The Origins of the French Revolution in the Ancien Régime

The Third Estate carrying the Clergy and the Nobility on its back
English translation: "You should hope that this game will be over soon." The Third Estate carrying the Clergy and the Nobility on its back.

M.P./Bibliothèque nationale de France/Wikimedia Commons

The classic view of the ancien régime in France—the state of the nation before the French Revolution of 1789—is one of opulent, corpulent aristocrats enjoying wealth, privilege, and the finery of life, while totally divorced from the mass of the French people, who stooped in rags to pay for it. When this picture is painted, it is usually followed by an explanation of how a revolution—a massive smashing of the old by the massed ranks of the newly empowered common man—was necessary to destroy the institutionalized disparities. Even the name suggests a major gap: it was old, the replacement is new. Historians now tend to believe this is largely a myth, and that much once regarded as purely the result of the revolution was actually evolving before it.

A Changing Government

The revolution did not suddenly change France from a society where position and power depended on birth, custom, and being obsequious to the king, nor did it usher in an entirely new era of government being run by skilled professionals instead of noble amateurs. Before the revolution, ownership of rank and title was increasingly dependant upon money rather than birth, and this money was increasingly being made by dynamic, educated, and able newcomers who bought their way into the aristocracy. 25% of the nobility—6000 families—had been created in the eighteenth century. (Schama, Citizens, p. 117)

Yes, the revolution swept away a vast number of anachronisms and legal titles, but they had already been evolving. The nobility was not a homogenous group of overfed and debauched abusers—although these existed—but a vastly varying set which included the rich and the poor, the lazy and the entrepreneurial, and even those determined to tear their privileges down.

Changing Economics

A change in land and industry is sometimes cited as happening during the revolution. The supposedly ‘feudal’ world of dues and homage to a master in return for land is supposed to have been ended by the revolution, but many arrangements—where they had existed at all— had already been changed into rents before the revolution, not after. The industry had also been growing pre-revolution, led by entrepreneurial aristocrats benefiting from capital. This growth wasn’t on the same scale as Britain, but it was large, and the revolution halved it, not increased it. Foreign trade before the revolution grew so much that Bordeaux nearly doubled in size in thirty years. The practical size of France was shrinking too with an increase in travelers and the movement of goods and the speed with which they moved.

Lively and Evolving Society

French society was not backward and stagnant and in need of a revolution to clear it out as once claimed. Interest in enlightened science had never been stronger, and the cult of heroes took in men like Montgolfier (who brought people to the skies), and Franklin (who tamed electricity). The crown, under the curious, if awkward Louis XVI, took on board invention and innovation, and the government was reforming public health, food production, and more. There was plenty of philanthropy, such as schools for the disabled. Arts also continued to evolve and developed.

Society had been evolving in other ways. The explosion of the press which helped the revolution was certainly bolstered by the end of censorship during the upheaval but began in the decade before 1789. The idea of virtue, with an emphasis on the purity of oration over text, sobriety, and scientific curiosity was evolving out of the trend for ‘sensibility’ before the revolution took it to more extreme heights. Indeed the whole voice of the revolution—in as much as historians ever agree on a commonality among the revolutionaries—was developing before. The idea of the citizen, patriotic to the state, was also emerging in the pre-revolutionary period.

The Importance of the Ancien Régime on the Revolution

None of this is to say that the ancien régime was without problems, not least of which was the management of government finances and the state of the harvests. But it is clear that the changes wrought by the revolution had many of their origins in the earlier period, and they made it possible for the revolution to take the course it did. Indeed, you could argue that the upheaval of the revolution—and the ensuing military empire—actually delayed much of the recently proclaimed ‘modernity’ from fully emerging.