Thursday, 27 March 2014

Lyon silk workers protest

It would be impossible to establish a silk manufacture anywhere but Lyon, for nowhere else would one find people who neither eat nor sleep, like the workers of Lyon
(Abbé Bertholon, Du commerce des manufactures distinctives de la ville de Lyon, 1787)

Immensely populated, Lyon has always been split between a great number of privileged rich and oppressors, and a much greater number of poor, crushed beneath the weight of charges, demeaned by humiliation.
(Joseph Chalier, Declaration to the National Assembly, 1792).

Class struggle in Lyon

Ancien Régime Lyon is seen with some justification as providing a precocious example of the collision of class interests characteristic of industrial society. 19th century Lyon was notorious for the radicalism of its factory-based weaver, the  "canuts,  and it is abundantly that, despite the tradition artisan context, the canuts had  their forerunners in the 18th century. Certainly by 1789 the bourgeoisie of Lyon already had cause to fear the insurrectionary potential of aggrieved and desperate silk workers. 

In the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, the status of the independent master weavers of Lyon had suffered progressive erosion  as the industry came to be dominated by wealthy entrepreneurs who secured commissions in bulk, signed contracts with selected workshops and sold finished fabric on a wholesale basis.  Raw silk would be purchased from dealers in Italy or sometimes from the French provinces of the Vivarais and Bas-Languedoc. The maîtres fabricants found it increasingly prohibitive to work on their own account and came de facto to be regarded as a labour force to be paid in accordance with market prices.  Whilst the number of independent weavers decreased sharply during the 18th century, the number of subcontracted workers, still called masters, rose to over seven thousand.

Arms of the Communauté
Godart, J., L'ouvrier en soie, Lyon-Paris, 1899
This was not a change which happened without conflict. The framework for protest was provided by the the guild, the archaically named Communauté des maîtres marchands et maîtres ouvriers fabricants en étoffes d’or d’argent et de soie [known also as La Grande fabrique]  which had originally been set up as long ago as 1554 as a royally regulated artisanal corporation.  From 1619 the silk merchants who came to dominate the trade were themselves obliged to become members of the guild,  (though dispensed with skill requirement) and were known as maîtres marchands.   In 1667, under Colbert,  the original Règlement was revised in their favour,forcing  weavers to submit to a system of certification for completed contracts and laying down a standard piecework rate (the prix de façon). In the 18th  century the merchant members also came to dominate the offices of the guild:  In 1707 fees were imposed on weavers wishing to sell directly on market, which in 1712 were raised to prohibitive extent - only 113 master weavers were able to meet this charge and maintain their independent status.  In 1731 the number of looms they could operate was  restricted to two (whereas weavers working for merchants might have four).

The protest of  1744

The first major collision took place in 1744.  In 1737, thanks to the sympathetic policies of  Philibert Orry as controller general of finance,  the weavers had secured some revisions in their favour, but in 1744 a new set of guild regulations were published which  annulled these concessions and once more reinforced the power of the merchant members.  Behind this move were government reforms led by the new royal inspector of silk manufactures, Jacques Vaucanson, who had ambitions to rationalise the entire French silk trade under the control of Lyon merchants running giant silk throwing mills, designed on modern factory lines.  Publication provoked a popular uprising, from 3rd to 6th August 1744.  Weavers ceased work and pillaged the homes of several merchants. The prisons were thrown open, notables fled from the city and in the course of the week perhaps 15,000 rebels took to the streets.  Vaucanson was forced to flee to Paris disguised as a capuchin and the Prévôt des Marchants was temporarily obliged to reinstate the règlement of 1737.

Royal repression swiftly followed, in the course of which one weaver was hanged for sedition and four more sentenced to the galleys.  In  February 1745 the arrêt of 1744 was finally imposed, and, apart from Turgot's shortlived suppression of the Grande Fabrique in 1776, was not to be substantially modified until the Revolution.  By setting an elevated fee for admission to mastership the new rules laid down with clarity the barrier between maîtres marchands and "workers" (artisans and compagnons)as a declaration of 1753 put it, "the state of merchant and that of worker ("l'ouvrier") must be distinguished from one another".

The atelier: another late 19th-century image from the Musée Gadagne
Already, then, by 1744 weavers were prepared to take to the streets in violent collisions. Henceforth they were forced to accept their position as waged workers and aims centred on improvements in piece rates for work done.  Whilst trade expanded their situation, though diminished in status, was tolerable, but from the mid-century onwards declining markets for silk brought hardship and, with it, renewed threats of unrest.  A serious slump in trade drove down de facto rates, whilst traditional municipal reliance on the octrois  - taxes on staples brought into the city -  meant that the price of food and other necessities remained high.  Agitation now focused on need for binding increases in payment and a just tarif (ie. a table of guaranteed piece-work rates)  Petitions multiplied for the upward revision and enforcement of the prix de façon.

The strike of 1786

The rising of 1786, just a few years before the Revolution, cut across several industries.  Unlike the protest of 1744 it was the product of poverty and desperation. In  August 1786 after several months of unrest, artisans in a number of trades - hatters, pastry-cooks and carpenters as well as silk workers -  threatened by an increase in wine prices, stopped work. Agitation rapidly centred on the silk workers and their demand for a doubling of the prix de façon from 2 to 4 sous per aune of fabric (hence it became "l’émeute des deux sous").  The weaver's strike was powerful enough to persuade the local authorities to endorse a new tarif at the end of August but in the end repression was swift and merciless.  Three strikers were hanged and not only was the new tarif  quoshed but the piecework scales abolished. leaving the weavers entirely without protection. Recourse to collective action once again led only to reinforcement of the merchants' position, with the inherently unequal system of bargaining piecework rates officially incorporated into royal legislation for the first time.

The disturbances of 1786 were followed by alarming decline in the fortunes of an already ailing industry. Finished cloth stockpiled in merchant warehouses and the harsh winter of 1786-87 destroyed most of Italy's mulberry plantations.  By Spring 1788 the municipality estimated the number of unemployed at twenty-two thousand. Perhaps half the city's looms idle and many of the rest were devoted to poorly paid silk "plaincloth". On the eve of Revolution,  Lyon was already an economy  in crisis, with a desperate and volatile workforce ready for change.


David L. Longfellow, "Silk weavers and the social struggle in Lyon during the French Revolution, 1789-94", French Historical Studies, vol.12(1) 1981 p.1-40. [on JStor]

Bill Edmonds, "The rise and fall of popular democracy in Lyon, 1789-1795" (pdf) 

Jean-Jacques Boucher, Arts et techniques de la soie 1996 [Extracts on Google Books]

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