Monday, 18 January 2016

Challenges to the Ancien Régime

The Encyclopaedia,
the great achievement of the 

 French Enlightenment

The first challenge to the ancien régime came from the great eighteenth-century intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment

There are many debates and controversies about the Enlightenment, but the following features are generally agreed. The Enlightenment is often seen as a project. This implies

It was coherent
It was self-conscious
It depended on the existence of a ‘public sphere’

Its fundamental belief was that the increase of knowledge would produce happier, more virtuous people. This meant that it was opposed to what it saw as bigotry and obscurantism, especially as represented by the Catholic Church. 

It is associated with certain characteristics, which include

The empirical method associated with Isaac Newton
Advances in medicine (inoculation, lithotomy)
Admiration for classical world.
‘Natural religion’ (deism)
A belief in a common, equal humanity 
A doctrine of natural rights

In France the Enlightenment centred round the philosophes, a loose-knit group of like-minded intellectuals. 

The Encyclopedia

Its great project, the Encyclopedia or Reasoned Dictionary of Sciences, Arts and Crafts was launched in France by the philosophes Denis Diderot (1713-84) and Jean d’Alembert (1717-83). Published in Paris between 1751 and 1772, and the work of a 150 known and dozens of unknown contributors, it became a 28-volume attempt to summarize the current state of knowledge.  The Church responded by banning it in 1759 and its authors were labelled sexual deviants. Diderot spent some time in prison for an essay on heresy.


The person who best exemplified the French Enlightenment was Voltaire (1694-1778), who lived in semi-exile in Ferney near the Swiss border. 

François-Marie Arouet

1759 also saw the publication of his Candide, a critique of what he saw as facile optimism, inspired in part by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. His attacks on the executions of Jean Calas and the Chevalier de la Barre show his hostility to the Catholic Church.


The Swiss novelist and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau influenced a whole generation and had a profound posthumous effect on the French Revolution. His Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754) and his Social Contract argued for an egalitarian society governed by the 'General Will'.  He condemned what he saw as the artifices of society and promoted the simple life. He attacked Christianity and set out as an alternative religion, the cult of the Supreme Being. 

The Marriage of Figaro

Via Wikipedia 

In the years preceding the Revolution one of the most influential works of literature was Pierre Beaumarchais’ play, The Marriage of Figaro. Napoleon was later to say that the French Revolution dated not from the fall of the Bastille but from its opening night.  The play,  a sequel to The Barber of Seville, was initially passed by the censor in 1781 but Louis XVI was disturbed by its subversive plot. It was not until 1784 that it was finally performed in Paris. 

The play was unsettling because the plot depends on the servants outwitting their master and for its overall egalitarian sentiments. Beaumarchais has Figaro say to Count Almaviva: 
‘Because you are a grand seigneur, you think yourself a great genius…nobility, wealth, rank, offices! All this makes you so high and mighty! What have you done to have so much? You’ve hardly given yourself the trouble to be born and that’s about it’ for the rest you’re an ordinary person while I, damn it, lost in the anonymous crowd, have had to use all my science and craft just to survive.’ (Simon Schama's translation)

An unpopular queen

Much of the discontent in France focused on Marie-Antoinette. Her initial failure to provide an heir made her unpopular and she compounded this by her extravagance. Obscene pamphlets accused her of lesbian orgies. The Essai Historique sur la Vie de Marie Antoinette was first published in 1781 and again in 1783, with revisions right up to her execution. 534 copies were burned by the public hangman at the Bastille in 1783. 

The queen’s frivolous nature can be symbolised in the Petit Trianon, the little chateau that Louis XVI gave her in 1774 where she played at being a dairymaid. 

In the summer of 1784 she became innocently embroiled in the Diamond Necklace scandalThis was a scam involving a greedy bishop, the Cardinal de Rohan, and an unscrupulous confidence trickster, Jeanne de la Motte, who persuaded two jewellers that the queen wanted an enormously expensive necklace. In a scene that could have come from Figaro, a prostitute dressed up as Marie Antoinette met the Cardinal in the grounds of Versailles an assured him of her favour. When the plot came to light, the malefactors were punished but the queen was blamed as a vindictive spendthrift. 

The story was believed because Marie Antoinette was already notorious for her extravagance, and the scandal ruined her reputation beyond repair. She was ‘the Austrian woman’, ‘Madame Deficit’, the symbol of everything that was wrong with France.


France was the heart of the Enlightenment yet the French state stood in the way of progress and reform. Critics went into exile or found their works censored. Yet the government was unable to stop the spread of dissident literature, whether in a play such as The Marriage of Figaro or the obscene libels against Marie-Antoinette.

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