Monday, 11 January 2016

The Ancien Régime

Louis XVI, 1775 by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis 
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons  

The ‘ancien régime’ is the name given to the French government before the Revolution. It was marked by privilege, inequality, injustice and economic inefficiency. With its population of 28 million (compared with 13 million in Britain) the country ought to have been prosperous, but many lived in great poverty.

The Three Estates

The nation was divided into three Estates: the First (the clergy); the Second (the nobility); the Third (the rest).  The first two Estates had important tax privileges, notably exemption from the taille, the main direct tax, and the gabelle, the hated salt monopoly.  The Catholic Church exercised monopoly religious power and the nobility exercised feudal privileges. 

The First Estate: In law, the 130,000 clergy ranked ahead of the nobility. Over half were monks or nuns, and parish priests were in a minority. All the king’s subjects were legally Catholic, and those who were not enjoyed no legal toleration or civil rights. The Church controlled education and poor relief. About a tenth of the land was in the hands of the church and the parish clergy were in theory entitled to tithes from their parishioners. Ecclesiastical revenues were exempt from ordinary taxation. Because the clergy were an estate rather than a class, clerical incomes varied wildly from wealthy bishops and abbots to parish curés, who, though wealthier than most of their parishioners, resented the unfair distribution of the Church’s wealth. Many of the most sought-after livings in the Church went to the younger sons of the greater nobility. They could also achieve political office, as when Loménie de Brienne, archbishop of Toulouse, became chief minister in 1787.

The Second Estate comprised about 250,000 nobles, who owned between a quarter and a third of the land, and most of the feudal rights over the rest. As well as their taxation privileges, they took precedence on public occasions, carried swords, had special coats of arms. They were not subject to the corvée (compulsory labour on the roads).  In theory they were not allowed to engage in retail trade (though wholesale was allowed) but they controlled most heavy industry either through investments or ownership in fields such as mining and metallurgy. 

The nobility also had political privileges. Technically, only those with noble pedigrees were allowed to meet the king, and all his ministers and ambassadors were noble. In the Church they occupied most bishoprics and the best abbeys and canonries.

However, nobility was a badge of status rather than income. At least half of the nobility were poorer than the better-off middle classes, and many lived in decrepit houses that they could not afford to maintain. Their poverty made them cling ferociously to their feudal privileges.

The Third Estate was a very broad group, comprising professionals, merchants and traders, and peasants. 

Peasants accounted for 80 per cent of the population, and though there was a prosperous handful, the majority were poor. Towns were expanding but the majority of townspeople lived in poverty and were especially vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of grain. Sudden rises in the price of bread or grain were likely to lead to urban riots. The peasants were subject to feudal dues. The local seigneur held the monopoly of the mill, the bakery and the wine and oil presses.

The middle classes – the bourgeoisie – were growing in numbers in the reign of Louis XVI, reaching about 2.75 million. They owned most of the commercial wealth of France, perhaps a quarter of the land, and a significant proportion of government stock. Their wealth was enriching the commercial and cultural life of Paris and the provincial cities.

Although they had made their money by trade, the bourgeoisie were anxious to escape its stigma. About 3,700 public offices conveyed nobility on their holders.  This office-holding nobility was known as the noblesse de robe, in distinction to the older nobility, the noblesse d’épée. In a system known as venal office holding, these noble offices were purchased, and by paying an annual tax the holders could pass their offices on to their children. However, the holders of lesser offices did not acquire noble status.

The impoverished Third Estate carries
the other two Estates on his back


The First and Second Estates were not exempt from all taxes. The nobility were subject to the capitation (a poll tax) and several direct property taxes like the vingtième, levied on 5 per cent of their property. However, the burden of taxation fell unjustly on the peasants who paid the taille, the basic tax of the ancient regime, as well as a compulsory salt tax (the gabelle) in addition to owing feudal duties to their landowners. 

Although France was in theory an absolute monarchy, one of the most important functions of the state, the collecting of taxes, was ‘farmed’ out to wealthy financiers. Direct taxes were collected by venal office-holders who made great profits from their activities. Indirect taxes were collected by the Farmers-General, a wealthy syndicate with a monopoly renewed every six years. Their profit from this remained a commercial secret, making them the most
Antoine Lavoisier,
chemist and tax-farmer
hated body in France. In 1768 the chemist, Antoine Lavoisier bought a share in the Ferme générale, for which he was to be guillotined in 1794. 

The whole tax-collecting mechanism of the ancien régime was inefficient as well as unjust. Tax evasion was widespread and often legal. If a wealthy bourgeois accumulated enough money he could buy a venal office that exempted him from taxation. 

Louis XVI

Louis XVI succeeded his grandfather, Louis XV in May 1774, a few months before his twentieth birthday. His full title was son of St Louis, the Most Christian King of France and Navarre. The rituals of his elaborate coronation at Rheims cathedral on 11 June 1775 harked back to the Middle Ages and made no concession to the eighteenth century. The rituals suggested that the monarch was absolute, though in practice there were many constraints on his power. 

Louis was incapable of tackling the deep-rooted problems of the French state. He lived cut off from his people at Versailles. About 5 per cent of his annual revenue was spent on the Court, which was the ultimate source of power. His Austrian-born wife, Marie-Antoinette, was extremely unpopular and lurid stories about her private life undermined the authority of the monarchy.


The French state possessed deep structural inefficiencies, which hindered economic expansion and meant that the government could not efficiently tap the wealth of the nation. These inefficiencies were accompanied by many social injustices and outmoded feudal privileges. Many French people were aware of the problems but vested interests prevented reform.

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