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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books

Inside Napoleonic France: State and Society in Rouen, 1800-1815

Daly, Gavin. Inside Napoleonic France: State and Society in Rouen, 1800-1815 Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001. ISBN# 0754603571. 290 Pages. Hardcover. $80

The figure of Napoleon his life and military conquests and defeats has cast such a gigantic shadow over his age that little has been written, especially in English, on the his regime from the point of view of the cities and departments of his Empire. Geoffrey Ellis' Napoleon's Continental Blockade: the Case of Alsace (1981) and Clifford Harmon's dissertation Balance and Power: Napoleonic Administration in the Department of Isre, 1800-1815 (1999) stand out as two further examples of what one hopes will become a trend. Gavin Daly has filled this gap with a new volume, based on his dissertation, on the impact of the fifteen years of Napoleon's rule on Rouen and the Seine-Infrieure. The book is based on primary materials from the Archives Nationales and the Archives Dpartmentales de la Seine-Maritime, including prefectoral reports, contemporary statistical studies, and the correspondence between the prefect and the national government and the prefect and the local authorities.

The department of Seine-Infrieure was one of the most populous and diverse departments of France and Rouen, strategically and economically important, was the fifth largest city in France, with a population of around 85,000 in 1800. Arthur Young, who called Rouen the "Manchester of France," described it as "this great ugly, stinking, close and ill-built town, which is full of nothing but dirt and industry." (Napoleon, after visiting the city in 1810, proposed plans to beautify the town, but there was no time to put them into effect.)

Rouen was a commercial and industrial city, an important textile-manufacturing center, with a large working population. But Rouen's cotton industry had been in decline since the 1786 Eden treaty had opened French markets to a flood of English goods. Linked with Le Harve on the coast, Rouen, though well inland on the Seine, was an important port. It was an entrept for colonial products going to Paris and elsewhere. But the war with Britain and the revolution in Santo Domingo had caused the destruction of Rouen's maritime trade. Shipping tonnage to Rouen fell by 50% from 1792 to 1793. On the other hand, though the cotton industry had been affected by the loss of imports of raw cotton from France's Caribbean colonies, the elimination of British competition proved a boon to the cotton trade. In Rouen the Revolution had been controlled largely by the wealthy merchants and manufacturers who welcomed it, but who strove for a moderate, liberal revolution that respected order and property. Even during the worst of the Terror there had been only nine executions in the town, though over 1500 suspects had been detained. Rouen had avoided both federalism and Chouannerie. Seine-Infrieure contrasted starkly with much of the rest of Normandy by its moderation and lack of royalist resistance.

The so-called Napoleonic "police state" did not lie heavily on Rouen. Clifford Harmon found that in Isre there was also only a handful of suspects imprisoned. "What then was the legacy of the Napoleonic regime for the residents of Isre," Harmon asks, "the same regime that has been characterized by historians as a military dictatorship, a police state and the epitome of strong central government? Even without a sympathetic prefect, the Napoleonic system could not have been as repressive as state regulations make it seem. It simply did not have the capability."

Historians have emphasized the continuities of Napoleonic institutions with those of the ancien regime, and a few recent historians have stressed the modern nature of Napoleon's regime. In the past, historians have relied mainly on the view from Paris. But we need regional histories to serve as a laboratory to test whether the Consulate and Empire were looking to the past or to the future, whether Napoleonic France was traditional or innovative. Gavin Daly's in-depth look at Rouen attempts to show that comparisons with the past are largely superficial, that the "Napoleonic prefects consolidated the reforms of the Revolution by adopting a professional, rational and enlightened approach to administering and controlling society." Daly also investigates and negates the commonly held view that the Napoleonic administration of the prefects declined as the Empire progressed. Daly leans toward Stuart Woolf's assessment that the late-Imperial prefects were better trained, more advanced and more effective. Daly also contends that a prefect was not an "Emperor in miniature" in Jacques Godechot's phraseand was receptive to and influenced by local needs, or, at least, those of the local elites. Clifford Harmon's study of Isre came to similar conclusions. There was a give and take between departmental administrations and the central government, that the regime had a large stake in trying to please the notables and that the previously overlooked governing councils of the departments did have a say in the regional government.

Inside Napoleonic France is arranged by themes: a description of Rouen at the beginning of the Consulate, the administration of government, justice and policing, religion and the Concordat, the elites, commerce and trade, conscription, etc. Key to Daly's study is the prefects who were the administration's men-on-the-scene throughout France. The duties of a Napoleonic prefect were wide-ranging, "encompassing the social, political, economic, religious and cultural life" of a department. In 1800 the average age of Napoleon's prefects was 41.6 years, 77% were of bourgeois origin (the rest being largely from a noble background). On average prefects served 4.3 years in a department and in general (and by design) were not native to the department in which they served. 32% were professional administrators, 20% were lawyers and only 12% from the military 30% had been former Revolutionary deputies. Though the prefect had a great deal of local autonomy, the expectation was that they were appointed to carry out the directives of the national government. Prefects were not "little Emperors," they had to respond to the needs and gain the support of local notables. Uniform laws were enacted in Paris, but were modified to meet local conditions. "Far from being a dictator, [the prefect] served more as a mediator between the state and the local needs and although laws emanated from Paris, there was a substantial amount of adaptation before they were applied to local life."

Napoleon stated that constitutions should be short and vague, therefore it was left to the law of 28 pluvise Year VIII (17 Feb. 1800) to outline the administrative institutions of the new regime. Official orator of the Tribunate, Delpierre, proclaimed that this new law sought "to guarantee that national interest will be engaged with those of the Republic, but protected from arbitrary and hasty decisions by submitting them to the examination and judgment of the enlightened and wise deliberation of several men." Roederer described the role of the new departmental administrators as transmitting the laws to the people, and the complaints of the people to the government."

The director of Mail-Coaches in Rouen complained in September 1801 that "the public coaches are robbed daily." The prefect Beugnot made public safety and the protection of property one of his first priorities. Fouch had Beugnot chasing phantom chouans and though the prefect observed, "We notice...some amnestied chouans...disreputable individuals condemned by public opinion...who have sought, under the banner of chouannerie, protection against the police..." The mayor of Rouen had largely discounted any significant presence of the former royalists in the department. The law of 18 pluvise Year IX (6 Feb. 1801) established special tribunals in 32 departments in an effort to eliminate brigandage, chouannerie and other organized crimes against law and order. The tribunals and increased activity by the military, gendarmerie and police was largely successful in Seine-Infrieure, by the end of 1802 brigandage in the department was significantly reduced. So much so, that when the prefect made a tour of the department incognito in the Year XIII he was arrested in several villages when the inhabitants mistook him for a brigand.

The Concordat saw an end to ten years of religious strife in France. The new archbishop of Rouen was Etienne-Hubert Cambacrs, younger brother of Napoleon's Second Consul. In theory the concordat placed the church under secular control, the government viewing its bishops as "prefects in violet robes." Yet in practice bishops had a great deal of power and independence; this was especially true in the case of Cambacrs. Inflexible and arrogant, much given to fine dining and fine clothes, Rouen's archbishop soon clashed with the equally strong-willed prefect. Cambacrs, who had never accepted the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, took a dim view of the constitutional clergy, an attitude at odds with the Consulate's spirit of reconciliation. Cambacrs snubbed the constitutionals every chance he got and the deteriorating relationship between archbishop and prefect led to Beugnot being "kicked upstairs" to the Council of State in 1806.

Due to an absence of regional histories of the ports of France during the Continental Blockade (Paul Butel's article on Bordeaux being a notable exception) a full understanding of the effects of the disruption of maritime trade can only be guessed at. Rouen's "golden age" as a commercial port came to an end in 1792-1793 with the outbreak of war with Britain. The British naval blockade and the loss of France's Caribbean colonies paralyzed French commerce. Prior to the war fortunes were made in colonial producesugar, coffee and tobacco. After the war, it was cotton, coal and iron. The same held true however for Britain too.

The port of Rouen was linked with that of Le Havre. Ocean-going vessels were unloaded at Le Havre on to ships of 60 to 120 tons for the trip upstream to Rouen. Unlike Bordeaux, Rouen was tightly blockaded and did not benefit to the same extent from neutral shipping. The consil gnral du commerce in Paris reported in the year XIII that "The blockade of the two ports of Dieppe and Le Havre leaves the commerce of these two ports in absolute stagnation" Things were already bad in Rouen, so the Continental Blockade only continued the disastrous economic climate of the Revolution (shipping tonnage in the year IX was only 27% of that of 1789). This does not mean that as the wars were renewed after the Peace of Amiens that public dissatisfaction with the continued depression in the maritime economy didn't fall upon the Imperial regime. Merchants and other notables, as well as workers in the associated maritime trades came to hold the regime accountable for all their woes.

If overseas trade suffered, and it continued to suffer even after the fall of Napoleon, the cotton industry, an important "cutting edge" sector of the economy, experienced the highest rate of growth in the economy. Mechanization, the protectionism provided by the Continental System and the opening of new Continental markets (due to France's military conquests) contributed to this growth. During the Napoleonic era the textile industry of Rouen underwent a profound change, from the labor-intensive traditional methods still prevalent under the Directory to the widespread use of mule jennies and water-powered spinning mills. The prefect Beugnot wrote that the "progress of the cotton spinning mills is the first interest of the department." Output more than doubled between 1789 and 1810; the number of weaving looms tripled. By the late Empire, after 1810, the industry floundered however, due in large part to the shortage of raw cotton caused by the British blockade and the war in the Peninsula, high tariffs placed on raw cotton imports and the smuggling of British contraband.

Portugal had been an important source of raw cotton, which was shipped overland to Rouen. "IfEngland forces Lisbon to endure the same fate as Copenhagen," the prefect wrote, "France will have only one means of supplythe United States." The loss of raw cotton from Portugal led to the bankruptcy of some of Rouen's largest merchants (and provides a new insight on Napoleon's interest in the Peninsula). Some cotton could be obtained from the Levant, as well as Naples and Grenada, but at a high cost. The mark-up for raw cotton in France was 25%, while in Britain it was just 10% of its original purchase price. In 1809, in France, a pound of fine quality cotton yarn cost 11 francs, 25 centimes8 fr. for the raw cotton and 3 fr. 25 c. for production costs. In England on the other hand the same amount and quality of yarn cost only 4 fr.2 fr. 50 c. for the raw materials and 1 fr. 50 c. for production costs.

The fundamental contradiction for the textile was that while the protection afforded by the Continental System and the Empire's expansionism gave the industry a massive boost, it also assured that the British counter-blockade would prevent the import of the raw cotton the industry desperately needed. This dichotomy was never solved. The fall of Napoleon and the renewal of trade with Britain continued to have a negative impact on the textile trade. To assist the domestic cotton industry, the government in 1807 stipulated that only French-produced textiles could be exported to Italyfreezing out Swiss and German competition. In 1811, Swiss textiles were banned from the whole of the Empire. This French protectionism undermined the Imperial system and made the Continental Blockade unworkable. English goods could be shipped on neutral bottoms to Belgium or Holland, or later to the Rhineland, and then introduced into France by means of corrupt customs officials. The Magnier family in Alsace, for instance, held three customs posts and were heavily involved in smuggling. The prefect of Seine-Infrieure wrote: We can even say that this type of commerce is now public and establishedthe level of insurance is determined; the costs of commission are fixed, so that soon we believe this commerce will resemble all others.

On a day-to-day basis, the highest priority of the government, on a national as well as a prefectoral level, was subsistence. Great periods of shortages bracketed the Napoleonic era, in 1794-5 and later in 1816-7. During the years of Napoleon's reign 1801-2 and 1811-2 stand out as years of poor harvests. The Rouen region had long been the scene of frequent grain shortages and disturbances. Eight major crises, characterized by riots, violence and pillaging, occurred in Rouen during the eighteenth century. During the Napoleonic era, six harvests were below average, five harvests were average or slightly above average and four were well above average. In only two years did the average price of wheat in Rouen exceed the national average. At the same time real wages improved about 20% during the Napoleonic era.

In the years of famine, hunger could produce, in the words of the prefect, "ridiculous rumours" which could lead to outbreaks of violence. The crisis of 1811-2, which came at a bad time for the regime, was more severe than that of 1801-2. Imperial Guard cavalry was employed to maintain order and the government undertook a massive relief operation, opening soup kitchens and importing rice (from England, under license). The government also instituted requisitioning and a fixed price for wheat, both unpopular measures that in Daly's view seemed to do more harm than good. Significantly though, when a severe subsistence crisis hit Rouen again in 1816-7, the inhabitants looked back nostalgically to life under Napoleon.

Conscription has received almost undue attention in Napoleonic literature. First instituted in 1798 (19 fructidor year VI) with the Jourdan Law, conscription became a fundamental role of local government. In Seine-Infrieure conscription on the whole proceeded in an orderly fashion and the department had an impressive conscription record. The department supplied almost 30,000 men to Napoleon's armies between the year IX and Jan. 1814. In 1812 Seine-Infrieure provided over 10% of the national maritime levy. With the exception of fraud, conscription was effective until the very end of the Empire. The fraudulent issuing of medical exemptions was widely practiced throughout the Consulate and Empire, perhaps serving as a "safety valve" in preventing wide-scale resistance to conscription. In the year 1806, 53% of men examined were exempted.

To make conscription effective it was increasing centralized into the hands of the sub-prefects and prefectslocal mayors and officials were too easily corrupted. While desertion and draft evasion in the last two years of the Directory ran as high as 40% in the department, during the first five years of the Napoleonic regime these numbers were reduced to an average of 22%. In the year XIII the rate was only 9% and then only 10% for the following two years, dropping again to 8% for 1808. An impressive record of efficiency. It was only during the massive levy of Nov. 1813, following the disasters in Russia and at Leipzig, that the departmental government could not meet the conscription levels.

Finally Daly assesses the "arc" of public opinion from the beginning to the end of the regime. It comes as no surprise that Napoleon enjoyed a great deal of support in Seine-Infrieure up to the late Empire. Following the collapse of the Empire the rouennais rallied to the Bourbons. The end of the war was welcomed by both the families of the conscriptees and by the local merchants longing for a return of the districts overseas trade. The end of the Empire also meant an end to the protectionism afforded by the Continental System. This produced a slump in the cotton manufacturing industry. Napoleon's sudden return from exile on Elba elicited considerable support from the popular classes and the manufacturers, while the merchants and propritaires opposed the Hundred Days. When Napoleon made his final visit to Rouen in 1840, aboard the funeral barge that took his remains to Paris, the entire city turned out. Obelisks were erected, speeches made, medals struck and flags flown. What dark side of the regime there had been, and the troubled times of the late Empire was forgotten by many. What was nostalgically remembered was the glory of age France would never see again.

It is refreshing read a book on Napoleonic France that presents a mass unfamiliar information and fresh insights. Readers who see the era solely in military terms will not be the audience for this book. But those who wish to understand the inner workings of the regime will find much of value in Gavin Daly's study. Daly sets out to test the assumptions about Napoleon's France against his detailed study of Seine-Infrieure. In some cases the assumptions are basically true, in others a more nuanced understanding may be necessary and in still others these assumptions appear to be fundamentally flawed.

Inside Napoleonic France is written in clear, largely jargon-free academic prose. The book includes an analytical index and fourteen charts and tables. Daly's bibliography is extensive and thorough, employing both primary and secondary sources, including materials from the Archives Nationales and the Archives Dpartmentales de la Seine-Maritime. The book is expensive, as academic books tend to be, but well worth its publication cost for its unique look at Napoleon's France. Those interested in the period might well want to at least encourage their local public or university library to purchase this work.

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg. January 2002