The village I live in was one of about a dozen situated in what, up to the French Revolution, was known as La Terre Privilégiée where citizens enjoyed not only exemption from the hated Gabelle or salt tax but they could also purchase their salt at much reduced rates. This latter privilege was probably due to the ease in which inhabitants of these villages could nip across the Pyrenees and buy their salt in Spain.
The tax was the result of a 13th century opt-out clause…pay up or fight in the army and, even in peacetime it was imposed supposedly to pay for a “professional” army. By the 15th century it was a well established bit of fiscal finagling. The collection of the tax was “farmed out” to a bunch of more than usually avaricious folk known as tax farmers general who paid great wodges of cash for the privilege of becoming tax collectors.
Applied across France with a breathtaking disdain for consistency it was probably the most detested of all the taxes, bringing as it did poverty and starvation and adding yet another straw to the haystack of ills besetting France until the revolutionary fire broke out with the storming of the Bastille (14 July 1789).
The Gabelle officials were…well, officious, using stop and search tactics to prevent the smuggling of salt around the country. They poked and proddled merchandise with long metal augers and even, in one town, subjected a funeral cortege to a thorough search. They were given extensive and intrusive search rights including house searches. However one quirk in all this harassment existed – if the master of the house was sitting in his chair (he would have a relatively large and quite grand chair as generally only the better-off could afford to buy salt) he could not be moved or forced to leave the chair regardless of the tax collector’s (probably correct) suspicions as to what he was actually sitting on. Hence, such chairs became known as salt chairs.
Salt warehouses opened up in towns across France where those of the local populace who could afford salt were obliged to purchase their ration. However, in some areas every man, woman and child over 8 years old was forced to buy salt (whether they wanted or needed it or not). This duty to purchase salt was known as “duty-salt for the pot and the saltcellar”.
English traveller John Locke saw the bullying and threatening behaviour of the Gabelle officials and heard about the severe penalties applied to tax dodgers. He warned ordinary citizens of the danger of buying any salt from anywhere but the warehouses. The penalties for being caught with “but an handful” that had not been purchased and paid for at the rate set by the tax collectors was to be sent to the Galleys – otherwise known as certain death. As a result, careful buyers would insure themselves against inadvertently buying smuggled salt.
In the years just before the Revolution, over 3500 people were arrested for having contraband salt more than 1500 were actually imprisoned and around 300 men were sent to the galleys for smuggling salt and tobacco. Come the Revolution and le Gabelle along with several other taxes was abolished and many of the Gabelle tax collectors visited Madame Guillotine.
However, taxes are a Government’s get out of jail card when finances look a bit under the weather and Napoleon himself reinstated le Gabelle so that he could fund the invasion of Italy. It remained until after World War Two in 1949 when it was finally given a state funeral.