Episode 9: The Estates General


Episode 9, ‘The Estates General’, examines the events that unfold once the Estates General meets at Versailles on 5 May 1789 and explores the impact of food scarcity on the French nation.

Food Shortages

France was no stranger to hunger. In 1785, John Adams traveled throughout France and noted the traumatic conditions of the French countryside. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson on the 22nd of May, Adams wrote: “The country is a heap of ashes. Grass is scarcely to be seen and all sorts of grain is short, thin, pale and feeble, while the flax is quite dead…” He went on to write, “I pity this people from my soul…” The next day, Adams continued, “No green peas, no salad, no vegetables to be had upon the road, and the sky is still as clear, dry and cold as ever. The flocks of sheep and herds of cattle stalk about the fields like droves of walking skeletons.”

This suffering that John Adams described was nothing compared to the calamity the French people endured in 1788 and 1789. A catastrophe which hit the French nation just as the Parlement rebelled against the crown and the Third Estate entered the political fray.

The French people on the eve of the Revolution spent 50% of their income on food during periods of normal food supply. However, prior to the Estates General the cost of bread has increased dramatically due to events throughout 1788 and 1789. On the 13th of July, 1788, the majority of France experienced a hailstorm which ripped through large sways of the countryside.  This storm destroyed numerous crop types (apples, olives, wheat) and thus wreaked havoc on a nation which was predominantly an agrarian society. With the crops destroyed, few day labourers found work, and wealthier peasant landowners faced bankruptcy. Inevitably there were flow on effects to the cities, and the reduction of disposable income across the economy (due to high food costs) hit the factory works in regional capitals hard.  By winter, 80,000 workers were unemployed in an ever-volatile Paris, while half the looms of Amiens, Lyons, Lille, Troyes, Carcassonne, and Rouen lay dormant.

In the summer of 1787, shortly after Brienne took over and before the fight with the Parlements began, a four-pound loaf of bread cost eight sous. By the time Necker was summoning the second Assembly of Notables in October the next year, the price of that loaf of bread had risen by 50% to twelve sous, and it was 15 sous by February 1789. Not only had the harvest of wheat been poor, but the harsh winter hampered flour production. Mirabeau noted as he traveled the countryside in January 1789 that, “People are starving to death with wheat all around them, for want of flour. All the mills are frozen”.

Food was not the only commodity rising rapidly in price, with firewood and other necessities exponentially increased as well.

Revellion Riots

On the 26th of April, less than two weeks before the opening of the Estates General, Paris was a tinderbox ready to ignite. In an environment characterized by an agitated populace, waning royal authority and sky-high bread prices, a small spark set the city ablaze. A wealthy businessman named Revellion remarked in public how wages were too expensive, and the workers in Paris took this remark to mean that the elites were about to cut their wages. The common people were already convinced that the elites were hoarding grain for their own gain, and so the idea that the elites were about to cut wages set off a dangerous mix of panic and fury. What followed was some of the bloodiest days of the revolution. Riots broke out in Paris, and warehouses and homes were burnt to the ground by the mob. Over a course of 3 days, more than 12 soldiers and up to 300 rioters were killed, many more injured, and Revellion nearly lost his life. The event, like many bloody episodes of the French Revolution, is hotly contested amongst Historians. Some historians argue that these events were deliberately provoked by the police, as the disturbances provided authorities with an excuse to bring more troops into Paris (The troops, while officially brought in to restore order in the streets, could also be conveniently used by the authorities to contain and control the Estates General). Other Historians dispute this entirely, labeling the idea as nothing more than a conspiracy theory. According to these historians, the Revellion riots offer a snapshot of the violent and barbaric beast that was the Paris mob.

The Opening of the Estates General

On 4th of May 1789, the day before the official opening ceremony, a grandiose procession was held through the streets of Versailles. The event left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Third Estate’s deputies. The parade, and the mass that followed, was conducted in a way which reflected their inferior status in Old Regime France. The privileged orders were permitted to walk in their formal dress, meaning grandiose garments combining rich colours and various silks, fabrics, and feathers. The Third, however, had not been permitted to wear things that showed their wealth, their power, their community, or their status as representatives of some 98% of the nation. They were instructed to wear something that fitted their role in society – dull black gowns. According to an English doctor who was a witness to the parade, these gowns were “even worse than that of the inferior sort of gownsmen at the English universities.”

This indignity was compounded by the fact that two days before, on May the 2nd, the King had greeted the deputies of the privileged orders in the Hall of Mirrors, but refused to greet the Third’s delegates in such a grand room. The Estates General hadn’t even commenced, and it was already off it a poor start.

Historian Simon Schama records the importance of these events:

“The opening of the Estates-General was treated not like a public occasion in which rank would be dissolved into patriotic duty, but as an extension of court ceremony. Instead of being inclusive, it was exclusive; instead of opening up space, it closed it off. Instead of reflecting the social reality of late eighteenth-century France in which station was actually eroded by property and culture, it asserted an anachronistic hierarchy. (He goes on to say) The Consequence of all of this was to ensure that the form of the Estates-General was at war with its substance. The more brilliantly the first two orders swaggered, the more they alienated the Third Estate and provoked it into exploding the institution altogether. From the beginning, they were stung by gratuitous slights.”

Opening Ceremony

Isolation was the general theme for the entire Third Estate on the 5th of May 1789. The opening ceremony of the Estates General was anticlimactic and dissatisfying. The speeches by the King and Necker, in particular, had resulted in disappointment and frustration. Focusing on a complex, detailed and outright boring account of the nation’s chaotic finances, Necker did not deliver a clear, distinct royal agenda.  This meant that the burning questions of taxation inequality and privileges for the first two orders were left unanswered. Mirabeau, long a Necker critic, slammed the Minister in his newspaper the next day, “insufferable longueurs, countless repetitions, pompously uttered trivialities, unintelligible remarks; not a single principle, not one unchallengeable assertion, not one statesmanlike resource, not even a major financial measure, no plan of recovery despite what had been announced.”

With no clear direction set by the government at the Estate’s General’s opening, opportunity beckoned for those deputies willing to take the lead.


On May the 6th, the day after the opening ceremony, the three estates met separately to begin the process of verification. Disorientated yet energized, The Third refused to verify their own deputies unless they were to do so in conjunction with the other two orders. Led by the Brenton Club and the Deputies of Dauphine (two factions within the Third Estate), the Third’s goal was to prevent each order from conducting individual verification. These factions feared that if the Third were to conduct verification and verify its’ deputies independently, their opportunity for forcing voting by head would be lost.

The result of these votes was deadlock. The Third refused to verify their deputies until the other order joined them, and the other orders refused to do just that.

The Duke of Dorset wrote to the Duke of Leeds on May 28, more than 3 weeks since the deadlock began:

“It is scarcely possible to give your Grace an adequate idea of the confusion that prevails at present at Versailles owing to the discussions, hitherto fruitlessly, carried on by the several Orders with little if any progress, as your Grace will see by the printed accounts (which are authentic) towards an agreement upon a regular form of proceeding. The Third Estate seem to conduct themselves with a determined firmness, and not at all disposed to give way to the Nobility on any point, while on the other hand the Nobility cannot brook the idea of being dictated to by those whom they have ever been used to consider so much their inferiors in point of birth and consideration : the Clergy have evidently shewn a desire to conciliate matters, the nature of their Order forming two interests which on this occasion are incompatible, but the extreme inveteracy of the other two Orders against each other has not admitted of any good effect from their efforts.”

A Disunited Church

Deadlock may have been the theme of the month, but there were signs that this situation would not continue. The situation in the First Estate was slowly changing. The First Estate had initially voted 133 to 114 against joining the Third. However, the delegation was dominated by common parish priests, and as the weeks passed, many began to rethink their original decision to remain an independent order. This was driven by both public opinion and rising tensions between the parish priests and the higher clergy.

Becoming increasingly frustrated with the bishops in his order, Abbe Barbotin stated, “Upon arriving here I was still inclined to believe that bishops were also pastors, but everything I see obliges me to think that they are nothing but mercenaries, almost Machiavellian politicians, who mind only their own interests and are ready to fleece – perhaps even devour – their own flocks rather than to pasture them.”

The feeling of disgust was mutual. Upon being elected as a delegate alongside several priests, the Bishop of Lucon stated “It is not without repugnance that I accept this commission”.

The First Estate was beginning to undergo a schism. A schism which would empower the Third Estate.

Grey History