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French Revolution (1789-1799)

On this page: {The Ancien Régime} Leo Gershov. The Era of the French Revolution, 1789-1999. Ten Years That Shook the World. Van Nostrand. ISBN 0.442.00022.7 (Cincinnati, 1957). éčçŕ Q

The Ancien Régime


Economic Progress and Social Change

The France of the Old Regime was a class society grounded in in-equality of rights. By law, there were three orders or estates, but out of a total population of between 24 and 26 millions, more than 96% beclonged to the Third Estate alone. At most 500_000 individuals made up the enormously privlidged ecclesiastical aristorcracy of the 1st and 2nd estates. In numbers, the secular and regular clergy of 130_000 memembers was significant [see below] Never-the-less, the clergy possessed influence far beyond its numbers. The Church was an organised body, a self-governing corporate structure, hierarchically arranged and subject to frim internal discipileine. It was almost a state within a state, with its own officers of administratin, its own courts of law, and a representative assembly meetoing at stated internvals, for among other purposes, regulating its relations with the monarchy. The Church was immensely wealthy, enjoying great income from the annual revenue on its vast landed possessions, from the tithe [P.15] that it levied on all crops, and from many gifts and fees. It was powerful as well as influential, holding a monopoly of the registration of births, deaths and marriages. It controlled poor relief and education. Sharing with the State in the censorship of all publications and upholding the traditions and the values of the established order, the Church was a profoundly conservative force, a pillar of society. PP.3 The number of individuals making up the lay aristocracy of the nobility, which was the second order (Estate), has been estimated at between 100 and 400 thousdand, or between 1 and 3% of the total population. Unlike the clergy, it was not corporately organised. But, as a legally distinct social group, it was set apart from all others by its own rights and privledges. AMonth them were the rights enjoyed by its memebers to be tried at special courts, to be exempted from the heaviest of the direct taxes, and to be granted preferential rates for the others; to have a monopoly of the highest positions in the civil administration and in the Church and, in the closing years of the Old Regime, in the military, naval, and diplomatic services as well. ... From the ranks of the magistrates in the superior courts, the parlements, came the tough opponents of the abosolute monarchy, the parlementaires [
Parlementariasts], who time and again in the century obstructed royal policy and challenged the very theory of absolutism. Cultivated and refined, rich and arrogant too, they spearheaded the revival of the influence and power of the 18th century (1700c) nobility. PP.1 The over-whelming majority of the population belonged to the 3rd Estate. This was a legal catch-all in which the middle class, or the [bourgeoisie], to use the French term, was the most important segment. ... The bourgeois made up 10-12% of the total ??? population and over half of the population of the towns and cities. ... [The layers within the bourgeois consisted of]... [the upper layer] composed primarily of the wealthy new new business elite and government officials not of the nobility. There was a middle bourgeoisie, comprising independent craftsmen and artisans, well-to-do merchants and traders, booksellers and printers, members of the rapidly growing liberal professions: writers, scholars, and lawyers. Whiel all other town dwellers technically constituted the populace (gens du peuple), it was difficult in practice to distinguish between representatives of the working class proper, such as journeymen, apprentices, clerks, domestics, and the memembers of the petty bourgeoiseie of small shop-keepers and neighborhood tradesmen. PP.2 For those with some capital, the times were good during the greater part of the 1700c. International trade was booming in volume and value. On the eve of the Revolution, the value of the total foreign trade was slightly above 1_T livres, most of it in the taple colongial products of raw cotton, sugar, tobacco, coffee, tea, chocolate, and Negro slaves. In consiequence ofhte great profits, a new plutocracy of merchants and financiers established itself along the Atlantic and Mediterranean seaboards, investing and re-investing their gian in refining and processing plants, in financial and insurance operations, and in advanced forms of industrial enterprise. The un-precedented increase of 3_000_000 in the population since mid-century helped their cause, furnishing them with both a new labor force and a broader market, while an equally stupendous increase in the amount of minted money in circulation -- between 2T and 3T [P. 16/17] livres in gold and silver -- elevated sales prices by 50%. PP.1 The boom was great, but guild rules and restrictions, governmental monopolies and controls, internal customs dues, [as well as] a multiplicity of weights and measures, contradictory legal practices and principles, all those obstacles seriously impeded economic growth and retarded economic growth and retarded economic unification. More-over, this expansionist cycle brought the workers few benefits other than increased employment opportunities. In terms of purchasing power, their real wages were lower at the end of the long cycle than they had been at the start, for while real prices went up on an average of about 45%, real wages rose only by about 22%. When the boom ended in the 1770's and a recession set in, the hardship of the working people was appalling. PP.2 Nor was the expansionist period and un-mitigated blessing for the peasantry. France, it must be remembered, was over-whelming rural and the status of the French peasantsry was unique, un-paralled in Europe. Nearly all peasants were legally free and perhaps 3 out of every 4 heads of families were propietors, in fact if not in title, of the land that they cultivated. Suject the payment of of manorial dues and services, they were free to bequeath, inherit, and improve if they could, the plot that they worked. What they owned as a group made up close to 40% of arable land. Never-the-less, the total was not nearly enough for the needs of a rapidly growing population. The average plot was grossly in-adequate. Thus, the majority of the peasonts also worked a large part of the remaining cultivable soil which they did not own but which was owned by either the monarchy, the Church, the lay aristocracy, or the bourgeoiseie.If they were fortunate, they worked this additional land as tenant farmers; if not, as share-croppers. Apart from a tiny minority that was well off, most peasants only mangaged somehow, by pooling the combined labor force of the family with such income from suplementary work as they could find, to make do in good times. One out of every four families, if not more, was completely landless. For the heads of such families, [P.17/18] the alternative to disaster was to hire themselves out as farmhands or do piece-work as spinners or weavers for the town entrepreneur. Even in good times, the highways of France swarmed with tramps and beggars; and when times were hard, with brigands too. PP.1 Illiteracy was general among them. For the average peasant, his small piece of land was insufficient. He had no capital to fall back upon. His obligaions to the State, Church, and Lord of the Manor were many and heavy. Un-aided, he could not improve his lot. The Physiocrats, the great capitialist agricultural reformers, pressed their campaign to improve and increase agricultural production, but the changes which they advocated decreased the poor peasants' margin of security. Enclosure of their plots, abolition of their ancient collective rights to the common fields, division of cleared or re-claimed land, higher rentals for improved land, all these improvements were burdens rather than blessings for peasants who could not take advantage of the new opportunities. PP.2 Beginning with about 1776 (see map), trial after trial afflicted the rural population. Reversing the trend since the early decades of the 1700c, grain prices sagged. This gradual decline continued until 1788, when the harvest failed, which shot grain prices to a century high. A very small minority of the peasants benefitted from these developments, but most did not. The greatest number had to pay the high market prices for their seed as well as for their bread. Meantime, landlords, themselves affected by rising costs, had raised the rentals on leased land. In this same span of years, the important wine production segment of rural economy was suffering from a glutted market and collapsing prices. Thus, the income of many peasants was dropping off sharply, just when for all of them grain and bread prices were soaring. To cap the climax of misfortune, the boom burst in industrial expansion, most of all in textile production, and a severe crisis of un-employment followed. PP.3 The winter of 1788-1789 tried the forititude of the poor. It was the coldest in the memory of living men. Provisions were inadequate, naturally, for relief and no public works program existed to take care of the needy. In the towns there was rioting for bread, work, and living wages; in the country-side, half-starved peasants were on the loose. The cry, to be heard again during the Revolution, that "the brigands" were coming, reverberated through-out the land. The military authorities had been called out more than once before this break up demonstrations for higher wages and better work conditions. Now, in this crisis of un-exampled intensity, both economic and political, the people had no one to turn to for guidance and leadership, save their bourgeois associates. END BLOCK QUOTE {Back to the TOP of this page}