The « gabelle », the salt tax

Since salt was indispensable, with no substitute product, it very quickly aroused the interest of governments.  They quickly understood that they could control its production and then its distribution before making it a fiscal instrument.

During the Middle Ages, salt was subjected to local taxes levied at pay stations set up along the trade routes.  It was the merchants who were taxed, and the money thus collected was paid in turn to the lords.  Little by little, sovereigns transformed these taxes into a permanent source of revenue called the “gabelle”, from an Arabic word, “kabala”, which meant tax. In 1246, Saint Louis financed his crusade by instituting a temporary tax on salt. It was King Philippe VI of Valois, however, who, in 1340, instituted the definitive royal monopoly on the sale of salt.  The gabelle had just been invented.

The gabelle disappeared four centuries later during the French Revolution. It was only in 1945 that the word gabelle disappeared from official regulatory documents.

 

A complex fiscal system

Implementation of the gabelle in the Kingdom of France was accompanied with the development of a particular system of storage and distribution of salt.  In each province “salt houses” appeared which served both as points of storage for both territorial and legal entities.  Producers delivered their salt in the form of blocks or loaves which were then sold by government-appointed officials.  The revenue was turned over to the king.

To see: a former salt storehouse at Dournon l'Entrepôt, on the Route de l'Entrepôt near Salins-les-Bains. 

In the 16th century, the system evolved under the influence of the “dauphin”, the crown prince, and future King Henri II.  The State entrusted the collection of the salt tax to 40 different “Fermiers généraux”, or tax collectors.  They signed a lease with the king, usually for 6 years, which obliged them to pay a very high sum in advance. In turn, they had to recuperate the sum plus their own remuneration.

So as to make a maximum profit, all means were allowed and pressure on the tax payers was often very heavy. For example, tax payers were under the obligation to buy salt, an obligation created precisely to ensure a regular tax revenue.

In order to collect the heavy advance they owed the king, the tax collectors often called upon the « Grands du Royaume », meaning princes of royal blood or ministers.  In exchange, the latter received shares in the profits made by the collectors.  It was through this system that large kingdoms amassed such considerable fortunes.  And it was notably for these powerful men that Claude Nicolas Ledoux made it a point of pride to build the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans.

 

Poids des impôts sur le peuple - caricature  - Un Paysan portant un Prélat et un Noble -

An unequal tax

The gabelle was a heavy and profoundly unequal tax.  Modest at first, it continued to rise according to the financial needs of the sovereigns.  In addition, certain people were exempt from the tax, and its rate varied from one province to the next. 

Indeed, some members of the nobility, the clergy and most royal officers and university personnel did not pay the salt tax. They were known as the “franc-salés” (the free salted).  The salt tax was entirely and unjustly paid by the peasants who were, in addition, required by law to buy a certain quantity of salt – known as “the salt of duty” – even if they did not need it.  

The amount of the salt tax also varied according to province. The provinces were divided into four large zones :

  • the high tax zone : the Seine Basin and the middle Loire area.

    The inhabitants had to pay the salt tax which was maximal. It was applied mainly to salt from the Atlantic region,

  • the low tax zone : the Rhone Valley, the Saône River country, Languedoc and Provence.

    The tax was levied before the salt left the salt pans or the saltworks.  In these regions, the people did not pay the salt tax. They bought salt when they needed it,

  • the zone of the saltworks and « quarter bullion » : Lower Normandy, where salt was taxed at a quarter of its price, hence the name “quarter bullion”, Franche-Comté and Lorraine,

    The tax was collected directly at the saltworks in these provinces, but differences in price were noted;

  • the zone of the “redimés” or the tax-free zone: Brittany, Flanders, Aquitaine

    Progressively integrated into the Kingdom of France, these provinces managed to maintain their franchise or were able to buy it back once the Hundred Years War was finished.  This was the case for Anne of Brittany who, when her province was attached to France in 1532, stipulated that never would Brittany be subjected to the salt tax.  Brittany was thus a doubly privileged province since it produced its own salt which was easily available on the free market.

     

Carte des gabelles