The old French social system, the ancien régime, had been composed of three ‘classes’ or estates.
It was considered as a corporate society where every individual understood their position. The ancien régime was very rigid as a social structure, with very limited opportunity for upward social mobility.
The First Estate was the clergy of the Roman Catholic (Gallican) Church, so ranked because of their position within the wider society as being closest to divine power and God, there to pray and ward off evil influences to the kingdom. Within the First Estate, there was a distinction between the upper clergy and the lower clergy. The upper clergy were around 1000 archbishops, bishops and cardinals, and were very wealthy as they were almost all noble by birth. Clergy service was seen by some noble families as penitent duty for their reckless sons, and so many of the upper clergy were not deeply connected to religion, but rather saw it as a sinecure, with some earning as much as 450,000 livres per year. As such, some upper clergymen did not reside in their dioceses and neglected virtually all of their religious duties. Conversely, the lower clergy were parish priests, assistants, monks and nuns and generally came from common, poor backgrounds as joining the Church was one of few methods for limited upward social mobility. However, there was virtually no opportunity for those of the lower clergy to rise to the upper clergy. The lower clergy did not enjoy any of the wealth of the upper clergy; rather, they often shared the same poor lifestyles of their parishioners, with most only earning around 750 livres every year. This marked difference in lifestyle between lower and upper clergy created social friction and discontent. Overall, the clergy represented 0.6% of the total population but owned 10% of all French land.
The Church derived most of its vast wealth from applying the tithe to French citizens, 97% of who were Roman Catholic, and being essentially tax-exempt. However, little of the wealth of the Church was provided to parishes, meaning that parish priests had limited ability to help the local sick and poor.
The Second Estate was the nobility, thus ranked due to their historic tradition of protecting the country with their military ability. However, by the 18th century with a decrease in foreign martial hostility, this duty was only notionally fulfilled with nobles being in positions of military command. Nobles held the majority of the top administrative posts in the government and in the Church, and were only liable for a few taxes. Within the Second Estate, there were two separate noble classes: the noblesse d’épée (nobility of the sword) and the noblesse de robe (nobility of the robe). The noblesse d’épée were the older nobles, those who were able to trace their noble lineage centuries, due to some military achievement and distinction. As such, they held themselves in higher regard than the noblesse de robe. Sixty percent of the noblesse d’épée were the hobereaux who were nobles only in name, living in very basic and rude conditions, similar to that of wealthier peasants. They fiercely protected their privileges as they were usually the only distinction between the hobereaux and commoners. The noblesse de robe were more recent nobility starting in the 17th century. These were generally very wealthy bourgeoisie who had purchased both a venal office as a high civil servant (such as magistrates and tax farmers) and an accompanying noble title, of which there were around 3700. These positions and titles were made hereditary upon further payment. Overall, the nobility represented 0.4% of the total population but owned 30% of all French land.
The Third Estate was the common population, and represented 99% of all French citizens. There were three broad social groups embedded in the Third Estate: the bourgeoisie, urban workers and the peasantry. The bourgeoisie were the 2 million French middle class citizens, holding significant power due to bountiful trade in the 18th century following the Industrial Revolution, and were split into the haute bourgeoisie and the petite bourgeoisie. The haute bourgeoisie were considered the “millionaires of their time”, consisting of merchants, manufacturers and financiers who had profited from colonial trade and the commercial and industrial growth in France itself. The petite bourgeoisie were relatively more modest and represented those in liberal professions, such as lawyers, doctors and engineers. Being highly educated, many petit bourgeois resented their subordinate social position within the ancien régime. There were around 2 million urban workers, including both unskilled labourers and skilled artisans and craftsmen. Most urban workers lived in very poor conditions in cities and towns, with poor women often having to resort to prostitution in order to support themselves. The peasants represented about 80% of the total population, with living standards varying regionally, depending on tax and agricultural differences.
The social structure of the peasantry was:
The third and fourth categories of peasants constituted the majority, representing around 16 million citizens1.
Adcock, M., Analysing the French Revolution ↩