History 1112: World History II
The Ancien Regime and the Intellectual Challenges of the
17th and 18th Centuries
A Sharply Differentiated Society
The pre-1789 ancien regime (the French term for old order)
was incredibly hierarchical both socially and politically.
The social (and political) ladder was sharply etched with great divisions
between bottom and top.
The differences in access to power and in status between noble born
and common was vast. Those who were noble born enjoyed special privileges,
status, and legal rights unavailable to those who were common born (even
wealthy common born people).
Where you were born determined almost entirely your position in society.
This system thus rested fundamentally on tradition.
The system of privilege had been under intellectual attack since the Renaissance,
but new intellectual movements in the 17th and 18th centuries (the Enlightenment
and Scientific Revolution) would mount a new and significant challenge
to the prevailing social order by using reason to attack the
system of tradition on which it rested.
In particular, these intellectual movements would inspire the increasingly
wealthy but still relatively politically powerless bourgeoisie to
challenge the prevailing order.
We will begin by examining the class structure of ancien regime society
(the monarchy at the top, followed by the , Three Estates) and will
then look at the challenge posed by the Scientific Revolution and by the
Enlightenment. We will focus on France, the largest and most important
nation in Europe in the 18th century (but we can consider France to be
a model for the rest of Europe).
At the top of the class pyramid stood the King, who--in theory--ruled the
nation of France with no restraint under the doctrine of Absolutism.
Absolutism was the reigning political system/theory in Europe in
the 18th century.
According to it, the Monarch enjoyed unquestioned authority葉hey had NO
checks on their authority, and did not legally share power.
The King held power by virtue of Divine Right. Basically,
this held that the king's authority and position stemmed from God himself葉hat
he was God's representative on earth and thus could not be questioned (to
question the King's decisions or authority would be, in turn, to question
He also held power by virtue of tradition--the King's rule was justified
by virtue of the fact that the nation had had a King for hundreds if not
thousands of years (tradition was the basis for the entire arrangement
of society at that time--in particular, it underlay the King's and the
nobility's special privileges).
The reality of the situation did not really live up to the theory of absolutism,
The King did not really enjoy absolute power. He had to keep the
the Church, and even the peasants happy to rule without challenges.
He consequently relied heavily on the church and the nobility (with whom,
as we shall see, he shared a common class outlook), and tended to support
them in local conflicts w/peasants.
Likewise, their were ancient political institutions that rested on the
same legal foundation (tradition) as did the King's power and the
nobility's privilege. Thus, the King could not do away with or ignore these
institutions without calling his own authority into question.
For example: the provinces had their own courts called Estates.
Towns and cities also enjoyed ancient historical privileges such as exemptions
from taxation (which helped give France a crazy quilt of legal codes).
B. France's Bourbon Dynasty
France's Bourbon Dynasty was Europe's best example of an absolute monarchy.
i. Louis XIV (1643-1715)
Louis XIV was the most important Bourbon King, and was the very
embodiment of the absolutist monarch.
He was very effective at enhancing the power of the monarchy.
Louis warred incessantly (an area in which kings had full authority) to
increase French power and territory; this, in turn, enhanced his power.
He waged four major wars between 1667 and 1713, and had a peacetime army
of 100,000 men and a wartime military of 400,000.
When he came to power he confronted a powerful and independent nobility.
As we shall see (below), moreover, he used the palace of Versailles
to break their power and to "domesticate" them.
He also used Versailles to centralize his control of the French government
(though it remained a very inefficient organization).
ii. Religion: The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685)
Louis also used religion to uphold his authority.
He rallied the Catholic Church to him (and thereby won its support)
by revoking the Edict of Nantes (1598) in 1685. The edict had guaranteed
religious tolerance and freedom to Protestants (known in France as Huegenots).
Louis both feared the Huegenots (they had their own army and fortified
towns and were wealthy and powerful) and sought to make the Catholic Church
a pillar supporting his rule.
As a result of his decision to revoke the Edict of Nantes, some 200,000
Huegenots fled to Germany or to England.
Though he thereby lost the services of an especially entrepreneurial group
of people, Louis did win the gratitude of the Catholic Church (which sought
to cement its position in France).
Versailles was Louis's palace that he had constructed outside Paris.
Versailles was (and is) a magnificent palace that Louis hoped would be
the physical embodiment of the grandeur and power of the French King.
It took 40 years to build, employed 10,000 servants and was the largest
building in Europe.
Versailles served a very important political purpose for Louis because
he used it (and designed it to break the power of the nobility.
To that point in France's history, the nobility jealously guarded their
independence, power, and ancient political rights. This put them on a collision
course with Louis, who, in keeping with the doctrine of the Divine Right
of Kings, sought to enhance the power of the central monarchy.
Louis consequently used Versailles to redirect the noble's energies away
from the pursuit of political power and toward the pursuit of social status
within the confines of court life.
Louis thus demanded that the nobles live part of the year at Versailles
(Versailles was a massive palace complex that could house tens of thousands).
He proved successful in getting the nobles to live at Versailles both because
it was lavish and fun and because they had to live at Versailles or Louis
would shut them out access to lucrative royal patronage.
Louis was thus successful in domesticated the nobles. They focused
more and more on achieving status at court and less and less on achieving
real political power.
Key to this process were a series of rituals Louis and his advisors devised
that were designed to produce a nobility keener to curry favor with the
king than to achieve independent political power.
For example, each morning Louis was the center of a ritual called the
Lever, in which a group of noblemen would help him get ready for the
day (one would hand him his towel, another would help him put his shirt
Being asked to participate in this ritual meant gave the participant great
status the nobles thus fought to take part in the Lever much as they
had once fought for their political power.
By 1700, therefore, Louis had domesticated the nobility.
of course, Louis enjoyed nothing like absolute power.
He had ended the nobles' threat to the monarchy's power, but he faced limits
due to persistent local control, due to the fact that he could not erode
the basis for noble power (tradition) without eroding his power, and most
of all, due to the fact that the monarchy was never on solid enough financial
footing (Louis's wars and the palace of Versailles were both phenomenally
III. The Church (the First Estate)
Legally, French society was divided into three ancient classes--the First,
Second, and Third Estates.
The First Estate, the clergy of the Catholic Church, was almost as powerful
as the King.
France was almost entirely Catholic after Revocation of the Edict of
The Church was very wealthy--it held 15% of the land, and paid no formal
A. Domination by Nobility
Internally, the First Estate was sharply divided between the noble elite
(most of the high positions in the Church were held by nobles) and common
Nobles dominated the church completely, and were allied with the
Thus, the Church, King, and Nobles had a common class interest and supported
one another in way that gave Louis great authority and that buttressed
the basis of their power--tradition..
Not only did the Church not have to pay taxes, but it also had its own
Under the Tithe, all French people had to pay 10% of their annual income
(or 10% of the goods and crops they produced to the Church.
The Church thus did rather well under the ancien regime, and top Church
positions were as powerful as some ministerial posts.
IV. Nobility (the Second Estate)
The second estate consisted of the nobility.
It ruled with Louis, but in a subservient capacity (all of Louis's ministers
were nobles, as were the generals in his army).
The total number of nobles in France was somewhere between 100,000 and
Nobles had a title and enjoyed special privileges by virtue of birth.
They were considered socially (and legally) to be better people than were
the commoners of the Third Estate.
Like Louis and the Church, they owed their status to tradition.
They had special rights and privileges because they always had (and, they
argued, because the perpetuation of tradition was the best way to maintain
order in society).
A. Hereditary Privileges
Nobles had many privileges that commoners did not enjoy.
They were the only ones legally allowed to wear swords in public.
They enjoyed the right to be tried by a jury of their peers (which meant
that their jury would always consist of nobles. Needless to say, noble
juries rarely convicted noble defendants in court cases involving nobles
Most important, while nobles controlled the land (and thus most of the
wealth in France, they were exempt from the payment of most taxes
(such as the gabelle).
Thus, those best able to pay taxes were exempt from them.
Nobles also enjoyed the benefits of serfdom (having peasants serfs
work for them for no pay).
This vestige of the feudal system was based on the notion that the
noble様ooked after the client葉he serf擁n exchange for a portion
of the crops the serf grew.
As it had once existed, the noble would provide military protection or
large, expensive equipment such as an oven, wine press, or mill for grinding
in exchange for corveé labor in which the peasants worked
for the noble 2-3 days per week (repairing irrigation works, building roads,
working the noble's crops, etc.)..
While this had once been a two-way street, was, by 1700, a system that
completely favored the nobles. The serfs no longer needed military protection,
and were thus merely enriching aristocrats.
Nobles were, in particular, exempted from the gabelle--France's 100% tax
on salt (it was a key source of royal revenue.
It was paid by all except nobles.
This tax was hated. Salt was used for many things (preserving meat,
flavoring food, preparing bread, etc.), and was thus a staple.
People hated having to pay this heavy tax on so many of the basic goods
that they consumed.
V. Everybody Else (the Third Estate) 97% of population
The Common people constituted the vast majority of the population in France,
and enjoyed virtually no rights.
In particular, they lacked the hereditary privileges enjoyed by kings,
nobles, and clergy.
Moreover, they paid virtually all of the taxes.
At one time, the majority of the Third Estate had been peasants. By the
18th century, however, the Third Estate had become a diverse collection
of people ranging from impoverished peasants to rich international merchants.
Their desire to overturn the privilege-based political system would result
in 1789 in the outbreak of the French Revolution.
A. Peasants (80% of population)
Peasants were the vast majority of France's population at this time, and
they suffered miserably. They were almost completely politically powerless.
They suffered from instability, food shortages, and inflation (inflation
in part a product of the growth of international trade).
Population growth also shrank their land holdings (land divided among more
and more sons).
They paid a wildly disproportionate share of France's taxes容specially
the gabelle, which ate up a substantial part of the peasant's income).
Most did not own the land they farmed, but instead were share croppers
on land owned by the nobles.
They also had to spend a large portion of their time working the nobles'
land (which they hated).
They lived a bleak, and often tenuous existence.
B. Urban Poor (about 8% of population)
These people were artisans and skilled laborers who lived in towns and
They made skilled goods such as barrels, farm implements, ships, etc.
They lived much better than did peasants, and were literate. They would,
when the French Revolution began in 1789, constitute the most radical element
in the revolution.
C. Bourgeoisie (8%)
The Bourgeoisie were the newest group in France.
They were the wealthy middle class (do not confuse them with the middle
class today, as the bourgeoisie of the 18th century included many VERY
wealthy people), and ranged from lawyers, doctors, and shop
owners up to the wealthy merchants.
For the most part, this class owed its emergence to France's growing involvement
in international commerce. That commerce either directly involved the bourgeoisie
(merchants and their skilled, white-collar employees such as accountants)
or created the wealth that supported the bourgeoisie (playwrights,
They lived mostly in towns and cities, and were becoming increasingly wealthy
over course of 18th century due to the rapid expansion of trade (both local
and global--especially to France's growing colonial empire).
One problem: they were creating most of France's new wealth (which,
of course, was increasingly the basis of geopolitical power), but lacked
political power; this upset the bourgeoisie.
They also disliked the privilege that the 1st and 2nd Estates enjoyed.
Their pursuit of political power would put them on a collision course with
They would, as we shall see, constitute the vanguard of the French Revolution.
VI. Intellectual Challenges
While the ancien regime appeared to be solid and unlikely to change (despite
the chafing of the bourgeoisie), it would be rocked in the 17th and especially
the 18th century by new intellectual movements.
These movements--the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment--would
undermine the basis of the existing order (tradition) by postulating
that reason rather than tradition should be used as the basis
As a result, these movements would inspire the bourgeoisie to begin a revolution
against the prevailing system of privilege.
A. Scientific Revolution
The Scientific Revolution in Europe began in the 16th and 17th centuries
with the rediscovery of heretofore lost knowledge of the Classical period
(for example, Europeans rediscovered the works of the Greek astronomer
Building on Ptolemy's work, the astronomers Copernicus, Galileo,
and Keppler would end the geo-centric concept of the universe (which
put the earth at the center) and would develop a heliocentric one (which
put the sun at the center.
i. Isaac Newton
Newton was the key figure in the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth
Among his MANY other achievements, he developed his famous Three Laws.
1. A body in motion stays in motion; a body at rest stays at rest;
2. The rate of change in motion of a body is proportional to the
force acting on it;
3. To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.
Newton thus showed that universal laws governed everything
everywhere. (of course, his theories have since been superseded by among
other new ideas, Einstein's Theory of Relativity). This was a major scientific
breakthrough gave a unifying synthesis for the new cosmological vision
begun by Keppler and Copernicus.
This was an enormous breakthrough in science, but it also had vital social
and political implications. Newton showed that reasoning could
be used to discover the natural laws that governed the universe.
This suggested that similar natural laws existed that governed human
society (politics, law, economics, etc.).
Newton's theories thus implied that there was an ideal system for the organization
of society and that it could be found and was based upon reason.
Implicitly, therefore, Newton's theories suggested that the system of status
by birth and tradition on which the ancien regime
rested was inappropriate because that social system was not justified by
the scientific revolution thus spurred the belief that reason could--and
should--be used to determine the best social and political system for man
and that people should thus no longer rely upon tradition or privilege.
For more on Newton click here.
B. The Enlightenment
A new and important intellectual movement would grow out of the Scientific
Revolution in the 18th century called the Enlightenment. It
was centered in France in the 18th century, and sought to extend the Scientific
Revolution's emphasis on rational thought and reason (in
contrast to the customary emphasis upon tradition and received values)
to human society. It was thus a critical and powerful challenge to
the ancien regime.
Enlightenment intellectuals developed explicitly the novel concept (at
the time) that reason was more important than tradition.
Reason, in turn, led them to conclude that the hereditary privilege
enjoyed by king and nobles by virtue of their noble birth was irrational
They sought to use reason to find "natural laws" (inspired by Newton) that
would make for the best society. Thus attacked privilege and religious
The Enlightenment thus challenged explicitly the status quo.
We will look briefly at three Enlightenment figures (there were many):
Voltaire, Diderot, and Adam Smith.
i. Voltaire (1694-1778) and Diderot (1713-1784)
Voltaire was a key Enlightenment figure who was famous for being
He helped to develop the theology of Deism. Deism held
that God was not an active figure in human affairs, but, like a watchmaker,
he created the universe but let it run of its own accord (this was in keeping,
obviously, with Newton's Three Laws).
Voltaire's Deism would thus challenge the prevailing
power structure on all fronts (the king's power rested on Divine Right,
which Deism suggested was bunk; the clergy's nobles'
privilege also stemmed ultimately from tradition based upon religion, and
was thus also incompatible with Deism).
Voltaire also emphasized toleration in religion (he was strongly opposed
to the Catholic Church's monopoly on religion in France, and especially
hated that the Church controlled education.
He published the Treatise on Toleration (1763) in which he
called for religious toleration in France.
Denis Diderot was another key Enlightenment figure.
He published the Encyclopedia--a vast, 28-volume compendium
of all knowledge. It became a vital tool in the Enlightenment crusade
against the ancien regime. It attacked
religious superstition and intolerance, and called for a better society
based upon a legal and political system rooted in reason rather
than in received tradition.
These two men would thus challenge the prevailing, religiously based system
of privilege that existed in ancien regime France,
and would, like other members of the Enlightenment thereby challenge irrationality
ii. Adam Smith (1723-1790)
Adam Smith was a Scottish economist who wrote The Wealth of Nations
He attacked the prevailing mercantilist idea that the government
should control trade and the economic system to benefit the state by bringing
in more gold in exports than it lost through imports.
Building on Newton's basic ideas, he believed that the "natural" law
and demand could better benefit society that state management (all
would get richer if the state practiced laissez faire-the
idea that the government should refrain from interfering in the functioning
of the economy).
Smith believed that the government should only 1. provide for defense,
2. provide police protection to its citizens, and 3. construct public works
such as roads and canals.
Smith thus implicitly challenged the notion that the king should enjoy
great control over the economy.
Instead, he believed that individual actors (particularly the bourgeoisie)
should collectively call the economic shots through the market mechanism
of supply and demand.
He would thus inspire bourgeoisie to call for free trade, more liberty,
etc. so as to make the whole country wealthier.
A Society divided over Birth and Privilege
Thus, as we have seen, THE KEY DIVISION IN SOCIETY WAS BETWEEN PRIVILEGED
MEMBERS (the Monarchy, First Estate, and Second Estate, AND UNPRIVILEGED
ONES (the Third Estate). You either had privilege or you did not; and,
by and large, if you enjoyed privilege you had a shared class outlook with
the other privileged classes.
This division, as we shall see, would mark the principal dividing line
right through the Revolution of 1848.
The Looming Conflict
While this sharply hierarchical class system was well entrenched in the
18th century, the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution had already sharply
attacked them, and would help to spur a challenge to the old order.
We will see this begin in earnest in France in 1789.