French Society during the ancient regime

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French Society during the ancient regime

  • French society in the eighteenth century was divided into three orders known as the Estates of the Realm.

    • The first two estates had many privileges that they frequently used to the disadvantage of the Third Estate.

    • Over the course of the eighteenth century divisions appeared between the estates and this became a long term cause of the Revolution.

  • The First Estate

    • The First Estate was the clergy, which consisted of members of religious orders (monks and nuns) and clergy (parish priests).

    • A number of issues contributed to the Church being unpopular with many people. These were:

      • Plurality and absenteeism

      • Tithes

      • Its exemption from taxes

      • Its power over the people


    • Plurality and absenteeism

      • Many younger sons of noble families entered the Church and occupied its higher posts, such as bishops and archbishops which provided large incomes.

        • The Archbishop of Strasbourg received 400,000 livres per annum, which contrasted sharply with most parish priests (cures) who only who received between 700 and 100 livres each year.

        • Some bishops held more than one bishopric, which meant they were bishops of more than one diocese (an area served by a bishop). This is called plurality (the holding of more than one bishopric or parish by an individual.

        • Many never visited their diocese, i.e. absenteeism. This made the Church very unpopular with many ordinary people who considered that bishops were more interested in wealth than the religious and spiritual needs of the people.

    • Tithes

      • The wealth of the Church came from the land it owned and the tithes paid to it. It was the largest single landowner in France, owning about 10 percent of the land.

      • The tithe was a charge paid to the Church each year by landowners and was based on a proportion of the crops they produced.

        • This charge varied widely. In Dauphine it amounted to about one-fiftieth of the crops produced, while in Brittany it was a quarter. In most parts of France it was about seven per cent of the crop.

          • The income produced by the tithe provided the Church with 50 million livres each year.

      • Tithes were supposed to provide for parish priests, poor relief and the upkeep of Church buildings, but much of it went instead into the pockets of bishops and abbots.

        • This was greatly resented by both the peasantry and the ordinary clergy and was one of the most common grievances made in their cahiers (lists of grievances for reform drawn up by representatives of each estate and presented to the Estates-General) in 1788.

    • Tax exemption

      • The Church had many privileges apart from collecting the tithe. By far the most important of these was its exemption from taxation. This added to its unpopularity.

        • Its income from property was immense: around 100 million livres per year in the closing years of the ancien regime.

        • Instead of paying tax the Church agreed to make an annual payment known as the don gratuit.

        • It was under five percent of the Church’s income and was much less than it could afford to pay.

    • Power over the people

      • France was a religious country and Catholicism was the official state religion. The influence of the Church was considerable and touched many areas of people’s views.

        • It had wide-ranging powers of censorships over books which were critical of the Church, provided poor relief, hospitals and schools and kept a list in the parish of all births, marriages and deaths.

          • The Church acted as a sort of Ministry of Information for the government, when parish priests informed their congregations about various policies and initiatives.

          • The vast wealth of the Church and its resistance to new ideas made it unpopular with many people.


    • Of the three estates, the nobility was the most powerful. Unlike the British nobility, which numbered hundreds, the French nobility numbered hundreds of thousands, although the exact numbers are disputed.

      • Figures for the numbers of nobles by 1789 vary between 110,000 and 350,000. Within the nobility there were great variations in wealth and status.

        • The most powerful were the 4000 court nobility, restricted in theory to those whose noble ancestry could be traced back to before 1400; in practice to those who could afford the high cost of living at Versailles.

        • Second in importance were the noblesse de robe – legal and administrative nobles which included the 1200 magistrates of the parlements.

        • The remainder of the nobility – the overwhelming majority – lived in the country in various states of prosperity. Under the law of primogeniture, a landed estate was inherited by the eldest son. Younger sons were forced to fend for themselves and many joined the Church, the army or the administration.

      • The main source of income for the Second Estate was land and they owned between a third and a quarter of France. Nearly all the main positions in the State were held by the nobles – among them government ministers, intendants and upper ranks in the army.

    • Privileges

      • In addition to holding most of the top jobs in the State, the nobility had many privileges. They:

        • were tried in special courts

        • were exempt from paying the gabelle

        • were exempt from military service

        • were exempt from the corvee (forced labour on the roads)

        • received a variety of feudal - obligations imposed on the peasantry by landowners(aka seigneurial) dues

        • had exclusive rights to hunting and fishing

        • in many areas had the monopoly right (known as banalities) to operate mills, ovens and winepresses.

      • Perhaps their greatest privilege was exemption from taxation. Until 1695 they did not pay direct taxes at all.

        • In that year the capitation was introduced and in 1749 the vingtieme.

        • Even with these they managed to pay less than they could have done. They were generally exempt from the most onerous tax of all – the taille.

      • Provincial nobles were strongly attached to these privileges, which represented a significant part of their income.

        • It was the less wealthy of the nobles who felt that if they were to lose their tax privileges and their seigneurial rights that they would face ruination.

        • They were determined to oppose any changes that threatened their positions and undermined their privileges as these were all they had to distinguish them from the commoners.

          • The privileges relating to land ownership and tax exemption were resented by many ordinary people who saw the Second Estate as avoiding their share of the tax burdens borne by others.


    • Joining the nobility

      • There were various ways of becoming a noble besides the obvious one of inheritance.

        • One of the main ways of acquiring noble status was either by direct appointment from the King or by buying certain offices that carried hereditary titles. These were called venal offices and there were 12,000 of these in the service of the Crown. They carried titles that could be bought, sold or inherited like any other property.

      • While gaining a title conveyed both status and benefits there were also limitations.

        • Nobles were not in theory allowed to take part in industrial or commercial activities or they would suffer derogation (loss of their nobility).

          • In reality many did, as the rule was not rigidly enforced.

            • In Paris in 1749 nearly all the people with an income of over half a million livres were nobles.

            • Even in industrial centres such as Lyon nobles were the wealthiest group.

          • It has been estimated that during the 18th century between 30,000 and 50,000 people became nobles.

          • Although the nobility formed a distinct and separate order it was not inaccessible to men of wealth and social ambition.

  • The Third Estate

    • In essence the Third Estate consisted of everyone who did not belong to one or other of the two privileged estates. There were enormous extremes of wealth within this estate.

    • The bourgeoisie (the middle class people who lived in towns)

      • At the top end were the rich merchants, industrialist and business people. This group of rich commoners is referred to as the bourgeoisie.

      • Among the wealthiest of the bourgeoisie were the merchants and traders who made vast fortunes out of France’s overseas trade.

        • Others included financiers, landowners, members of the liberal professions (doctors and writers), lawyers and civil servants.

        • Many were venal office-holders.

      • As a group the bourgeoisie were rising not only in wealth but also in numbers. There was a threefold increase in the number of bourgeoisie over the course of the eighteenth century to 2.3 million.

        • The bourgeoisie was increasing in importance and felt that their power and wealth should in some way be reflected in the political system as they bore such a substantial part of the tax revenue paid to the Crown.

    • The peasantry

      • At the other extreme of the Third Estate from the bourgeoisie were the peasantry.

        • They were by far the most numerous section of French society, comprising 85% of the population.

        • This group however covered enormous variations in wealth and status.

      • At the top end was a small group of large farmers who owned their land, employed labourers and grew for the market. More numerous were the labourers who existed at or near subsistence levels.

        • For much of the eighteenth century they and the larger farmers did well as agricultural conditions were favourable, particularly in the 1770s.

          • Half of the peasants were share-croppers who did not own their land but farmed it and gave half of their crops to the landlords instead of rent.

          • About a quarter of the peasants were landless labourers who owned nothing but their house and garden.

      • In some parts of France serfdom continued to exist.

        • There were a million serfs in the east, mainly in Franche Comte.

          • They were at the bottom of the social structure and their children were unable to inherit even personal property without paying considerable dues to their lord.

          • Poor peasants lived in state of chronic uncertainty. Bad weather or illness could push them into the ranks of the vagrants who lived by begging, stealing and occasional employment.

    • Grievances

      • In many ways the peasants bore the burden of taxation and this made them extremely resentful.

        • All peasants had to pay tithe to the Church, feudal dues to their lord and taxes to the State.

        • Nearly all land was subject to feudal dues. These included the corvee, champart (a due paid in grain or other crops to the landlord which could vary from five to 33 per cent of the harvest) and lods et ventes (a payment to the seigneur when property changed hands).

      • A further grievance was that the peasant could be tried in the seigneurial court where the lord acted as both judge and jury.

      • Taxes paid to the State included the taille, capitation and gabelle. All these increased enormously between 1749 and 1783 to pay for the various wars France involved in.

        • Taxes took between five and 10 percent of the peasants’ income.

        • The heaviest burden on the peasantry was the rent they paid their landlords. This increased markedly during the second half of the eighteenth century as a result of the increase in population which is estimated to have risen from 22.4 million in 1705 to 27.9 million in 1790.

          • This increased the demand for farms with the result that landlords could raise rents.

    • Urban workers

      • The remaining part of the Third Estate was made up of urban workers.

        • Small property owners and artisans in Paris were known as sans-culottes (those who wear trousers and not knee-breaches and were extreme urban revolutionaries of 1792-5).

          • The majority of workers in the towns lived in crowded insanitary housing blocks known as tenements.

          • They were unskilled and poor.

      • On the other hand, skilled craftsmen were organised into guilds.

        • In Paris in 1776, 100,000 workers – a third of the male population – belonged to guilds.

        • The standard of living of wage-earners had slowly fallen in the eighteenth century, as prices had risen on average by 65 percent between 1726 and 1789 but wages by only 22 percent.

Summary: Issues affecting French society before 1789 (taken from Dylan Rees, France in Revolution)

  • Second estate – The Nobility

    • Resentment against nobility for non-payment of direct taxes

    • Feudal rights resented by tenants

    First Estate – The Church

    • Vast differences in wealth between the upper clergy and ordinary priests.

    • Resentment against the Church regarding tithes and the don gratuit.

Third estate

  • Bourgeoisie had no political role under absolutism

  • Burden of taxation largely borne by Third Estate

Issues affecting French society

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