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PART IV
I

THE FRENCH
REVOTUTION
I

TH E A N C IE N R 6C IT' ,IE

249

their revolution and formulated their strategieslargelyin terms of the French.To
Marxian revolutionaries,everyrevolution-French and Russianalike-unfolded
in stages,accordingto "inner laws"of development,asTrotskywas to write in the
preface to his The History of the Russian Revolution "The masses go into a
revolution not with a preparedplan of socialreconstruction,"he observed,

cHAPTER
rs The Ancien Rdgime

If the American Revolutionhas been too often seen as merely a genteel
disagreement
over colonialindependence,
the FrenchRevolutionof r7g9-9s
has been widely seen as the classicalrevolution par excellence.
This
interpretationbecameso deeply ingrained in revolutionarysocial thought
during the nineteenthcentury that it immenselyinfluencedthe behaviorof
revolutionaryleadersthereafter,
sothat the FrenchRevolutionbecamea kind of
templatefor revolutionarymovementsin the centuryand a half that followed.
Revolutionaryleadersof all kinds expectedthe courseof eventsto duplicate
those of the French Revolution,and they drew upon its history for an
understandingof the "stages"their revolutionswould follow.By studyingthe
their assumedprototypes,they learnedwhat socialstratathey could
Jacobins,
expectto trust or mistrust,and what alliancesthey could expectto makeand
break. They formulated strategies,analyzed.the relationship of forces that
existedin revolutionarysituations,anddiagnosed
the outcomeof revolutionary
crisesgenerallyalonglinesthat modeledthe FrenchRevolution.
Suchinterpretations
of the FrenchRevolutionwereoftenbasedon mythology
and wereevenobfuscatory,
asMarx sawin the 1840s.In his causticopeningto
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,he mocked the 1848
revolutionaries'
proclivitiesfor drawingparallelswith the eventsof 1789-952
"Hegelremarkssomewhere
that all factsand personages
of greatimportancein
world historyoccur,asit were,twice.He forgotto add:the first time astragedy,
the secondas farce.Caussididre
for Danton,Louis Blancfor Robespierre,
the
Montagneof 1848to 185I for theMontagneof 1793to 1795,the Nephewfor the
Uncle. And the samecaricatureoccurs in the circumstances
attendingthe
secondeditionof the eighteenthBrumaire"'(18 Brumairebeingthe datein the
FrenchRevolutionarycalendaron which NapoleonBonapartetook power).
Nevertheless,the image of the French Revolution exercisedan immensely
powerful influence on the Russian Revolution of l9l7-21. Bolsheviks,
Mensheviks,Left SocialRevolutionaries,
and evenmanyanarchistspreconceived

but with a sharpfeelingthat they cannotendurethe old r6gime.Only the guiding
layers of a classhave a political program, and even this still requires the test of
The fundamentalpolitical processof the
events,and the approvalof the masses.
by a classof the problems
in
gradual
comprehension
revolution thus consists the
of
arising from the socialcrisis-the activeorientation the massesby a method
approximations.The different stagesof a revolutionaryprocess'
of successive
certified by a changeof parties in which the more extreme alwayssupersedesthe
less,expressthe growing pressureto the left of the masses-so long as the swing
of the movementdoesnot run into objectiveobstacles.'
Prudently, Trotsky noted that "such, at least, is the general outline of the old
revolution."
In fact, not only Trotsky but Lenin and revolutionariesofthe 1930sregarded
this stagestheory of revolution almost fatalisticallyas a historical law. They saw
the overthrow of tsarism as parallel to the creation of the National Assemblyin
France, while Trotsky himself viewed the rise of the short-lived StalinZinoviev-Kamenev "troika" in 1924 as a replication of the Directory and
Thermidor of the French Revolution. Disastrously,he regardedStalin merely as
a Bonapartist rather than as the brutal totalitarian that he turned out to be, and
the mild Nikolai Bukharin as a spokesmanfor a capitalist restoration. That he
totally failed to see his situation accurately stems in no small part from his
proclivity and that of other revolutionaries for a century and a half to view all
major revolutions in terms of the French Revolution.

A BOURGEOISREVOLUTION?
In particular, most Marxist interpretations were notable for their attempts to
deny any importance to the ideological content of the French Revolution and
seeit almost exclusivelyas a clashof economic interests-between an emerging,
indeed vibrant, highly self-conscious bourgeoisie and a declining, indeed
moribund feudal system.The revolution was seenas a paradigmatic "bourgeois
revolution" in which the rising middle classessupposedlycame to such a high
stageof historical development that they consciously,even courageouslyand
insightfully, overthrew the restrictions of feudal society that were impeding the

25O

THE ANCIEN nfcIur

T H E F RENCH REVOL UT ION

advanceof their commerceand manufactures.
Thus,accordingto lean |aurds,
the Frenchsocialistleader:"The bourgeoisie
is not merelya forceof prudence
and economy;it is a bold and conqueringforce that has alreadyin part
revolutionizedthe system of production and exchangeand is about to
revolutionizethe political system."'Albert Soboulwent so far as to call the
French Revolution"the definitive model of all bourgeoisrevolutions.
Everyoneknows
that the bourgeoisie
led the Revolution."n
Indeed,it is not only Marxistswho interpretthe Revolutionin this manner:
orthodox interpretationsin the twentiethcentury have seenFrenchrevolutionary developments
in termsof nakedbourgeoisclassinterestand the ascent
of capitalismin France,andtherecanbe no doubt,in retrospect,
that the French
bourgeoisiein lateryearswerethe principalbeneficiaries
of the Revolution,the
classthat gainedmost from its outcome.But by no meansis it clearthat the
FrenchRevolutionitselfwas"bourgeois"if by a "bourgeois"we meana modern
"industrialcapitalist."
The two words,it shouldbe emphasized,
arenot synonymous.Beforethe adventof industrialcapitalism,the "bourgeoisie"
consistedof
urban dwellersor burghers,including many artisans,merchantswho transported and sold goodsto farawayplaces,and a greatvarietyof professionals.
Someburghershad humble materialstatus,while othersenjoyedconsiderable
wealth. Generally,deep-seatedcultural attitudes inherited from antiquity
attributed an inferior status to men who profited from trade or worked at
menialtasks,sothat the moresuccessful
commercialstrataof the pasttendedto
investtheir wealthin landedpropertyand live asrentiersor idle gentry.Almost
consistently,
their idealsremainedthoseof titled nobility,ownersof rural estates
and landed property,with whosefamiliesthey tried to intermarry;indeed,
Frenchfinanciersand tradesmenaspiredto land ownershipand titleswell into
"led" or "made"
the nineteenthcentury;that is to say,long aftertheypresumably
the greatRevolution.
Moreover, although industrial capitalism ultimately benefited from the
diminution of privilegeduringthe FrenchRevolution,sotoo did otherstratain
Frenchsociety,notablythat distinctlynoncapitalistclass,the peasantry.
No less
than the emergingindustrialentrepreneurs
of the late eighteenthcentury,the
small food cultivatorsof the countrysidewereamongthe beneficiaries
of the
sweeping
demolitionof feudalor quasi-feudal
manorialholdingsandprivileges.
It took Francewell into the nineteenthcenturyto shift from a putting-outor
cottagesystemof manufacturingto a factorysystem,long afterthe mechanized
production of cotton goods was burgeoning in England. In England,
agriculture,more than any other branch of the economy,took giant strides
toward capitalisticand rationalizedforms of production during the seventeenth
and eighteenthcenturies,but in Francerural societyremainedlargelypeasant
and domesticin naturethroughoutthe nineteenthcenturyand well into the
twentieth. Accordingto availableeconomicindices,Francelaggedbehind

25I

Englandin nearly everysphereof the economy,exceptfor the crafting and
productionof luxury items.
To attributedeterminingeconomicfactorsto a complexculturalsystemand
assumethat they form the baseof the culture's"superstructure"-thatis, the
most decisivefactorsin explainingsocialdevelopments-isto reducehuman
socialactivityand creativityto a simplisticinterplayof mechanistic
actionsand
reactions.Indeed,the kind of imagethat peopleliving in a certaintime and
placehaveof their societyhas an importancethat shouldnot be minimized;
especiallyin periodsof revolutionarychange,what peoplethink about their
aspirations and goals profoundly affects the very economic forces that
supposedlyuniquely motivate them. Marx's famous remark to the contrary
notwithstanding,we would be wise to judge a man by "what he thinks of
himself,"'for his view profoundly affectshis behavior,and, by the sametoken,
we would be wise to judge "a period of transformation by its own
consciousnes5"-fe1
thought and consciousness,
whether of a man or of a
period,profoundlyshapewhatpeopledo andhow societies
develop.
Thecritical
that the French Enlightenmentcreatedfed directly into the
consciousness
Revolutionitself,while the egalitarianbeliefsgenerated
during the Revolution
actuallydid much to inhibit the emergence
of modern capitalismin France.
When dmigrdsreturnedto Franceafter the executionof the Robespierrists,
they
found a nation substantiallydifferent from the one they had left upon the
collapseof the ancienr6gime,one that not only lookeddifferentbut thought
very differently-and critically-about rank, privilege,authority, religion, and
personalvalues.

THE EVOLUTION OF 1789FRANCE
On the eve of the Revolution, France was a chaotic, often dizzying collage of
administrative and religious jurisdictions, traditions inherited from centuries
past, enormous disparities in privilege, and cultural archaisms. During the
Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church divided France into eighteen
archepiscopalprovinces and 135 dioceses,many of which reflected divisions
dating back to the Roman Empire. what was then France consisted of disparate
feudal baronies and duchies, many of which were not strictly Gallic in origin
and nearly all of which were heir to unique customs,systemsof privilege, and
cultural differences. So fractured was feudal society into small sovereigntiesthat
for a long time the king exercisedvirtually no control over the countiy. Slowly,
over the centuries,French kings pieced the country together through incessant
wars, dynastic marriage alliances, and diplomacy. As they added new territories
to the domain, they often did little to alter the institutions that came with

252

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

acquiredlands;rather,they modified or adaptedthem to the growingkingdom,
so that provincialcentersremainedculturallydistinct,with autonomousfeudal
municipalities,and lawsand customsvery much astheyhadbeenfor centuries.
In the seventeenthcentury, Richelieu and Mazarin, tvvo strong-willed
cardinalscommitted to unifting and centralizingFranceunder a powerful
Crown,patchedtogetheran absolutemonarchyfor their sovereigns,
LouisXIII
provinces,
and XIV respectively.
Upon the old
Richelieusuperimposeda new set
of administrativeunits known as gindralitis, appointing royal officials called
intendantswhosemain functionwasto supervise
thebehaviorof the provincial
aristocracy.
Finally,between1648and 1653,the conflictbetweenthe monarchy
and aristocracycameto a headwhen the nobility,irate over the restrictions
imposedby the cardinals,directly challengedthe growing royal authority in an
armeduprising,the Fronde,which endedin abjectfailureand humiliationfor
the nobility. Thereafter,the young Louis XIV shrewdlyestablishedhis court at
Versailles,somefifteen miles awayfrom Paris,largelyto collectand keepan eye
of a languidlyidle
on his once-unrulynobles,seducingthem with the pleasures
life, straitjacketing
them with an elaboratearistocraticetiquette,and training
their children to becomeeffeteand obedientcourtiers.To induce them to
remainat Versailles,
he endowedthe nobleswho were"presented"
to court with
that turnedthem into harmlessand dependent
benefits,pensions,
and sinecures
parasites.
Aboveall, to avoid future Frondes.Louis XIV removedthe noblesasmuch as
he could from the substantivetasks of officeholding and policymaking,
responsibilitiesthat the monarch gaveto an increasingnumber of servile
commoners,opening a gap betweenthe traditional nobility of the sword
(noblesse
de I'ipde) and the new, largelybureaucraticnobility of the robe
(noblesse
de la robe).The latter,many of whom had purchasedtheir titles,
dependedheavilyupon the king'sfavor and goodwill,while the saleof titles,in
turn, becamea sizablesourceof incomefor the Crown.Takentogether,the king
gaina trustworthybureaucracy,
managedto increase
its revenues,
and dividethe
playingthe nobility of the swordagainstthe nobility of
elite classesthemselves,
the robe.Despitethe growing chagrinthat the old noblesfelt toward their new
counterparts,the king continuedto allowcommonersto buy up keypositionsas
intendantsand membersof the courtsof appeal,or pailements,
aswell asthe
royalbureaucracy.
In the end,they formed much of the administrationof the;
country.Increasingly,
noblesof the robe,whosepositionswereheld for life and
werehereditary,becamepolitically more powerfulasa stratumthan the nobility
of the sword.
The monarchswho followedthe LouisXIV weremadeof stuff lessstern.The
languidLouisXV and LouisXVI lackedLouisXIV's capacityto keepthe nobility
cowed,so that the traditional nobles,alwaysmindful of their former powers'
began to encroachon the monarchy'spowers.If Louis XIV mistrusted his

THE ANCIEN nfcIlrtn

253

nobility, shrewdlytrying to render them dependentupon him, his successors
lived in the very bosom of their courtiers.If the sardonicLouis XV was an
indolent caricature of his assertivepredecessor,
Louis XVI was a vaporous
shadowof both: dull, awkward,and utterly indecisive,behavingmuch asthough
the crown had been thrust upon him unawares.Nor were theseattributeslost
upon his courtiers, who soon concludedthat he was a dull buffoon, a view
sharedby his own wife, the frivolousAustrianprincessMarie Antoinette.
Deeplydiscontentedby their powerlessness,
the noblesof the 1780snow
soughtto reclaim at leastsomeof their lost power and steadilybeganto filter
back into governmentalpositions.In 1781 they succeededin getting an
ordinanceinstituted that required all commissionedof;ficersin the military to
provethat their familieshad beenin the nobility for four generations.By 1789
all the bishopsin Francehailedfrom noblefamiliesand noblesoccupiedall but
one of LouisXVI's ministerialposts,aswell aschoicepositionsin the military
and the Church. With the increasingreturn of the old aristocracyto political
influence,ambitiousnoblesultimatelyreclaimeda considerable
degreeof the
that LouisXIV had successfully
quashed.
independence
At the sametime, the nobles of the robe, although well entrenchedin key
institutions suchas the pailementt wereincreasinglyblockedfrom influencing
governmental
policy.As NormanHampsonobserves,
Theexclusiveness
of thearistocracy
nowdeprivedthenewlyennobledof someof
themostimportantpracticaladvantages
that their statushadformerlyconferred
and consequently
createda sharpdivisionof interestbetweenthe old noblesse
and the upper middle classand anoblis[ennobled]which accentuatedthe
divergence
betweensocialhierarchyandtheeconomicstructureof the country.u

SOCIAL AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
Nevertheless,
in the 1780sthe Frenchmonarchywas still highly centralized.
Royal authority was preeminent in determining economic,religious,and
foreign policy for the more than twenty-five million people living in some
277,000squaremilesoverwhom LouisXVI ruled.But despitethe effortsof the
two earlier cardinalsto centralizethe statein the Crown'shands,Francestill
remaineda patchworkof differentsovereignties
steepedin administrativechaos.
In contrastto the Americancolonies,which werestructuredaround governors,
legislatures,and English law, the disparatefeudal baroniesand duchiesthat
madeup Francestill laid claim to specialcustoms,traditions,and privileges.The
intendantshad neverbeen ableto break down local privilegein placessuch as
Brittany,where the local provincial assembliesremainedpowerful enough to

254

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

thwart reformsfrom Paris.Avignon,the seatof a Frenchpope during the great
schism centuriesearlier,was still owned by the pope in Rome, while Alsace
containedpocketsthat werenominallyunder the rule of Germanprincesand
the city-stateof Mulhouse.
Provinciallegal systemsvaried enormously.some areasfollowed Roman
legalcodes,while othersadheredto customarylaw.In northern France,where
customary law was prevalent, provinces,principalities,and cities were
governedaccordingto sixty-fivegeneralcustomsandthreehundredlocalones,
with the result that important differencesexistedwith respectto marriage,
inheritance,and the ownershipof property.The thirteenparlements,
or high
courts of appeal,were ancient institutionsthat had jurisdiction in various
bailliages,sdndchausies,
and other districts of such diverse size that the
jurisdiction of the parlementof Paris alone-the most powerful of allcovered a full third of the kingdom, while that of pau in the south was
minusculeby comparison.
From one provinceor regionto another,one could hear German,Italian,
Breton, Basque,Provengal,and even English spoken,not to mention an
extraordinaryvariety of French dialects that would have been virtually
incomprehensibleto a Parisian.systemsof weights and measuresdiffered
considerablyfrom placeto place.Thxationvaried widely,with the heaviesttax
burdengenerallyfallingon the northernprovinces.In the kingdomat large,in
some placesthe principal and most oppressivedirect tax, the taille, could be
Ieviedon personalincome,while in othersit was leviedon land ownership.
Nobles and clergy were exempt from this onerous tax, which was imposed
overwhelminglyon the peasantry,
while the notorioussalttax,the gabelle,varied
from areato areaaccordingto a scaleof six differentrates.Internalcustoms
barriers crisscrossed
the entire kingdom with bewilderingfrequencybasedon
unpredictablerates. customs duties could be collectedat town gates,river
crossings'
and provincialboundaries,so that goodsshippedfrom the Franchecomt6 down the sadneand Rh6neriversto the Mediterraneanmight incur
thirty-sixdistinctpublic and privateimpostsalongthe way.
on the eve of the Revolution,Francewas overwhelminglyan agricultural
country, although, contrary to popular notions, its feudal structure was
decayingrapidly. Serfdomhad disappearedalmost entirely; unlike in central
and Eastern Europe, where the manorial systemstill prevailed,only about
140'000serfsstill existed.A greatmanyof the peasants,
who probablyformed
nearly 70 percentof the population as a whole, owned a modestplot of land
with a cottageand garden,but an acreagethat was seldom large enough to
support their families year-round."All peasanthouseholds,"observesP.M.
|ones, "shared one overriding ambition: to assemble,by inheritance,by
marriage,by purchaseor by renting,a holding which would enablethem to live
decently."t

THE ANCIEN nf,cILrE

255

Traditionally,the peasantslived in villagesthat held strongcollectivistfeelings,
so that (the existenceof small individual plots notwithstanding) individual
ownership of the land was generallycircumscribedin one way or another.
Communitiesprohibitedfieldsfrom beingfencedoffand requiredthat cropsbe
rotated in various ways. Harvestswere often consideredto be community
property, and peasantssharedthe right to gather the stubblethat remained
afterward.Open fieldsweresetasidefor communalgrazinginpastures,together
with forestedareasthat were set asidefor communalgleaningof wood. These
common rights were absolutelyessentialto the peasants'day-to-daysurvival.
Underscoringthe importance of the generalconception of the village as a
collectiveentiry the most important royal tax, the taille, was imposed on a
community asa whole,which all residentswereobligedto Payasa singleunit.
From a technicalstandpoint,most of Frenchagricultureseemsto havebeen
small-scale,with peasant families working their own plots using simple
equipment,but heretoo we find notableexceptions.In the north and northeast'
for example,the grandeculture(to use the term of the PhysiocratFrangois
Quesnay)was structured around the intensivecultivation of cereals,often in
whereagriculturewassounlikethe
holdings,andevenin theseareas,
large-scale
practiced
in
other parts of France,the fields
of
cultivation
forms
small-scale
"by
landlords,"Jonestells us
absentee
tenantson behalfof
wereoften cultivated
in his authoritativework on the peasantryduring the revolutionaryperiod.
"Owner exploitationwasrestrainedand sharecroppingvirtually non-existent."'
In fact,in markedcontrastto the innovativetrendsof the English,who pastured
largescale,the Frenchgraincultivatorsofthe
andcultivatedon an increasingly
rotationofcrops.
north usedverytraditionalmethodssuchasa three-year-cycle
The lands of the petite culture,of course,were farmed by small peasant
proprietors and sharecroppers,
generallyproducing rye or maize,rather than
wheat,astheir basiccerealcrop.
Although the peasantryhad strongcommunity sentiments,as a classthey
wereanythingbut monolithic; indeed,like the restof Frenchsociety,they were
divided into severalvery distinct strata.At the apex of the peasantsocial
hierarchystood the grosfermiersor great farmers who, while relativelyrare,
existedmainly in the rich areasto the north and eastof Paris,wherelarge-scale
farming was more common than elsewhere.
they owned fertile
Significantly,
grain-raising lands and practiced agriculture that was highly profitable and
virtually capitalistic.Somewere private proprietorswho hired rural labor to
cultivate marketablegrains, while others were long-establishedtenants who
worked the lands of largenoble and ecclesiastical
estates.Belowthem werethe
Iaboureurs,who
alsoownedtheir own draft animals,plows,smallerfreeholds,
and dwellings, and who cultivated areasthat were large and well-balanced
enoughto support their familiescomfortablythroughout the entire year,even
to accumulatea grain surplusfor difficult times.

256

T HE F RENCH REVOL UT ION

But by far the largestgroup of peasantlandownerswere thoseknown as
haricotiersin southernPicardyand by severalother nameselsewhere.
These
peasants
ownedsomedomesticanimals,basicimplements,and a few freehold
plots,but no plowsor draft animals.The subsistence
theyderivedrangedfrom
the moderateto the precarious,and in additionto cultivatingtheir smallplot,
they wereobligedto rent land in a leaseholdor work asday laborersfor more
affluent,oftenseigneurial
landlordsfor part ofthe year.In returnfor their labor
and half of the crop theyproduced,the seigneurwould providethem with farm
equipmentand animals.Finally,at the baseof the peasanthierarchywerethose
who owned little or no land at all, the distinctly poor day-laborers,or
journaliers,and land workers,or travailleurs
de terre.Numberingabout21 percent of the rural population,they were frequentlyunemployedand traveled
aroundlookingfor short-termwork.
Numerically,thesepeasantstratavaried from placeto placewithin France.
The well-to-do grosfermierswereat bestonly a verysmallminority.Evenon the
relatively prosperousPicardy plain, a small village of severalhundred
householdsmight containonly two grosfermiers,fle or su labourears,
twenty
haricotiers,
and twentyto fifty day-laborers.
In other areas,the majority of the
peasants
werelaboreursandharicotiers,and
in still otherareas,
landless
peasants
formed a substantialpart of the community,workingasday-laborers
and parttime artisans.Most Frenchpeasants,
despitetheir ownershipof someland,were
very impoverished,
and their day-to-dayexistence
wasmiserableand extremely
precarious.
In comparisonwith a serf,who wastied to the land,the peasanthad a much
looserbond with his seigneur.
He couldnot be soldtogetherwith the land;nor
washe legallytied to it. But he wasnevertheless
obligatedto payfeudalduesand
obligationsleft over from the past.Theseweredeliveredover to the seigneur
either in kind, as in grain, or in money (cens),often in exorbitantamounts.
Peasants
werealsoburdenedby a wide arrayof other seigneurialrights.Lords
had the right to hunt on the landsthey tilled, therebytramplingthe peasants'
crops,which infuriatedtheir underlings;they enjoyedmonopolisticprivileges
(banalitds)over local corn mills, wine presses,
and ovens,even obliging the
peasantto use them insteadof lessexpensiveonesthat might be available.
Peasantswere expectedto give corvtelabor, or road work, to the nobles,who
could compel them to feed their seigneurialpigeons,a privilegethat was as
debasingasit wasfrivolous.Indeed,the seigneurhad the right to demandthat
peasants
performa widevarietyof personalsslvisss-sometimesnumberingin
the
the hundreds-for residents
of the manorhouse.To enforcetheseprivileges,
seigneurscould avail themselvesnot only of statecourts but of their own
that provided
seigneurialcourts-and in the processlevy feeson the peasants
them with further income. Finally, inasmuch as the taille was imposed
it and the otherleviesthe peasanthad to paymade
on the peasantry,
exclusively

rHE ANCTEN nf,cltrlr

2s7

for a highly oppressiveand bitterly hated burden. As C. B. A. Behrensobservesin
his work on the ancien rdgime: "The royal taxeshung like a millstone round the
Deasant'sneck."'Thus, the countryside seethedwith hatred within and between
ihe social hierarchy, and, in various ways, divided the land-hungry peasantry
and the oppressive,visibly parasitic nobility. Continually verging on civil war,
the potential conflict was nourished by memories of pasr jacqueries and
perpetuatedby continual riots.
Taxeson the nobility varied with the statusof the individual noble involved,
but the nobility as a whole was exempt from paying the onerous taille.lndeed,
enormous extremes of wealth and poverty existed among the nobles of
prerevolutionary France.In the countryside the greater part of the income of
the landed nobility was derived from feudal dues,but in reality thesewere not
substantial: they provided little more than an estimated annual total of a
hundred million livres for the entire French nobility. Thus, in times of rising
prices, the provincial nobles tried to squeezeever more feudal dues from the
peasants,with ever greater ruthlessness,lest they be brought to ruin-and
evokeda searinghatred from among the peasantsthemselves.
The poorer the noble, the more urgent was his need to exploit the peasant;
and there were many relatively poor nobles in eighteenth-centuryFrance.As a
result of the feudal right of primogeniture, the eldest son of a noble family
inherited most of the patrimonial lands, with the consequence,as Albert
Mathiez points out, that the younger sons were left with smaller and smaller
portions on which to live. The antagonism between the well-to-do and poorer
noblesincreasedthe farther down the social scaleone went.
they [the youngersons]sold their rights of
Reducedto straitenedcircumstances,
justice, their rents in money and in kind, and their land, in order to live; but they
did not dream of working, for they did not want to lose caste(diroger).A whole
classof impoverishednoblessprangup, very numerousin certainprovinces. . .
where they vegetated gloomily in their modest manor-houses' Detesting the
higher nobility, who monopolized court appointments, and despising and
envying the middle classesin the towns, who were growing rich by trade and
industry, they stubbornly defended their last rights of immunity from taxation
againstthe encroachmentsof the king's agents;and their arroganceincreasedin
proportion to their povertyand impotence.'o
The court nobles,notably those who stayedat Versaillesas courtiers, drained
the resourcesofthe country in their unrelenting pursuit ofpleasure and status.
As much as one quarter of the country's national budget was diverted for the use
of the great nobles,who were paid lavishly in income, pensions,and sinecures.
Nobles who became bishops and other clergymen could dip freely into the
Church's immense treasury. Although this profligate nobility, including not only

258

THE FRENCH REvoLUTIoN

baronsbut dukes,marquis,and evenprincesof the blood,ran up debtsin the
millions, they weresometimespaid offby sizablegrantsfrom the sovereign,
who
sawhis highernoblesassupportersof the regime.
By far the most massiveblock of economic wealth was possessed
by the
bloatedCatholicChurch,which ownedabout a tenth of France'sland and in
theory collecteda tenth of the incomeof rural folk as a tithe to supportlocal
priests.The revenues
that the Churchenjoyedareestimatedto haveamounted
to a quarter of a billion livres yearly.With its enormouswealth,the Church
supported130,000clerics,half of them in regularordersand half distributed
over its ecclesiastical
hierarchy.At its apex,the clerical hierarchyperformed
virtually no religious duties whatever,and at its baseit consistedof grossly
overworkedcountry curdswhosubsistedon pitiful incomes.Actually,only a thin
social line separatedhigh Church officials from the nobility, since the great
religiouschapterswith their extensive
landholdingsrecruitedtheir canonsfrom
noble families;indeed,noble sonsbecamebishopsat the age of twelveor
thirteenand werethe recipientsof enormousincomes.In 1789,alI 143bishops
in Francewere recruitedfrom noble familiesand, far from living in their
dioceses
and attendingto the soulsof their parishioners,
idledawaytheir daysat
court.Yetthis swollenand wealthyecclesiastical
establishment
wascompletely
unencumberedby taxation. At most, the Church voluntarily provided a
financial balm to the state by granting a donation of approximatelysixteen
million livresannually,which, insofarasit wasa "gift," could be withheld at will,
therebyexertinga strongfinancialinfluenceon the Crown'spolicies.
Even greater was the political power of the Church, which, through its
network of country curds,guid,edthe soulsof the peasantry,educatedmuch of
the Iiteratepublic in its schools,and usedits pulpitsasa meansfor influencing
rural politics and providing a messageof resignationand submissionto
authority.The Church,to be sure,wasa sourceof socialassistance
to the poor,
and controlledhospitalsaswell asenjoyinga monopolyoverthe registrationof
births, deaths,and marriages.Its authority over the minds and heartsof the
morebackwardrural masses
in Francewasenormous.Rootedin time-honored
medievalcustom,it had its own judicial system,and its bishopsheld vastpower
in the civil administration.Yet in the end, its power ultimately restedon the
monarchy-a dependency
of which it wasrudelyremindedin 1764,when the
Crown suppressed
the fesuitsin the country.

THE CULTUREOF CONSUMPTION AND STATUS
The court nobility spent the income it received from the Crown with lavish
profligacy. In Versailles and Paris noble expenditures on sumptuous garmeotsr

rHE ANcTEN
REcruE 2s9
furnishings,art works,jewelry,banquets,balls,and servantsliterally
carriages,
sustainedentire industries and provided innume;able individual livelihoods,
The importanceof
from clothiersandjewelersto wig-makersandcosmeticians.
one'sposition in
statusin the aristocratichierarchyis difficult to overestimate:
life was scrupulouslycalculatedaccordingto the degree,if any,to which one's
family's lineagewas relatedto the royal dynasty.Not surprisingly,eachnoble
disdainedthoseon the socialranksbelow,resultingin what one historianhas
in
of contempt.""One of the most parasiticsocialhierarchies
calleda "cascade
consumption
rather
focused
overwhelmingly
on
French
nobility
the
history,
than production.Indeed,it cultivateda debilitatingnationalculturebasedon
consumption,which extendedinto all the well-to-do
idlenessand conspicuous
and gaveriseto appetites
sectorsof Frenchsociety,includingthe middleclasses,
that were,in fact, antitheticalto the parsimonyneededto createcapitalfor
modernindustryand massproduction.
France:bankers,merchants
Capitaliststheresurelywerein prerevolutionary
trade,dealersin silk and other exoticathat made the
engagedin large-scale
of fabrics,speculators
nationa centerof goodliving for the rich, manufacturers
and genteelretailers
vastfortunesin land dealingsandcommerce,
who amassed
who panderedto the whims of the nobility.Belowthem in the urban social
hierarchywere lessermerchantsand small-scalemanufacturers;and still lower
if suchall of them
weresuccessful
artisansand retailers.But thesecapitalists,
could be called,weremarkedby very archaicfeatures.In contrastto the thrifty
puritanical capitalistsof England,who made money to invest it into their
enterprisesin order to make still more money, French financiers,manufacturers,and merchantslived in perpetual envy of the nobility and sought
aboveall to attain noblepositionsof their own, aswe haveseen.This is not to
claim that Francelackedthrifty capitalistsin all fields of endeavor,for whom
wealthoutweighedsocialposition;but their influenceon the characterof the
bourgeoisielay in the future-indeed, well into the nineteenthcentury.In the
eighteenth century, rich capitalists normally absorbed the values of the
aristocracy,as had so many capitalistsin ancientand medievaltimes. No less
than the nobility, they viewedtrade asmenial and its rewardsmerelyasa means
to a greaterend,that of highersocialstatus.As a result,a greatproportion of
capitalflowed into land and the purchaseof titles at the expenseof industrial
development.
A singlestatisticrevealsthe differencein economicvaluesthat
distinguished
Franceand England:in 1789Britishcoalproductionwastwenty
timesthat of France,despitethe muchhigherFrenchpopulation.
This archaicvalorizationof statusover wealth,of land over production, and
of idlenessover work was particularlyironic in view of France'seminent
position in the Europeaneconomy.Its foreign tradewassecondonly to that of
GreatBritain, and it led everyContinentalcountry in output. But Englandwas
more open to innovation, both social and technical,owing to its essentially

?.60

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

Protestantculture and its better-balanced,
fairly modern statemachinery,which
was relativelyfree of the socialarchaismsthat burdenedFrenchsociety.In
seventeenth-and eighteenth-centuryBritain, the idle rentierwayof life that still
characterizedso much of the Frenchnobility had givenway to an activistand
innovativelanded nobility. Only too awareof their commoner origins during
the Warsof the Rosesa few centuriesearlier,the Englishnobility mingled more
familiarly and comfortably with the middle class.Moreover,togetherwith the
commercialclasses
of the realm,the Englishnobility producedan agricultural
revolution of their own, not only by establishingsheepruns and enclosingland
that left behind "desertedvillagesi'but alsoby draining the fenlands,rationalizingcropcultivation,and constructingnew roadsand canals.No lessthan the
mechanicaldevicesthat gaverise to massmanufacture,thesemeasurespaved
the wayfor the IndustrialRevolutionand the emergence
of moderncapitalism.
The Frenchnobility of the sword,by contrast,wereoverly preoccupiedwith
flauntingtheir status,often claimingtheir ancestryin the Frankishconquerors
of Gaul (for which Voltairesubjectedthem to much buffoonery),and exhibiting
haughty contempt for tradesmen,who supplied them with goods, and the
parvenu nobility of the robe, who lived in envy of the privilegesand social
recognition enjoyed by the blooded aristocrats.Whereasthe power of the
eighteenth-century
Englishmonarchywaswaningasa resultof parliamentary
sovereignty,in Francethe monarchywas still the greatestpower in the land;
however miserably and irresolutelyLouis XV and Louis XVI exercised
power.WhereasEnglishcapitalincreasinglyflowedinto industry,especiallyin
cotton manufactures-which pioneeredthe industrializationof the count
French capital flowed into land and titles as the most tangible sources
evidenceof socialstatus,
The Frenchnobility, in turn, would havefound it difficult to becomecapi
had they evenwantedto. Theywerelegallydebarredfrom enteringinto all but
few industries, such as overseastrade and glassmaking.Moreover,
agricultural practiceshad been extensivelyrationalizedin England,in
this processcamevery slowly and in piecemealfashion.Frenchagricul
wealth continued to derive more from the intensiveexploitationof labor
from technicaland scientificimprovements.A Frenchpeasantwho lost his
to a bourgeoisknewthat he wasdisplacedprimarilybecause
his rentshad
up, not becauseany striking technologicalinnovation removedhim from
cultivation. In other respectshis way of life, howeverimpoverishedit
become,remainedunchanged;the villagestill retainedmost of the old
that had beenworked into the Frenchrural tradition for countless
with very few changesin traditional methodsof production and in social
with its many restrictionsaswell asprivileges.
In the latter half of the eighteenth century, some French officials
provincial nobles,influencedby the economicthinking of the Physiocrats,

rHE ANCIEN R6CIUB

26I

to emulatetheir British counterpartsby reforming old agriculturalpractices.
They intensifiedcrop productionand tried to undertakefarming on a larger
scale by enlarging their landholdings. Agricultural societieswere formed
throughout Franceto teach and encourageneq scientific methods of food
cultivation, and royal edictswere announcedthat permitted the enclosureof
common lands.Indeed,someseigneursimpudently claimedthat, accordingto
feudal law, the common lands were actuallytheir own property-claims that
receivedopen support from the monarchy.As Mathiezobserves:
Their seignorialcourts.. . becamehatedinstrumentsof extortionin the hands
of their underpaidjudges.They usedthem in particularasa meansof gaining
possession
of the commonlands.. . . Thepoor man'sgoat,deprivedof its comand the
mon rights, could no longer pick up even a scanty subsistence,
moreandmoreacrimonious.''
of thepoorbecame
complaints
Nor weresuchpracticesconfinedexclusivelyto the landednobility. Capitalist
farmers,usually large landownerswho rented out land to individual peasant
households,worked hand in glove with the nobility to eat steadilyinto the
the newagriculturalists
village'scommonlands.Oncesuchlandswereenclosed,
could abolish peasants'traditional grazingrights in common pasturesand
divide up the common lands for their own use,while raisingthe rents of their
tenants and reducing them to destitute rural laborers.All of thesepractices
arousedvehementpeasantoppositionand rural unrest.Indeed,"during the
revolution,"observesP.M. Jones,"the defenceof common rights becamea key
issue,perhaps thekeyissue,in the politicalprogrammeof the poor peasantry."''
But by no meanswere the noblesthe sole acquisitorsof landholdings.As
Alfred Cobban,in his pathbreakingwork, hascarefullyshown,rural and urban
As indebtednoblesforfeitedlands
capitalists
playeda major role in the process.
from theii great estates,they were greedily bought up by a new breed of
agricultural bourgeois,who purchasednot only seigneuriallands but even
seigneurialrights, which were merchandisedlike so many alienable commodities."By the eighteenthcentury . . . in Walloon Flandersseignorialrights
were as active a market as land," Cobban observes."Of course,some of the
purchasers
becamenoblesin their turn; but by 1789the tiersCtat
themselves
[Third Estate]includedmany ownersof seignorialrights."When peasantstried
to deny theseclaims,their casewas taken to the local parlement,which more
oftenthan not sidedwith the landowners.
Finally,somenoblesemployedspecialistsin feudallaw to devisenovel,selfservinginterpretationsofseigneurialrights,suchasthe right to grazecattleand
sheepon common lands,or to leasecommonlands,claimedby peasantvillages,
to commercialstockbreeders.
Still other lords farmedout their seigneurialrights
to individuals or companies,which collectedon them ruthlesslyas so much

262 THEFRENCH
REVOLUTION
profitableraw material.By demandingthat the peasantpayevermore cengthey
drew him into a cash nexus on a scalethat his feudal ancestorshad never
experienced;indeed, the seigneurialagentswho collectedfeudal dues, as
"especially
Cobbanobserves,
when they werepaid on a commissionbasis,had
an interest in screwingup the seignorialdues to the highest pitch." As
enterprisingnonnoblesand noblesalike usedlands and seigneurialrights to
intensifr this grim and dehumanizingdevelopment,the exploitationof the
peasant,like agriculture itself, was becoming increasinglyrationalized,albeit
still by the useof many archaictechniquesbasedon time-honoredtraditions.
The intendant of Dijon, for example,noted in l75l that urban eliteswere
reducingthe peasants
to the statusof mereday-laborers.''
Not surprisingly,
the
French peasantry,despite its varied internal differences,came to detest the
seigneurs,
so that,by 1788and 1789,the countrysidewason the point of a new
jacquerie.
This capitalisticoffensive,if suchit can be called,into the countrysidestands
at oddswith accepted
imagesof the FrenchRevolutionas"bourgeois"in nature.
"There is at leastsomeexcusefor believingthat the [peasant]revolution in the
Frenchcountrysidewasnot againstfeudalism,"
observes
Cobban,"but againsta
growingcommercialisation;
and that it wasnot a'bourgeois'movement
but on
the contrary was directedpartly againstthe penetrationof urban financial
interestsinto the countryside."rs

THE NONAGRICULTURAL
ECONOMY
As to the nonagriculturaleconomyin late-eighteenth-century
Frenchtowns,its
structure was very mixed, as was very much the casein WesternEurope for
centuries.Town society,like that of the countryside,wasmarkedby pronounced
social stratifications,with considerabledifferencesin wealth, education,and
lifeways.The greatestfortunes were made by financiers.Contractingwith the
Crown to collect its taxes,thesecollectorseventuallytransformedthemselves
into creditorsof the governmentasthe nationaldebt steadilyexpanded.Towni
also included businessmen,especiallyin the port cities, who were inten
hostile to the nobility. Their causes,as Hampsonobserves,"were socialr
than economic.It was not that the middle classcould not expandand prosperi
but that it was increasinglyexcludedfrom the socialstatusand privilege
prosperityhad previouslybeenableto buy more easily."'u
Unlike towns in England,Frenchtowns and citieswere hardly centersof
"rising" bourgeoiseconomy.A powerful guild systemstill held a tight grip
many urban industries, and most working people were journeymen emp
in small shops by master craftsmen. Fearing for their status and their livel

nfclup
rHEANcTEN

263

they vigorouslyopposedany "free trade" measuresthat would haveallowed
rural manufacturersto sell competing products in their own markets. So
stronglydid the guildsdefendtraditional family monopoliesovervarioustrades
that they evenpreventedmanyjourneymenfrom becomingmastercraftsmen,
swellingthe number of urban journeymenwho could neverhope to rise above
the statusof hired laborers.Still,asHampsonpointsout, "the moderndivision
betweencapital and labour was not yet clearlymarked and the distinction
betweenaristocracyand'people'wasnot the samething asthe divisionbetween
and'lowerclasses.""t
'gentlemen'
Only a limited numberof authenticfactoriesexistedin France'and the few
that were mechanizedwere locatedin the countrysideto make use of water
power.Despiteits widely touted role in producing the Industrial Revolution,
by IamesWatt was
well into the nineteenthcenturythe steamenginedeveloped
usedmainly to pump water from mines.It wastoo bulky to be employedby
plants,and the new
most factories,excepta few wool- and muslin-processing
yet
reachFrancein any
to
jennies
had
machines
weaving
and
Englishspinning
overwhelmingly
remained
industry
French
sizable numbers. Accordingly,
machines.
new
despitethe introductionof
artisanal,
Yet a growing corps of merchant-manufacturerstried to evade guild
restrictionsby bringing their cotton and wool into the countryside,where
peasantartisansspunand wovethe raw produceinto cloth on loomsownedby
the manufacturers.These"factors,"as the cottageindustry merchantswere
calledin England,could easilyoutsellguild artisans.At Lyon,wherethe guild
a few hundredrich merchantscontrolledthe
collapsed,
systemhad essentially
greatsilk industryof the city andits environs,whichprovidedemploymentto as
many as sixty-five thousand workers. Yet this industry too was primarily
artisanal.Silk was producedeither in small shopsor in family cottageslocated
within a sixty-mileradiusfrom the centerof the city.Thus,factorieswerefar
from common in Francebeforethe Revolution;most work wasdone on a small
in largenumbersin a socraftlikescale,evenwhereworkerswereassembled
called"industrial"area,
Lastly,the citiesalsocontainedmany men of highly uncertainoccupations
who dependedupon day-to-dayearnings,aswell as a host of servants,small
retailers,suchasgrocersand caf6-owners,
and transportworkersfrom wharfsmento watercarriers.Beggars
roamingon countryroads
aboundedeverywhere,
and filling city streets.The crazy quilt of prerevolutionarylaws provided a
livelihoodfor a host of lawyers,who not only pleadedcriminal casesbut, in far
greaternumbers,drew up contracts,mortgagedlands, and validatedor chalIengedpeasantand feudalrights.It wasthey who lookedthrough the old feudal
deedsthat still constituted the basis for wealth, and they who could bear
testimonyto the burdens that chokedthe life out of a potentially prosperous
country.Indeed,despitethe fact that their very livelihooddependedon the skein


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