Very broadly stated Brennan's findings reveal a quite stable annual market of some 650,000 hectoliters of wine consumption in l8th century Paris,(figures are difficult to determine, especially in view of the consumption in the guinguettes located just beyond the fiscal boundary of the capital) but a slow shift toward drinking higher quality wine. The vigneron in lower Burgundy had to produce a superior product in order to sell it in Paris, given the heavy cost of transport. The wine makers in the Paris basin did not lose out in absolute terms because there were, it seems, enough Parisians to drink gros rouge, but the story of wine making in the Paris basin is actually quite a sad one. It was Adam Smith who, in arguing for free trade talked about grape growing and wine making in Scotland, and sheep raising for wool in Languedoc. ‘Nature' nearly dictated free trade. Vignerons in the Paris area scarcely had the option of improving their product as a result of weather and soil conditions, whereas those living around Mâcon and in the Beaujolais, as well as in the Auxerrois, although less so did, and they took it. This did not include the Côte d'Or where the wine, apart from such special wines as the Beaune, was uneven in quality. It is a fact, and a testimonial to the consequences of brokers paying higher prices for better wines that would change habits and cultures. At the beginning of the century the largest ‘import' from the provinces into the Paris basin was from the Loire valley around Orléans and Blois, followed by Champagne, principally through such wine production centers as Epernay. By the late l8th century the sales of Champagne wines had declined in the Paris market, and this despite the creation of a new-fangled bottled foam that was very expensive, a product that would help the Moëts, Ruinarts, and Clicquots to flourish, but somewhat at the expense of the still wines of Champagne lower priced but out-qualitied by those of lower Burgundy.

I shall not summarize the book, and give all the figures that support the conclusions since I am not sure I would get them right, nor do I want to do anything that would replace reading the book itself. In some instances such a summary would be appropriate, but not in this case. Do I criticize D'Alembert for summarizing the Spirit of the Laws? Not at all. His summary went far to extend the seigneur of La Brède's ideas to the French of the later l8th century. Brennan's book is considerably less complex than the Spirit of the Laws, Dieu merci. I think of this comparison because J.G.A. Pocock came into my office today with a little note from an early Gibbon text referring to an éloge of Montesquieu by D'Alembert.

The sheer quantities of wine, and amounts of money, however, need to be noted. Wine cost from 30 to 40 livres a barrel; the wine producer had the chance of producing a saleable product l2 times more valuable than the cereal producer, but wine was also so much more labor intensive. Costs of production were roughly half of the sale price to the broker, with the transport and barrel and later bottle costs on top of that. Prices varied enormously according to quality. Nominal prices, however, were stagnant from the l690's through the l750's; bad weather in the l760's cut production and drove up prices, but by the early l780's they were back down. The higher prices did producers no good, since they had less wine that was often of poorer quality to sell.

Paris 'imported' between 2 and 3 million hectoliters of wine a year from inside and outside its catchment. Broker Moreau, in slump years, shipped l5,700 hectoliters (7,000 barrels) and was temporarily out of pocket for 600,000 livres until his Parisian purchaser paid him.(p. l82) I mention Moreau just to give an idea of the business; he was not a major broker, and yet down to the end of the Old Regime, a small wine producer with his single barrel could still come with it to the Halle and sell it. The brokers, despite their power, never had a true monopoly on the market, though they did come to control it. The little chaps, including the producer, were not shut out, though their risk of losing money was probably always greater than selling through a broker at home. How interesting it is to note that local wine producers ‘were both naive and heavily dependent in their relations with the broker.' (p. l53) This observation would seem to me to be profoundly true, and this despite the grousing and protest about brokers by producers before the church doors or in taverns on Sunday mornings. There is more to be done here to work out the relations of subservience and resistance to depending on the broker. Was he sometimes seen as a seigneur? More likely the estate manager.

Brennan is to be commended for digging out sources of various types. There are contrôles des actes, which give figures for Champagne wine sales, fines on brokers, which permit Brennan to make inferences about the relative value of the wine produced in Champagne, lower Burgundy, the Loire Valley, and the Bordelais in general terms. There are account books and inventories after death which provide figures about broker indebtedness, for example. There are intendant's reports, fiscal balance sheets, and even parts of correspondence between buyers and sellers. All this cannot be described in detail here, it can only be commended as an extremely effective research technique. Remember the Pinkney thesis? It is that we on this side of the Atlantic would never really be able to make a mark on French history because of the time we would need in research in the archives. Pace David, a historian whom I admired and liked, but...(what was the name of the pension where they stayed in Paris? I have fond memories of having dinner with David and Helen there). Instead, what should be noted are the self-imposed limits on research strategies by French historians. Their old ideal, with notable exceptions, was to exploiter one type of source for a region, or all sources for a region in archives, or libraries (usually not both). It is highly doubtful that any French historian would write this book because it combines sources from various regions into a 'national' market history. And the old social science approach, that is to reduce the questions to fit the series in the archives researched, often resulted in pushing hard on an open door. To be sure, there are (were) exceptions, and we all think of the immediate great theses, but at this point I want to single out one that was not well received because he violated some of the rules prevailing at the time, namely Baehrel's on the Basse Provence (I reviewed it!), for its brilliant non-conventionality, and social scientific (almost) whimsy, which made it no less authoritative.

The heart of Brennan's book is, of course, the analysis of the brokers, local, regional, and Parisian, with emphasis mostly on the regional. They were buyers of wine from producers who sold in the Parisian market on commission, and were thus part of the state apparatus. There were legal attempts at both the local and realm wide levels to impede the brokers from actually dealing in wine, that is to buy it at one price, and to try to sell it at the highest possible price to someone else, what would be called the role of négociant. As the l8th century wore on and the market got bigger while the government got weaker the broker tended to escape his role as state defined marketer. Brokers by their activities with producers established the prices for wine, and therefore had to develop special expertise and connections in a region and in Paris to be sure they could sell the wine they were commissioned to sell. The market was quite seasonal, with thousands of barrels going down the Marne, Yonne, Loire (and then by canal eventually to Paris) rivers in October and November. Those geographically close such as Epernay were particularly tied to the Paris market. Reims, though near to Epernay, had a more northern European market zone, and also brokers almost entirely different from those in Epernay, with the wines of Reims being a more expensive and better tasting product. It probably also traveled better. Brennan probably found little evidence about how better wines travel (the government tried to forbid movements of some wines on the pretext that they did not travel well) better than poorer ones, and so does not take up the question, but it is interesting to note this additional feature in the equation of price/quantity, distance. One senses networks of local, regional, and Parisian brokers, all competing and buying and selling in distinct spheres, and with 3/4s of the trade being done by a small group of brokers, while the little fellow could still carry on.

The state appears in the wine market in various guises, in addition to the controls on the brokers. In response to public complaints it prosecuted brokers and levied fines for brokers who fixed prices and for trying to become wholesalers. It raised the droit d'entrée per muid from 3 livres in l636 to l8 in l680, to 23 in l7l9, and this on a product valued at less than 50 livres a muid; it lambasted and perhaps punished brokers and sellers for adding various chemicals to improve taste and color, and more generally, for blending wines. Interestingly, the government maintained direct access to the large Parisian market for the small producer (the vente directe de nos jours!) On the larger trends toward ‘imports' from farther away it also helped by improving transportation networks, but it never really exercised control over the direction of the market toward better products, that was done by the market itself.

In the hoary debate about the general importance of luxury goods in the creation of and extension of markets, wine definitely played a major and hitherto unrecognized role in the l8th century. Brennan shows how wine is a remarkable cultural construction; one often thinks of the trimmed boxwood and octagonal reflecting pools of Versailles as evidence for forcing nature to do what human kind wanted, but here it is clear that vineyards were much more vast coercive regions in which ‘nature' was very much forced to yield darker wines, full bodied wines, drier wines, etc. While Londoners were drinking more and more cheap gin, the Parisians were drinking better and better wine, and paying for it. This is not to say, of course, that there was still not a huge quantity of wine that was not particularly drinkable. Ménétra never seems to talk about the quality of the wine he drinks, but where and with whom he drinks it, and the poulet and salad accompanying it when there is a meal.

In the case of Burgundy it had been the brokers who had paid higher prices for better wine over time that enabled them to capture a sizeable share of the market in Paris. The vignerons around Sancerre had stuck with Pinot blanc, a cranky cèpage that produced excellent wine, thus despite difficulties and cost of transport success in Paris was assured. Dryer wines came more and more into fashion, and the deeper colored more heavy bodied reds came to be favored over lighter reds. Out in Champagne, first more near Reims foamy whites were increasing in sales at the end of the l8th century, and this despite the high cost of bottling and loss from explosion. The vin de casse was collected and separated from the broken glass to be sold by the producers (probably at cut prices on the local market, but who knows?) and the newly influential négociants who bought up huge stocks of bottled wine, and put their labels on them. In Babette's Feast it is Veuve Clicquot that would follow the deep colored Burgundies. For an imaginary tasting please turn to Beaumarchais's cellar as inventoried, and now edited by D. Spinelli. My review appears this month on this home-page.

A number of years back Comte d'Adhémar de Panat gave me a little light blue paper bound book published in the l8th century on the art of improving wines. Some of the chemicals and products poured into wine to ‘improve' it make one's hair stand on end (hmmmm, when does a metaphor cease to be a metaphor? when it produces a physical effect?) I must bring the book back to show Brennan--thus adding still another type of source to his remarkable collection. But what was such a book doing the library of the Château of Panat?

ps. How unprofessional it would seem to write about the work of a former student. I have decided not to write about their first books or articles, but only about their second books, and beyond. Their maturity and my ability to accept always exactly what they decide to do is further assurance that I ought to be able to write about their work. Certainly wine and markets will be further reflected on here at this home-page. Mack Holt's work will eventually certainly merit our attention. Further down the line still is Kevin Robbins's project on the charity hospital at Beaune, and the revenues it drew from its domain. Will the curve be flat in the way the research has found for the revenue of the canons of Bordeaux Cathedral?