Violent and organised civil disobedience was, in the France of 1635, an accepted form of political activity - the term ‘émotions populaires’ was coined to describe such episodes. The brutal murder of individual agents of the tax farmers was also commonplace (Unit 1, p.44). Such actions were perhaps motivated by the inequitable system of tax collection, reinforced by conditions of sometimes desperate poverty.
Within the elements of the taxation system, the most hated was the gabelle, the tax on salt; so much so that the term gabeleur (which we see in the extract) came to be used as an abusive term for all tax collectors. The gabelle was an important source of royal revenue, and there existed a substantial network of warehouses and officials through which it was administered. The burden of the salt tax varied widely across defined regions of France; the Agenais was part of the pays rédimés, in which no gabelle was levied because of a ‘redemption’ payment in 1549. The extract tells us of a ‘rumour of the gabelle’ triggering the riot in Agen, and further research would perhaps show that a revision of its rédimés status was contemplated.
At the time of the riot, Louis XIII, with Richelieu, was increasing the cost of that most costly of state enterprises, war, by a new (May 1635) enterprise against Spain. It may be that taxing salt in the Agenais was one proposal for wringing more funds from a reluctant people; if so, it proved an elusive target. The loose binding of the provinces making up ‘France’ is epitomised in the history of the Agenais, which only accepted French vassalage in 1325, and became formally French after 1453. It was therefore natural that opposition to central authority should exist, perhaps reinforced in the town of Agen by a long-established custom of rule by its own ‘consuls’.
We may speculate as to the genuineness of the rumour, and of the role of the local authorities, who often intentionally provoked - and then suppressed - riots as a way of demonstrating to the royal authorities that the trouble of an imposition would be more than it was worth. If indeed this riot were a put-up job, then it surely went further, and had more frightful consequences, than the consuls can have imagined.
It is within its historical context, briefly sketched above, that we must consider the document before us, formally prepared by the Agen authorities. It records a serious and organised civil disturbance which took twenty-four lives and ended in a humiliating official climb‑down.
Now, to what extent is this a truthful account, bearing in mind the presumed antagonism of the councillors to the royal authority? Certainly the persons named as killed did actually die – the writers would not invent readily-checked false deaths. But the stirring cries of ‘Long live the king’ are perhaps an invention, as the report may be aimed at ingratiation with the royal authorities, who submitted a report of their own (which, incidentally, confirms the main facts in our document). It is clear that the focus of the mob’s aggression is the royal officials and their associated tax farmers. The councillors show themselves keen to establish order, though it is puzzling that they can effectively man ‘the five gates and …the St. Caprazy church’ with the town in the hands of the mob. We can discern a degree of common cause, opposed to royal elements such as ‘Messieurs of the Chamber’, between the mob and the authors of the report.
Then we consider the promulgation of pardon, drawn up, we note, by the royal elements. We read that ‘the mob discussed whom they intended to kill’, and that ‘everything would have been put to fire and blood’. We picture the scene in the town hall, and imagine the councillors advising the officials that there is really no alternative to granting the amnesty. This would be the more readily accepted since, as suggested in Bonney, the surrounding country was also in a state of unrest; the officials would no doubt be glad of safe lodging in fortified Agen.
This riot can be seen as a small portent of the more serious and widespread disturbances of the Frondes, thirteen years later, directed against Louis XIII’s even more ambitious successor. Towns such as Agen deploy their own ordnance and militia, and these were used in our example to (apparently) suppress an active and courageous body of citizens. Were authorities and citizens on the same side, we should see part of a serious military force.
Bonney, R.(1988) Society and Government in France under Richelieu and Mazarin http://www.le.ac.uk/hi/bon/resources/bourb/Socgov/Texts/Doc251.html
Briggs, R.(1998)  Early Modern France 1560-1715, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Collins, J.(1995)  The State in Early Modern France, Cambridge,Cambridge University Press.
Kekewich, M.(1994) Princes and Peoples: France and the British Isles, 1620-1714: An Anthology of Primary Sources, Manchester, Manchester University Press.
Laurence, A.(2003) ‘Unit 1: Society and government on the eve of the civil wars’ in A220 Block 1: Traditional Society and the Civil Wars, 1620s-1640s, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Necker(1781), Compte Rendu, quoted in Encyclopaedia Britannica(1929), Volume 9.