THE France that Voltaire returned to in 1728 had some nineteen millions population, divided into three états (states, or classes): the clergy, the nobility, and the tiers état (Third Estate), all the rest. We must look at each “state” carefully if we would understand the Revolution.
The territorial seigneurs who derived their titles from the land they owned (approximately a fourth of the soil) called themselves la noblesse d’épée, the nobility of the sword. Their chief duty was to organize, and lead the defense of, their seigniory, their region, their country, and their king. In the first half of the eighteenth century they headed some eighty thousand families comprising 400,000 souls.1 They were divided into jealous ranks. At their top stood the offspring and nephews of the reigning king. Below these were the pairs, or peers, of France: princes of the blood (lineal descendants of previous kings); seven bishops; fifty dukes. Then came lesser dukes, then marquises, then counts, viscounts, barons, chevaliers … Various ceremonial privileges distinguished the several grades; so there were tragic disputes over the right to walk under parasols in the Corpus Christi procession, or to sit in the presence of the king.
Within the noblesse d’épée a minority tracing its titles and possessions through many generations designated itself la noblesse de race, and looked down upon those nobles who owed their titles to the ennoblement of recent ancestors or themselves under Louis XIII or Louis XIV. Some of these new titles had been conferred as reward for services to the state in war, administration, or finance; some had been sold for as little as six thousand livres by the late needy Grand Monarque; in this way, said Voltaire, “a huge number of citizens—bankers, surgeons, merchants, clerks, and servants of princes—obtained patents of nobility.”2 Certain governmental offices, such as chancellor or chief justice, automatically ennobled their holders. Under Louis XV any commoner could achieve nobility by buying for 120,000 livres appointment as a secretary of state; under Louis XVI there would be nine hundred such imaginary secretaries. Or one could buy a title by buying a nobleman’s estate. By 1789 probably ninety-five per cent of all nobles were of middle-class origin.3
Among these the majority had arrived at exaltation by studying law and becoming judicial or administrative magistrates. In this number were the members of the thirteen parlements that served as law courts in the greater cities of France. As a magistrate was allowed to transmit his office to his son, a new hereditary aristocracy took form—la noblesse de robe, the nobility of the gown. In the judiciary, as in the clergy, the gown was half the authority. Overwhelming in their scarlet robes, massive mantles, frilled sleeves, powdered wigs, and plumaged hats, the members of the parlements ranked just below the bishops and the territorial nobility. But as some magistrates, through their legal fees, became richer than most pedigreed landholders, the barriers between thenoblesse d’épéeand the noblesse de robe broke down, and by 1789 there was an almost complete amalgamation of the two nobilities. The class thus formed was then so numerous and powerful that the King did not dare oppose it, and only the Jacqueries of the Revolution could overthrow its costly privileges.
Many of the old nobility were impoverished by careless or absentee management of their domains, or by unprogressive agricultural methods, or by exhaustion of the soil, or by depreciation of the currency in which they received tenant rents or feudal dues; and as nobles were not supposed to engage in commerce or industry, the growth of manufactures and trade developed a money economy in which one might own much land and still be poor. In some districts of France there were hundreds of nobles as indigent as the peasantry.4 But a large minority of nobles enjoyed and dissipated great fortunes. The Marquis de Villette had an annual income of 150,000 livres, the Duc de Chevreuse 400,000, the Duc de Bouillon 500,000. To make their lives more tolerable most nobles were exempt, except in emergency, from direct taxation. Kings feared to tax them lest they demand the summoning of a States-General; such a meeting of the three états might exact some control over the monarch as the price of voting subsidies. “Every year,” said de Tocqueville, “the inequality of taxation separated classes, … sparing the rich and burdening the poor.”5 In 1749 an income tax of five per cent was levied on the nobles, but they prided themselves on evading it.
Before the seventeenth century the landed nobility had served economic and administrative, as well as military, functions. However their property had been acquired, the seigneurs organized the division and cultivation of the soil, either through serfdom or through leasing parcels to tenants; they provided law and order, trial, adjudication, and punishment; they maintained the local school, hospital, and charity. On hundreds of seigniories the feudal lord had performed these functions as well as the natural selfishness of men allowed, and the peasants, recognizing his usefulness, gave him obedience and respect, sometimes even affection.
Two main factors changed this feudal relationship: the appointment of intendants by and after Cardinal Richelieu, and the transformation of the major seigneurs into courtiers by Louis XIV. The intendants were middle-class bureaucrats sent by the king to govern the thirty-two districts into which France was divided for administration. Usually they were men of ability and good will, though they were not all Turgots. They improved the sanitation, lighting, and embellishment of the towns; they reorganized the finances; they dammed rivers to irrigate the soil, or diked them to prevent floods; they gave France in this century a magnificent network of roads then unequaled elsewhere in the world, and began to line them with the trees that shade and adorn them today.6 Soon their greater diligence and competence displaced the territorial lords from regional rule. To accelerate this centralizing replacement, Louis XIV invited the seigneurs to attend him at court; there he gave them lowly offices glorified with exalted titles and intoxicating ribbons; they lost touch with local affairs while drawing from their manors the revenues needed to maintain their palaces and equipages in Paris or Versailles; they clung to their feudal rights after abandoning their feudal tasks. Their loss of administrative functions, in both the economy and the government, opened them to the charge that they were dispensable parasites on the body of France.