The French Society Before the Revolution


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

Just after eight o’clock on a January morning in 1793, a condemned man was driven through the streets of Paris to a scaffold and guillotine. This was the French Revolution’s steel arm of justice. Identified as Citizen Louis Capet, the man was wearing a fashionable coat, silk breeches, and stockings. He addressed the gathered crowd of French society with surprising composure. “I die innocent,” he said.

llustration of Louis XVI being executed
Though he was once called King Louis XVI, the man who was executed was only called Citizen Louis Capet. (Image: Isidore Stanislas Helman/Public domain)

How King Louis XVI Became Louis Capet

But little sympathy could be found among onlookers for the charged crime of treason. After the metal blade fell, the executioner raised the severed head for the crowd to see. Some rushed forward to dip their handkerchiefs in the spilled blood. Shouts rang out: “Vive la nation!” Only a few years earlier, the now-disgraced King Louis XVI had been revered as God’s divinely ordered representative on earth. Now, he was merely Louis Capet, citizen.

Public executions were not uncommon in Paris during the 18th century. By the end of the following year, an estimated 17,000 French citizens met their ends in similarly violent and public fashion. Revolutionary tribunals had the authority to execute anyone; even those only suspected of counter revolutionary activities. No trial was deemed necessary.

Beginning of the French Revolution

What began as a celebration of liberty and equality, with the French middle-class struggling to throw off the repressive weight of royalty and aristocracy, the movement soon became subject—as French royalist Mallet de Pan himself remarked—to being consumed from within. 

The Spanish painter Francois Goya captured this image in the portrait of Greek mythology’s Titus Cronus eating his children out of fear of being overthrown by one of them. By studying the French bourgeoisie’s efforts to throw off the absolutist hierarchal system of the Old Regime, we can learn a great deal about revolutions broadly.

Beginning in 1789, and continuing for a full decade, the French Revolution didn’t come out of nowhere. The century that preceded it brought new ideas, priorities, and politicized constituencies. The old regime had resisted these pressures for decades. And then a financial crisis married ineffective leadership with social unrest and ideological challenges proved overwhelming.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern HistoryWatch it now, on Wondrium.

A Little Background

Illustration of the Three Estates
French society was made up of the three estates: the clergy, French nobility, and the peasants and merchants. (Image: M. P./Public domain)

Louis XVI had come to the throne in 1774 and was the last of the Bourbon Dynasty; the dynasty that had ruled France since 1589. The Bourbons enjoyed certain advantages that their English counterparts did not.

Whereas the English king and parliament battled for supremacy throughout the 17th century, French monarchs didn’t have to contend with an independent legislature. Also, France had nothing analogous to England’s Magna Carta, or America’s Bill of Rights. The French king was the law and the source of all authority. Under the king, three estates comprised the rest of the society: The First Estate, the Second Estate, and the Third Estate. 

The clergy—who were considered closest to God below the monarch—constituted the First Estate. They numbered about 100,000 people out of a population of 25 million. The Second Estate encompassed the French nobility, numbering about 400,000. The Third Estate consisted of everyone else: from peasants to artisans, and wealthy, non-noble merchants.

Political Commentary and Mockery

Privilege flowed down at the discretion of those on the higher rungs. But in time, a growing number of French intellectuals found the situation irrational and unjust, especially compared to the system of constitutional rule arising out of England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688-89. 

Portrait of Voltaire
Intellectuals such as Voltaire ridiculed the bedrocks of society in the period of Enlightenment. (Image: Gift of Mr. Charles Floquet/Public domain)

In a period of intellectual ferment known as the Enlightenment—extending roughly from 1715 to 1789—social critics published books and pamphlets detailing religious intolerance, social inequality, and the arbitrary rule of despots.

Enlightenment figures such as Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau, and Voltaire ridiculed and derided these bedrocks of French society. Rumors, songs, jokes, pamphlets, and even pornography with a political theme reached a wide swath of the French population and normalized irreverence for institutions formerly held as sacrosanct.

Little Respect Left for the King

Such commentary was risky. Many dissident authors were jailed for challenging the political and social orders. And the bonds of loyalty that tethered the public to the Old Regime were gradually whittling away. Indeed, the doomed Louis XVI was the subject of ribald speculation from the moment he ascended the throne.

For most of the first decade of his marriage to the Austrian princess, Marie Antoinette, the royal couple failed to produce an heir, which was one of their most important obligations. As years passed, cartoons and illegal pamphlets lampooned Louis as both in and out of his bedroom. 

His wife was cast as an “Austrian whore”. By the time the first of their four children was born after eight years of matrimony, the air of veneration that seemed requisite for monarchy had evaporated.

Common Questions about the French Society Before the Revolution

Q: What were the French monarch’s advantages in comparison to English kings?

The English king and parliament had to battle each other for political power whereas the French monarch didn’t have to contend with anyone. Also, France didn’t have a Bill of Rights or Magna Carta like America or England. The power of the monarch was divine and the French society couldn’t change it.

Q: How did intellectuals criticize French institutions during the Enlightenment?

Intellectuals such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau ridiculed the bedrocks of the French society such as religious intolerance, social inequality, and the arbitrary rule of despots.

Q: How was King Louis XVI mocked by his people?

Rumors, jokes, songs, and pamphlets were among the things that were circulated in French society at the time, mocking the king, Louis XVI, and his wife, Marie Antoinette. Even pornography with political undertones and themes became widespread throughout a great deal of France’s population. People were irreverent toward institutions that were once deemed sacrosanct.

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