Modern history


France under Louis XVI

THE king of France needed no coronation. He reigned by the grace of God from the moment his predecessor breathed his last, and a coronation was purely customary. So the argument was heard, even in the highest circles, that the elaborate consecration of Louis XVI, arranged for 11 June 1775 in the traditional setting of Rheims cathedral, was a waste of public money. A month beforehand, the countryside around Paris, and many districts of the city, had been shaken by rioting against high flour and bread prices. The disturbances led to talk of postponing the ceremony, and the approaches to Rheims were ringed with precautionary troops. And far fewer people than expected made the journey to the capital of Champagne to witness the historic spectacle. Innkeepers complained of unlet rooms, and caterers of wasted supplies. But when, that brilliant morning, the cathedral doors were flung open to reveal the young monarch crowned and enthroned in glory, invested with the sceptre of Charlemagne and anointed with the holy oil of Clovis, men broke down and wept despite themselves.

The son of St Louis, the Most Christian King of France and Navarre, had sworn that day to uphold the peace of the Church, prevent disorder, impose justice, exterminate heretics, maintain forever the prerogatives of the Order of the Holy Spirit, and pardon no duellist. Three days later, in the summer heat, he ritually touched 2,400 stinking sufferers from scrofula, the disfiguring disease believed by countless generations to be curable through the miraculous touch of an anointed king. And all this still left him time to write letters to his 74-year-old chief minister, who had remained at Versailles; and to resist the attempts of an empty-headed queen to have her favourites given office. Court intrigues could not be expected to stop merely because the king was being crowned. And so the ceremonies that Louis XVI observed that week, the motions he went through, were a strange blend of momentous and trivial, significant, and purely formal, meaningful and empty. The powers he exercised, the promises he made, the regalia he wore, all resulted from a long, tortuous, and often haphazard evolution. Few knew or remembered why things had to be the way they were. And this was typical of the kingdom over which he had ruled since 10 May 1774.

The domains of the king of France in the 1770s, excluding overseas territories in the Americas and east of the Cape, covered some 277,200 square miles and had over 27 million inhabitants. By 1789 there would be a million more. These realms had been built up since the early Middle Ages by a process of conquest and dynastic accident or design, and during the last century of the monarchy they were still being added to. In 1678 Louis XIV acquired Franche Comté, in 1766 Louis XV inherited Lorraine, and in 1768 he took over Corsica. But deep inside French territory Avignon and its surrounding district still belonged to the Pope, and in Alsace there were islands of territory nominally under the sovereignty of German princes and an independent city-state at Mulhouse. Nobody thought such enclaves anomalous, for they were well established by law, prescription, and international consensus. In any case, they were only extreme examples of the variety which prevailed within the kingdom itself.

Its most ancient division was into provinces. Originating as independent feudal domains that had been progressively swallowed up by the kings of France, they varied enormously in size. Vast regions like Languedoc, Dauphiné, or Brittany counted as provinces alongside tiny Pyrenean counties like Foix or narrow frontier strips like Flanders or Roussillon. Even the precise number of provinces was uncertain, for historical traditions were often far from explicit, but in 1776, 39 provincial governorships were recognized. The functions of governors were largely honorific, however, since for most administrative purposes the kingdom was divided into 36 generalities, each presided over by an intendant. The origin of the generalities was much less ancient, and it was still only a century since intendants had become established everywhere. But these administrative units were far more uniform in size than the old provinces, and consequently their boundaries seldom coincided. Closer to provinces in this respect were the ressorts or jurisdictional areas of the parlements, the 13 sovereign courts of appeal. That of Paris, for example, covered a third of the kingdom, whereas those of Pau or Douai were scarcely larger than the smallest provinces. The parlements had their origins in the supreme courts of the great feudal rulers of medieval times. When their lands fell to the king of France, he tended to accept or adapt the institutions he found there rather than impose his own. Normans still called the parlement of Rouen the Exchequer 500 years after the English king had ceased to be their duke and hold court there; and the last parlement was established at Nancy in succession to the old ducal court of Lorraine only in 1775. But inevitably most ressorts took in all or part of several provinces and generalities, a rich source of conflicts of jurisdiction. And the Church, meanwhile, divided up the kingdom in its own way, into 18 archiepiscopal provinces and 136 dioceses. The majority were in the south, where dioceses were much smaller and older. But many bishops enjoyed enclaves of jurisdiction in dioceses other than their own: the bishop of Dol in Brittany had no less than 33. Such uneven, illogical patterns of organization were repeated in a thousand different ways at the more local levels of town and village.


MAP I. Pre-revolutionary France: principal administrative, judicial, and fiscal subdivisions
Source: W. Doyle, The Old European Order (Oxford, 1978).

Nor did complexity end there. Apart from royal edicts on certain general issues, the king’s domains were subject to no law and no administrative practice common to them all without exception. Southern provinces regulated their affairs by written, Roman law; but even there, in isolated regions like the Pyrenees, local customs were more important. In northern France they were all-important. Here nearly all law was customary, and at least 65 general customs and 300 local ones were observed. This meant that the law relating to marriage, inheritance, and tenure of property could differ in important respects from one district to another; and those who had property in several might hold it on widely differing terms. Every district, too, had its own range of weights and measures, and the same term often meant different values in different places. In these circumstances fraud, or fear of it, bedevilled all exchanges and provided endless business for the hundreds of petty courts and jurisdictions on the lower slopes of the judicial pyramid. So did taxation, where again there was no uniformity. Northern and central France notoriously bore a heavier tax-burden than the south, or the periphery of the kingdom in general. The main direct tax, the taille, was levied on persons in central provinces, but on land in peripheral ones like Languedoc. The salt tax, the notorious gabelle, was levied at six different rates according to area, while six other specially privileged districts, including Brittany, were exempt. And the whole country was criss-crossed with innumerable internal customs barriers, whether at the gates of towns, along rivers, or between provinces, where excises, tolls, and tariffs could be collected—again at a bewildering series of rates, on a limitless range of items. Goods shipped down the Saône and Rhône from Franche Comté to the Mediterranean, for example, paid duty at 36 separate customs barriers, some public and some private, on the way. To rational observers such complexities appear, and appeared, an arbitrary shambles; the product of routine and meaningless historical traditions. But these traditions were often as not rooted in geography, climate, culture, and economic necessity, as any traveller could readily testify.

* * *

The kingdom of France had originated, and first expanded, in the rolling, open country of the Paris basin where communications were easy. The river systems of the Seine and the Loire were navigable, or easily made so, and gave ready access to the sea. Paris stood at the centre of overland routes that were little diverted by natural obstacles for miles on end; and by the late eighteenth century the main roads were constructed to a standard unparalleled elsewhere in Europe, and the wonder of foreigners. With a temperate climate, fertile soils, and ready access to markets, the agriculture of the Paris basin, especially north of the capital and towards the Flemish lowlands, was the most advanced and commercialized in the kingdom. It sustained not only the 650,000 inhabitants of Paris itself, but also the most densely concentrated population in France, along the Channel coast. Rouen, the capital of Normandy, drew on these abundant reserves of manpower to work the expanding cotton industry, which made it, as all English travellers agreed, the Manchester of France. Rich in resources and tightly organized, the Paris basin was a metropolitan area, easily dominated by central authority. More people could read and write there than in any other part of the kingdom, and all spoke recognizable French. But none of this could be taken for granted more than 150 miles from the capital.

In western Normandy and on the borders of the rocky Breton peninsula, the open spaces gave way to a landscape of small fields divided by high mounds and tree-strewn hedges, scattered farmsteads and deep sunken roads—the bocage. Further west still, the peasantry spoke Breton, not French, and dressed in a distinctive local costume. Arthur Young, the English traveller famous for his minute observations of the French scene in the late 1780s, was appalled by the poverty-stricken air of this region: ‘Brittany, Maine and Anjou have the appearance of deserts.’1 Yet Brittany at least was heavily populated, lightly taxed, and from the 1760s well served by good main roads. Bretons were proud of their distinctive character. Through their truculent parlement and tumultuous estates meeting in Rennes every year they enjoyed more self-government than most provinces. And they were linked to a world beyond France by the sea. In Brest, they boasted France’s principal Atlantic naval port; Lorient was the main gateway to French interests in the Indian Ocean; while booming Nantes was the capital of the French slave-trade and second only to Bordeaux in commerce with the West Indies. South of the Loire there was more bocage country in the low hills of the Vendée, with characteristic isolated farmsteads or hamlets but few larger settlements. But the lack of ports along its low, marshy coastline meant the Vendée was bypassed by all major lines of communication, and so intensely inward-looking; an area of subsistence agriculture supplemented here and there by low-grade textile production exported through Nantes.

The contrast with the basin of the Garonne, which with its provinces of Aunis, Saintonge, Guyenne, and Gascony stretched to the foothills of the Pyrenees, could scarcely have been greater. This was another zone of navigable rivers and good communications. Apart from the sandy heaths of the Landes, to the south of the Gironde, it was a fertile region whose warm, damp climate favoured great agricultural diversity. Even the stony gravels around Bordeaux were perfect for growing what were already acknowledged to be the best wines in the world; and on the upper Garonne and the Pyrenean foothills the introduction of maize in the late seventeenth century had transformed the face of the country and the rural economy. But south-western agriculture was not as commercialized as that of the northern plains. Southwards from the Loire stretched a region of petty cultivation (petite culture) carried on by a mixture of small peasant proprietors and share-croppers leasing from landlords who plainly did not expect high profits. Centuries of English rule during the Middle Ages had bequeathed no profound sense of separate identity comparable to that of Brittany. Basque and Béarnais were spoken in the extreme south, but the nasal Gascon accent of much of the south-west was recognizably the langue d’oil of northern France. Only Bordeaux, the undisputed regional capital, which had revolted twice against the Crown in the previous century, remained suspicious of authorities still five or six days distant. They were thought all too likely to interfere damagingly with the surging commercial prosperity which had created Europe’s second busiest port and boosted the city’s population from 45,000 to 111,000 since the beginning of the century.

Apart from the monotonous plains of the Beauce, to the south of Paris, the landscape of northern and western France was very varied, with many hilly regions. But hardly anywhere did the land rise much above 600 feet. South and east of a line running roughly from Bayonne in the south to Sedan in the north, however, all the land was higher except for the valley floors of the Rhône and the upper Garonne, and the Mediterranean littoral around the Gulf of Lions. Mediterranean France, the Midi, was largely cut off from the northern lowlands by the impenetrable plateau of the Massif Central, a remote, mountainous region whose poverty-stricken economy only survived thanks to large-scale seasonal migrations of manpower to more favoured lowland regions, often as far away as Catalonia. There certainly were fertile valleys in the Massif, and on the higher lands many of the peasants owned their plots; but they were subsistence farmers, and were relying increasingly on chestnuts rather than grain to feed the burgeoning population. The southern Massif fell within the vast province of Languedoc, which derived its name from the distinctive strain of French spoken in the south. In Provence, the accent of the Midi almost became a separate language; it certainly marked all southerners out as closer cousins of the Italians or Spaniards than their fellow subjects north of the Massif. So did the climate, with its dry, searing summers and short winters, so suitable for vines, olives, and mulberries on almost any soil, with hillsides often terraced to the top in order to take them. Languedoc was the home of a quarter of a million Protestants, largely concentrated in and around Nîmes, Montauban, and the Cévennes mountains which formed the southern wall of the Massif. Since 1685 they had enjoyed no toleration, and the bitter and savage uprising of fanatical Bible-bred peasants in the Cévennes, the Camisards, during the first decade of the century had inflamed sectarian antagonisms and suspicions that, though abating, were far from dead by the day Louis XVI swore to extirpate heresy. However reluctant central authority might be, as time went by, to invoke the full rigour of the law against dissent, its power was limited in a province with strong autonomous traditions. The estates of Languedoc, meeting annually in Montpellier, were run by bishops, and since 1762 the bigotry of the parlement of Toulouse had been notorious thanks to Voltaire’s vilification of them as judicial murderers of the Protestant Jean Calas.*

Provence shared Languedoc’s autonomous traditions, although uniquely, at Aix, its parlement was presided over by the intendant. Taxation was raised by the Assembly of the Communities, a stopgap for estates that had not met since 1639. Most of the province was wild and rocky country, of no great prosperity; but isolated on its southern tip was Toulon, a bustling naval base and penal colony. Further west lay Marseilles, a major port commanding the mouth of the Rhône, whose valley was the main corridor between northern and southern France. Marseilles virtually monopolized France’s Mediterranean and Levant trade, but had important outlets to the Atlantic, too. Devastated by the last great outbreak of plague in France in 1720, two generations later the population had recovered buoyantly. ‘The common people’, wrote an English visitor,2 ‘have a brutality and rudeness of manners more characteristic of a republican than a monarchical state.’ Many northerners would have found this true of most inhabitants of the Midi.

Doubtless they were not well prepared for meeting this alien world by their journey down the narrow Rhône valley, swept at alarming speed along the fast-flowing stream and shooting through the perilous arches of the bridge at Pont Saint-Esprit, or plodding along the narrow trunk road at 24 miles a day, from Lyons, 200 to the north. The Alpine fastnesses of Dauphiné, to the east, certainly did not tempt them to stray off, with their high, cold valleys and largely pastoral economy. Dauphiné had once governed itself through estates, and memories of this lost autonomy lingered on in a region of isolated valleys where the authority of central government was seldom felt. Everybody in the lowlands was familiar, however, with the mountain men of Dauphiné, who descended every winter to the valleys in search of work, leaving their womenfolk no competitors for strictly limited stocks of food. One of the most obvious magnets for such migrants was Lyons, France’s second city, with 146,000 inhabitants. Standing at the crossroads of routes where Rhône and Saône meet, Lyons was a city of commerce, and industry, proud to be unencumbered by the swarming lawyers who plagued the seats of parlements. Economic life was dominated by the fortunes of the silk trade, in which over 60,000 earned their living, and which in the mid-1770s was on the crest of a wave of prosperity that was about to break.

Though as far from the capital as Bordeaux, Lyons was within the jurisdiction of the parlement of Paris, whereas the province of Burgundy, to the north, had its own parlement at Dijon, and indeed its own estates. Much damaged in the wars of the early seventeenth century, Burgundy ceased to be a frontier province when Franche Comté was annexed, and this brought a peace which facilitated the redevelopment of its famous vineyards straddling the main routes from Paris to the south. The good communications of Burgundy also favoured the establishment of industry, and around the coal and iron deposits of Le Creusot the 1780s were to witness the foundation of the most advanced industrial complex in Europe, producing munitions, hardware, and glass with coke-smelting techniques borrowed from England. The real centres of French metallurgy, however, lay north-west of Burgundy, in the wooded hills of Lorraine, where smelting still relied for heat on traditional charcoal, and enterprises were still small-scale. Lorraine had only just become French, but in reality it had been under French control since 1738, and surrounded by French territory for much longer. For beyond it lay Franche Comté and Alsace, frontier provinces bounded by the Jura mountains and the Rhine. After its annexation from the Spaniards, Franche Comté slumbered throughout the eighteenth century undisturbed by international conflict, largely preoccupied with its own affairs. The chief focus of interest in the province was the bitter infighting between factions within the parlement of Besançon; and the most noteworthy feature of its social structure was the presence of most of France’s 140,000 remaining serfs, whose land was technically forfeit to their lords when they died. Spanish rule had left the Comtois with a reputation for extreme piety and orthodoxy, in marked contrast to the Alsatians to the north of them. There, 200,000 Protestants, Lutherans distinct from the Calvinists of Languedoc, and almost a third of the population, enjoyed religious toleration under the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 that had made the province French. There were also some 30,000 Jews, spilling over into neighbouring Lorraine. Cut off from the Paris basin by the steep, wooded ridges of the Vosges, Alsace looked towards Germany, most of its inhabitants were German-speaking, and its economic life was dominated by its position along the great commercial artery of the Rhine. From the Germans its peasants had learned to cultivate, and like, potatoes, and the agriculture of the fertile Rhine valley was, as Arthur Young put it, ‘one of the richest scenes of soil and cultivation to be met within France’.3

Young was not often moved to such praise on his journeyings round France. In general he found French agriculture backward and unenterprising and few historians since have disagreed. Productivity was low, technology conservative, and methods wasteful. Throughout the middle years of the century a small group of writers energetically advocated the adoption of new methods, largely copied from England. The government lent them its support, and tried to foster greater public discussion of agricultural questions. But none of this activity had the slightest effect on everyday agriculture or the peasants who carried it on. The root of the problem, in Young’s view, lay in the morcellation of rural property. All the legal systems of France stipulated one form or another of partible inheritance. Property was divided up between heirs each generation. Entails, which kept vast estates together down the generations in most other European countries, were either unknown or weak and limited, and in any case peasants could not afford them. So even the largest French estates were not enormous by international standards, only property owned by the Church escaped regular redistribution, and there were no fewer than four million small owner-occupiers. Between them, the tiny plots of these peasants made up perhaps a quarter of the kingdom’s surface area. Much of the rest was not owned in compact units either, and leasing it out piecemeal to small tenants was the only practicable way of managing it. Perhaps three-quarters of the rented land in France was leased to peasants on share-cropping contracts (métayage) under which the lessee undertook to work the land and provide implements, and the lessor provided seed and received in return half or some other agreed proportion of the crop. Such leases recognized that the yield of small plots was too unpredictable to produce a regular fixed rent. In fact the yield of most peasant plots, whether owned or leased, was seldom enough by itself to keep a peasant family, let alone produce a marketable surplus. It was notorious, and the lament of agrarian improvers, that all French peasants seemed to care about was producing enough grain to feed their own families. Their ambitions seldom went beyond having just enough land to supply these needs.

Obsession with grain growing sprang, of course, from an age-old but well-justified fear of famine. But it also prevented the diversification which might have made harvest failure less catastrophic. It is true that in some areas a breakthrough had been made into high-yield crops. In the southwest peasants lived on maize and sold their wheat. In Alsace and Lorraine potatoes were widely cultivated. In both cases the new crops only took hold after catastrophic harvest failures—in the 1690s in the south-west, and between 1737 and 1741 in the east. But maize would not grow in northern France, and potatoes were still thought of by most peasants as fit only for animals. In any case, both crops required far more fertilizer than grain, and manure was already in short supply. This was because pasture was normally sacrificed to arable, and livestock was left to graze on commons or fallow land. In competition with human beings for what the land produced, flocks and herds were neither numerous enough nor well enough nourished to provide adequate manure. The very fallow they grazed on was a colossal waste of resources, as Arthur Young never ceased to proclaim. In northern provinces, land was customarily rested every third year, while in the south every second year was more usual; so a huge proportion of the country’s cultivable land lay unproductive at any one time. Only in Flanders and a few contiguous districts was grain rotated with soil-restoring fodder crops, such as clover, lucerne, and sainfoin, and fallow thus eliminated. It was no coincidence that crop yields in these extreme northern districts were the highest in the kingdom, and had been for centuries.

These advances had come about in Flanders in response to demand for food from the most highly urbanized region of early modern Europe. A substantial and accessible market had prompted productive innovation. Similar demands, this time from Paris and the densely populated northern coasts, had produced the only large-scale farming to be found in France, in the open country of the Paris basin. Here the profits to be made from supplying insatiable urban markets made it worthwhile for landlords to lease out their estates in big units, and for enterprising tenants (gros fermiers) to take on the spiralling rents they demanded. Farming more than a handful of acres was expensive. Ploughs, teams to draw them, and semiskilled labour to work them were all costly. This was why, in a rural world where most cultivators relied on spades and hoes, the term laboureur (ploughman) denoted a person of some means. But gros fermiers were seldom popular figures in the rural community, where they tended to accumulate the best land, turned arable into pasture, enclosed fields hitherto open, and spurned ancient communal rights such as gleaning and free grazing. They were a disturbing element in a rural society where neither landlord nor peasant showed much interest in profit-seeking by improving the land. Outside their ranks hardly any surpluses apart from seed were ever reinvested, and Young was repeatedly struck by the dilapidated appearance of most French farm buildings and the poor condition of the implements in use. Most cultivators, and many owners, too, were simply not involved in growing for the market. Or if they were, the market was a strictly limited local or regional one.

Transport costs alone made this inevitable, and contemporaries could not imagine how these could be much diminished. Roads and rivers could be improved, canals built, and some hoped the system of tolls and customs could be rationalized. But until the coming of the railways, which nobody could foresee, resulting benefits would still be marginal. Much more hope was placed in diminishing the burdens on production which ate into profits. Taxation, for example, might be reorganized so as to take less than the usual 10–15 per cent of a peasant’s gross product. Tithes, destined for the upkeep of the parish clergy but often impropriated by monasteries or laymen, took around another 8 per cent on average. The corvée, forced labour for road construction and maintenance, took hands away from the fields for substantial periods every year; and when, under Louis XVI, it began to be commuted, the cost was added to the tax-bill. Above all there was the burden of what contemporaries called ‘feudalism’. It was infinitely variable, from a few per cent around Paris or in Maine, 10 per cent in the Massif, 15 per cent around Toulouse, up to 25 per cent in parts of Brittany or Burgundy. Here and there a few islands of allodial tenure, free of all burdens, survived from distant times. But in the vast majority of the medieval territories that later became France there had been no land without a lord. This was still the case under Louis XVI, although by now lordship and ownership had become largely divorced. The ‘feudal’ rights that lords could exercise over land they might no longer truly own were infinite. They always included a token money rent (cens), but often extended to heavier payments in cash or kind too. Almost invariably they included hunting and shooting rights. Sometimes they included manorial monopolies (banalités) which compelled producers to use a lord’s mill or wine-press; and all such rights were normally enforceable through the lord’s own court. Even this is to simplify. Many leases blended feudal and ordinary cash rents indiscriminately. Over much of Brittany, under a system known as domaine congéable, tenants on nine-year leases payable in a mixture of cash and kind were deemed proprietors of the buildings and fruit-trees on their plots, could not be evicted unless their landlord bought them out, and so effectively enjoyed permanent tenure. Whether this amounted to ownership, and whether it was strictly feudal in character, were questions of little practical interest—until 1789, when they suddenly assumed crucial, and fateful, importance.

Despite low productivity, antiquated methods, and little sign of improvement, French agriculture had prospered in the middle decades of the century. Increasing demand from an expanding population coincided with a long series of good harvests to bring excellent prices and a sustained rise in rents and land values. From the late 1760s onwards, however, harvests became more uncertain and yields began to fluctuate sharply. Only three harvests between 1770 and 1789 were abundant everywhere, and provinces with shortfalls found it hard to import adequate extra supplies. The wine crop, upon which many peasants relied to supplement inadequate resources, also proved abnormally volatile during these years, failing completely in 1778 and over-producing subsequently. There were shortages in the mid-1780s too of flax and forage crops. Cattle owners unable to feed their stock adequately had to slaughter and sell at rockbottom prices since everybody was doing the same. None of this dented the rise in rents and land values. Landlords and big farmers continued to do well. But for the small proprietors, leaseholders, and share-croppers who dominated French agriculture the reign of Louis XVI was to prove a time of difficulty and disruption. And because agriculture was far and away the most important economic activity in the kingdom, the shock waves were felt throughout economic life.

There was, in fact, no clear distinction between agricultural and industrial workers. Most industry was rurally based. Even ostensibly urban trades like construction, a major growth industry that was transforming the appearance of Paris and greater provincial cities, were largely dependent on migrant workers who took their earnings home to the country each winter. Metallurgy, scarcely yet affected by coal and coke technology, was a business of small-scale concerns located in remote forests where charcoal was plentiful. It is true that the biggest industry of all, textiles, was centred on cities—woollens on Amiens, Abbeville, Sedan, or Clermont-de-Lodève; cottons on Rouen and Elbeuf; silk on Nîmes and Lyons. But only in Lyons was much actual production concentrated in the town. The other textile towns were primarily markets, centres of distribution and finance, with most of their spinning and weaving carried on in peasant households anything up to 50 miles distant. Around Rouen that meant that perhaps 300,000 peasants were involved in cotton production. But if most of the industrial work-force were peasants, so were most of the consumers; and when harvests failed they had less money to spend on clothing themselves, or indeed on other manufactures. So demand fluctuated according to the harvests, and this made Louis XVI’s reign an uncertain time in industrial as well as agricultural terms. The silk industry of Lyons lurched from crisis to crisis. Markets for woollens and linens became extremely erratic, too. Only cottons continued the sustained expansion that all textiles had experienced in mid-century, and this was because their main markets were not in France but abroad, in southern Europe and the tropical colonies.

France did not have many such colonies by the 1770s. The British had practically expelled her from India in mid-century, and elsewhere east of the Cape only the Île de France (Mauritius) and the Île Bourbon (Réunion) were still in her hands. In the Caribbean she had managed to hang on to Martinique, Guadeloupe, and above all Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). But the value of these tropical islands was out of all proportion to their size. At the peace of Paris in 1763 Louis XV had been glad to give up the whole of Canada in order to get back Guadeloupe, and on the eve of the Revolution Saint-Domingue was the richest piece of territory in the world. Colonial wealth derived from the production of sugar, coffee, and other tropical luxuries by the labour of black slaves. There were half a million of them in Saint-Domingue alone, and transporting replacements from Africa was yet another aspect of a complex Atlantic trading network whose nerve-centres were the great seaports. Thanks largely to the output of these colonies, France’s overseas trade grew fivefold over the century, and the booming population, lavish rebuilding, and crowded harbours of Bordeaux, Nantes, Le Havre, and even Mediterranean Marseilles testified to their prosperity. Nor, unlike the rest of the economy, did it show much sign of flagging, except during the war with Great Britain between 1778 and 1783. Even then British action did far less damage than in previous wars, and when peace was restored the boom reached new heights. But not much of this commercial opulence reached far inland. The real profits of the colonial trade came from re-exporting the precious luxuries to the ports of northern Europe. Even when trading profits were reinvested in land, as they often were, it was to secure assets rather than put them to further productive use.

There were, therefore, two French economies, only tenuously linked. Coastal regions, and the navigable lower reaches of the four great river systems, were integrated with international and intercontinental trading networks and shared in their benefits, which seemed destined to go on improving. But most of Louis XVI’s subjects lived in the interior, where communications were poor, economic life sluggish, and such improvements as good harvests had brought in mid-century were being eroded by climatic deterioration and an inexorably rising population. The famines of the seventeenth century, when hundreds of thousands died, were fading from memory; but thinking men became increasingly worried, as each harvest shortfall plunged whole populations into beggary, about the ability of existing institutions to take the strains they were coming under.

Poverty was France’s most visible social problem. Nobody could overlook it. All travellers noticed the misery of rural housing, and the poor appearance of the peasantry. ‘All the country girls and women’, noted Arthur Young in Quercy, ‘are without shoes or stockings; and the ploughmen at their work have neither sabots nor stockings to their feet. This is a poverty that strikes at the root of national prosperity… . It reminded me of the misery of Ireland.’4 Bands of roving vagabonds struck terror into the hearts of isolated farmers; and the streets of most towns swarmed with beggars. The poor, meaning those without adequate employment or other assured means of support, numbered at the best of times almost a third of the population; eight million people. In bad times two or three millions more might join them, as crops failed and jobs disappeared. Most of the poor were people too old, or too young, or too ill to earn their living, people whose families could not afford to feed them either. But as the population grew, increasing numbers of the able-bodied also had difficulty in finding work, or enough of it to make ends meet. Over the century prices rose three times faster than wages. ‘Workmen today’, wrote Jean-Marie Roland, inspector of manufactures in Picardy in 1777,5 ‘need twice as much money for their subsistence, yet they earn no more than fifty years ago when living was half as cheap.’ The result was described by a Norman parish priest.6

Day labourers, workmen, journeymen [he wrote in 1774] and all those whose occupation does not provide for much more than food and clothing are the ones who make beggars. As young men they work, and when by their work they have got themselves decent clothing and something to pay their wedding costs, they marry, raise a first child, have much trouble in raising two, and if a third comes along their work is no longer enough for food, and the expense. At such a time they do not hesitate to take up the beggar’s staff and take to the road.

Often that road would lead to the town, which offered (or so it was hoped) more opportunities of work.

Most town-dwellers were country people by birth who had left their over-populated villages early in life in search of a livelihood. The death rate in the insanitary towns was so high, especially among children, that they could not have flourished without this steady inflow of man and woman power. And even if no work materialized, in towns immigrants could find monasteries and convents distributing alms, hospitals and poor houses endowed to take in and relieve those no longer able to fend for themselves, and more chance of private charity than in native villages where everyone was as poor as themselves. Yet when they arrived, all too many immigrants found that none of these resources was remotely adequate. Under Louis XVI they were in fact becoming steadily less adequate, and not merely because of mounting claims on their services. Monasteries were cutting back on bread doles under criticism that indiscriminate charity fostered idleness. Hospitals and poor houses found the charitable bequests on which they had always relied dwindling, and as ecclesiastical institutions they were cut off from further endowments by legislation of 1749 restricting mortmain. Revenues from investment in government securities suffered as a result of state bankruptcies and debt consolidations over the century, while inflation eroded the amount of supplies hospitals could afford from their shrinking resources. Here and there concerned laymen began later in the century to experiment with new approaches to poor relief. Masonic lodges set up charitable funds, and in several cities philanthropic societies were established in the 1780s to tap the wealth of the rich for the poor. The government began, gingerly, to toy with schemes of relief on a national scale, such as the establishment of workhouses (dépôts de mendicité) in each generality from the 1760s, and charitable workshops (ateliers de charité) from the 1770s. The background to these departures was mounting public concern about the problem of the poor. Vigorous debates, in the press, in the world of letters, and in learned societies and academies, testified to the worries of educated men that they faced a crisis that would soon be beyond control.

These fears were fuelled by the way the poor behaved. Naturally they took what work they could find; but when they failed, they turned to begging without shame. The sheer professionalism of many beggars made those they assailed suspect their good faith; and indeed faked ailments and hard-luck stories were common enough. Anything that made the better-off pay up was worth trying. When appeals to pity failed, intimidation might work better, and from there it was a very short step to crime. Petty theft was every pauper’s standby. Another was smuggling, in a land crisscrossed by countless tolls and internal customs barriers. In the country, there was poaching; in town, women in desperate straits became prostitutes, despite the fact that this almost invariably led to disease and further degradation. In the 1760s there were 25,000 prostitutes in Paris. The classic pattern was for a girl newly arrived from the country to be taken on as a maid, become pregnant, lose her job, and take to the streets to feed the child. Alternatively she might abandon it, and not only unmarried mothers adopted this way out of feeding an extra mouth. One of the most graphic indicators of the growth in poverty was the rise in the number of foundlings and abandoned children. They tripled over the century. By the 1780s perhaps 40,000 a year was the national figure. In Paris alone it was about 8,000 and even a small provincial town like Bayeux, with 10,000 inhabitants, produced about 50 annually. The hospitals who took such babies in could not possibly cope with their numbers. They tended to farm them out to wet-nurses, themselves usually poverty-stricken; and in these hands the majority were dead before their fifth birthday. Better-off observers thought all this was evidence of increasing moral depravity among the lower orders, and they agonized over how far it was safe to try to educate them out of it. Yet the heart of the matter was that the French economy could not provide a decent living for all the people being born in the countryside.

Peasants accounted for 80 per cent of the French population. Only a fifth of Louis XVI’s subjects lived in communities of more than 2,000 people. A good quarter of a million probably lived in no community at all, a floating population of vagrants, feared and despised by more settled folk, an awful warning of what might happen at any time to millions who lived on or just beyond the poverty line. The livelihood of most peasant families was an amalgam of makeshifts. Even those with land seldom had enough, so like the landless they were dependent on income from day or seasonal labour, cottage industry, or exporting surplus members of the family to places where work was known, or thought, to be available. ‘The only industry the inhabitants have’, noted a report on an Auvergne parish in 1769, ‘is to leave home for nine months of the year.’7 Yet paradoxically families in circumstances like these were the mainstay of rural communities. Not only did they constitute a majority of the inhabitants; they found valuable extra resources in the communal rights which most villages enjoyed. On common lands they could pasture a cow and gather firewood. In the open-field areas of northern France they could glean after harvest and their cattle could graze on the stubble. In some areas, too, especially in the south, there were powerful traditions of communal defence against threats to local customs. Communities could sue lords who tried to levy excessive seigneurial dues or exercise dubious rights. From the 1760s onwards the enclosure and division of common lands and the termination of collective rights was authorized in many eastern and certain south-western districts; but little was done to take advantage of this legislation. Those lords or large landowners tempted to do so were deterred by the obvious readiness of village communities to fight the issue through the courts, not to mention by riot or other more passive ways of resisting. Similar tactics could be employed against tithe-gatherers, especially when the proceeds went to lay or monastic impropriators rather than the parish priest for whom God had ordained them. The curé, after all, was an important figure in every village. In most he was probably the only resident of education and authority, a natural leader quite apart from his spiritual power and guardianship of the only common building in most parishes, the church. As such, he was a powerful cement to village solidarity. Traditionally his most persistent opponents were those who shared least in that solidarity—the small minority of fortunate peasants who owned or leased enough land to be economically independent.

So much marked this prosperous handful off from the bulk of their fellow inhabitants. They alone had no fear of ruin if famine or disease struck. They alone in the village had jobs to distribute, since they farmed too much land to work entirely by themselves. Only they owned equipment, carts, and draught animals in any quantity. Others had to hire from them, just as they came to them to borrow seed or ready cash in difficult times. When, as often happened, the hapless debtors could not repay them, they would foreclose and thereby accumulate yet more property. It is true that these were the men whom communities normally nominated as syndics, local tax-collectors, or churchwardens. But only they had the leisure and resources to shoulder such duties. It was not necessarily any tribute to their popularity. The only solidarity they normally showed with their fellow villagers was in resistance to outsiders, such as gros fermiers who threatened to outbid them for leases, tax-exempt nobles or townsmen whose privilege pushed up everyone else’s tax-bill if they bought land in the parish, or lords whose hunting and shooting rights, manorial monopolies, or feudal dues and levies in cash or kind damaged the assets and ate into the profits of rich and poor peasants alike. But coqs de villageregarded rich outsiders and lords of the manor primarily in the same light as the parish priest: as rivals for power and authority within the village community. When the opportunity came to strike such rivals down, it was eagerly seized.

There was a sense in which this tight-fisted minority of independent yeomen were the truest countrymen: they alone could shun the towns. The rest of rural society was far more bound up with urban life than first appearance might suggest. The majority who could not grow all the food they needed had to buy in local market towns. The networks of cottage industry were organized from towns too, and their products were marketed in them. Few peasant families did not have some member who had worked for a spell in some distant city, or who had migrated there permanently. In all these ways urban and rural life interlocked. Nor was the distinction between towns and villages always obvious. Animals were raised and pastured and crops grown even in the heart of the most densely populated conurbations. Ninety per cent of French towns had less than 10,000 inhabitants, and only nine cities had more than 50,000. Nevertheless, the eighteenth century was a period of rapid urban growth. Paris grew by perhaps 100,000 people, Bordeaux and Nantes more than doubled in size, and Lyons and Marseilles expanded by more than half. It is true that towns bypassed in the commercial expansion of the century—places like Toulouse, Besançon, or innumerable small cities vegetating behind crumbling ramparts unmanned for over a century—had tended to stagnate. But a third more of the French population lived in towns under Louis XVI than at the beginning of the century, and they included nearly all the richest, best educated, and most dynamic of the king’s subjects.

Even so, most town-dwellers were poor, and completely unskilled. Urban poverty was concentrated and eye-catching, a pool of labour there was never enough work to drain. ‘Misery …’, complained a Rennes magistrate in 1772, ‘has thrown into the towns people who overburden them with their uselessness, and who find nothing to do, because there is not enough for the people who live there.’8 From these ranks were recruited the innumerable casual labourers, porters, chairmen, dockers, waiters, shoe-shine boys, general dealers, old-clothes merchants, and hucksters who could be met in any city street. They lived crowded together in cellars or the upper storeys (four or five floors up in Paris) of lodging houses, When times were hard and they could not pay the rent they swamped the hospitals and the criminal courts. The lucky ones among unskilled immigrants became domestic servants, perhaps the largest single occupational group in most towns of any size. In Paris there were 40,000 or 50,000 of them; in most provincial cities they made up anything between 5 and 7 per cent of the population. Sheltered, fed, often clothed as well as paid by their employers, servants had a privileged existence that other unskilled workers might well envy them. As often as not, in fact, they appear to have despised them. For servants were dependent, completely at their masters’ mercy, with little real life of their own. Condemned to celibacy because married servants were expensive and inconvenient, their proverbial cupidity arose as often as not from saving to buy themselves out of service and into family life. The turnover of servants in most households was notoriously high, suggesting that for all its apparent security a life of subjection to the whims of the better-off brought more than its share of tensions and dissatisfactions. Among the floating population of casual labourers, beggars, petty criminals, and prostitutes of every town there must have been many who had at some time glimpsed a more fortunate world during a spell in service. They knew what they were missing; and no doubt they felt it all the more acutely from the certain knowledge that they could never hope themselves to break into that world—unless perhaps as burglars.

They had little chance, either, of penetrating the world of skilled craftsmen. Most of these trades were tightly organized, exclusive, and tended to recruit among townsmen born and bred, natives even of the district in which each trade was concentrated. Even trades where immigrants predominated, such as building and stone-cutting, recruited largely from well-defined provinces like Limousin. Skills required training, and the organization of most arts and crafts enshrined a hierarchy of attainment. At the bottom were apprentices, learning the trade. After four or five years they would qualify as journeymen (compagnons), the backbone of all the trades, and in many they would go on to acquire experience by taking to the road. Jacques-Louis Ménétra, a Parisian glazier who left a remarkable set of memoirs,9 spent most of his twenties, between 1757 and 1764, tramping over 1,500 miles from town to town throughout southern France. To facilitate the search for work, at the outset he joined one of the three great craftsmen’s unions (compagnonnages) which helped their members on this tour de France to find work and accommodation at each stop. But the compagnonnages had no legal standing, and were frowned upon by the authorities everywhere: they were effective organizers of strikes and boycotts, not to mention fierce fights against one another. The officially recognized form of organization for most skilled trades was the guild (jurande), and technically nobody could exercise his skill without belonging to the appropriate one. Every town had a clear hierarchy of guilds, each governed by its body of masters. The masters set the standards of their craft, they alone could become independent employers in it, and they were recruited from journeymen who could pay an entry fee and present a ‘masterpiece’ as proof of their acquired skills. But sons of masters, like Ménétra, were at a distinct advantage here, and when he became one after eight years as a journeyman he got in without a masterpiece. Much was made of such inequities when guilds had become a thing of the past; but mastership was not an automatic passport to commercial success, and in most guilds access to it does not appear to have been seriously restricted. Quite the reverse. In the great silk workers’ guild of Lyons, the 60,000 strongFabrique, there were more masters than journeymen, while in Paris between 1785 and 1789 alone nearly 7,000 new masters were admitted to the various guilds of the city. And proliferation of masters meant that most workplaces were small. The average number of workers in Parisian workshops was 16 or 17 in 1789. Although working hours were long, sixteen hours a day for six days a week being common, most artisans set their own pace of work and by modern standards it appears to have been an extremely slow and leisurely one. Here and there more disciplined working environments were emerging, notably textile printing works like that of Christoff Oberkampf, employing almost 1,000 operatives at Jouy, or that of Garnier, Danse, and Thevard with their 800 employees at Beauvais. In Paris the most noteworthy early factories of this sort were the royal glassworks, employing 500, or Reveillon’s wallpaper works, with 300 employees, both in the eastern Saint-Antoine district. But their scale, organization, and guild-free atmosphere made such work places quite exceptional, and indeed objects of some suspicion. Not only did guilds safeguard traditional standards of quality and workmanship, they offered a well-tried means of keeping workers under control. Even the ever-growing number of free trades (métiers libres), which were not organized into guilds, were subjected to close supervision through an elaborate network of regulations. But doubts about such controls were spreading.

In 1776 an attempt was made to abolish the whole structure of guilds, and Parisian artisans celebrated in the streets at the news. A few months later, however, the old structure was largely restored; and in 1781 new controls were introduced in the form of what came to be known as the livret, a work-record which all employees had to carry and which needed the employer’s endorsement whenever they left. Such developments, and the slow erosion of real wages caused by two generations of inflation, made Louis XVI’s reign a time of increasing industrial unrest. Insubordination, noted Louis-Sébastien Mercier, the author of vivid scenes of Parisian life in the 1780s, ‘has been visible among the people for some years now and above all among craftsmen. Apprentices and young workers want to show themselves independent; they lack respect for their masters, they form combinations.’10 Their eye caught by increasingly frequent strikes and boycotts, such observers perhaps underestimated the deeper sense of solidarity between masters and their men fostered by a common craft and cultural background, familiar guild procedures, and the personal atmosphere of small workshops. The most vivid example was in Lyons, where masters and journeymen of the Fabrique united to clash repeatedly with the handful of great merchants who monopolized the buying and marketing of what they produced. And masters and journeymen everywhere were at one in their response to sudden jumps in the cost of living when harvests were deficient. It seldom occurred to artisans at such times to press for higher wages, and it never occurred to masters to pay them. Both—and their wives, who often led public protests on these occasions—expected the authorities to hold down food prices without regard to the state of the market.

Sudden rises in the price of bread or grain were universally recognized as the most dangerous moments for public order, and towns were the places it was most likely to break down. Even unrest involving peasants tended to occur when they came together in towns on market days. Everybody believed that the price of bread should be controlled and held at a level which ordinary people could afford. When it rose above that level, they felt morally entitled to take action to hold it down. This might involve threatening bakers or corn chandlers, and even lynching those who proved slow to respond. Or mobs might break into shops or warehouses and organize sales of their contents at what they considered a fair or just price. ‘Hoarding’ in times of scarcity was regarded as the worst of crimes. Alternatively riotous crowds would try to intimidate local magistrates into fixing acceptable prices, which was seen anyway as nothing less than their duty. Most magistrates readily agreed, and kept bread and grain prices within their jurisdiction under weekly review. In the case of Paris this was considered a matter of national importance; if the capital went hungry the stability of the state itself might be endangered, and the needs of Paris took priority in all markets within a radius of about 100 miles, and were a powerful influence at up to twice that distance. Even the most careful monitoring, however, could not anticipate every shortage, and although the years of good harvests between the 1740s and 1760s were relatively trouble-free (with the exception of 1752) the decade between 1768 and 1778 brought disturbances in many parts of the country. Harvests were uncertain during these years, and their effects were aggravated by the first attempts of the government to disengage from controlling the grain trade. Partially lifted in the 1760s, controls were reimposed in the early 1770s and then lifted again in 1775. The effect was to throw prices and expectations into chaos when stocks were short. In 1768 there were riots and popular price-fixing in Le Havre and Nantes, in 1770 at Rheims. Attempts in 1770 to regularize supplies in the hands of a few chosen merchants led to rumours of a ‘famine pact’ devised by rascally ministers to starve the king’s subjects. In any case the return to controls did not prevent further shortages in 1773, during which Bordeaux narrowly escaped being sacked by hungry mobs. Worst of all, however, was the ‘Flour War’ of 1775, just before the coronation. Despite the poor harvest of 1774, the minister Turgot insisted on removing all controls in the belief that a free market would best avert shortages. By the spring, bread prices in Paris had risen by more than 50 per cent, and riots which began on 27 April at Beaumont-sur-Oise, 25 miles to the north, spread within a week throughout the Île de France, to the gates of the royal palace at Versailles, and to the bread markets of the capital itself. It took troops, hundreds of arrests, and two public executions to restore order, and by then much of north-eastern France had been disturbed for over two weeks. In 1778 it was the turn of several southern cities—Grenoble, Toulouse, Bordeaux again—to witness riots or tensions after harvest shortfalls, and in 1784 and 1785, Normandy. But for a dozen years after the Flour War Paris was calm, and successive ministries anxious not to repeat Turgot’s mistake intervened in the grain market to maintain that calm. Only after a bumper harvest in 1787 was the grip relaxed. And then once again it was at just the wrong moment.

Educated onlookers invariably blamed bread riots on the poor—the beggars, vagrants, and petty criminals who made everyday life in city streets so hazardous and disagreeable. People with nothing to lose, they thought, had everything to gain from chaos. But in fact most of these disturbances were the work of people with everything to lose. It was that which made them so frenzied. Bread made up three-quarters of most ordinary people’s diet, and in normal times the poorest wage-earner might spend a third or even a half of his income on it. When it rose in price his whole livelihood was threatened, since it left him with less for other food, clothing, heating, and rent, and opened the prospect of destitution. Those who wrote and spoke with such confidence about the ‘rabble’ or ‘dregs of the people’ fomenting disorders like those of 1775 had mostly never known what it was to calculate domestic budgets so finely. The vast majority of French people who were not destitute lived under constant threat of becoming so, and were prepared to use violence to avoid such a fate. When they did, they terrified the narrow, secure social élites who in normal times dominated urban life and who never had to worry about the price of a four-pound loaf.

These groups never made up more than a small proportion of the population of most towns—seldom beyond one-fifth, and usually a good deal less. Among them were always a handful of successful master craftsmen; but the true hallmark of those in easy circumstances was that they did not work with their hands. Soft hands, formal clothing, servants, effortless literacy, and incomes and possessions far beyond the dreams of the average Frenchman or woman marked out the members of the dominant classes. There were scarcely more than two million of them, and all of them except a few hundred thousand nobles and clerics were members of the middle class—the bourgeoisie. There were more than twice as many bourgeois under Louis XVI as in the last years of Louis XIV. Over the same period the population as a whole had only grown by about a quarter, so that the relative weight of the bourgeoisie in society was increasing even more rapidly than their numbers. Their share of national wealth was enormous. Most industrial and almost all commercial capital, amounting to almost a fifth of all French private wealth, was bourgeois owned. Perhaps a quarter of the land belonged to them, and a significant (though uncertain) proportion of government stock. So probably did the greater part of the capital invested in a field that had proved peculiarly successful in France since the sixteenth century—venal public offices. Bourgeois competition for such offices was pushing the price of many of them to unprecedented heights by the 1780s. Bourgeois spending was also reflected in the handsome new architecture that was transforming the appearance of so many towns, and in the expansion of the luxury trades. Most of the demand for Lyons silk, sugar and coffee from the West Indies, and decorative materials such as prints and wallpaper came from bourgeois taste. Bourgeois capital helped to build lavish new theatres in Paris and provincial cities like Bordeaux and Nantes; bourgeois ticket-buyers kept them solvent. Bourgeois keenness to invest in education and culture funded a remarkable expansion in schools and colleges, booming growth in the book market, and important new developments such as the establishment of newspapers, public libraries, reading rooms, and innumerable clubs and cultural societies. All this was spectacular evidence that, as the poor grew poorer and more numerous, the rich too were growing in numbers and getting richer. ‘The distance’, wrote Mercier in 1783, ‘which separates the rich from other citizens is growing daily and poverty becomes more insupportable at the sight of the astonishing progress of luxury which tires the view of the indigent. Hatred grows more bitter and the state is divided into two classes: the greedy and insensitive, and murmuring malcontents.’11

The ultimate source of this enrichment was the extraordinary commercial and industrial expansion of the eighteenth century. All bourgeois fortunes began in business, and more were being made as the century progressed. The greatest success stories caught every eye. ‘The mode of living that takes place here among merchants’, wrote Young in Bordeaux, ‘is highly luxurious. Their houses and establishments are on expensive scales. Great entertainments, and many served on plate. High play is a much worse thing; and the scandalous chronicle speaks of merchants keeping the dancing and singing girls of the theatre at salaries which ought to import no good to their credit.’12 All this was a world away from the traditional picture of the sober, frugal, calculating Parfait Négociantcelebrated by Jacques Savary in a famous and much reprinted manual of 1675. But it was doubtless a world away, too, from the lives of most of those engaged in trade or business. Among the bourgeoisie, as among all social groups, the opulent handful stood out much more than the modest majority. Yet fundamentally the differences were largely a matter of scale. In many ways the behaviour of the commercial bourgeoisie was much the same at whatever level it occurred. Hardly any of them, above all, were content to leave money where it had been made. Trade and manufacture, however profitable, were not secure; and so as soon as there was money to spare the first instinct was to buy land with it. While wholesale colonial shippers or metropolitan bankers used their millions to accumulate manors, country houses, or far-flung lordships in choice locations, successful small-town tradesmen picked up houses down the street or patches of garden outside the walls. Land was safe. Its profits might be low, but they were steady. Above all, land had prestige. All the best people, and the people who had governed the country since time immemorial, were landowners. Nobody, therefore, with any aspirations to social consequence could afford to be landless; and those whose ambitions were really serious knew that sooner or later they would have to get out of trade altogether.

Very few bourgeois families remained in the business that had enriched them for more than a single generation—unless they were Protestants or Jews debarred by law from everything except making money. Profits not spent on buying property went into buying the next generation a superior education. With that, the way was open to the professions, where mercantile origins could be forgotten. This pattern was very long established, and although it was becoming fashionable to extol the usefulness of merchants and lament the way they abandoned their calling as soon as it had enriched them, there was little sign that much was changing in practice.

I ought not to pass over in silence [wrote a Lyons litigant about his adversary in 1780] … I who am the offspring of a generally loved and respected merchant, the outrage done by Mr. Gesse to commerce in describing those who exercise this profession as ‘persons from the dregs of the people’; it is thus that he speaks of a profession as honorable as it is honoured in its country; yet remember that Mr. Gesse is, as I am, a merchant’s son; he disowns his stock, whereas I honour mine.13

The writer, however, was a judge in a local court. Evidently the paternal calling was chiefly to be honoured for producing enough money to buy the son an office. And nothing testifies more eloquently to the continuing desire of the bourgeoisie to escape from the stigma of commerce than the booming market for offices. Originating in the sixteenth century as a way of enabling the king to borrow money, in the seventeenth the sale of public offices became a basic institution of French social life when office-holders were permitted, on payment of an annual tax, to pass them on to their children or re-sell them to third parties. This made offices as sound a social investment as land, and in response to continued demand the Crown made most public functions venal. The whole judicial hierarchy, from the highest presidents in the parlements to the humble tipstaff in the obscurest rural jurisdiction, bought their positions. So did thousands of other public officials at all levels. Under Louis XVI there were over 70,000 venal offices, representing a capital value of perhaps 900 million livres, increasing rapidly as the market value of most of them went up. Only offices traditionally closed to bourgeois, like those in the parlements, or ones which seemed threatened by perpetual fiscal tinkering, were failing to rise in value. All the rest were shooting up under the impulsion of the bourgeoisie’s seemingly insatiable desire for a life of respectable, professional dignity as far removed as possible from the hurly-burly of business.

It seemed to matter little that few fortunes were made in the professions. It was true that people like notaries could do very well in Paris or the more prosperous provincial centres. A talented—or, as many thought, plain lucky—handful might shine and prosper at the bar. For the first time in history, too, there were writers who found it possible to live by their pens. But all these success stories were exceptional. The lot—and often indeed the aim—of most professional bourgeois was to vegetate in modest, undemanding, but comfortable circumstances, finding wives of similar background and being succeeded in their office or calling by their children and grandchildren. Maximilien Robespierre, destined to become the most famous provincial bourgeois of his time, came from a family that had practised law in Artois for five generations, and before 1788 it does not seem to have occurred to him to do anything else either. In sleepy, provincial Arras he made a modest living at the bar from such cases as came his way, supplemented his income with a petty judgeship in one of the myriad special jurisdictions to be found anywhere, read widely in his ample spare time, wrote poems and entered literary competitions, and became a member of the local academy. In other towns innumerable counterparts lived similar, humdrum, unexciting lives. Many sought to spice them by joining masonic lodges, with their high ideals and mystic, supposedly secret, rituals. Others found diversion in the countless occasions offered by the narrow, under-occupied world of middle-class self-esteem for feeling slighted, nursing petty triumphs or resentments, or pursuing vicious little quarrels and vendettas. Excluded from a discussion group formed by other local lawyers, Robespierre denounced them in a bitter pamphlet. In Grenoble another small-town lawyer, Antoine-Pierre Barnave, enjoyed being recognized as the man who, at the age of 10, had been thrown with his mother out of an empty theatre box reserved for a noble friend of the provincial governor. It made the bourgeois (and Protestant) Barnaves into social and religious martyrs, a distinction they clearly treasured. Barnave later claimed the incident gave his life a mission—‘to raise the caste to which he belonged from the state of humiliation to which it seemed condemned’. But the determination of his pretentious mother to use the famous box (while his father sat in the pit) is a vivid example of the most burning of bourgeois obsessions: their love-hate relationship with the nobility.

The most highly regarded of all bourgeois were those who ‘lived nobly’. That meant they lived without exercising any profession, on the proceeds of investments or landed revenues. Bourgeois living nobly were a rare breed, however, since anybody who could afford to live like a noble could equally well afford to become one; and ennoblement was the ultimate recognition of social success that all bourgeois dreamed of. Nor did men of means find it hard to achieve. Over 4,000 of the most sought-after venal offices conferred nobility on their holders, and by this and a number of less important avenues perhaps 10,000 individuals (which if their families are included means up to 45,000 people) left the bourgeoisie for the nobility in the course of the eighteenth century—a rate of two people per day. Most ennobling offices, it is true, required two successive generations to hold them if the nobility thereby acquired was to be fully hereditary; but the 857 offices of King’s Secretary, with no duties to speak of, ennobled completely and at once. ‘Soap for scum’ (savonnettes à vilain) they were called, but they were much in demand among financiers, merchants, and industrialists, who pushed their price to unparalleled heights in the 1780s. Nothing outraged the professional bourgeoisie more than to see self-made businessmen leapfrogging them into the highest levels of society. It made nonsense of their assumption that tradesmen, of whatever sort, were their inferiors, But the prices parvenus were prepared to pay put most ennobling offices far beyond the reach of professional men, however worthy. All they could do was petition (as the members of local civil and criminal courts constantly did) to have their own offices made ennobling ones; or try to get away with usurping noble status. Forging false genealogies was a minor industry, and the number of later revolutionary leaders who tried to make their names sound noble is striking. Before 1789 we meet D’Anton, de Robespierre, and de Marat, while Brissot qualified himself de Warville, and Roland, de la Platière. Nor was it any consolation to know that nobles thought little of brash intruders into their order either. When parlements voted (as several did between the 1760s and 1780s) not to admit members without several generations of noble ancestry, or when in 1781 the notorious ‘Ségur Ordinance’ decreed that army officers would henceforth need at least four degrees of nobility, bourgeois opinion was shocked. These measures were largely directed against that same moneyed interest whose ability to buy their way into the nobility so disturbed professional people’s sense of propriety. But from outside they looked like attempts to exclude all bourgeois from the most desirable public employments. In practice few bourgeois had ever got that far without becoming noble first, but to formalize the situation publicly was provocative in an age when the education, values, and outlook of nobles and bourgeois were increasingly indistinguishable.

What then made nobility so desirable? Obviously there was the glamour, distinction, and recognition that noble status had always brought. Then there was a range of privileges which all nobles enjoyed. The bourgeoisie were themselves no strangers to privilege in a society where most people benefited from some special rights or exemptions by virtue of the corporations, groups, towns, or even provinces to which they belonged. Privilege was the hallmark of a country without uniform laws or institutions. But nobles were entitled to more privileges than most. They formed a separate order or estate in society, and all the rest of the king’s subjects, from the most wretched beggar to Young’s great colonial shipper dining off plate, were roturiers, commoners. Nobles took precedence on public occasions, carried swords, and made display of special coats of arms. They were entitled to trial in special courts, and even to a distinctive mode of execution—decapitation—if convicted of a capital offence. They were not subject to thecorvée, billeting of troops, or conscription into the militia. Above all they enjoyed substantial fiscal advantages. They escaped much of the weight of the gabelle, the hated, extortionate, salt monopoly; they paid no mutation duties on transferring feudal property (franc-fief); and nobility conferred exemption from the basic direct tax, the taille. It was true that many bourgeois escaped it too, as citizens of towns which had been granted exemption; and that many nobles in the pays d’états, where it fell on lands not persons, found themselves subject to it while non-noble neighbours owning fiefs were not. And there were certainly no exemptions for nobles from more recent direct taxes such as the capitation (1695) and the vingtième (1749). But taille exemption remained, in most people’s eyes, the quintessential badge of nobility; a tangible link with chivalric times when those whose duty was to risk their lives to defend the country were not expected to contribute money as well. The same warrior associations made it dishonourable for nobles to engage in retail trade. Those who did so risked loss of status (dérogeance), and reduction to the ranks of the taillables. Few chose to imperil the advantages of nobility by flouting this law, or the deep prejudices which lay behind it. In any case they had their children to think of; nobility was a family affair, a distinction only truly worth having if it could be passed on down the generations. Besides, nobles were presumed to have more important things to do than make their fortunes. They were society’s traditional rulers—yet another reason why aspiring bourgeois were so keen to join them.

Nobody knew, or knows, for certain how many nobles there were. Credible estimates vary between 120,000 and 350,000. But members of this tiny fragment of the nation owned between a quarter and a third of the land, and most of the feudal rights over the rest. They owned all the most valuable venal offices, huge amounts of government stock, and up to a quarter of the Church’s revenues went into the pockets of noble priests and monks. Most heavy industry was noble-controlled, either through investments or outright ownership in fields like mining and metallurgy which, being land-based, were not deemed commercial. Even the prohibition on trading had its loopholes. Wholesale trade had been open to nobles for generations, and King’s Secretaries, most of whom were great merchants or financiers, were not required to give up business on purchase of this ennobling office. And because it was so easy for successful bourgeois to join the nobility in this way, the wealth of the order was constantly being supplemented by the riches they brought in with them, not to mention the dowries of bourgeois heiresses with which impecunious gentlemen were always eager to ‘regild their arms’. Thus the growing wealth of the bourgeoisie also enriched the nobility, and helped it maintain its leading position. Nobility was a club which every wealthy man felt entitled, indeed obliged, to join. Not all nobles, by any means, were rich, but sooner or later all the rich ended up noble.

And along with noble wealth went influence and power. The king, the ‘first gentleman of the realm’, passed his whole life among noble courtiers. Technically only those with long pedigrees might even meet him. All his ministers were nobles: it caused a sensation in 1776 when Louis XVI gave office to Jacques Necker, a Swiss, Protestant commoner. All the senior members of the administration—ambassadors, governors, councillors of state, intendants—were nobles, as were all senior military and naval officers and most junior ones, too. Most of the great financiers and tax-farmers who kept central government solvent had invested in nobility, and since every office in every sovereign court was an ennobling one, the whole upper judiciary were members of the order. In the Church, nobles occupied all bishoprics and all the choicest abbacies and canonries, and under Louis XVI it became a matter of policy that they should. The motive was one that lay behind the Ségur Ordinance of 1781—to reserve some part of the public service for a group without other resources: the poor nobility.

For in reality France under Louis XVI was governed not by the nobility, but by a plutocracy in which the majority of nobles had no share. Half or more of the nobility were no better off than the average bourgeois, and many were a good deal poorer. The nobility of Boulogne, noted Tobias Smollett in 1763,

are vain, proud, poor, and slothful … They allow their country houses to go to decay, and their gardens and fields to waste; and reside in dark holes in the Upper Town … without light, air, or convenience. There they starve within doors, that they may have the wherewithall to purchase fine cloaths, and appear dressed once a day … They have no education, no taste for reading, no housewifery, nor indeed any earthly occupation, but that of dressing their hair, and adorning their bodies. They hate walking, and would never go abroad, if they were not stimulated by the vanity of being seen … They pretend to be jealous of their rank, and will entertain no correspondence with merchants, whom they term plebeians.14

At Court, and in Paris, wealth opened every door, and dukes and peers happily married the well-endowed daughters of great financiers. Necker’s passport to power was his opulence as a banker. There was similar mingling of rank and riches in some provincial capitals, especially if they were ports. But away from such centres of conspicuous consumption, the nobility often consisted of threadbare gentry with impeccable lineages but no resources. These were the only nobles most peasants, and therefore most French people, ever came across. They found them haughty, keen to exact their feudal dues and exercise their seigneurial prerogatives, and ferociously attached to their ancestry and privileges as noblemen. ‘It generally happened’, recalled Count de Ségur in 1825, looking back on the years before the Revolution, ‘that there was less cause of complaint against the higher nobility or persons attached to the court than against the country nobility, who were poor and unenlightened. This ought to occasion no surprise, for the latter had nothing but their titles, which they were continually opposing to the real superiority of some of the middle classes whose knowledge and wealth embarrassed and humbled them.’15 Among nobles of this sort prejudice against trade was at its most virulent. In Brittany, gentlemen fallen on hard times were allowed to ‘put their nobility to sleep’ while they restored their fortunes in commerce. But even those who did so, like Chateaubriand’s father, who eventually managed to buy back the ancestral castle, spent all they had made in the process, and were then content to resume lives of straitened but genteel idleness. Lack of money closed the judicial bench to such people: the price of offices was beyond them, nor could they have afforded the education indispensable for sovereign court magistrates. They took solace in sneering at what they chose (erroneously, often enough) to think of as the recent origins of the nobility of the robe. They saw themselves, on the contrary, as the only true nobility, a nobility of the sword. Their vocation, inherited with the blood of their ancestors, was to fight. They had a duty to serve the king—as officers, of course—in his armies. And he in turn had a duty to give them that opportunity. The problem was that all military commissions were subject to purchase, and here again plutocrats priced them out of the market. In mid-century there had been a lively public debate about the problem of the poor nobility. In La Noblesse commerçante of 1756 the Abbé Coyer had argued that the solution was to encourage them to trade. But in La Noblesse militaire ou Le Patriote français, the Chevalier d’Arc, illegitimate grandson of Louis XIV, responded by denouncing the power of money and advocating a noble monopoly of military commissions with promotion on merit alone. This would both give poor nobles a guaranteed livelihood and make for more dedicated, professional officers. Such debates culminated in 1776 in the establishment of a system of twelve military schools like that of Brienne, where young Napoleon Bonaparte, from a poor noble family in newly acquired Corsica, learned the rudiments of the military arts. The Ségur Ordinance had the same aim—to purge the body of army officers of rich playboys just up from the bourgeoisie, more interested in the glamour and social recognition of a uniform than in military efficiency. The flaw was that it did nothing about courtier playboys, whose pedigrees were excellent, who were just as rich, but whose commitment to the military life was just as token. Either way those with talent or abilities seemed doomed to take second place to people endowed by chance of birth with riches or noble ancestors: and not only in the army. The whole of society, many thought, worked too obviously in this way. ‘What being is most alien to those around him?’ mused Chamfort, a self-made man of letters, whose aristocratic contacts propelled him into the Académie française in 1781. ‘… Might it not perchance be a man of merit without gold or title-deeds, in the midst of those who possess one of these two advantages, or both together?’16

It was scarcely a coincidence that public dissatisfaction should become focused on the army. The record of the French armed forces in the wars of mid-century had been lamentable. Swept from the seas by the British, and mauled on the battlefield by the Prussians, no other institutions had had their inadequacies so spectacularly demonstrated. Reforms like the introduction of military academies and the Ségur Ordinance were part of a sustained attempt to restore the tarnished prestige of an army that had been the admiration of Europe in the days of Louis XIV. That role had now been inherited by the army of Frederick the Great, and it provided the model of many of the French reforms. Successive war ministers sought not only to build a Prussian-style officer-corps, but also introduced Prussian tactics and manoeuvres, Prussian uniforms, and even Prussian discipline. Controversy raged over every aspect of this policy, and polemics flew over such questions as whether French soldiers could honourably be punished for military offences in the German way by beating with the flat of a sword. And certainly Louis XVI’s army was very differently constituted from that of Frederick. Most of his soldiers were his own subjects, and volunteers too. There were indeed twenty-three foreign regiments, including the redoubtable Swiss Guards permanently attached to the royal household, but they barely accounted for one-seventh of the entire strength. And conscription was only used to recruit the militia, a reserve army never now mobilized except in wartime. Lots were drawn to select the conscripts required from each district, but exemption was so widespread that only the poorest peasants failed to avoid the draw. Even though the risk of the militia being embodied was now small, it was deeply unpopular in the countryside. The military life had little appeal for even the most miserable of peasants. The ranks of the regular army were drawn overwhelmingly from the highly urbanized, heavily garrisoned northern and eastern frontier districts. Most recruits stayed with the colours for the full eight years of their engagement, and losses of 3,000 a year through desertion were low by international standards. So was the relative weight of the military in society. The 180,000 strong army represented one soldier for every 156 of the king’s subjects (as compared with 1 in 29 in Prussia), and its regional concentration meant it impinged little on the lives of whole provinces in the centre, south, and west of the country. French troops had not fought on their own soil for three generations, and in the eighteenth century they were seldom called upon to deal with civil unrest. Despite, therefore, the increasing sums being spent on it, the army was becoming more and more a world apart, making little impact on areas or populations not already militarized for generations. But even within the army there were separate worlds. Most officers, endowed with generous leave, saw little of their subordinates and cared less. The Prussian models so fashionable among military theorists, which called for mindless automatons in the ranks, did nothing to bring them closer together. Nor did attempts to restrict access to commissions. In their anxiety to exclude rich commoners, they also kept out or kept down talented ‘officers of fortune’ with long and valuable experience in other, lower, ranks.

Such distance was impossible in the navy, where a ship’s complement all lived on top of one another for months on end, and each officer needed a thorough understanding of navigation and the duties of a crew. It was true that throughout the French navy’s history repeated attempts had been made to restrict the recruitment of officers to nobles. Naval schools (compagnies de gardes de la marine) at Brest, Rochefort, and Toulon were intended to supply all the service’s needs and were theoretically open only to nobles. But the latter found far less attraction in the rigours of seagoing than in the army; and although the ‘red’ officers produced by the schools dominated the service, in wartime they were outnumbered by ‘blues’ recruited from a wide spectrum of maritime society. There was no purchase in the navy, and few courtiers were interested in even the highest ranks, so social rivalries were far less pronounced at every level. What counted at sea was competence and experience, and ever since the time of Colbert a system of naval conscription had operated in order to ensure that even the lower decks had these qualities. In coastal districts and navigable river valleys every man under 60 with experience afloat was required to register for assignment to a ‘class’, or naval reserve category, liable for mobilization if the need arose. The system was as unpopular among sailors, fishermen, and bargemen as the draw for the militia was among peasants; but it produced better crews for warships than the British pressgang, and ones which had their revenge on the British during the American War of Independence. This war seemed to vindicate the massive programme of naval expansion and re-equipment that had been pursued since the end of the previous one in 1763. By 1780 there were 86 frigates and 79 ships of the line in French service, and the annual cost of the navy almost quadrupled between 1776 and 1783. These efforts were crucial in securing American independence, and even after the war ended Louis XVI remained determined to keep France a major naval power. The only time he saw the sea, or visited any of his kingdom outside the Île de France before 1791, was in 1786, when he travelled to Cherbourg to inspect progress on a vast new naval harbour. Three thousand men were employed on the works, which deeply impressed Arthur Young when he viewed them late in August 1788. Young wondered, however, whether such a stupendous project could be completed without bankrupting the kingdom. In fact it took another 65 years to complete. And defence spending on this scale had already brought bankruptcy just eleven days before Young arrived in Cherbourg.

Nobles tended to justify their grip on the armed forces by arguing that their order existed to fight; and this argument served to defend their tax-exemptions as well. It went back to the classic medieval division of society into those who worked, those who fought, and those who prayed. Naturally those who prayed, the clergy, invoked similar arguments, for the same functional principle underlay the extensive privileges which they enjoyed, too. In law the clergy ranked ahead of the nobility as the first order of the realm, for they were the custodians of the community’s spiritual welfare and its moral standards. They numbered about 130,000, but over half were in regular orders (two-thirds of them women) and many of the seculars were canons without cure of souls as members of 496 cathedral or collegiate chapters. Parish priests, therefore, were in a minority, and their distribution across the country averaged one for every 400 or 500 inhabitants. But the clerical presence, like everything else in the kingdom, was unevenly distributed. In the countryside the curé was often the only ecclesiastic his parishioners ever came across; whereas townscapes were dominated by convents, seminaries, schools, and hospitals, all run by clerics, not to mention cathedrals, collegiate churches, and innumerable parish churches within sight of one another and within sound of each other’s bells. In many a small town the church was the chief source of employment. In Chartres, the cathedral chapter alone gave direct employment to 500 or 600 of the 12,000 inhabitants, and was the main source of business for many more. The money thus spent came from over 17,000 acres and 124 feudal lordships in the surrounding district. In Bayeux, a town of 10,000, it was estimated that the total annual contribution of all ecclesiastical institutions to the town’s economy was worth 400,000 L. Over France as a whole about a tenth of the land was in the hands of the Church, although much more in the north than the south; and in the form of the tithe, the parish clergy were theoretically entitled to a tenth of every person’s livelihood for their upkeep. In practice the tithe was far more patchily levied, and seldom took as much as a tenth even from those who failed to avoid it. But, with the exception of provinces added to the kingdom since 1561, and thereby ‘reputed foreign’, all these ecclesiastical revenues were exempt from ordinary taxation. Unlike the nobility, the clergy had consistently fought off every attempt by the government to breach this principle. The most recent battle had occurred between 1749 and 1751, when thevingtième had been introduced. The clergy won it because they were well organized. Unlike the second or third estates, they had a representative General Assembly which convened every five years. When it was not in session the collective affairs of the order were managed by a permanent General Agency headed by two carefully chosen Agents-General, ambitious young priests with names to make. Most of their business was financial, since exemption from taxation did not mean that the clergy contributed nothing to the royal revenues. Every ten years a ‘free gift’ was negotiated, made up by an internal levy on clerical income. Further sums were raised to pay interest on extensive loans which the clergy used its superior credit to float on the State’s behalf. Altogether the clergy paid out about 16 millions annually to or for the State, but since they had revenues of perhaps a quarter of a billion the proportion of their income was nowhere near that demanded of the laity.

Nor was the weight of clerical taxation equitably distributed within the order. The parish clergy, dependent on tithes, fees, and if they were lucky a little glebe land, paid almost half the total raised, yet had little say in its allocation within each diocese. Positions of power or influence in the hierarchy were monopolized by canons and other representatives of the great chapters and monasteries who owned most of the Church’s landed wealth. And the richest of these corporations, in turn, were invariably dominated by the nobility, who saw in them an important, comfortable, and well-paid refuge for over-numerous sons and daughters otherwise burdensome to family fortunes. Ever since the Concordat of 1516 between Francis I and Pope Leo X the king had appointed all bishops and the abbots of greater monasteries. In the eighteenth century he distributed this huge fund of patronage on the advice of a bishop entrusted with what was known as the benefice portfolio (feuille des bénéfices). None of its holders, however, proved able to resist the enormous pressure they were subjected to by courtier families anxious to place their members, friends, and dependants in lucrative clerical comfort. The rise in landed revenues over the century only increased the demand. The greater archbishops all enjoyed six-figure incomes, and very few prelates brought in less than 20,000 L. A commendatory abbot of one of the greater monasteries might draw more than many a bishop. Accordingly most of these much sought-after benefices went to younger sons of the greater nobility. In 1789 the entire episcopate (bar one) was of noble birth, and a quarter of all sees were in the hands of just thirteen families. Many of the beneficiaries of this system were appointed very young after truncated studies, lightning ordination, and rapid progress through a hierarchy of lesser dignities. Talleyrand, condemned to a clerical rather than a military career by an accident in infancy which stunted one of his legs, was ordained a subdeacon at 21, canon of Rheims within weeks, an abbot within months, yet did not become a priest until four years later. Another year saw him one of the two Agents-General of the Clergy, and at 34, in 1788, he was bishop of Autun. Few of Louis XVI’s bishops were as cynical and cold-blooded as Talleyrand was to prove, and most were to stand by their vocation with more or less zeal when it was put to the test. But they had all climbed the ladder of preferment in the same way, for there was no other. And if such a system produced tepid pastors, it made the bishops of the Gallican Church formidable politicians and powerbrokers. When Loménie de Brienne, archbishop of Toulouse, became chief minister in May 1787, it was the fulfilment of an ambition openly pursued for years. The examples earlier in the century of Fleury, Bernis, and Terray showed that Louis XIV’s principle of never giving high secular office to clerics had died with him.

Brienne had made his name as a church reformer. In 1766 he had been made chairman of the Commission of Regulars established by the Assembly of the Clergy to investigate and if necessary close or amalgamate under-occupied monasteries or convents. This reforming gesture was undertaken in the aftermath of the greatest religious upheaval of the century, the expulsion of the Jesuits from the kingdom in 1764. Resulting in many ways from a string of improbable accidents, this removal by the secular power of one of the most vigorous and influential orders in French religious and educational life nevertheless vividly demonstrated how vulnerable a Church that refused to reform itself might be. Reading these warning signs, the Church looked around for soft targets. Contemplative orders, faltering in their recruitment and condemned by an increasingly utilitarian public opinion as useless hoarders of wealth and bolt-holes for idlers, were obviously in an exposed position. Between 1768 and 1780, accordingly, 458 smaller monasteries were dissolved. Their capital assets, estimated at 642,029 L., were redistributed to hospitals, poor houses, and seminaries. But larger, richer houses continued unscathed, and nothing was done about the problems of the parish clergy, the Church’s undervalued, underprivileged workhorses. Few parish priests came from really poor backgrounds. The costs of acquiring the education necessary for the priesthood alone ensured that. Nor could the majority of beneficed parish priests be considered poverty-stricken by the standards of most of the population. But many resented the inequitable distribution of the Church’s wealth, their exclusion from any say in how the Church was governed, and the complete absence of promotion prospects. Improving agricultural prices brought growing prosperity to those who enjoyed tithes, but in many towns tithes were a thing of the past, and even in the country about a third of the beneficed clergy had no right to their parish’s tithes. They had been impropriated, sometimes by laymen but more often by monasteries or other ecclesiastical corporations, who only paid the incumbent a fixed share of the yield, known as the portion congrue. The inflation of the century constantly eroded the value of what was in effect a salary; and in 1768 and again in 1786 royal edicts imposed rises. On both occasions they were denounced as inadequate, yet rather than pay them many titheowners abandoned their rights to incumbents. Now it was their turn to incur the odium of tithe collection, and to find that the yield was often less than that of the congrue. In the 1770s the discontents of the parish clergy erupted in many dioceses in the form of mutinous assemblies which denounced the inadequacies of the congrue, the unfairness of clerical taxation, domination of diocesan administration by canons and regulars, and the ‘despotism’ of bishops, whose authority stood behind so many of these practices. The bishops’ response, in the Assembly of the Clergy of 1780, was to reiterate long-standing prohibitions on unauthorized clerical gatherings. Their stance was reinforced by a royal edict of 1782 which apparently brought an end to the so-called ‘revolt of the curés’. It did nothing to tackle its causes, however, at a time when the Church was under unprecedented attack from critical laymen.

Nothing infuriated the Church’s critics more than its political power. It held a monopoly of public worship, and all the king’s subjects were legally Catholics. Protestants enjoyed no legal toleration, except in Alsace, and no civil rights. As recently as 1762 a pastor had been executed, and the last Protestant galley-slaves were released only in 1775. The Church controlled almost the entire educational system, and the bulk of poor relief and hospital provision. It had extensive powers of censorship, and the pulpit was used constantly by the secular authorities for important public announcements and warnings. All this reinforced the unique God-given moral authority to which the Church laid claim. Its importance in keeping the king’s subjects docile and obedient was incalculable in a country where the everyday forces of law and order were very thinly stretched.

Apart from the army, law-enforcement throughout most of the kingdom was in the hands of the Maréchaussée, a mounted police force barely 3,000 strong. Additionally all towns of any size employed watchmen, but even in the largest their complement seldom ran to three figures. Only Paris was considered well policed, with almost 2,000 officers serving a variety of agencies in addition to the French and Swiss guards. France, in fact, had far more magistrates than policemen, their numbers swelled by the sale of offices in earlier centuries. At the lowest level were thousands of petty jurisdictions, many private, but all fully staffed by a complement of judges, clerks, procurators, ushers, and tipstaffs. Angers alone, a city of 26,000 inhabitants, had 53 different courts or tribunals, none of them near the top of the judicial hierarchy. Besançon, somewhat larger but with a parlement, had a legal population of around 500, which meant almost one-twelfth of the population probably depended directly on the law for their existence, and many more indirectly. The delays and costs of this judicial labyrinth were notorious. ‘Do we not see every day’, noted the procurator-general of the parlement of Paris (who ought to have known) in 1763,17 ‘people obliged to go to law over two or three years and at great cost to find out which judges they will have the misfortune to appear before?’ Yet so long as France lacked a uniform set of laws and the government felt unable to buy out venal office-holders the problem seemed insoluble. Such reforms and rationalizations as did occur, between 1771 and 1774 or again in 1788, were fragmentary, came as by-products of political conflict between the government and the parlements, and proved as transient as the circumstances that had facilitated them.

The parlements sat at the summit of the judicial hierarchy, the supreme and final courts of appeal for their own regions. They also enjoyed extensive administrative powers which brought them into regular conflict with governors and intendants. Above all they had a crucial role in the legislative process. All laws, to be valid, needed to be registered in their records, and they had the right to point out any defects in new legislation by sending the king remonstrances. By deferring registration pending the king’s reply they were able to delay and obstruct government policy, and since the death of Louis XIV they had developed this technique into a major vehicle of opposition. Strictly speaking remonstrances were confidential communications between the king and his courts, but over the same period it had become normal for parlements to marshal public opinion on their side by printing and selling them. Often they would renew remonstrances after the king’s reply, and later in the century they extended their means of resistance to judicial strikes and occasional mass resignations. Everyone knew, however, that ultimately the king had the last word. He could silence all opposition by coming in person (or in the provinces sending a personal representative) to the court and dictating registration of the contentious measures in a session known as a lit de justice. In the presence of the monarch, the fount of justice, the delegated authority of his magistrates was nullified. Parlements usually protested at such displays of sovereignty, but they seldom continued to resist after them. Honour was satisfied, and beyond lay outright rebellion, which none of them was prepared to contemplate. Nor did most contentious issues need the extreme response of a lit de justice to resolve them. The exceptions were matters of religion and finance. Even here the expulsion of the Jesuits in the 1760s, which they largely brought about, marked the end as well as the highpoint of the parlements’ interference in religious questions. Financial confrontations, however, could only get worse in an age of ever-spiralling military expenditure and constant attempts to increase taxes and borrowing to meet it. In the first half of the century the parlement of Paris, by far the most important sovereign court, with a jurisdiction covering a third of France, spoke out almost alone on such matters. But from the introduction of the vingtième in 1749 the provincial courts also began to assert themselves, both on financial matters and against what they saw as the attempts of agents of central government in the provinces to extend their own authority. The 1760s were particularly stormy, witnessing serious clashes with the parlements of Besançon, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Pau, and Rennes, and periodic lesser confrontations with others, too. The suspicion grew that the sovereign courts were acting in secret concert to discredit and usurp royal power, and in 1766 Louis XV felt obliged to reassert his absolute and unlimited authority in blunt terms. In what those present remembered as a ‘scourging session’, the king came in person to the parlement of Paris and declared that:

It is in my person alone that sovereign power resides … It is from me alone that my courts derive their authority; and the plenitude of this authority, which they exercise only in my name, remains always in me … It is to me alone that legislative power belongs, without any dependence and without any division … The whole public order emanates from me, and the rights and interests of the nation … are necessarily joined with mine and rest only in my hands.

But clashes continued, as it proved impossible in peacetime to reduce the burden of taxes first justified by the demands of mid-century wars. In 1771 they reached a further climax when a new chancellor, Maupeou, provoked the parlement of Paris into refusing all co-operation. Maupeou reacted by exiling its magistrates and replacing them with more docile collaborators. He also took the opportunity to abolish venality of offices in the parlement and set up a new structure of subordinate courts throughout the parlement’sressort. When the provincial parlements protested, they too were remodelled. Surprising numbers of existing magistrates co-operated in this operation, but those who suffered exile and dispossession raised a huge clamour at what they claimed was the overthrow of the kingdom’s constitution. The king was deluged with remonstrances before the courts were silenced by the reform, and despite a carefully orchestrated propaganda campaign, the government was unable to convince the bulk of public opinion of the value of what it had done. The new system had still put down no deep roots when, three years after its introduction, Louis XV died. What to do about the parlements was therefore the first major political decision faced by Louis XVI on his accession. Within months he decided to restore them, Maupeou was dismissed, and all his innovations abandoned. The new monarch’s most influential ministers had persuaded him that public opinion would have no faith in his good intentions if he did not bring back the tried and trusted defenders of public liberties. And so by the time of the coronation the old judiciary had been reintegrated, venality restored, and the parlement of Paris was once again remonstrating and obstructing the registration of new laws. But those who thought nothing had changed were wrong. The parlements had been shown that they were not invulnerable, and the public had been shown what feeble checks on a determined government they were. The parlement of Paris, having proved to its own satisfaction by its remonstrances of 1775 and 1776 that it was as formidable as ever, lapsed into a relative quiescence that lasted a decade. Several of its provincial counterparts were torn for years by unseemly internal recriminations between magistrates who had co-operated with Maupeou and those who had not. The chancellor (France’s last, since he refused to resign on dismissal, and only died in 1792) had shattered the parlements’ political credibility, and even their complete restoration was unable to rebuild it.

Nor did the damage end there. The Crown, too, was indelibly tainted by the memory of Maupeou. Louis XV’s willingness to tolerate a measure of defiance from his sovereign courts, despite the extreme claims he had made for his own authority in 1766, had marked the French monarchy out as law-abiding and receptive to the legitimate expression of the subjects’ discontents. The parlements enjoyed considerable popular support, and the king’s occasional concessions to their opposition served to reassure his subjects that he was no tyrant. Maupeou, supported by a monarch now ageing and tired of endless obstruction, swept this subtle structure of confidence away. His attack on courts of law which traced their origins and powers almost as far back as the monarchy itself showed him up as the agent of despotism, of government by no law except the monarch’s will, where no person and no property was secure against his whims. If Louis XVI had kept Maupeou in power, and preserved his reforms, he would have been called a tyrant seventeen years before he was. But even the restoration of the former parlements could not efface the memory of their suppression. Frenchmen now knew what power their king might deploy if he had a mind to, and few of them found much comfort in the knowledge. The institutions and the men of before 1771 were brought back, but the atmosphere of political confidence, innocence even, in which they had operated was irrecoverable.

The magistrates of the parlements numbered around 1,200. Together with perhaps 1,000 more officers in other sovereign courts mainly exercising special financial and fiscal jurisdiction, they made up the ‘nobility of the robe’. All sovereign court offices ennobled, but few members of the parlements by now owed their nobility to their offices. Mostly they had several generations of noble forebears behind them, and by this time a number of parlements had decided to admit nobody without such credentials. In their provinces these men dominated all local affairs, which was why they so often came into conflict with intendants and governors. In Paris they dominated national affairs. Not only did the parlement and certain other metropolitan sovereign courts enjoy wider powers and jurisdiction than their provincial counterparts; the Parisian robe nobility also provided most of those who went on to become intendants, councillors of state, and ministers. After a few years on the bench, young magistrates of ambition would seek to buy one of the 80 offices of Master of Requests. By shining there they could legitimately hope to be appointed to one of the 34 intendancies, which were always filled from their ranks. And whereas most intendants never ended up as ministers, many ministers had served their time as intendants. All this meant that the worlds of government and the law in the capital were closely linked, and the intermarriage common in these circles made the relationship yet closer. Everybody involved in political conflicts had relatives on both sides, and the great confrontations were not always as serious as they appeared. Knowing each other intimately, those involved realized their opponents had appearances to maintain. Maupeou, himself recently first president of the Paris parlement, shocked this cosy world when he exiled the most vocal of his former colleagues to places seemingly chosen for their discomfort. No wonder he aroused such personal hatred. And when, to fill up the posts in his new system, he brought in outsiders, ‘intruders’ as they were known, he only compounded the insult. The narrow legal and administrative élite who controlled most of the levers of power in the kingdom did not welcome new blood, and even members of the provincial ‘robe’ only broke in occasionally. Only two other groups enjoyed as much say in the government of the kingdom; and one of these had only attained complete respectability within living memory.

This group was that of the financiers, or ‘finance’ as contemporaries called it. Numbering no more than two or three hundred individuals, it kept the government solvent by handling its revenues and outgoings, providing short-term credit, and raising longer-term loans from contacts in the private world of banking and trade. Most of the indirect taxes were collected by the Farmers-General, a rich syndicate who leased the monopoly under a contract renewed every six years. Revenue from direct taxes was received and paid out by venal office-holders who were also financiers. They made their living from handling public funds, and the spectacular profits of this activity placed them among the king’s richest subjects. Few of them were far from humble, mercantile beginnings; but few omitted, either, to buy themselves ennoblement, and their daughters were among the most prized heiresses in the kingdom. They lived in ostentatious luxury, and the fact that this dazzling wealth came from public resources created the suspicion that it had been made at public expense. So financiers were widely hated. Old nobles regarded them as jumped-up—although they were eager enough to ‘regild the arms’ with their daughters’ dowries. Professional men thought the same, while envying their success. And taxpayers considered them public bloodsuckers, regretting the days, still just within living memory, when financiers were put on trial for embezzlement whenever a new reign began. In 1774 there was no question of that: they were now too influential. Attempts were made by successive finance ministers during the decade to eliminate some of the offices through which financiers operated, but in 1781 these efforts were abandoned. Four years later the Farmers-General began to build a new ten-foot-high wall around Paris to prevent evasion of entry tolls. The gates or barriers they commissioned were severe masterpieces of modern design. To ordinary Parisians, however, they were hated symbols of fiscal oppression and misapplication of the king’s revenues.

To find a really staggering example of extravagance at the taxpayers’ expense, however, it was necessary to travel twelve miles to the west, to Versailles. Here was the seat of the royal Court, and of the courtiers who constituted the third key power-group within the French body politic. Fifty thousand people lived in Versailles, making it France’s tenth largest town. Ten thousand of them lived or worked in the palace, the king’s household, and the whole life of the town depended on it. Thirty-five million livres, or about 5 per cent of the king’s annual revenue, were spent on the Court, and most of this outlay ended up in the pockets of a few hundred courtiers. Anybody who was decently dressed could enter the palace of Versailles: ‘It is impossible’, marvelled Arthur Young,18 ‘not to like this careless indifference and freedom from suspicion.’ But only those who had been presented to the king and hunted with him were true courtiers, and to be admitted to these ‘Honours of the Court’ one had to have authentic proofs of noble ancestry reaching back to 1400, or enjoy exemption by special favour. Less than a thousand families had this distinction, and many of those took no advantage of it after presentation, since life at Versailles was ruinously expensive. Only the richest could afford the clothes, the retinue, the entertaining, and the upkeep of quarters both there and in Paris that were essential to lead the life of high fashion. Those who could afford it were the kingdom’s uncontested social élite, the cream of the nobility, dukes, peers, and other holders of exalted titles, great officers of the Crown, ministers, generals, and archbishops, or simply favourites of the monarch or his consort. And most of them would still have found it difficult without further pensions, sinecures, and other lucrative orders and distinctions in the gift of the king. This was entirely as Louis XIV, the architect of the whole system, had intended. His aim had been to assemble the great of the kingdom around his person, where he could see and control them. Those who came were richly rewarded—and thereby domesticated and made dependent. All Louis XIV denied them was real power in the form of high political office; but by Louis XVI’s time courtiers had reconquered even that. From the late 1750s dukes and peers were found holding ministerial portfolios alongside the professionals of the robe. And even without formally holding office, people who mingled daily with the king, his ministers, and favourites could hardly fail to be influential. Life at Court was in fact an endless pursuit of advantage, status, pensions, offices, and perquisites from those whom royal favour endowed with power to bestow them. News of the death of Louis XV came to his successor, Marie Antoinette’s first lady of the bedchamber recalled,19 when ‘A terrible noise exactly like thunder was heard in the outer room of his apartments; it was the crowd of courtiers deserting the antechamber of the dead sovereign to come and greet the new power of Louis XVI.’Such graphic recollections fill the pages of countless diarists and memorialists who chronicled the intrigues of the Court in loving detail from the time of Louis XIV onwards. Most of them sound astonishingly trivial; but the prestige, wealth, and power they were about were real enough. France was ruled from Versailles, and the rewards of success at Court were limitless.

Some measured it by the public money they were able to amass. At the height of their influence in the 1780s the family of the Duchess de Polignac, the queen’s closest friend, were together drawing an annual 438,000 L. in pensions and salaries. When she retired from Court in 1774 on the death of her royal lover, Mme Du Barry, who had started out in life as a penniless but stunningly pretty milliner, sold her three houses in Versailles but eventually went to live, on a generous pension, in a lavishly furnished country house a few miles away, owning a fortune in jewels. Under the lascivious Louis XV, indeed, royal mistresses could make or break ministers. The Duke de Choiseul, greatest of his servants, reached the highest office by persistent cultivation of Mme de Pompadour; Count de Maurepas, Secretary of State for the Navy, was disgraced and exiled in 1749 for circulating smutty verses about her. He remained in exile until 1774, when a new king, who was not interested in mistresses, plucked him out of oblivion to make him his chief minister and adviser. Until he died in 1781, Maurepas had a hand in the appointment and dismissal of every holder of the four secretaryships of state (foreign affairs, war, the navy, and the royal household), the offices of Comptroller-General of the Finances and Keeper of the Seals (head of the judiciary), and all other places of importance such as intendancies and the Paris lieutenancy of police. As the principal minister of state, with a seat on the most important of the royal councils, he had a predominant voice in all policy-making, and the young monarch gladly yielded to his knowledge and experience even though it had been gained more than a generation previously, when the problems facing the government had been far less acute.

But who else could he turn to? His parents were long dead, and his grandfather Louis XV had done little to initiate him into the duties and mysteries of kingship. He was just 20 when he inherited the throne. His wife, who had been 15 when she had married him in 1770, had been born an archduchess of Austria, but she was still a girl who thought of little but pleasure, and she resented his disinclination to perform his husbandly duties. He had been carefully educated, read several languages, and was conventionally devout. He had a strong sense of duty, and was determined to rule well. That was why he recalled Maurepas, of whom his old tutor had always spoken highly. But his podgy appearance and waddling gait were unimpressive (’the King looks’, sneered an English nobleman in 1780,20 ‘much like a Castrato’) and the attack of smallpox which unexpectedly carried off Louis XV left his heir feeling, as he put it, as if the universe were falling in on him. He came to the throne, he wailed, too young. There was nothing like the effortless assumption of authority and clear plan of action shown by the 22-year-old Louis XIV, 114 years beforehand, on the day Mazarin died. All Louis XVI had was good intentions.

His Majesty wishes to place Himself out of the Reach of all Intrigue [observed the British ambassador]. This, however, is a vain Expectation, and the Chimera of a Young, inexperienced Mind. The throne He fills, far from raising him above Intrigue, places Him in the Centre of it. Great and Eminent Superiority of Talents might, indeed, crush these Cabals, but as there is no Reason to believe Him possessed of that Superiority, I think, He will be a prey to them and find Himself more and more entangled every Day.21

* See below, pp. 54-5.



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