Resisting the Salt Tax in Montaigne’s Time

Michel de Montaigne

I recently read Sarah Bakewell’s book How to Live: or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Unexpected to me, there’s a mention of tax resistance (one of the Gabelle Riots) in the early pages:

[In ] upheavals broke out in Bordeaux…: the salt-tax riots, which would cause such stress to Montaigne’s father during his term as mayor. The southwest had traditionally been exempt from this tax. Now, suddenly, the new king Henri tried to impose it, with inflammatory results.

Crowds of rebels assembled to protest, and for , mobs roamed the streets setting fire to tax collectors’ houses. Some attacked the homes of anyone who looked rich, until the disorder threatened to turn into a general peasant uprising. A few tax collectors were killed. Their bodies were dragged through the streets and covered in heaps of salt to underline the point. In one of the worst incidents, Tristan de Moneins, the town’s lieutenant-general and governor — thus the king’s official representative — was lynched. He had shut himself up in the city’s massive royal citadel, the Château Trompette, but a crowd gathered outside and howled for him to come out. Perhaps thinking to earn their respect by facing up to them, he ventured forth, but it was a mistake. They beat him to death.

The French central government sent in thousands of troops who terrorized the occupants, imposed martial law, and enforced humiliating terms (it wasn’t until much later, during Montaigne’s term as mayor, that Bordeaux regained an ordinary level of self-government). However: “Amazingly, in the long run, the rebellion did achieve its aim. Unnerved by the riots, Henri decided not to enforce the salt tax.”