Episode 1, ‘Three Estates’, explores the social hierarchy of the Old Regime. Having maintained the medieval divisions of feudalism, French society was littered with social and economic grievances that existed both between and within the Three Estates.
What are the Three Estates?
On the eve of the French Revolution, the people of France were categorized into one of three estates. The First and Second Estates were known as the ‘privileged orders’, and consisted of members of the Catholic Church or nobility respectively. The First and Second Estates were considered privileged due to wide-ranging taxation exemptions, large land holdings, exclusive access to lucrative government positions, and a wide range of additional prerogatives.The Third Estate was comprised of all individuals who did not belong to the first two orders. Simplistically put, the estates were broken up into those who prayed, those who fought, and those who worked. These divisions were the source of much conflict within French society, as the feudal society which had created them was giving way to a capitalist society influenced by Enlightenment thinking.
Modern Historians estimate that anywhere from 100,000 to 160,000 individuals comprised the First Estate, meaning that members of the First Estate comprised about 0.5% of the French population. Despite being only half a percent of the population, the First Estate owned approximately 10% of French land. Combined with taxation exemption and the right to levy the tithe, the First Estate was a small but wealthy order.
Officially the role of the First Estate was to help the Christian faithful find salvation and provided administrative functions for the government. These functions included schooling, censorship, and the management of charitable programs. Roughly half of the First Estates members were dedicated to secular functions, while the other half belonged to various religious orders.
Yet despite the Church’s large land holdings and numerous responsibilities, many of the First Estate’s members were not as ‘privileged’ as one would think. There was a clear divide between those members of the First Estate who came from the Second, and those who came from the Third. The higher clergy benefited from the riches of the Catholic Church, and these individuals generally came from noble origins. The vast majority of the First Estate’s members actually lived in conditions not too dissimilar to those of the common people they preached and worked amongst. For example, the Archbishop of Strasbourg had a yearly income of 450,000 livres, but a common priest earned a much less impressive wage of 750 livres if paid the minimum amount. A curate’s minimum wage was less, at 300 livres per year. The result was that the Archbishop of Strasbourg was earning an extraordinary 1,500 times more per year than the lowest paid curates in the First Estate. Thus, the perks of the order were focused on this noble upper crust of the First Estate, numbering just a few thousand individuals.
Historians debate just how many members of French society came from the Second Estate, with some suggesting the group numbered between 350,000-400,000. Despite representing between 1 and 1.5% of the French kingdom, roughly one-fifth of French land was owned by the nobility. Like the First Estate, a significant privilege enjoyed by the order was an exemption from most forms of taxation. It would be incorrect to say nobles paid no tax, but they certainly did not pay much. Their justification for this exemption? The nobility were the military commanders of the Old Regime, and as a result, argued that their sacrifice should be rewarded with taxation exemption. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the peasants who fought alongside their noble brethren did not enjoy the same reward.
Additional prerogatives for the Second Estates included:
- The exclusive right to be appointed ambassadors;
- The exclusive right to command regiments in the army;
- Favorable access to the highest offices within the Catholic Church;
- Monopolies on certain industries, buildings, or geographic features; and
- Trial under a separate penal code and by certain courts.
Despite these advantages, extreme inequality could be found within the Second Estate. Roughly 5,000 noble families, predominantly rural gentry, couldn’t even afford a horse, a dog and a sword, the traditional requirements for any good noble. Furthermore, roughly 60% of noble families lived in conditions similar to their bourgeoise neighbors. Of those who were living a luxurious lifestyle, many were not ‘true’ nobles. Of the roughly 350,000 members of the nobility, approximately 50% of them were only ennobled in the previous two centuries. The sale of offices by the Crown, through a process known as venality, had diluted the purity of noble blood. This dilution was a recipe for tension within the Second Estate, as was the inequality between poorer rural gentry and the privileged elites living at Versailles. Such tensions would undermine the unity of the order when the Third Estate begins their assault of the privileged members of Old Regime France.
The Third Estate encompassed everyone that was not a member of either of the two privileged orders. The order was thus far from homogeneous and could be broken into numerous components: The peasants, the artisans or skilled laborers, and the bourgeoisie.
On the eve of the French Revolution, France was still a rural society. If an urban centre was defined as 2,000 people, only one in five would live in an urban center. Roughly 80% of the Third Estate was comprised of members of the peasantry, most of whom lived in communities or parishes in rural France with a population somewhere between 500-1000 individuals. Peasants were at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Peasants were poor, lived often on small pieces of land that couldn’t sustain their family, and worked multiple jobs in order to feed their family and meet their tax obligations (Anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of a peasant’s produce would be taken from him by the two privileged orders).
Arthur Young noted on the 5th of September 1788 the poverty of the peasants:
“The poor people seem poor indeed; the children terribly ragged, if possible worse clad than if with no clothes at all; as to shoes and stockings they are luxuries. A beautiful girl of six or seven years playing with a stick, and smiling under such a bundle of rags as made my heart ache to see her: they did not beg, and when I gave them any thing seemed more surprized than obliged. One third of what I have seen of this province seems uncultivated, and nearly all of it in misery.”
Despite being a rural society, France was much more urbanized than many other European states in 1789. Eight cities exited with more than 50,000 people, with Paris being the largest, at around 650,000-700,000 inhabitants. In these cities, craftsmen and laborers lived only slightly better than peasants in the countryside. In normal times, urban-wages spent 40-60 percent of their income on bread alone. These workers also had few legal rights. According to a Parisian who worked in the printing industry, workers, robbed of their ability to choose employers to a large degree, were “no better off than the slaves of Algiers or the blacks who are used for work on sugar and indigo on the islands”. Downtrodden and living in terrible conditions, the workers of Paris were ready to embrace a revolutionary agenda to better their future.
This group consisted of lawyers, merchants, financiers, doctors, clerks, and a range of other professions. Due to better living conditions that the rest of the Third Estate, the primary grievances of the bourgeoisie were not economic, but social. In the last few decades before the Revolution, their ability to climb the social ladder had been stunted. Once upon a time, the rich among them, through the policy of venality, had been able to buy offices from the Crown. These offices might have exempted them from taxation, or more importantly, granted than enoblement, and allowed them to move into the Second Estate. However, in the decades before the revolution, this route to enoblement had vanished as existing nobles sought to restrict access to the Second Estate. With the road to social advancement blocked, the bourgeoisie shifted their focus from climbing the social hierarchy to reforming the hierarchy instead. Historian Christopher Hibbert notes:
“Yet most of the bourgeoisie – whether in business or in the professions, manufacturers or merchants, doctors or lawyers – were for the most part anxious to break down the barriers that excluded them from aristocratic preserves rather than to destroy the aristocracy that had brought those preserves into existence.”
“The limitations upon the talents of the bourgeoisie, particularly upon those of ambitious lawyers, were to make them the aristocracy’s most formidable opponents.”
Thus, unlike the poor peasants and artisans who hated the entire system of feudalism, the upper crust of the bourgeoisie only rallied against this societal structure once they could no longer partake in the party. As it turns out, they could be some serious party poopers.