Vce history The French Revolution Timeline of Key Events/People/Concepts Revolution

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VCE History - The French Revolution

Timeline of Key Events/People/Concepts

  • ‘A process of massive political upheaval that changes the way in which a country is governed; a vertical shift in power from an absolute monarch to a popular government ruling on behalf of the people’ (Richard Malone)

  • ‘A transfer of power from a minority to a majority power base that has a lasting political, social and economic impact on the whole country’ (The Leading Edge – Units 3 and 4 – Revolutions – page 6)


  • Turning point in the progress of anything – a state of affairs in which a decisive change is evident (Oxford Dictionary)


  • The study of history, historical methods and different interpretations of history (The Leading Edge – Units 3 and 4 – Revolutions – page 5)

  • The Nature of History. Not only must we assess the evidence on historical matters for ourselves, but we must ponder the nature of history. An English historian, Geoffrey Elton, in The Practice of History (1967) argued very hard that historical facts were truths. Elton implied that as long as we could collect all the relevant facts we could know the past and that knowledge would not be under much dispute. How then have there been so many views and interpretations of the same event in history? And why is it that we continually rewrite history?? Another English historian in What is History? (1960), argued that historical facts we like fish under glass at the fisherman’s cooperative. They did not represent all the types of fish in the sea, but only what had been caught that day, by those particular fishermen. Once purchased, those fish were taken home and prepared in a diversity of ways, by the varied methods of the individual purchasers, and cooked and spiced to their different tastes. So it is with the making of history. The interpretation will depend on the ideas buzzing in the historian’s head as well as the facts that he or she selects. This does not mean that there are endless interpretations or that the historian can say anything. Historians must use the evidence with care and attention to the ideas of the past. History is thus a conversation between the individual historian and the facts of the past. This means then that a fact can be viewed differently, depending on one's preference and how it is held. It can be viewed from the side by gaping down its mouth, from the underside or the tail. It is still the same fish, but it looks different to the viewer depending on the angle.


  • Improve (within existing structures) as distinct from revolutionise which is to radically change the structures through violent means

Government Structure (Pre-Revolutionary France)

Concept – Power/Authority



Absolute Divine Right

  • Theoretical basis of authority - Definitive – unquestionable – power to pass laws, appoint ministers, declare war and peace, impose taxes and control currency

  • Divine Right – reinforced by religious belief – power directly from God – infallible – rule by divine authority - to criticise the King was to criticise God (Religion and faith a means for social control – fear of afterlife)

  • Not a despot – had to respect nations laws and traditions – especially influenced by law courts – expected to be benevolent (do good for others) – parlements

  • Hereditary – Dynastic- dependent on personal powers of the King

  • Idealised images presented through art – exclusivity, lavishness, symbols of absolute royal power etc

Public perception important – creation of a convincing imagery of power. This included:

  • Belief in competence of the monarch – assumption that the King was capable of ruling competently – large oil paintings and engravings created this image – important that in time of crisis that he looks competent – to reinforce the image

  • Dynastic – there was a whole family history of power – created prestige – Bourbon dynasty dated back to 1589

  • Public belief in benevolence - King was ‘father’ and protector of his people. – ‘patriarchal authority’ – protective of subjects and to be trusted

  • Vulnerability – if opponents were to question authority/power, then the system might be weakened


  • Royal Ministers – of Police, Navy, Justice, Army and Finance – directly responsible to the King – formed His Council

  • Intendants - ran the provinces and generalites – supervised tax collection, religious practice, law and order, public works, communications, commerce and industry

  • Overlapping jurisdictions – 39 provinces with governors, 36 generalites with intendants – each authority would interpret law differently – different customs, taxes, weights and measures, even language (French and Latin)

  • Incoherent and inefficient

  • leading to chaos

  • corruption and manipulation


  • Taxation – great inequality – privileged orders paid little or no tax (spread unevenly across the Third Estate – collected through vena office (positions which were bought) Famers-General collected indirect taxes, paid a lumps sum to the government and collected the rest

  • Treasury – no central treasury – inefficient, corrupt and Crown never received full amount collected in its name

  • Economy – backward - Still subsistence farming - internal customs barriers – no technological advancement – manufacturing on traditional guild system – no industrialisation of textiles – Was booming overseas trade

Inefficiencies, inequalities and contradictions
System of overlapping systems – chaotic jumble to administration, justice, local taxes and religious institutions (Adcock p.9)
System enabled corruption and ensured that many (especially in the Third Estate) were powerless


  • Estates General - the only body which by custom had the power to authorise new taxes (had not met since 1614)

  • Assembly of Notables - The Assembly of Notables (not met since 1626) - consultative body

  • Parlements – law courts – issued and administered laws passed by the King. Most important was parlement of Paris – 2,300 magistrates – all noblesse de robe – Parlements could criticise a law through remonstrance – but King could counter with a lit de justice

  • Consultation – limited or nothing

  • Judges – King was supreme judge – final court of appeal

  • Jurisdiction – different and competing – parlements, ecclesiastical and military courts all contradicting each other, Roman law in South, Germanic law in North

  • Arbitrary – King could just make up his own mind - lettres de cachet

Perception of corruption and abuse of privilege in parlements

Social Structure (Pre-Revolutionary France – up to 1789)

Concept – Estates

FIRST ESTATE – Clergy 169,500 (0.6% of population)
The First Estate was that of the clergy. In 1789 the clergy numbered close to 170,000. There were 138 archbishops and bishops, 2,800 canons and priors, 37,000 nuns, 23,000 monks and 60,000 parish priests (cures). Of the clergy, about one half were “regular” clergy (living in monasteries, convents and abbeys), while the other half were “secular clergy”, (running churches and being responsible for public affairs).
The Church in France (Catholic) was called the Gallican Church because it had certain privileges that other countries didn’t have. The King, rather than the Pope, chose archbishops and bishops. The Church itself had its own hierarchy. Only those of noble birth were appointed to the position of Bishops or Archbishops. It was common for the youngest sons of the great noble families to enter the higher positions of the Church, so they could enjoy its wealth. Many bishops held more than one bishopric and some never appeared in their “sees” at all. While the richest Archbishop had an income each year of 400,000 livres, most cures received between 700 and 1,000 livres. While the regular clergy lived in magnificent accommodation, the cures lived in relatively poor conditions.
The Church was the single largest landowner in France and owned 10% of the land. It was not, however, uniform ownership across all of France. In the north of the country the Church owned over 30% of the land, in the southwest about 10%. The land in the countryside was rented out to the peasants in return for a proportion of their crop. Revenue was also derived from Church owned properties and from the Tithe, a tax that all parishioners paid. Between 6 and 10% of their produce went directly to the Church.
The largest and most expensive building in any town was the Church. In cities it would be the Cathedral. In some cases the Church owned upwards of 75% of land in a town and most of the economy revolved around the Church.
The Church controlled education as nearly all schools were in the hands of the Church. The parish priest was responsible for the education of his diocese and controlled most sources of information for those who could not read. The parish priest, (the cure or abbe`), often served as the local authority on royal edicts and mediated in local disputes between peasants and nobles on matters of importance.
The Church was also responsible for censorship.
As the Church was responsible for the pastoral care of the community, (poor relief, hospitals, education, registration of births, marriages and deaths), it paid no taxes. Instead it voluntarily contributed a grant, the Don Gratuit, to the state every five years. The Church Assemblies decided the amount that was granted, but was usually in the order of 1% of the income the Church achieved each year. As a result, the Church was able to exercise considerable influence over the government.

SECOND ESTATE – Nobility – 125,000 nobles (0.4% of population)
The Second Estate was the Nobility. They made up 0.4% of the population (between 120,000 and 300,000), but owned close to a third of the land. There were three divisions within the Second Estate.
The Noblesse de court” numbered about 4000. These theoretically had noble ancestry that went back to before 1400. In reality they were the nobles who could afford to reside at the Palace of Versailles.
The Noblesse d’eppe” (the nobility of the sword, those of noble birth). These nobles were privileged because of their service to the King in battle many years before. They were not always wealthy and it is estimated that almost 60% of this group lived an impoverished existence in comparison to the Noblesse de court.
The Nobles de robe” did not come from a noble background. They had gained their noble status as recognition of their service to the King or they had been able to purchase one of the 50,000 venal offices from the King. Like property these positions could be bought, sold and inherited. In the 18th century, 2,200 families were ennobled by buying offices and 4,300 by the direct grant of the King. By 1789 almost a third of all noble families had been recently ennobled.
The main source of income for the Second Estate was land. The nobility owned almost a third of all land and almost 20% of the Church’s income went to them as all bishops were of noble class. Nearly all of the high positions in France were held by nobles. They were the King’s ministers, the high legal officers, the intendants in the provinces and occupied all of the high positions in the Army. In 1781, by royal decree, officers’ commissions in some of the elite regiments of the Army had to demonstrate at least 4 generations of nobility.
Nobles enjoyed many privileges. They were tried in special courts and were exempt from military service, the gabelle (indirect tax on salt) and the corvee (forced labour on the roads). They received seigneurial (feudal dues) and had exclusive rights to hunting and fishing. Only nobles could own and operate mills, ovens and winepresses. (These monopoly rights were known as “Banalites”)
Until 1695 they paid no direct tax at all. This changed with the introduction of the “Capitation”, a direct tax that every person had to pay. “The Vingtieme” was a direct tax on income levied from the start of the American War until 1786.
Nobles could carry a sword, display a coat of arms, have an enclosed pew at the front of their church, be sprinkled with holy water, have the Church draped in black when they died and be executed by the sword if found guilty of a capital offence.

THIRD ESTATE 26-28 million (99% of population)
The Third Estate numbered approximately 27 million or 99% of the population. In total they controlled 45% of the land. They had NO privileges!
This order contained many different groups with significant extremes of wealth and poverty. The Third Estate bore the burden of the other two privileged Estates. It produced nearly all of the wealth of France and paid nearly all of the taxes.
THE BOURGEOISIE (2.3 million in 1789)

This term describes the wealthiest members of the Third Estate. They were town livers who made their money through non- agricultural professions.

The Haute (or high bourgeoisie) the financiers, the bankers, the industrialists and manufacturers were often wealthier than many of the land owning nobility.

The Petite (or lower bourgeoisie) were merchants, lawyers, accountants, master craftsmen and shop owners.

Finance, industry and banking accounted for 20% of French private wealth in the 1780’s and the bourgeoisie accounted for most of it. The remainder of French wealth came from rents (interest from investments in government stock) and income from the land.

According to Townson “they accepted nobles’ values as their own and wished to share in the system of privileges by becoming ennobled.” As Adcock points out, “during the 18th century, between 5,000 and 7,000 bourgeoisie entered (bought) the “nobility of the robe”. The successful bourgeoisie, for between 50,000 and 500,000 pounds, could purchase venal Public offices as well.


As you’d expect from this title, the urban workers made their living working in the cities and the towns as labourers, servants or industrial workers. Most were unskilled and as a result, quite poor. It was difficult to become a skilled worker as most “craftsmen” were recruited from their own family. A five year apprenticeship was needed before an apprentice could become a “journey man” (paid a daily wage and could enter a guild). In Paris in 1776 there were 100,000 members of guilds. Working hours were long; 16 hour days, 6 days a week.

Domestic servants were probably the largest single occupational force in towns and cities. While they were fed, received wages and lodging they were not allowed to marry and had to be on hand to serve their family at any time and for anything.
Unskilled workers were the poorest city and town dwellers. They worked irregularly at menial or tough tasks. They were expected to work for very low wages and lived in appalling conditions. Wages were not adjusted to inflation so the poor got poorer and hungrier. Prices had risen on average by 65% between 1726 and 1789. At the same time wages had increased by only 22%.
Bread made up ¾ of most workers diets. If the price of bread rose, rather than seek a wage increase, they were keen for the price to be lowered. At times they took matters into their own hands and seized grain and “distributed” it at a reasonable price.

For many women the only course for income was prostitution. In Paris, there were as many as 25,000 women who were forced into this degrading lifestyle. Many fell pregnant and were forced to abandon their children. In 1780, 3% of all births were illegitimate. Of these, 252/1000 died before the age of 5. It is estimated that there were 40,000 abandoned children in the main cities and towns of France at this time.

The Church provided the only social relief. Many of the poor could not have survived without regular assistance from the Church. In times of economic downturn many were unemployed. In Paris, in 1790, 1 in 5 Parisians needed some kind of social assistance.

Death rates were high because towns were unsanitary and their diet was poor. The children were poorly fed and over 30% failed to live beyond the age of 5. In times of high unemployment or where there had been a bad season on the land, many men took to begging. Thousand of country workers would descend on the towns and cities in hope of work or relief.


There were approximately 22 million peasants in 1780, owning approximately 30% of the land. Most peasants were tenants, sharecroppers or day workers. Of these almost half owned some land. A few of these (the Labourers) were expanding their holdings acquiring stock, lending money and hiring workers.

The majority (the Manouvriers) lived a precarious subsistence level. They supplemented their small income from their crops by working part time on the large estates or being involved in the textile industry. The children of the landless labourers could not inherit their family home unless a considerable amount (the due) was paid to the local noble. While we have discussed the burden of direct and in direct taxation already, the heaviest burden was meeting rent payments. These had increased considerably in the second half of the 18th century due to the marked increase in France’s population between 1750 and 1780.

Only a few had anything to sell after making provision for family consumption, the next years seed, church, feudal dues and taxes. In difficult years (crop failures etc.) many had to buy food to get through the winter. The price of grain was regulated and stocks were held to offset the impact of a poor harvest. The King was able to distribute this reserve grain, but there was never enough to ensure the price of grain remained stable. Shortages drove up the prices of grain, severely affecting the urban workers. There was a flow on effect onto textile production because most money was directed at buying food, not clothing. Production was often reduced or curtailed, leading to an increase in the number of unemployed. This placed further strain on the Church for providing relief for the poor. Crime rates also grew alarmingly in these times of economic downturn.


  • Hierarchical - Corporate culture of privilege – not applied equally to everyone. This was manifested that honorific rights (eg: to wear certain clothes, carry a sword etc) and concession with tax

  • Treatment depended on which group one belonged to and what privileges that group enjoyed

  • Culture of deference – people accepted that the rich and powerful were superior and therefore entitled to privileges that they did not receive.

  • Estates (etat) a social classification – defined what role you were supposed to fulfil in society (A Middle Ages concepts that was being questioned by the 1780s)

  • Massive discrepancies within estates in terms of wealth, prestige and power

  • Climbing the corporate ladder and accessing the privileges more prevalent during the reign of Louis XVI

  • Maintaining their privileges of estates (clergy and nobility) led to the financial crisis of the 1780s

  • Ignorance of the Crown and aristocracy to the rising power of the bourgeoisie (in the Third Estate)

  • All estates were complex construction with some with immense wealth, while others were poor and disempowered. Each had their agenda to maintain their power base and privilege, to avoid taxes, to change class etc

  • The estates structure defined the values of the time – CHURUCH and spiritualty a power force, Nobles recognised as superior – people defer to their authority

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