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Sickness and Death

Jessie Phelps

    Sickness and death created extra strain on the workers’ already strenuous lives. Sickness for workers usually meant being unable to work and take care of your family, while death meant taking on extra burdens left behind by the deceased. From the passages in the book, we are able to better understand how sickness and death affected 19th century French workers.

    Sickness is a normal part of everyday life, but the 19th century French worker could ill afford to get sick. Being unable to work meant that there would be no income. Most workers during this time period relied on every sou or franc they earned to pay for housing, food, and family. In the autobiographies, we find cases of workers getting sick, and the consequences of their illnesses. For Norbert Truquin, who was, for most of his life, extremely poor and homeless, getting sick meant having more food and a roof over his head than normal. He would be able to go to the hospital, where the care was free and he could get well. This was only the case in Truquin’s youth, and did not hold up for all the workers, as he was unskilled, and therefore did not have a consistent job. The skilled laborers were faced with more difficulties when they were sick. In Agricol Perdiguier’s autobiography he explains how he became ill during his Tour of France,

"I had arrived in Nantes in a sorry state…I had passed through Rochefort during July, in the dog days, the period of fevers and sickness in that region…During the ten days I remained in this weakened condition-delirious, getting up and walking around without knowing what I was doing-I received visits from a few friends, but the brotherhood and the Mother completely forgot me. My bill for those ten days-counting herb tea, hot broth, food, in short, my total expenses-came up to just three and a half francs…Even on days when my fever did not return in intensified form, I was unable to sit up."(157)

    Perdiguier goes on further to talk about his hospital visit as well as how he had to ask his father for money to pay for his room and board at the Mother, the inn where workers participating in the Tour of France stayed, as when he was sick he was out of work and therefore could not pay his bill. This is typical of what happened when workers were injured or sick. They would have to work even harder after the illness to make up for the lost income.

    The loss of work while recovering from illnesses was not the only problem the workers had to overcome during their convalescence. Workers also had to decide whether they wanted to see a physician for their bad health. Doctors were not altogether well trusted during this time period, as medicine was not as advanced as it is now. Workers were always hesitant to have a doctor check them out, as they were afraid that they might become even worse off than they were before they sought treatment. The fact that health care was substandard for the workers led them to be hesitant to seek treatment for their illnesses. They were afraid that if they did see a doctor that they would not always survive, and they knew that their families relied on their survival.

    Death in 19th century France also affected workers' lives. In the autobiography of Jacques Bede we see that the death of his father helped to shape the way he lived throughout his life. His father’s death put a large amount of strain on his already poor family, and Bede was sent away to live with his uncle. He had relatively little contact with his mother after moving in with his uncle. It was not uncommon for the ties of working class families to be weak; the high mortality rate helped to contribute to this problem. Each of these workers’ autobiographies talks about death affecting their lives in one way or another. Suzanne Voilquin ended up becoming a surrogate mother to her younger sister after their mother died. This created an extra strain on the family, as Suzanne was forced to work harder to support her sister. Death created an extra heartache for those who were unfortunate to lose family members. Not only did they lose a loved one, they also had to take on the extra responsibilities that the deceased left behind.

    Nineteenth century French workers faced numerous difficulties in their everyday lives. Sickness and death during this time only contributed to the problems. Not only did recovering preoccupy the workers who fell sick; they were faced with the issue of paying for their family, food, and board. On top of those worries, they still had to find more work after they recovered. If the workers did not recover, the agony of their death fell on their relatives, who had to pay for the expenses of burial, but also had to take on the added responsibilities in the family. Both of these, sickness and death, created more stress in an already trying and difficult life.



All design copyright Sara Hinds 2002

All essays copyright students of History 541,  University of Kentucky 2002

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