Another relic of old feudalism which prevailed in France down to the period of the Revolution, and which, indirectly a tax, was most oppressive and impoverishing to the French rural population, was an obligation termed the corvée, imposed upon them to keep the main roads of the kingdom in repair without "being remunerated for their labor or for the services of their animals. They were thus frequently forced away with their teams from their fields, at the demand of any traveling noble or important personage in either church or state, and often at a time of sowing or harvesting, when they could be least spared; and were occasionally required to travel long distances in order to reach their allotted work. While they were thus compelled to keep the main roads of the kingdom in repair, which were generally of little use to them, the local or parish roads, on which they were dependent for their communication with adjacent towns or villages, were allowed by the Government to remain neglected. For many years previous to the Revolution, the institution of the corvée undoubtedly meant to the French peasantry a period every year of from twelve to fifteen days of forced labor for the construction and repair of roads, for which the nobility, clergy, and town merchants contributed not a sou, or an hour of work.
And now comes an exceedingly interesting but little-known chapter in French history. There were men of large hearts and great intelligence in France during the reign of Louis XIV—1643-1715—who were not only keenly appreciative of the oppressions and sufferings of the French people by reason of their horrible system of taxation, but also of the certain destructive influence of this system on the industry, society, and government of the kingdom. Among these was the celebrated Marshal Vauban, who, although a soldier by profession, and holding one of the highest offices among the privileged nobility, had made a study of the misery of his countrymen, and had discerned in a great degree its cause, and was seeking for its remedy. The knowledge that his office as marshal of France gave him of the necessity for great expenditures—the country being almost always at war—and the little hope he had that the king would retrench in matters of splendor and amusement, left him no other alternative but to try
various names, as jambage, mercheta, and mantagium, in France in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, and that fines in recognition and in lieu of this ancient manorial right were probably paid in England almost as late as the administration of Cromwell.
- This practice or institution of the corvée was undoubtedly of ancient Eastern origin, and until recently existed in Egypt; a very considerable part of the labor employed in constructing the Suez Canal having been performed, in accordance with the orders of the then ruling Khedive, under its conditions.
- During the eighteenth century famine periodically decimated the rural population of France, and forty million acres went out of cultivation.