Posts Tagged ‘Talleyrand’

The French Revolution transformed not only the political map of Europe but also the vinicultural map of France. Prior to the Revolution, most vineyards, especially in Burgundy and Bordeaux, belonged to the Church and the nobility. The vineyards were seized by the State in 1790 , with an objective toward replenishing the empty State Treasury.  In an adroit exercise of Cartesian rationalization, Talleyrand (himself notably the Bishop of Autun and the eldest son of the Comte de Périgord) justified the theft of these properties from the nobility and the Church by rechristening them biens nationaux (“national goods”). As such, they by definition belonged to the State and could be placed at its disposition and sold off at auction in the interests of France.

 One practical impediment to Talleyrand’s scheme was that the Treasury’s needs were immediate, and any sale of the biens nationaux would have taken considerable time to implement.  To monetize more quickly the biens nationaux, the National Assembly printed certificates of value called assignats, conceptually a variety of bond based on the value of the stolen properties. These assignats were then used by the government to retire its debts; and, in turn, came to be traded and exchanged as legal tender. Et voilà —  the birth of paper money!

The National Assembly was so pleased with its creation that it kept the printing presses rolling until so many assignats were issued that they no longer had any value.  By thus discovering inflation did the French government first master the magic of reverse-alchemy: transmuting valuable vineyards into valueless paper money.  By 1793, France descended into the throes of hyperinflation, and the process that began with the separation of vineyards from their rightful proprietors segued quite naturally into the severance of many heads from their traditional owners.

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