French Society
author Gilda Stoica, February 2016
French society in the 18th century was divided into orders or estates. Clergy formed the first estate, nobles the second, while the third estate included the rest of the population, made up of the bourgeoisie, peasants and urban laborers.
French society in the 18th century was divided into orders or estates. Clergy formed the first estate, nobles the second, while the third estate included the rest of the population, made up of the bourgeoisie, peasants and urban laborers.

Agricultural production was growing continually, even though new technology and tools were not always used.

France registered significant demographic growth, from a population estimated to be anywhere between 14 and 22 million people, to an estimate of between 23 and 28 million. Even so, it was below the European average for that time.

Industry excelled, especially in the textile production sector. It was strongly supported by the construction of roads.

Catholicism was the state religion. There were 130,000 clergy, of which 60,000 were members of the monarchic orders and 70,000 were secular priests working in parishes.

The leaders of the clergy were chosen from the great aristocracies. The priests, however, were of bourgeois or peasant origins.

Many bishops held more than one diocese. However, they were never seen in any of them.

The youngest sons of great noble families held high positions in the Church. Their goal was to obtain profit from the immense wealth of the Church. Thus, the income of the Archbishop of Strasbourg was 400,000 livres per year. Priests received between 7,000 and 10,000 livres per year.

The clergy had many privileges, the most important of which was exemption from taxes. Instead of taxes, the Clerics Assembly, dominated by bishops, agreed with the king to pay the crown an annual sum of ‘don gratuity’, that is, free gift. This sum was less than 5% of the priests’ income. It was much less than taxes would be.

The roles of the Church extended further than just practicing religion. Priests were also censors. They took care of hospitals, schools and the poor. Priests held the records concerning population evidence, noting all births, marriages and deaths in the parochial registers. The church acted as a minister of information.

The wealth of the Church came from the land it owned and from tithes. The church owned approx. 10% of the land.

The proportion of land owned by the Church varied from one region to the next. The church owned up to one-third of the land in the north, whereas in Auvergne, only 3%.

The tax owed to the Church, the tithe, was a percentage of the harvest each year. It was paid to the Church by landowners, but there was no standard calculation. In certain areas in Dauphine, it wasn’t a big burden, since it was only one-fiftieth of the harvest. In Brittany, however, it was one-quarter.

In theory, the tithe should have been for the subsistence of the priests, the upkeep of church buildings and helping the poor. In fact, most of it went to the bishops and abbots. This caused discontent among the lower orders of clergy and the peasants.

This was the most powerful of the estates. Estimates of the numbers of nobility and their families in this period are not exact. There were between 100,000 and 300,000 noblemen, that is between 0.5% and 1.5% of the French population.

The nobility was divided into three categories, according to their wealth: court nobility, nobility of the robe, both living in cities, and provincial nobility, which was poorer.

Abbé Sieyès wrote that the nobility monopolised and usurped the Church, justice and the army. A spirit of fraternity caused the nobles to favor each other to the detriment of the rest of the nation.

The Segur Ordinance was emitted to support the poor provincial nobility in the face of the ‘anoblis’ rich, that is, those recently become nobles. The latter could purchase military grades, but for the poor nobility, the army was the only available job.

The greatest power was held by the 4,000 court nobles. This category was, in theory, limited to those whose noble ancestry could be traced from the 14th-15th century. However, amongst these were also all those who could afford life at Versailles.

The court nobles were followed in the hierarchy by the nobility of the robe. This category was formed of nobles who worked in administration and justice, especially magistrates in parliament.

The rest of the nobility, poor provincial nobility, who had never been to Versailles, lived in rural areas. Most of them struggled against poverty. Since official positions cost a lot, and a quarter of nobles were too poor to afford them, they had to sign up to the army or work their small properties.

The primary source of income was the land. The nobility owned between one-quarter and one-third of France’s land. Besides this, it also received between 15 and 25% of the income of the church, since all the bishops were nobles.

Leading nobles held high positions in the country. They were the king’s ministers, his high magistrates and his province administrators, and those holding superior grades in the army. There were 50,000 royal jobs in the royal civil service. These could be purchased, sold and inherited, just like any other property. 12,000 of these automatically conferred a noble title on the holder.

The eldest son inherited the entire property. The other sons looked for work in the church, the army or government. Many children of nobles could not afford to purchase titles. They ended up filling the ranks of the poor.

The nobility enjoyed countless privileges. They were judged in special tribunals and exempted from compulsory military service and ‘gabelle et corvee’, compulsory labor repairing roads. They were also the beneficiaries of taxes owed by the peasants to the elders. They had exclusive hunting and fishing rights and the right to ‘banalites’, a monopoly on mills, bakeries and wine presses. They received tax reductions or they paid less than they should. They were exempted from the la taille tax, a direct tax, paid annually.

The nobility had many privileges. The loss of feudal rights could reduce their income by up to 60%. In some regions, such as Brittany, the reduction could be just 10%.

The less wealthy nobles realized that the loss of their fiscal rights and their rights as elders would ruin them. For this reason, they were opposed to change. They considered that their privileges were the only things differentiating them from common people.

The nobles were very involved in industries such as metal works and mining. They were major investors in commercial companies and banks. Since they were landowners, they profited by the increase in rents. This increase was due to demographic pressure.

At the end of the 18th century, the ranks of the nobility were not closed. Anyone could become a noble, either through a direct favor accorded by the king, or by purchasing certain positions.

Sons of nobles married the daughters of rich middle-class families in order to increase the family wealth. They could lose their titles, being discredited, if they carried out activities considered to be the domain of commoners, such as commerce or manual labor. Iron work and mining were not forbidden.

In Paris, everyone with an income of over half a million livres was a noble. In ports like Bordeaux, the bourgeoisie was richer than the local nobility. This allowed them to obtain noble status. The same thing happened in important industrial centers like Lyon, where nobles were still the richest category.

The nobility was an elite with open ranks. Over 2,200 families became nobles by purchasing titles. Around 4,300 families were recipients of the king’s favor.

Matrimonial alliances were formed between families of magistrates, bankers and the highest nobles, creating powerful bonds. The children of these alliances received titles in the highest ranks of the legal system, and in the most prestigious ministries and positions. Marriages between noble families proliferated due to monetary advantage.

Upward social mobility for the bourgeoisie, that is the power to advance to the rank of a noble, is illustrated by the situation of the general farmers. They were considered the richest branch of the bourgeoisie. 90% of these farmers became nobles.

The third estate was the largest in France. For the most part, it lacked political rights. At the same time it had to pay the most taxes, either to the church, to the kingdom or to feudal landowners.

There were 2.3 million bourgeois, making up 8% of the total population. The bourgeois was rising in numbers and in wealth. Finance, industry and the banking system provided 20% of personal wealth in France. The greatest percentage belonged to the bourgeois. Many of these held jobs which could be purchased.

The nobility and the high clergy supported the existing regime. Those from the Third Estate, especially the bourgeois, wanted profound political change. From a social point of view, there was evident dissatisfaction, especially from the peasants and laborers. This state of affairs was produced by the fact that the nobles were exempted from paying tax.

The Third Estate was formed of the different types of bourgeoisie, such as: industrialists, bankers, landowners, members of the liberal professions, doctors, authors, members of the legal profession and civil servants. Also included in this category were free or dependent peasants and urban laborers.

The term bourgeoisie did not have a precise meaning. It included those without noble titles, who weren’t peasants or urban laborers, but were involved in industry. Those involved in commerce were among the richest of the bourgeois. Commercial exports were the most dynamic economic sector, with a 440% increase in the volume of commercial exchanges.

The bourgeois did not oppose the nobles and didn’t challenge the system of privilege. They accepted the values of the nobility and wanted to be able to enjoy the privilege system for themselves, by becoming nobles.

Slave traders, agricultural farmers and bankers could afford the high cost of a job such as king’s secretary. This job conferred a direct hereditary noble title, without having to wait two or three generations. Traders who made huge fortunes rivalled the nobles. They abandoned commerce and invested in land, titles and rent collection. Trade was considered undignified or dishonorable.

Colonial trade from the East Indies, coming into the Atlantic ports of Bordeaux, La Rochelle and Nantes, brought great riches. The other 80% of the bourgeoisie’s wealth came from rents and income from land ownership.

The bourgeoisie and the nobility became members of a unique wealthy elite. This is why it cannot be said that the members of the bourgeoisie were hostile towards the nobility and their privileges during this period.

The bourgeoisie owned one quarter of France’s land and held elders’ rights. This was a kind of property which could be purchased by anyone. Around 15% of elders were from the bourgeoisie.

If the bourgeoisie was the richest component of the third estate, the peasants were the most numerous. Around 85% of France’s population lived in rural areas, and most of these were peasants. They owned between 25-45% of the land, with big differences between the various regions of France.

The big farmers, approx. 600,000 in number, cultivated crops for sale, hiring other peasants as day laborers and offering loans of money. Most were “les labourers”, peasants who worked the land to survive. In good years, they made a small surplus. They, together with the big farmers, managed well until the 1770s.

But most peasants couldn’t live off the land. In order to survive, they worked in the daytime and spun at home. Half of them were sharecroppers. They had no capital and had to give half of their harvests to the owners of the land. One quarter of all peasants were landless laborers. They only owned their houses and gardens.

Serfdom had been made illegal in France. However, there were still one million serfs in the east, especially in the Franche Comte region. Their children could not even inherit personal items without paying considerable rights to their master. The impoverished peasants had no hope for a better life. They lived in a chronic state of uncertainty.

Bad weather or epidemics could make some peasants decide to move to towns. Unable to fit in there, they swelled the ranks of the vagabonds who made a living from begging, stealing and working occasional jobs.

In this period, ‘feudalism’ was all about rights and privileges enjoyed by landowners, but it also involved taxes and obligations owed to them by the peasants. All peasants were required to pay their tithe to the Church, taxes to the state and feudal rights to their elders.

Almost all land was subject to feudal taxes. These were: la corvee - the chore, la champart - part of the harvest, lods et ventes - tax paid to the elder when goods changed hands. Peasants in Midi didn’t pay any feudal taxes, whereas in Brittany and Burgundy these taxes were very high.

The peasants also paid taxes to the state, including: la taille, la vingtieme, la capitation, and la gabelle. These all underwent large increases in order to cover the cost of the wars France was fighting.

Another dissatisfaction was the fact that peasants could be judged in the elder’s courthouse. Here, the master was both judge and jury.

The greatest burdens for peasants were the tithes payable to the church, feudal taxes and rents. These rose sharply due to demographic growth. France had a population of 27.9 million at that time.

Urban laborers were the third component of the Third Estate. They lived in cities, in crowded and unhealthy accommodation. They were unqualified and poor.

Craftsmen were organized into guilds. In Paris, there were 100,000 guild members, one-third of the masculine population. People worked long hours: 16 hours per day, 6 days a week.

There was no large-scale production. The average number of workmen in a Paris workshop was 16. Masters and laborers worked and lived together. They were affected by the rise in the price of bread after a bad harvest, since bread made up three-quarters of the diet of most laborers. Like peasants, they laid up provisions and sold them at a good price in times of lack.

Laborers were forbidden to form unions or associations in order to obtain higher salaries or better working conditions. The standard of living for salaried workers went gradually downhill in the 18th century. In the same period, prices increased by an average of 65%, whereas salaries increased only by 22%.