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by Raymond F. Betts

The Old Order

The king was in the counting house counting all his money,
The queen was in the pantry eating bread and honey.


The French foreign minister Talleyrand once commented that anyone who had not lived before 1789 did not know how sweet life could be. As an aristocrat, Talleyrand could afford to make such a remark, for his social situation was enjoyed by many court noblemen who found life generally pleasant, even elegant. Dressed in silk, often engaged only in petty intrigue, most often wined and dined to surfeit, they pursued an existence far removed from that of the vast majority of their countrymen and at severe variance with the daily routine of the peasant who was bound by circumstance, if no longer by law, to the land.

"The plowman homeward plods his weary way," was the poetic description provided by Thomas Gray of the end of daily routine for the early eighteenth-century peasant. His was a severe, monotonous existence, briefly relieved by the conviviality that the warmth of hearth and alcohol could induce, and helped along by young children who participated fully in domestic and field chores. The peasant was the most numerous figure in the Old Regime, the most fixed in social custom and practice, the most ignored by the government.

Somewhere in between the lofty court gentleman and the lowly country plowman stood another individual, dedicated to trade and the activities of the marketplace, interested in making a good profit, and anxious to rise to higher social station. This was the bourgeois, resident of the bourg or burg, a city dweller who, because of his place in the social order, is also known to us as a member of the "middle class."

The three social groups just mentioned were not so simply separated in reality, nor were they so defined according to social custom. Country nobility often lived no better than the peasants adjacent to them, while the wealthy bourgeoisie sometimes lived as splendidly as did aristocrats. Also, there were rich farmers more like the bourgeoisie in wealth and attitude than the peasants and, therefore, sometimes referred to as a "rural bourgeoisie."

Moreover, these three basic social units did not exactly correspond to the estates system, which had long determined political and legal conditions in the country. The three estates were, in descending order: the clergy, the nobility, and the remainder of the population, but most significantly, the bourgeoisie.

In principle, each estate had a well-determined purpose, as if its members were woven into some medieval tapestry, fixed in time and position. The clergy was responsible for the community's spiritual well-being and therefore interceded by prayer and sacred ceremony with an inscrutable God on behalf of His "creatures here below." The nobility had previously been the knights in shining armor, defending the realm against foreign intruders and local marauders, thereby maintaining some semblance of internal peace. The aristocrats commanded armies and enjoyed the military presence--think only of the Marquis de Lafayette during the American Revolution--but they also played an important role in the administration of government--think only of Lord North at the time of the American Revolution. Last was the "Third Estate," consisting of the vast majority of the population and being the real generator of wealth by which the social system satisfied its basic needs. Agriculture and regional commerce were this estate's major activities, with bread and woolens long having been its basic finished products.

Each of these estates comprised a social state, a self-contained community of custom, prerogative, and purpose. On a most basic level, marriage among them was not sanctioned. Moreover, the language they employed was noticeably different, another obvious mark of distinction. The system of laws, taxes, and privileges varied also from estate to estate, such that the only principle of equality recognized in the Old Regime was the theological one that all human beings were equally important in the eyes of God.

At no time was the estates system more ceremoniously defined than at its last moment of existence. On May 4, 1789, on the occasion of the opening of the Estates-General (the elected representatives of each estate) just before the French Revolution, the participants filed into the chapel of the chateau of Versailles for a Te Deum, a religious service of praise to God. The procession inward was brilliant: first came the high clergy in their rich scarlet and purple robes; then followed the nobles splendidly attired in court garb of silk and ruffles; finally came the representatives of the Third Estate, primarily members of the bourgeoisie, dressed in somber black broadcloth.

Such separation in ceremony, dress, and custom was transcended in political theory by the concept of the kingdom. All estates were formally part of one legal and political system, the "realm," over which his serene majesty, the king, reigned.

Ruler, it was said, "by the grace of God," the monarch of the late seventeenth and eighteenth century continental state was theoretically absolute in his power. Louis XIV of France was supposed to have said, "I am the state." He certainly ruled as if he were, as did many of his contemporaries. Theirs was deemed to be an authority derived from "Divine Right," the will of God that they should rule and the subjects obey. One of the most influential clergymen during Louis's long reign, Bishop Bossuet, argued: "In order to establish this power, which represents His own, God places on the foreheads of sovereigns and on their visages a mark of divinity."

NEXT:  The Structure of the Old Regime

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