The Three Estates

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

We come now to the greatest revolution of them all – the French Revolution, the standard by which all other revolutions are measured. It was one of the most important events in the history of the world and is widely pointed to as marking the beginning of the modern era. Since its passing, it has also become one of the most fought over pieces of intellectual real estate among scholars of all disciplines. History, obviously, but also economics and sociology and philosophy and political science. Everyone has something to say about the French Revolution. And just to keep things interesting, there is almost no agreement about what its causes were, what its consequences were, nor even what actually happened. 

Now, probably the most influential grand theory of the French Revolution came from the Marxists, who painted a deliciously plausible theory that during the 1700s, the protocapitalist French bourgeoisie acquired a majority share of the nation’s wealth while simultaneously being denied access to political power within an archaic feudal system later dubbed the Ancien Régime. So the turbulence of the revolution was simply the obsolete political structure being forced into alignment with the modern economic structure. 

In Marxist history, the French Revolution is the great bourgeois revolution that both destroyed the feudalism of the past and set the stage for the socialism of the future. Like I say, this is a deliciously plausible theory, easy to hold in your head, and in broad terms, it looks an awful lot like what happened. But while Marxist theory thrives in the big picture, it usually gets beaten up pretty bad when the details are scrutinized. 

That’s when we find out that big chunks of the nobility were involved in various modernizing and capitalist enterprises. And far from wanting to tear down the feudal apparatus, members of the bourgeoisie turned out to be some of the fiercest defenders of seigneurial dues and noble privileges because they had just purchased access to those seigneurial dues and noble privileges and wanted to protect their investments. Not all of them did this, mind you, but some of them did. Certainly enough to make the story of a battle between one class representing the old ways and another class representing the new ways fall apart. Which is kind of a pity, because it’s a great theory. But after all the revisionism and post revisionism and repostrevisionism, the Revolution has been stripped of all order and, frankly, returned to its native state of pure chaos. 

But before we can get into the endlessly fascinating and occasionally terrifying march of the French Revolution, we must, as usual, lay our groundwork. So the rest of this week’s episode will be taken up with a rundown of the people who made up pre-revolutionary France, taking as our framework the famous Three Estates. We’ll start with the lowly peasants and wind up with the allegedly absolute monarch of this allegedly absolute monarchy, King Louis XVI. Then next week, we will walk through the mess of political, economic, cultural and religious problems that the Ancien Régime was facing when Controller-General Calonne told the King in August 1786 that unless drastic financial reforms were initiated, the monarchy was going to go broke. 

On the eve of the Revolution, the population of France was somewhere around 27 million. So right away, it’s worth noting, just in terms of scale, we are an order of magnitude beyond the English and American revolutions, both of which involved millions of people rather than tens of millions of people. These tens of millions mostly lived in rural areas and were tied to the land. The rest lived in small towns, a few larger provincial cities, and then, of course, Paris, which was not just the preeminent city in France, but was in many ways the preeminent city in Europe.

Regardless of where they live, though, the French people were divided up into the famous Three Estates, a division still lingering from the old medieval days, when society could be separated into those who prayed, those who fought, and those who worked

The First Estate, those who prayed, was the clergy. The Second Estate, those who fought, was the nobility, and the Third Estate, those who worked was everyone else. That is to say something like 95% of the population.

So the vast majority of the Third Estate and about four-fifths of the total population of France were peasants. These peasants can be divided up into three basic subgroups. At the bottom were your landless peasants, forced to become migrant workers or day laborers to stay alive. In many areas, these landless peasants could pick up work in say textile manufacturing as pre-industrial France relied on accumulating the products of thousands of individual homes rather than consolidating workers in a single factory. But as we’ll discuss a bit next week, on the eve of the Revolution, these pitiful folks were dealing with the terrible conundrum of price inflation that was not being matched by wage increases. So even those who found work could often not afford the most basic necessities of life. They might then turn to professional begging, petty theft, and outright banditry, as circumstances dictated. 

Above the landless peasants you had peasants who owned or leased a little land of their own. But one of the problems of French agriculture was that the land was divided up into these little tiny plots that could barely sustain a family, let alone produce a surplus for market. Numerous foreign observers passing through 18th century France commented on just how backward and inefficient French agriculture was, though the north was starting to get into larger scale production. 

The dream of the small holding peasants was to rise up into the ranks of the third and smallest of the peasant subgroups, independent farmers who own not only enough land to sustain themselves, but also provide jobs for the rural workers and loan out equipment to their poorer neighbors. These operators were generally loathed and envied by the lower order peasants who lived in fear of seeing their own precious holdings gobbled up if they ever fell behind on a loan, while simultaneously aspiring to join the ranks of the independent farmers they feared. 

So leaving behind the peasants in the countryside, the remainder of the Three Estates lived in urban areas, though calling them urban is not quite right as most held less than 2,000 people and only a few cities exceeded 50,000 – like Lyon in the east, Marseille down along the Mediterranean, or Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast. Another 650,000 jam themselves into Paris. 

Now, inside the towns and cities, we first find the corollary of the poor peasant in the poor unskilled laborer. These folks are the ones who make getting an accurate gauge on just how many peasants there were difficult as they were often seasonal migrants from the countryside or relatives of poor agricultural workers looking for a better or at least a different opportunity in the town. 

The best job these poor unskilled workers could hope for would be as a servant in the homes of the better off families. But barring that, they were forced to rely on the uncertainties of day labor and temporary work projects. They crammed into terrible housing and often wound up in line for charity from local religious orders. 

Above the unskilled workers, we find, not surprisingly, the skilled workers. The organization of the skilled workers was itself one of the little tributaries feeding into the great river that is the cause of the French Revolution because the guild system in all of its restrictive glory was still in full effect. Apprentices were little more than indentured servants forced to serve some specified time, say, seven years before they are allowed to become journeymen, at which point they often took to the road to apply their trade and get into nasty fights with local competitors or other journeymen they happened to run across

After whatever arbitrary time was up, they were allowed to become masters, buying their way into the club and settling down to set up a permanent shop, taking on apprentices and starting the whole cycle over again. The guild system was a source of constant frustration for those not directly profiting from it. And as the 1700s progressed and economic theory turned to free trade, the continued existence of the medieval guild system was an affront to thinking men everywhere

It is also worth mentioning that it will be from the ranks of these urban workers, both skilled and unskilled, that the famous sans-culottes will come storming out of as the Revolution picks up steam. Sans-culottes, meaning those who did not wear the silk knee-breeches favored by the upper classes.

Above the skilled workers we move into the ranks of the secure urban elite, the guys who did favor silk knee-breeches, known to us as the bourgeoisie. Now, bourgeoisie is a pretty nebulous concept, and in strict Marxist terminology, they are simply the owners of the means of production – that is the merchants and industrialists and bankers. But in a broader sense, the bourgeoisie also included the middle class professionals – lawyers and doctors, and men of letters. 

Collectively, they were one of the fastest growing demographic groups in 18th century France and now held a large portion of the nation’s wealth. But critically, since we are still living in the Ancien Régime, if you are ambitious you generally did not funnel your money back into the trades that had enriched you. Instead, you aimed at buying your way into the nobility. So, you transferred the money you made in the grubby business of trade into land on the one hand, or venal office on the other. 

Land has, of course, been the great marker of wealth and status for, let’s say, the entire history of civilization so I don’t think that needs much explanation, aside from mentioning that when the up and coming bourgeoisie bought the land, they were quite a bit more diligent about enforcing whatever feudal claims could be made on the tenants. Claims that the former noble owners had often long since forgotten about. And in many provinces, complaints about the new bourgeois landlords far outnumbered complaints about the old aristocratic landlords. 

The other great investment opportunity was the venal office. A venal office is simply a government office that is purchased rather than appointed. They were dreamed up first by Louis XIV, but then massively expanded by his successor, Louis XIV, as an easy way to generate revenue for the state without forcing the royal ministry to levy new taxes which the nobility would no doubt resist. 

On the eve of the revolution, nearly every one of the 70,000 offices of government was a venal office. Most of them actually did tie into a real job, but some of the most coveted, like that of King’s Secretary, was simply an empty title that carried with it certain privileges. What kind of privileges? Well, many of them came with the promise of ennoblement. Most had to be held for a few successive generations for the ennoblement to kick in. But some, including the aforementioned office of King’s Secretary, brought ennoblement immediately. 

These offices also usually carried tax exemptions of various shapes and sizes, because as we’ll discuss a bit more next week, pre-revolutionary France operated on the rather upside down principle that the better off you were, the less you paid in taxes

Over the years, these offices became a form of property in themselves and as the ranks of the bourgeoisie expanded the prices of the venal offices rose with demand. By the late 1780s, something close to a billion livre was tied up in a venal office. And yes, that is an insane amount of money. 

At the very tippy top of the Third Estate was a little group who “lived nobly”. That is, they no longer even worked at a profession but instead lived off land, rents or other investments. The reason this group was so small was because if you had acquired the means to live nobly, you were probably in the process of buying your way into the nobility, that is, the Second Estate, and leaving the ranks of the Third Estate behind for good. 

So with the help of some venal office, it’s time to move up into the Second Estate: the nobility. By this point, the population of the nobility was somewhere between 120,000 and 400,000 – records being patchy and often unreliable, since there were more than a few forged claims out there. This little clique, and we’re talking no more than one to two percent of the population, owned outright a quarter to a third of all the land in France, and held feudal rights over the rest. That is, the right to collect certain taxes or the right to force tenants to use your mills and wine presses at whatever arbitrary price you set. They also openly owned a controlling interest in almost all the non-trading commercial pursuits, like mining and metallurgy, and less openly owned a controlling interest in most of the trading industry, using surrogates in the Third Estate to skirt prohibitions on the nobles engaging in trade. 

So far from resisting the evolution from feudalism to capitalism, the nobility was right in the middle of it. At least some of them were, because the nobility was not at all one unified class

For starters, as you can imagine, the old nobility, the ones who could trace their lineage back 700 years, did not think much of the new nobility. You know, the textile merchant who just bought his title last Thursday. These two types were described as the sword nobility and the robe nobility. The former owed their status to their medieval ancestors, having fought alongside the King, the latter to some recently acquired venal office. And by recent, the old nobility meant anything less than about four generations. So the sword nobility generally turned up their noses at the robe nobility while the robe nobility were ticked off that, having climbed into the ranks of the Second Estate, they were still being treated as commoners. 

It also did not help that because of the way French inheritance laws worked, the fortunes of the old nobility had generally eroded to almost nothing. So most of the wealth of the Second Estate was held by these former shopkeepers who didn’t even know what fork to use at dinner – not that the cultivated old nobles were at all opposed to marrying their sons to the daughters of these barbaric new nobles. 

At the very top rung of the nobility though, were those who both held ancient lineages and had managed to keep their fortunes intact or had successfully gilded their arms, as the saying went by, a fortuitous marriage or two along the way. These guys were the ones who were still able to afford to live with the King at Versailles. They dominated all the major positions in the royal ministry, the military, the judiciary, and the Church. This group, as you can imagine, tended to be rather conservative. But it is also from these ranks that we find some of the key members of the liberal nobility who will be so essential to the first stage of the Revolution. For example, our old friend, the Marquis de Lafayette

So that brings us to the First Estate, the Church. There were about 130,000 members of the French clergy, and collectively, the Church owned about 10% of all the land in France. But as the great historian Georges Lefebvre noted in his compact but highly influential Coming of the French Revolution, when you talk about the Three Estates of the Ancien Régime, you’re really only talking about two estates, the nobility and the commons, because the Church was really just a microcosm of the kingdom at large. 

Way back in 1516, the Pope had conceded to the King of France the right to appoint all the bishops and abbots of the French Church. Not surprisingly these top level jobs, which carried with them massive salaries, the right to collect tithes and control of all those church held lands, became dominated by the younger sons of the French nobility. 

Meanwhile, the vast majority of the 130,000 clergy were parish priests recruited from the ranks of the Third Estate, and usually the lower rungs of the Third Estate at that. Not the lowest, lowest rung, since your family still had to buy you some kind of rudimentary education, but there was still a massive gulf between the noble ecclesiastic authorities on the one hand, and the common rank and file priesthood on the other. This will become a point of major importance when the Estates General get called, because the parish priests who had thus far no say in how church wealth was distributed and who always seem to see none of the tithe money that is supposed to be, you know, maintaining our parishes, will finally get to voice their displeasure of the fat cat archbishops and parasitic monastic orders who were giving the Church a bad name.

So finally we come to the top of every pyramid, the center of every circle – the King of France. And we’ll end today with a brief history of the Bourbon dynasty, down to the man who finally landed on the whammy – King Louis XVI. 

In 1268, a daughter and heir to the estate of Bourbon married a younger son of King Louis IV, Saint Louis to his friends. This Bourbon branch of the royal family plugged along for nine generations, becoming the kings of tiny Navarre and the Pyrenees along the way, until some nasty business in the 1580s, known as the War of the Three Henrys broke out, during which the Bourbon Henry of Navarre ascended to the throne when the sitting King Henry III, was assassinated in 1589. But this was pretty awkward because Henry of Navarre was a Protestant and he found himself unable, for example, to enter fiercely Catholic Paris. But the now King Henry IV was a practical guy, so he converted to Catholicism to consolidate his hold on the kingdom, though he did also promulgate the famous Edict of Nantes, which granted religious toleration, if not religious freedom. 

In 1610, Henry IV was assassinated, and he was succeeded by his ten year old son, Louis XIII. The early years of Louis XIII’s reign was dominated by his mother, Marie de’ Medici, and featured, among other things, the last calling of the Estates General in 1614. That is, the assembly of the Three Estates. When Louis XIII came of age though, power passed into the hands of his principal Minister, Cardinal Richilieu, who we all know is the villain from the Three Musketeers, but who also steered France through the Thirty Years War and who began the process of tightening royal authority over the often rebellious nobles out in the provinces. 

Both Louis XIV and Cardinal Richilieu died within about a year of each other, and four year old Louis XIV ascended to the throne in 1643. Now, as most of you know, Louis XIV is a pretty big deal. He would go on to rule for 72 years, the longest reign in the history of Europe, becoming along the way, the greatest king in the history of France, you know, the Sun King. 

More than anyone else, it was Louis XIV who created the final form of the Ancien Régime, against which the Revolution was eventually waged. During his minority, there was a fairly massive noble revolt called the Fronde, which the King’s forces managed to win. But when Louis XIV began to rule in his own name, he accelerated the process of political centralization started by Richilieu, culminating most famously with his conversion of a royal hunting lodge outside of Paris into the Palace of Versailles

The idea behind this new palace was to both physically project the image of royal power, but more importantly, to force all those nobles who had been causing him trouble from their home provinces to come to Versailles and attend to him

Cut off from their natural bases and plied with lavish gifts and favors, Louis XIV completely domesticated the aristocracy, who now jostled over seats at the theater, undermined each other with petty gossip, and agonized over who would get to stand where when the King woke up in the morning

Over his long reign, Louis XIV spent money without restraint at home while simultaneously immersing France in a series of wars abroad. So it’s clear that the origins of the persistent royal deficits that would dog and then consume his successors got going during the heady days of the Sun King. But that said, when Louis XIV died in 1715, France was basically now the foremost kingdom in Europe whose cultural and political influence was second to none. This is when practically every court in Europe starts speaking the French language, adopting French fashions, and following French artistic and architectural tastes

Louis XIV lived so long that he outlasted not only his son, but his grandson. And so it fell to his five year old great grandson, Louis XV, to succeed him. And, yes, that is the third time in a row the French crown has fallen to some little kid. 

As Louis XV grew up, it became clear that not only did he not have much interest in being king, but he wasn’t very good at it either. For our purposes, his main achievement was to form an alliance with France’s longtime nemesis, the Austrians, in 1756. This alliance led to the Seven Years War, a war in which France paid through the nose for the privilege of getting kicked around by the British. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, when the French came out the other side of this expensive debacle they found themselves still tied to the hated Austrians, which will become an important bone of contention when the Revolution gets going. 

Generally speaking, the nearly 60 year long reign of Louis XV was marked by political and economic malaise. There were problems that needed answers, policies that needed reforming, and courses that needed correcting, and basically nothing was done. 

But the reign of Louis XV was also marked by the full flowering of the French Enlightenment and a fantastic explosion of philosophy and literature and science. And we’ll talk about these dueling trends of political stagnation and intellectual vigor next week when we start laying the groundwork for the looming, but not at all inevitable, French Revolution. 

So that brings us finally to our man Louis XVI, the grandson of Louis XV. He ascended to the throne in May 1774, at the age of 19. Still young, but he did manage to break the streak of five year olds ruling France. Though pretty much everyone agrees that his heart was in the right place and he genuinely wanted to do right by his people, he was ill prepared for the role of king. 

He was bright and athletic, at least in his youth, but he was also shy and uncomfortable in the spotlight. Unfortunately for him, the system set up by Louis XIV basically created the brightest spotlight imaginable for him to step into. 

His father had died when he was eleven, which left him the heir to the throne. And though he received a standard upper class education in the humanities he was, for whatever reason, not given much instruction in the practical business of how to effectively rule a giant kingdom. 

When he was 15 he was married to the 14 year old Austrian Archduchess Marie Antoinette, appearing that for a good long time was uncomfortable socially, emotionally, and physically, and it was generally unpopular and the source of great public and private mockery. It didn’t help that Marie Antoinette was an Austrian. By the time they were married in 1770, every Frenchman with an ounce of patriotism wanted to run the Austrians through with a hot poker – not marry their daughters

Now, as I said, when Louis XVI ascended to the throne in 1774, he was an amiable, if hesitant, prince who was not opposed at all to trying to solve some of the problems that had built up over the last century. But as we will see, one of the biggest obstacles to reform was that as much as pre revolutionary France is depicted as an absolute monarchy, it was, in fact, not that at all. And everywhere you turned, there were entrenched interests ready to fight for their ancient privileges, whatever those interests and privileges turned out to be. That resistance to change only exacerbated all the other issues facing the new king.

And next week, we will methodically walk through the list: the completely backward tax structure, the endemic social inequality, a judicial system that prized privilege over justice, administrative jurisdictions that overlapped haphazardly, a church that gobbled up money and seemed to give nothing back, an outmoded and inadequate agricultural economy, and an educated class steep in Enlightenment ideals who could see what needed to be done and then watched in frustration as nothing got done. At least until it was revealed that the monarchy was on the brink of financial ruin.

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