Enterprise and Adventure/Arthur Young's Great Enterprise


It is a singular circumstance that the only authentic or complete survey of agriculture in Trance, and of the condition of the French peasantry on the eve of the great Revolution, should have been made by an Englishman, whose work, although it received no help or recognition from any government, English or foreign, is still regarded as the chief source of information on that subject, even by the French themselves. This Englishman was Arthur Young, a Suffolk farmer, and a man of very enlightened views, not only on agricultural questions, but on politics and statistical science.

Young was a man of limited means; but his enterprise and determination made up for all defects. He set out completely alone, furnished with a trusty English mare and a moderate purse of money; and in this way traversed the whole of France three times, besides extending his journey by along tour in Spain and Italy. In all parts of these journeys he made the minutest observations on the state of the country and the manners and condition of the people; but if this had been all, his work would scarcely have been accounted extraordinary. Its chief value lay in the immense amount of facts which he collected almost entirely from personal inquiry on the nature of crops, rent, course of husbandry, wages of labour, population, commerce, size of farms, profits of farming, and an almost infinite variety of kindred subjects. Traversing the kingdom on the western side, then through the centre, and finally along the eastern frontier, scarcely a province was left by him unexplored; and the result was the publication, in two quarto volumes, of such a body of original information on these points as had probably never before been collected by one person in any country, and which even royal commissions and liberal aid from the state have in other countries failed to obtain.

Young's narrative was by no means a dry and technical one. It abounded in shrewd observations of life, and graphic pictures of manners and scenery, with here and there some interesting adventures. His travels were undertaken in the years 1787, 1788, and 1789, when the political ferment which resulted in the great tempest of the French Revolution was commencing, and he was present in Paris during the stormy meeting of the Tiers État, saw the king and queen in the midst of scenes which have since become historical; and in the latter part of his survey ran no small risk of falling a victim to the popular suspicion of the object of his laborious investigations. The people thought him a spy; and at that time to be suspected of being a spy was highly dangerous. On one occasion, in a little town, a furious mob assailed him for venturing to appear without wearing the cockade of the Tiers État. They said it was the command of the assembly, and if he was not an aristocrat he must not dare to appear without it. Having asked them, good humouredly, what would be the case, supposing he was an aristocrat, the mob answered, menacingly, "Why, then, you will be hanged." Young perceived that it was no time for joking. A cry arose that he was a noble in disguise. Finally, he thought of the device of haranguing them from the steps of his inn, which he did in such French as he could command, informing them that he was from England, where men enjoyed liberty; and having fastened on another cockade more securely than the last, the people ended in cheering him, and he was allowed to depart.

Signs of danger became more numerous; but the indomitable Young pursued his way, unfriended and alone, noting daily as he went all things which seemed worthy of a record. Around Besançon he found chateaus burnt and plundered, the nobles hunted down like wild beasts, their wives and daughters insulted, and their property destroyed. Robbers, galley slaves, and villains of every kind, were prowling about the country to take advantage of the confusion and to instigate the ignorant peasants to further outrages. The suspicion of officials was sometimes still more annoying. The peaceful and polite people whom he had met in the early part of his travels appeared transformed into a savage race. On one occasion a poor woman who had guided him for a few sous over the mountains, was arrested before his eyes and dragged to a dilapidated chateau which had been turned into a prison, and Young learnt that her crime was merely that of having aided him, a stranger and a suspicious person in those parts. The good-hearted Englishman determined at once to follow the woman and her persecutors, in the hope of procuring her release by attesting her innocence. They were followed by a mob of the country people, and by the woman's children crying bitterly. At the chateau a solemn committee of the authorities sagely remarked, that "in such dangerous times, when all the world knew that so great and powerful a person as the queen was conspiring against France, for a woman to become the conductor of a stranger who appeared to be making so many suspicious inquiries, was a high offence. In vain Young assured them that she was but a poor woman who had offered, in the hope of gaining a few sous for herself and family, to direct him to see the springs and volcanic craters famous in those parts; but her judges asked him, sternly, what he had to do with springs and volcanoes, and refused to release her. Determined not to abandon the poor woman who had been thus involved in trouble on his account, Young declared that if they imprisoned her they should do the same by him, and answer for their conduct to higher authorities. This lofty language seems to have impressed the rural magistrates, who were finally prevailed on to release her.

On another occasion he had a still more narrow escape of what threatened to terminate in a tedious imprisonment. A friendly nobleman whom he met in Languedoc had given him some much-valued information on the cultivation of mulberries, and mentioned a very small piece of which the produce appeared marvellous. Determined, after his own fashion of testing everything where possible, to see this piece of land, Young turned from his road to find it, and having paced it across and across, and observed its condition, he carefully noted the facts in his pocket-book. All this had, unknown to him, been closely observed by spies set to watch his actions. In the midst of the night, after he had been some time asleep at his inn, the commander of a file of twenty men of the rural militia entered his chamber with muskets, swords, sabres, and pikes, and, rudely awakening him, demanded his passport. This document, however, did not satisfy them. They told him that he was undoubtedly a conspirator with the queen and the king's brother, who had property in the neighbourhood, and that they had employed him to measure their fields and double their taxes. Fortunately Young's papers being in English, helped to save him. These and a bundle of letters of recommendation to various persons on his route, mostly describing him as an English farmer seeking for information in agriculture, finally satisfied them, and the intruders grumblingly withdrew. When we consider the political excitement and the excesses of those times, it appears marvellous that Young escaped from more serious evils; and, finally, after three distinct journeys, found his way safely back to his happy farmhouse home at Bradfield, in Suffolk, where, says the honest farmer, "I have more pleasure in giving my little girl a French doll than in viewing Versailles." Young's two quarto volumes of his travels were published in 1792—a marvellous monument of individual enterprise.