Pre-Revolutionary France

Painting of Louis XVI in court costume.
King Louis XVI.

Wikimedia Commons

In 1789, the French Revolution began a transformation of far more than just France, but Europe and then the world. It was the pre-revolutionary makeup of France that held the seeds of the circumstances for revolution, and affected how it was begun, developed, and—depending on what you believe—ended. Certainly, when the Third Estate and their growing followers swept away centuries of dynastic political tradition, it was the structure of France they were attacking as much as its principles.

The Country

Pre-revolutionary France was a jigsaw of lands which had been haphazardly aggregated over the preceding centuries, the different laws and institutions of each new addition often kept intact. The latest addition was the island of Corsica, coming into the French crown's possession in 1768. By 1789, France comprised an estimated 28 million people and was divided into provinces of vastly varying size, from the huge Brittany to the tiny Foix. Geography varied greatly from mountainous regions to rolling plains. The nation was also divided into 36 "generalities" for administrative purposes and these, again, varied in size and shape to both each other and the provinces. There were further subdivisions for each level of the church.

Laws also varied. There were thirteen sovereign courts of appeal whose jurisdiction unevenly covered the whole country: the Paris court covered a third of France, the Pav court just its own tiny province. Further confusion arose with the absence of any universal law beyond that of royal decrees. Instead, the precise codes and rules varied across France, with the Paris region mainly using customary law and the south a written code. Lawyers who specialized in handling the many different layers flourished. Each region also had its own weights and measures, tax, customs, and laws. These divisions and differences were continued at the level of every town and village.

Rural and Urban

France was still essentially a feudal nation with lords, due to a range of ancient and modern rights from their peasants who comprised about 80% of the population and the majority lived in rural contexts. France was a predominantly agricultural nation, even though this agriculture was low in productivity, wasteful, and using out of date methods. An attempt to introduce modern techniques from Britain had not succeeded. Inheritance laws, whereby estates were divided up among all the heirs, had left France divided into many tiny farms; even the large estates were small when compared to other European nations. The only major region of large-scale farming was around Paris, where the always hungry capital city provided a convenient market. Harvests were critical but fluctuating, causing famine, high prices, and riots.

The remaining 20% of France lived in urban areas, although there were only eight cities with a population in excess of 50,000 people. These were home to guilds, workshops, and industry, with workers often traveling from rural areas to urban ones in search of seasonal or permanent work. Death rates were high. Ports with access to overseas trade flourished, but this maritime capital didn't penetrate far into the rest of France.


France was governed by a king who was believed to be appointed by the grace of God; in 1789, this was Louis XVI, crowned on the death of his grandfather Louis XV on May 10, 1774. Ten thousand people worked in his main palace at Versailles, and 5% of his income was spent supporting it. The rest of French society considered itself divided into three groups: the estates.

The First Estate was the clergy, who numbered around 130,000 people, owned a tenth of the land, and were due tithes, religious donations of of one-tenth of income from every single person, although the practical applications varied hugely. Clergy were immune from tax and frequently drawn from noble families. They were all part of the Catholic Church, the only official religion in France. Despite strong pockets of Protestantism, over 97% of the French population considered themselves Catholic.

The Second Estate was the nobility, numbering around 120,000 people. The nobility were made up of people born into noble families, as well as those who obtained highly sought after government offices that conferred noble status. Nobles were privileged, didn't work, had special courts and tax exemptions, owned the leading positions in court and society—almost all of Louis XIV's ministers were noble—and were even allowed a different, quicker, method of execution. Although some were enormously rich, many were no better off than the lowest of the French middle classes, possessing little more than a strong lineage and some feudal dues.

The remainder of France, over 99%, formed the Third Estate. The majority were peasants who lived in near poverty, but around two million were the middle classes: the bourgeoisie. These had doubled in number between the years of Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) and XVI (r. 1754–1792) and owned around a quarter of French land. The common development of a bourgeoisie family was for one to make a fortune in business or trade and then plow that money into land and education for their children, who joined professions, abandoned the "old" business and lived their lives in comfortable, but not excessive existences, passing their offices down to their own children. One notable revolutionary, Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), was a third-generation lawyer. One key aspect of bourgeois existence was venal offices, positions of power and wealth within the royal administration which could be purchased and inherited: the entire legal system was comprised of purchasable offices. Demand for these was high and the costs rose ever higher.

France and Europe

By the late 1780s, France was one of the world's "great nations." A military reputation which had suffered during the Seven Years War had been partly salvaged thanks to France's critical contribution in defeating Britain during the American Revolutionary War, and their diplomacy was highly regarded, having avoided war in Europe during the same conflict. However, it was with culture that France dominated.

With the exception of England, the upper classes across Europe copied French architecture, furniture, fashion, and more while the main language of royal courts and the educated was French. Journals and pamphlets produced in France were disseminated across Europe, allowing the elites of other nations to read and quickly understand the literature of the French Revolution. By the lead-up to the revolution, a European backlash against this French domination had already begun, with groups of writers arguing that their own national languages and cultures should be pursued instead. Those changes would not occur until the next century.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Schama, Simon. "Citizens." New York: Random House, 1989. 
  • Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. "The French Revolutionary Wars." Oxford UK: Osprey Publishing, 2001. 
  • Doyle, William. "The Oxford History of the French Revolution." 3rd ed. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018.
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Wilde, Robert. "Pre-Revolutionary France." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 26). Pre-Revolutionary France. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Pre-Revolutionary France." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).