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French Society during the late Eighteenth Century

Last Updated : 11 Mar, 2024
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French Society during the late Eighteenth Century: French society was divided into three classes, which were known as Estates. The first estate was known as the clergy, the second estate was known as being of the nobility, and the third estate included the rest of the population including the peasants and the middle-class professionals and merchants.

The first and second estates formed the privileged sections. They had most of the land even though they formed a minor portion of the population, all the important positions of the state were held by them and were mostly exempted from paying taxes. The third estate had received no privileges and was heavily taxed by the state and was imprisoned if the taxes were not paid on time. The peasants also had to perform compulsory unpaid services. Merchants and professionals of the middle classes were denied social parity and political rights. Hence, French society in the 18th century was characterized by extreme inequalities between those privileged and those not.

French Society During the Late Eighteenth Century

The French society of estates was part of the feudal system that dated back to the Middle Ages. “Old Regime” is the term usually used to describe the society and institutions of France before 1789. About 60 percent of the lands were owned by nobles, the Church, and other richer members of the third estate.

The members of the first two estates enjoyed certain privileges by birth. Most important of which was exemption from paying taxes to the state. The nobles also enjoyed feudal privileges; which included feudal dues, which were extracted from peasants. Peasants were mostly obliged to offer services to the lord- work in his house and fields, serve the army or participate in construction activities.

When Louis XVI ascended to the throne of France in 1774, he inherited a realm burdened with severe financial problems. The French monarchy’s treasury was indeed nearly empty, a crisis that had been brewing for decades due to various factors.The financial crisis was a critical factor that led to the French Revolution, profoundly altering the course of French history and the monarchy’s fate, including that of Louis XVI himself.

The Church also extracted its share of taxes known as tithes from the peasants and finally all the members of the third estate had to pay taxes to the state; which included a direct tax called taille, and a number of indirect taxes which were imposed on articles of even daily use. The burden of financing activities of the state through taxes was borne by the third estate.

French society

Three Estates

During the late eighteenth century, French society was separated into three homes:

First Estate

Church had a location with the fundamental bequest of that time French society. Ministry had been the gathering of people who had been associated with the exquisite capacities in the congregation like dads and exclusive men and women from tfhe congregation.

Second Estate

Respectability had a vicinity with the 2nd domain of the late eighteenth-century French society. Respectability was genetic and as a result, a person should get honorability using birth. Nonetheless, the new people had been moreover granted honorability by way of authorities after settling weighty fees or by using giving incredible administrations to the government. That implies honorability could be bought too.

Third Estate

The 0.33 domain of then French society was additionally remoted into three classes. Huge finance managers, dealers, court authorities, legal counselors and so, forth had a vicinity with the predominant classification of the third bequest. Workers, the craftsman had a place in the subsequent classification. Little workers, landless employees, and employees had a region with the 0.33 class of 0.33 bequest. These had been viewed as the most minimal category in the customary public. Individuals from the 0.33 domain needed to cover exclusive types of charges. 

Struggle to Survive

The population of France increased from 23 million in 1715 to 28 million in 1789, which led to a rapid increase in the demand for food grains and the production of food grains couldn’t keep pace with the demand for it. So, eventually the price of bread which was a staple diet of the majority; rose rapidly. 

Most of the workers worked in workshops whose owners fix their wages, but the wages didn’t keep pace with rising prices. So, the gap between the rich and the poor rose and widened. In case of drought or hail, the harvest was affected even more. This led to a subsistence crisis, something which occurred frequently in France during the Old Regime.

How a Subsistence Crisis Happens

Subsistence Crisis

A subsistence crisis is caused by economic factors which include high food prices, which in turn can be caused by natural or man-made causes, which threaten the food supplies and also the survival prospect of a huge chunk of people, especially the poorer sections of the society.

The subsistence crisis was a recurrent event in the old regime of France because of several factors. Firstly, due to the rise of rapid population, which in turn led to increasing demand for food grains. The production however couldn’t keep pace with the demand; because of this, the price of foodstuff which was made from these grains rose. Also, most workers were employed with fixed wages and the wages couldn’t keep pace with the rise in prices. Hence, the poor got poorer and the rich got richer, widening the gap between both. The crisis even hit hard whenever drought and hail occurred, reducing harvest.

A Growing Middle Class Envisages an End to Privileges

Peasants and workers had participated in revolts against increased taxes and food scarcity in the past. But there was a lack of the means and programs to carry out full-scale measures that could bring social and economic changes. It was left to those groups of the third estate who had become prosperous and had access to education and hence new ideas.

The 18th century saw the emergence of a new group known as the “middle class”, who earned their wealth and position through expanding overseas trade and from the manufacturing of goods such as woolen and silk textiles. The third estate also included other professions like lawyers or administrative officials, all of which were educated and believed that not one group should get privilege based on birth; rather the position of a person depended on his merit. Ideas of freedom and equal laws and opportunities for all were put forward by scholars like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. 

Locke tried to refute the doctrine of the divine and absolute rights of monarchs. Rousseau carried the idea forward, proposing a form of government based on a social contract between people and their representatives. The American Constitution and its guarantee of individual rights was an important example for political thinkers in France.

These ideas of the philosophers gained huge popularity and were discussed thoroughly in the salons and coffee houses and spread among people through books and newspapers. These were regularly read out loudly for benefit of the people who couldn’t read or write. For example, the news that Louise XVI planned to impose further taxes to be able to meet the expenses of the state generated anger and protests against the system of privileges.

FAQs on French Society During Late 18th Century

18th-century French society divided into?

18th century French society was divided into three estates- clergy, nobility and the rest of the population which included peasants, merchants and emerging middle classes.

What do you mean by the third estate in French society?

The third estate was made up of everyone else- from the peasant farmers to the bourgeois. It formed majority of the society and had no privileges and rights.

Which group of French society benefitted from the revolution?

Peasants and artisans were the ones who benefitted most from the revolution.

What was the position of women in French society?

The women were mostly confined to the private sphere. Domestic duties and family obligations dictated their behavior and course. However, the ideas of equality which sparked during the French revolution attracted the attention of women from all corners of life.

Analyze the role of Jacobins in French society.

They were mostly left wing revolutionaries who aimed to end the reign of King Louis XVI and establish a French republic in which political authority came from the people.

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