July 22, 1461 - L’Ancien Régime en France (the Old Regime in France) and its Decline

By James Crabtree:

Note: L’Ancien Régime is referred to as its English translation “the Old Regime” in this article.

This article covers the fall of the Old Regime up to Bastille’s Day (July 14, 1789).  For more information about the French Revolution after Bastille’s Day, click here.

 

The Three Estates:

From the 15th century to late in the 18th century, the Old Regime ruled France with an absolute monarchy.  The social order of the Old Regime was similar to those of other European nations at the time: the king claimed absolute power and his rulers were divided into three estates.  In the 1780s, the First Estate consisted of 130,000 clergies of the Roman Catholic Church (less than 0.5% of France’s population).  Some clergy members, such as bishops, were wealthy, while other members, such as monks, friars, and nuns, lived a basic lifestyle.  What all members of the First Estate have in common, however, is they paid virtually no taxes.  The Second Estate consisted of rich nobles who paid even fewer taxes than the First Estate.  Members of the Second Estate were often involved in the government, holding the most powerful positions.  Merchants, peasants, and the rest of the lower class made up the Third Estate.  They paid about half of their income to the two wealthier estates in taxes.  This skewed taxation system is one of the main problems that caused the fall of the Old Regime.  Paying high taxes coupled with the rising prices of bread in the 1780s caused many peasants to face hunger daily.

A common depiction of the Third Estate, carrying the burden of the other Estates.

 

The Estates-General and The Tennis Court Oath:

The Estates-General was formed in the early 1300s and met intermittently for several centuries.  The king could summon this legislative/consultant body, which consisted of representatives from each estate.  Under most kings, the Estates-General did not have as much legislative power as the king.  When the group did meet, the two wealthier estates could always outvote the Third Estate by a score of 2-1; hence, the new policies were almost always benefited the First and Second Estate.  On May 5, 1789, King Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General for what would be its last meeting.  The representatives of the Third Estate, out of anger, formed the National Assembly.  The newly formed group was forced to leave the meeting of the Estates-General, so they met on a tennis court.  They vowed to stay together until they had written a new constitution for France.

The Tennis Court Oath, brown and black ink drawing by Jacques-Louis David, 1791; in the Louvre, Paris.

 

The Enlightenment’s Impact on The Old Regime:

In the 17th and 18th centuries, an intellectual and philosophical movement swept Europe, known as the Enlightenment.  Enlightenment philosophers urged Europeans to question old values and beliefs.  They also encouraged new philosophies about what the relationship between a government and its people should be.  Generally, the Enlightenment placed an emphasis on judging people based on their individual abilities, and not their inherited role in society.  As one would expect, the First and Second Estates rejected Enlightenment ideas, while the Third Estate, eager for change, used these ideas to fuel a revolution.  Hence, the Enlightenment contributed greatly to the downfall of the Old Regime in France.  Additionally, the American Revolution had just been successful against Britain, which further inspired peasants to revolt against the Old Regime.

 

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