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Ancien Régime: The French Revolution and the Collapse of the Old Order

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A 19th-century illustration of the execution of King Louis XVI.

A 19th-century illustration of the execution of King Louis XVI.

Ancien Régime, "The Old Regime", is a term used to refer to any order that existed before being swept away by the tides of change. But it is most commonly associated with the political and social system of France preceding the revolution of 1789.

The unjust and unequal system paved the way for the French Revolution. Here we examine the Ancien Régime, and the lessons we should learn from it.

A French political cartoon from 1789 shows the Third Estate (peasants) bearing the burden of the First Estate (the Clergy) and the Second Estate (the nobility).

A French political cartoon from 1789 shows the Third Estate (peasants) bearing the burden of the First Estate (the Clergy) and the Second Estate (the nobility).

The Three Estates: The Foundation of the Ancient Regime

From the 15th to the 18th centuries, France was divided into three estates:

  • First Estate: The clergy
  • Second Estate: The nobility
  • Third Estate: Everyone else

The first and second estates held positions of wealth and privilege, while the third estate had no rights and was largely beset by poverty and starvation.

Moreover, the ancient regime was a strictly enforced caste system where members of the third estate were actively prevented from advancing to the estates above them.

A hand-drawn satirical cartoon from 1789 shows a peasant woman and her children sitting at the base of a statue of King Louis XVI, with the Clergy to one side and the nobility to the other.

A hand-drawn satirical cartoon from 1789 shows a peasant woman and her children sitting at the base of a statue of King Louis XVI, with the Clergy to one side and the nobility to the other.

The First Estate

The clergy numbered around 100,000 but owned 10% of the land, were exempt from taxes, and significantly influenced political affairs.

Classes of clergy

The First Estate was divided into the "lower clergy" (parish priests, nuns, and monks), which made up 90% of the order, and the "upper clergy" (bishops, archbishops, and cardinals). The latter was part of the noble class, possessing great wealth and privilege. Younger sons of noble families often joined the clergy.

While the upper clergy enjoyed their riches, members of the Third Estate were forced to pay 10% of their income to the church, a tax known as "the tithe".

The palace of Versailles, where many of the nobles "of the robe" would gather.

The palace of Versailles, where many of the nobles "of the robe" would gather.

The Second Estate

The Second Estate comprised 1.5% of the population, owned a large portion of the wealth and paid no taxes.

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The role of nobility

They were divided into "nobility of the sword", and "nobility of the robe". The former fought and levied armies on behalf of the king in exchange for land, while the latter held administrative positions.

Many of the oldest and most prestigious families belonged to the nobility of the sword and sought to preserve their power and privilege.

Meanwhile, a large contingent of nobles of the robe lived in the Palace of Versailles, which King Louis XIV built to centralise power and draw the nobility from their provincial bases to the royal court.

Yet another political cartoon from 1789 depicting the plight of the Third Estate.

Yet another political cartoon from 1789 depicting the plight of the Third Estate.

The Third Estate

Here stood all those who did not fall into the first two estates; about 98% of France's population, which was divided into urban and rural inhabitants.

The urban populace

Not all members of the Third Estate were poor. The urban populace included wealthy merchants and a middle class, members of which were in prime position to question the power and privilege of the first two estates. Why did the middle class possess no rights despite contributing so much to French society?

The rural populace

Of course, there was the rural portion of the Third Estate, made up mostly of poor and starving peasants. For the greater part of the Middle Ages, they had accepted their lot in life and were not in a position to accrue the wealth and knowledge that enabled the bourgeoisie (French middle class) to challenge the power structures.

Taxation without representation

The Third Estate owned hardly any land yet bore the majority of the tax burden. Taxes imposed on them included the gabelle (a salt tax) and the taille (a tax on land ownership).

Even the poor peasants had to pay these taxes. The gabelle was a heavy burden to bear as salt was heavily required to cook and preserve food.

A portrait of King Louis XIV (reigned 1643 to 1715), the epitome of the absolute monarchy.

A portrait of King Louis XIV (reigned 1643 to 1715), the epitome of the absolute monarchy.

The King

France was an "absolute monarchy", meaning that all power resided with the king, whose authority was ordained by God.

Thus the king was perceived as being above and outside the three estates, unbound by mortal matters.

This was a different situation from England, where the Magna Carta of 1215 restricted the king's power. England also had the Parliament, a gathering of lords who could challenge the decisions of the king.

France had no such institutions in place. King Louis XIV (reigned 1643 to 1715) epitomised the absolute monarchy.

I AM the state

- King Louis XIV

King Louis XVI, the great-great-great-grandson of Louis XIV, was an absolute monarch in theory, but in reality, he was an ineffective king whose divine authority was undermined by the rise of enlightenment values. His reign culminated in the French Revolution and his own beheading.

A 19th-century illustration shows a speech being made in the French parliament during the revolution.

A 19th-century illustration shows a speech being made in the French parliament during the revolution.

The Fall of the Ancient Regime

In 1789, the French Revolution put an end to the Ancien Régime. What made it possible for a political and social order that had governed for centuries to collapse within such a short space of time?

Bad harvests and severe winters

The peasants had grown increasingly frustrated with their lot. In 1688 and 1694, bad harvests resulted in food shortages and a financial catastrophe that laid the groundwork for that frustration to boil over. In 1788, one year before the revolution, a terrible winter devastated the realm, causing famine on a mass scale.

Tax burden

The financial crisis meant peasants could no longer afford the taxes imposed on them. The middle class, meanwhile, wondered why they should have to pay so many taxes in the first place when the nobles paid nothing.

Enlightenment and the printing press

Enlightenment values, such as the separation of church and state and the common person's rights, began to take hold. The printing press allowed for the production of pamphlets that could spread these ideas throughout the populace.

The American Revolution

The American revolution of 1776 set a precedent. The authority of monarchs could be defeated, and republics (the term for a country that a monarch does not rule) established in their place.

Engraving from 1882 showing rioters attacking the Royal Palace during the French Revolution.

Engraving from 1882 showing rioters attacking the Royal Palace during the French Revolution.

The Lessons of the Ancient Regime

The dangers of inequality

Rampant inequality sows the seeds for revolution, especially when the upper classes pay hardly any taxes and lower classes effectively bear the burden of the country's expenses.

The importance of knowledge

A medium that allows for the rapid proliferation of ideas, such as the printing press, further undermines the resident power structures. It's no wonder that autocratic governments of today attempt to limit the reach of the internet.

The consequences of violent revolution

The French Revolution swept away the old order, but what took its place? Anarchy, followed by autocracy in the form of Emperor Napolean, followed by more revolutions.

Although there are examples of a revolution being followed by stable governance, such as the American Revolution, in many cases, a violent uprising plunges the land into chaos and bloodshed. France took over a century to recover from the French Revolution and its events.

Yet violent revolution remains the inevitable consequence if wealth inequality is not resolved before the powder keg explodes.

References

General information. Lumen Learning

The Old Regime in France: Absolute Monarchy. School Work Helper

Adams, John. Adams, Abigail. The French Revolution. PBS

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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