The royal general Farms, les fermes généraux, were the system of tax collection in France ( fermes in this usage means leases). From as early as the reign of Henri III, the collection of taxes and customs duties in France was leased out to private individuals. The lessor, necessarily wealthy, often of the bourgeoisie, bought a six-year, somewhat secretive lease to collect taxes in one of the large regions of France. The amount of taxes to be paid to the King was stipulated in the contract; anything over and above that amount that was collected could be kept by the lessor. Did you ever come across a better school for corruption, Dear Readers?
The lessors (or contractors) became extraordinarily rich, of course, so rich that some were able to buy themselves a title or two and join the nobility. Some historians try to let them off the hook by pointing out that many of them were great supporters of the arts or that they financed public works. Better not to commit the crime than to atone for it, we say.
Corrupt though it was, the system was also extremely efficient. The corps des fermiers généraux was comprised of the lessors (fermiers) and their deputies (adjoints), many of them related, as nepotism was rife. From 1756, the administration of the Ferme générale was centralized in Paris. There, some six hundred eighty employees, divided into three functional sections, kept the accounts, managed the personnel, sent out inspectors and oversaw the work of more than twenty-five thousand agents across the country and in its colonies. These agents were either clerical, checking the accounts locally, or in quasi-military brigades (which often included retired soldiers) that hunted down and summarily punished smugglers. Needless to say, they all were despised by the general population.
Marie Colombe de Boulanger Death Register Entry, 5 May 1744. Carteret, Manche, Registres paroissiaux et d'état civil, 1722-1748, E2, online image no. 112
How to research that ancestor? Very little can be found online at the moment, but that looks set to improve.
- Brief biographies, in French, of the men who were members of the corps des fermiers généraux from 1720 to 1751 are given in the work by Barthélémy Mouffle d'Angerville (who served in the French Navy in Louisiana) entitled La Vie privée de Louis XV, ou principaux événements, particularités et anecdotes de son règne, and currently can be read online on Google Books here.
- Individual cards on the agents in employment in 1782 can be found in sub-series G1 in the Archives nationales (a single example of such a card can be found online here).
- Dictionnaire de la Ferme générale (1640-1794), an academic blog hosted by Hypotheses, this has by far the most complete and thorough discussion and research on the ferme générale. It contains no list of employees nor even much discussion of individuals, but it is new and will increase in depth of coverage quickly.
- Wikipedia has a quite good article in English on the ferme générale; the article in French is much, much more thorough.
- The finding aid of the Archives nationales lists not only the holdings relating to the ferme but explains their administration thoroughly in the introduction.
- The ever brilliant Geneawiki has a page on the subject that lists the holdings in the Archives nationales, with links to any that may be online, and that gives any other sources that may be useful
Fascinating aspect of the French State.
©2021 Anne Morddel