What do Shipwrecks, Pirates, and House Fires Have in Common?
In Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve's The Story of Beauty and the Beast (1740), Beauty's father wasn't an inventor but a merchant; and he was wealthy enough that his six daughters could count on marrying their pick of any number of barons, dukes, or earls. Until one day,
there suddenly came a reverse of fortune, which was the last thing these girls expected, and which sadly troubled the peacefulness of their life. The house in which they lived took fire. The splendid furniture with which it was filled, all the books of account, the bank-notes, the gold and silver, as well as all the precious stores, which formed the merchant's chief source of wealth, were enveloped in the disastrous conflagration the violence of which was such that scarcely anything was saved. (1)
The daughters' marriage prospects might have been salvageable but they vanished entirely when their father lost at "the same time, either by shipwreck or through falling into the hands of pirates, all the ships that he had at sea" (1). So the question (for this faux-researcher/character in my dissertation) becomes: What kind of merchant was he? We know he housed goods in his own home, he owned ships, and he imported, exported, or both, over waters dangerous enough that his ships could be wrecked or taken by pirates.
In Provisioning Paris: Merchants and Millers in the Grain and Flour Trade During the Eighteenth Century, Steven L. Kaplan opens with:
Cereal dependence conditioned every phase of social life in old-regime France. Grain was the dominant sector of the economy; beyond its determinant role in agriculture, direction and indirectly it shaped the development of commerce and industry, regulated employment, and provided a major source of revenue for the state, the Church, the nobility, and large segments of the Third Estate. Subsistence needs gave cereal dependence its most telling expression. The survival of most of the people turned on the availability of grain. Yet nothing was more uncertain than the harvest, and even an apparently abundant harvest could not allay anxieties, for the process of distribution was fraught with perils, both natural and man-made. (7)
As I read more of Kaplan's 600-plus page brick of a book, I became somewhat interested in trying to make a case for Beauty's father being a grain merchant. But I think what really made me pursue the idea was that, on a recent-ish "jog" with J. I. Daniels, I was informed that flour is explosive. Here's a video of Mr. Wizard explaining why flour mills explode. Here's one of flour exploding in slow motion. And another of a flour powered flame thrower. If this isn't enough to convince you, too, that it could be pretty cool to open my dissertation with the scene of the merchant's house burning down due to multiple flour explosions, then how on earth are you finding yourself here, this far into this blog post?
Unfortunately, Kaplan also has a chapter called "Miller Family, Marriage, and Fortune," and after reading this chapter, I'm not at all sure that a grain merchant's daughters would ever be courted by noblemen. Kaplan writes: "The richest miller about whom I have any precise information is Etienne Palleau, of the Dourdan area. He left an estate of over 60,000 livres, including 10,000 livres in cash, a mill worth 10,000 livres, almost 12,000 livres in other real estate, wine worth 1,000 livres, wheat valued at 3,369 livres (some probably of his own cultivation), and over 7,000 livres in furnishings and effects, including 800 livres of silver" (333). But maybe my merchant can also deal in "furnishings and effects," whatever those are, and "other real estate." Wine, too, seems an obvious contender, right?
New research question: Did 18th Century pirates drink wine?