What Was the Gabelle?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term “gabelle” comes from the Latin glabulum, meaning “tax.” Technically, it can be used to refer to any type of tax, especially in France. However, it is usually used specifically in a discussion of the universally loathed salt tax imposed by the French kings from the 1200s to late 1700s. The gabelle was a major cause for complaint among the French citizens, and it played an important role in French history.

The term “gabelle” can be used to refer to any type of tax, especially in France.
The term “gabelle” can be used to refer to any type of tax, especially in France.

Given the ready availability of salt in the modern age, many people are not aware of salt's tumultuous role in human history. Until reliable sources of salt were identified, it was an extremely valuable spice, often worth large amounts of money. Countries which had sources of salt could sell the valuable product to others, and roads, wars, and kingdoms were financed with salt. The commercial value of salt now has to do with its potential as a flavoring, but historically salt was far more important as a preservative. Before refrigeration, salt kept foods from decaying.

The kings of France realized that the value of salt could translate into value for the kingdom. By imposing a tax on a universally used substance, the King could guarantee a steady source of income for the government. The gabelle was first instituted by Philip IV in 1286, initially as a temporary measure to help finance the government's activities. The gabelle proved to be a valuable money maker for the government, and Charles V made it a permanent fixture.

The citizens viewed the gabelle as grossly unfair for two reasons. The first had to do with the way in which the gabelle was applied. Different provinces in France paid different rates, which some regions, such as Brittany, being exempt altogether from the tax. Citizens were also mandated to purchase a set amount of salt at a fixed price, and in some regions they were specifically not allowed to harvest their own salt. Members of the nobility and other high ranking members of the society were often exempted from the gabelle, putting the bulk of the burden of the tax on the poor.

In response, many French people purchased contraband salt. Dealers would travel to regions with less expensive salt salt and purchase it in bulk, reselling it in provinces with a high gabelle. Provinces such as Brittany also had an unfair advantage in foreign trade, allowing their markets to flourish while other parts of France struggled. The most unfair forms of the gabelle were abolished in 1790, but the concept of a tax on salt persisted into the 20th century in France.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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