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The administration of France before May 1789 has become known as the Ancien Regime. This can be translated as 'Old', or 'Previous' Regime. France was an absolute monarchy, meaning the king's word was law. Politically the population of 24 million Frenchman were divided into three categories, known as the three 'estates'. The nobility formed the first estate, the 130,000 members of the French clergy the second and the remaining population constituted the third estate, including some 20 million peasants. In medieval France monarchs had established these three estates to form a national representative council called the 'Estates-General', essentially to gain agreement to tax demands. The estates-general had not, however, been called since 1614, after which date France's government shifted towards centralised power and 150 years of absolutism.
The first of the three 'estates' into which the kingdom of France was divided was the the aristocratic ruling class, called the nobility. The remaining 98% of the population were simply called the 'third estate' and were practically denied any possibility of advancement and involvement in the affairs of the State.
The Nobility and the Clergy
Although nominally in 1789 the monarch wielded absolute power, that power originally stemmed from the feudal system. The French monarchy's power had been built upon the allegiance and obedience of the leading magnates in the regions being wrought into a nation by the powerful Capet dynasty based in Paris. The greatest provincial rulers formed a hereditary ruling 'court' of 'ultra-nobles', whose authority was in turn accepted by the lesser barons in their lands and so on down the hierarchical chain. In the feudal system, nobles were expected to fight for their overlord, bringing with them appropriate men and materials towards assembling an army, according to their rank. In return, they were granted certain privileges in the form of immunities to taxes and rights over their peasant tenants and serfs. This system of feudal rights is generally referred to as 'les privilèges' in French. For this reason it will be called the privilege system in this project.
Over the centuries many of these privileges had become an unnecessary burden, and in some cases needy minor nobles insisted on reviving arcane special dispensations that were clearly unjust and were condemning the peasants to live in poverty. Some nobles were literally poor, though, struggling to make ends meet. Whether through failure to adapt to modern agricultural techniques, bad management or just bad weather, many nobles resorted to squeezing every last penny's worth of income out of their lands and the peasants who worked them.
The oldest and wealthiest families gravitated towards the glamorous court-life at Versailles and monopolised the corridors of power and the upper echelons of the clergy. Meanwhile there was a sharp division between the court and the provincial aristocracy, whether because of lack of status or lack of funds, or perhaps just plain modesty, many nobles never got near the capital, the court or the king. These provincial nobles held sway in their local cities and parlements, though, and were no less conservative, in the main, than the shining stars of Versailles.
There was another division within the nobility; over a question of status. On the one hand there were the 'noblesse d'épée'; families whose noble status went back beyond the earliest national records. On the other, there were the 'noblesse de robe'; those who had either bought in' to the nobility by means of letters patent signed by the king, or elevated to noble status through position, such as the magistrates in the parlements.
The two main sources of employment for the offspring of provincial noble families were the army and the clergy. The best positions in either could generally be aquired in return for a sum of money, keeping all the routes to advancement barred to those without the necessary wealth. This resulted in the only group among the nobles who were likely to support reforms, but by definition they were virtually powerless to bring changes to the establishment.
The Third Estate
Against the movement for reform, then, stood the strongly conservative noble caste. But in the latter half of the eighteenth century change was needed. This was the enlightenment and Rousseau and Voltaire were in the air. Equally, scientific theories of how to make the most of natural resources and raw materials.
France's economy was still primarily agrarian and the overwhelming majority of the population were peasant farm-workers1. Depending on the good-management and/or benevolence of their noble 'seigneurs', attitudes among peasants ranged from down-trodden and resentful to trusting, loyal and obedient. Too few landlords, though, were mindful of modern methods or indeed the sufferings of the peasantry.
In the cities there was a new working-class of poor industrial workers, such as the weavers of Lyons or the XXXXX in Paris and other emerging early industrial centres. This class was much smaller than its agricultural equivalent, but the conditions in cities made the poor industrial workers much more vocal in their complaints, politically active but largely impotent and thus frustrated.
Between the privileged nobles and the poor working class came what became known as the 'Bourgeoisie'; non-noble French subjects who had a disposable income. It can be deceptive to describe these people as a single 'class' because its representatives ranged from super-rich (but non-noble) industrialists or businessmen through to relatively lowly school-teachers etc, and all the doctors, lawyers and others in the 'liberal' professions. When historians talk about the 'bourgeois' revolution of 1789 they are very often referring to these educated, ambitious and often wealthy or at least well-off 'minor notables' of town and country.
In 13 major cities2 there were judicial institutions called 'parlements'. These were originally legal and administrative centres, largely made up of wealthy nobles. Once appointed, a seat on one of these parlements was heriditary. Seats were commonly bought and sold from as early as the 14th century. The president of each parlement, though, had to be a nominated by the monarch. They were divided into separate courts to deal with specific types of case.
At first parlements were strictly judicial institutions, but one specific function gave them considerable political power. Before any all royal edicts and letters patent became law they had to be ratified by the parlements. The “right of remonstrance” empowered the parlement to point out any breach of monarchic tradition after which the monarch could still force through by means of a 'lettre de jussion'3 or a 'lit de justice'4, so this was not a veto; merely a protest to be ignored at the monarch's discretion.
In the late 18th century and particularly in the years leading up to 1789, there was little desire for reform within the parlements. On the contrary, they often stood in the way of liberal economic reforms proposed by Louis XVI. After centuries of these positions being bought off by wealthy nobles and then kept in the family, they protected the vested interests of the aristocratic ruling class first and foremost.
After years of economic mis-management and a series of disasterous harvests, France was deep in financial crisis by 1788. A first attempt in that year at a 'national' council of 'notables' to discuss reforms was a failure, most of whom were conservative nobles.
This entry is part of the French Revolution University Project.