The town of Descartes and the “gabelle” tax on salt


In France the word “gabelle” originally referred to general taxation, but from the 15th century onwards it was associated with the tax on salt.

For administrative tax collection purposes the country was divided up into about 30 regions. Royalist officials assessed the tax, fixed the prices and opened warehouses to store bulk goods coming into the region and where people had to do their shopping for salt (e.g. the town of La Haye or modern day Descartes in the Souuth Touraine ~ see below for images of the Grenier á Sel in Descartes). In 1436 there were about 150 such warehouses with a posse of inspectors, workmen and those officiating at customs posts, nicknamed gabelous, to control the movement of salt.

The salt tax was meant to be levied equally across all the regions. In practice it was extremely disproportionate. About 15% of the country, by treaty or by purchased exemption, was not subject to the tax. The nobility, the clergy, and certain other privileged persons were also exempted. In the more heavily taxed regions – i.e. non-salt-producing areas – salt cost the consumer somewhere between twice and thirty-one times what it cost elsewhere. This disparity in cost was due to the process of long distance transport across the country: substantial profits could be made through toll charges on roads, bridges, border crossings en route or the control levy on goods entering a town such as La Haye. All these would add to the cost to the end customer. The uneven cost of salt led to widespread smuggling by faux-sauniers. Faux-sauniers could be sentenced to the galleys if they were caught without weapons, or to death if caught with weapons. In the period just before the Revolution, 1,800 men were imprisoned for smuggling salt, 300 were sent to the galleys, and 3,700 were detained for possession of contraband salt.

Despite reforms and the rationalisation of the tax during the 17th & 18th Centuries, the abolition of the gabelle was in the lists of grievances drawn up for the Estates-General of 1789 on the eve of the French Revolution (it is estimated that from 1630 to 1710 the tax increased tenfold from 14 times the cost of production to 140 times the cost of production). It was only with the overthrow of the monarchy that the hated slat tax was abolished*. During the Revolution itself thirty-two gabelle farmers (i.e. salt-tax collectors) were guillotined.

However, Napoleon reinstated the tax (April 1806) to fund his invasion of Italy, and it was not finally repealed in France until 1946.

* The British monarchy also supported itself with high salt taxes, leading to a extraordinary black market for salt. In 1785, the earl of Dundonald wrote that every year in England, 10,000 people were arrested for salt smuggling.

There is an excellent overview of the gabelle, including its medieval origins at: www.salt.org.il/legabelle.html

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Summary of text from interpretation board, Descartes:

“The building and those alongside, were restored in the 1980s.

The top of the gable is half-timbered. Two porches on opposite side make it a market that is open and easily accessible. Inside the weights and measures used were properly laid out. The lord of La Haye (the old name for the present town of Descartes), in fact had rights to markets and fairs; that means he collected taxes on the use of markets and the transactions that took place there (‘tonlieux’ or ‘market tolls’: taxes paid on merchandise transported by land or water, and also on the movement of merchandise (tolls). The ‘plaids’  were often held in the market hall where a representative of the lord would settle tax disputes, collect the fines and charges and give a ruling on minor infringements, all of which constituted the greater part of the rulings for average or minor offences. The lord of La Haye also held the right to judge grave offences which concerned the most serious cases (crime, arson, rape, treachery, making of counterfeit money) which suggests there was a prison, stocks and gibbet there.

In the C18th, and probably the proceeding century as well,  a salt store, auditoriums and prisons were established here, La Haye being the royal headquarters of the ‘gabelle’.

The River Creuse was fixed as the customs frontier (a guardroom was installed at Buxeuil) because Poitou was a ‘redeemed’ province (i.e. free from the salt tax) where salt was 9 or 10 times cheaper, and Touraine was an area with a heavy ‘gabelle’.”

About Jim McNeill

I am a blogger on 'The Social History of the Touraine region of France (37)' and also 'The Colonial History of Pennsylvania and the life & Family of William Penn'. I am a Director of Sweet Training Learning Consultancy Ltd. I'm about to open L'Union Bar in Paulmy, Loire Valley, France (37) in 2012 with my wife, Sandra.
This entry was posted in 21st Century, Creuse, Descartes/La Haye, French Revolution, Medieval history, Salt and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The town of Descartes and the “gabelle” tax on salt

  1. Jim Craig says:

    Interesting as ever…

  2. Colin Dyson says:

    And of course the British monopoloy on salt production in India and the 1930 salt march.

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