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.
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 wealth of the Church came from the land it owned and from tithes. The church owned approx. 10% of the land.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Urban laborers were the third component of the Third Estate. They lived in cities, in crowded and unhealthy accommodation. They were unqualified and poor.