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date: 03 June 2020


Abstract and Keywords

The idea of the Ancien Régime can be traced back to the French Revolution. As soon as it became clear, during the summer of 1788, that the structure and apparatus of authority in France was collapsing, people began to look forward to an era of change. Suddenly, it seemed, all their dreams of a better, juster, fairer, kinder, freer order of things might be made to come true. Nothing was exempt from these expectations, and they were only fanned in the spring of 1789 when all the King's subjects, prior to electing the Estates-General, which was expected to solve all the kingdom's problems, were invited to draw up lists of their grievances. Much of the Ancien Régime as the revolutionaries defined it is still accepted by historians as a meaningful framework for study. Revolutionary destruction sliced like a guillotine through its fabric, and exposed for posterity a vivid cross-section or snapshot of how things were before the cataclysm struck. But in condemning the Ancien Régime to death so comprehensively, the revolutionaries tended to erase the memory of its previous life, bequeathing a static version of the world before their own emergence which denied it vitality.

Keywords: Ancien Régime, French Revolution, revolutionaries, King's subjects, authority, era of change

We owe the idea of the Ancien Régime to the French Revolution.1 As soon as it became clear, during the summer of 1788, that the structure and apparatus of authority in France was collapsing, people began to look forward to an era of change. Suddenly, it seemed, all their dreams of a better, juster, fairer, kinder, freer order of things might be made to come true. Nothing was exempt from these expectations, and they were only fanned in the spring of 1789 when all the King's subjects, prior to electing the Estates-General, which was expected to solve all the kingdom's problems, were invited to draw up lists of their grievances. These cahiers de doléances were carefully scrutinized by Alexis de Tocqueville in preparing the greatest of all analyses of The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution (1856). ‘When I come to assemble together all these particular wishes’, he concluded,2 ‘I perceive with a sort of terror that what is claimed is the simultaneous and systematic abolition of all the laws and all the customs obtaining throughout the kingdom.’ A number of these cahiers described what they deplored as belonging to a former order of things: l’ancien régime. By the end of 1789 the term was in general use among legislators and journalists to describe French institutional life before that year. It meant what the Revolution had destroyed: the opposite of what it stood for.

But what the Revolution stood for changed and evolved. Although the deputies elected in 1789 commissioned a digest of the cahiers to guide them in reframing French institutions, their initial plans did not run to the wholesale destruction which so appalled Tocqueville. The original project was to turn an absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. The political Ancien Régime in these terms meant a state in which the sovereign ruled unconstrained by representative institutions, and was responsible for his actions only to God. No clear corpus of laws constrained him, and as late as November 1787 Louis XVI had declared that what was legal was what he wished. When the Estates-General transformed itself into the Constituent Assembly, it began by proclaiming that the Nation was sovereign, and dedicated itself to producing a written constitution which closely circumscribed the King's freedom of action and vested most power in an elected legislature. The Ancien Régime, by contrasting definition, had had no constitution. It (p. 2) governed itself by custom: a confused, overlapping, and often contradictory collection of precedents, habits, and special cases, a complex of countless vested interests. The revolutionaries were committed to a more ordered state, introducing rationality and uniformity to national life.

Written constitutions were a new idea. The only accessible models were the constitutions adopted by American states only a few years earlier when they threw off British rule. A number had been translated and published in French in 1783, and much discussed since. And everyone was aware that at the very moment of the Ancien Régime's final crisis the United States was elaborating a new federal constitution. All these American constitutions (even, eventually, the federal one) incorporated declarations of rights, and from an early stage admirers of the new transatlantic republic pressed for a similar declaration to be incorporated into the new French constitution. After some debate, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, destined to be the new constitution's preamble, was promulgated on 26 August 1789. It has been called the death certificate of the Ancien Régime,3 in that it proclaimed the opposite of what had gone before. Sovereignty was now vested in the Nation; government was to be representative; state power was to be divided; the rule of law was to replace arbitrary authority. There was also to be civil equality, in other words no privileges or private law. All men were to be equal before the law, in the payment of taxes, and in access ‘to all public dignities, offices and employments, according to their ability, and with no other distinction than that of their virtues and their talents’ (article 6). Finally there was to be freedom: freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, freedom to do whatever was not harmful to others, freedom to believe or practise any religion, freedom to express opinions, and freedom to enjoy ‘inviolable and sacred’ property rights.

With its provisions for equality and freedom, the Declaration went beyond political structures to lay down ground rules for a new form of society, purged of what were increasingly called the ‘abuses’ of the Ancien Régime. In fact, some of the most extensive of these ‘abuses’ had already been consigned to destruction three weeks before the Declaration was passed. If the Declaration was the Ancien Régime's death certificate, the date of its death was 4 August, when, in the course of a confused and sometimes euphoric summer night, the National Assembly renounced or suppressed some of the most extensive and deeply rooted practices of French life. The session began as an attempt to defuse peasant unrest in the countryside by decreeing the end of the ‘feudal regime’—a structure of dues and services inherited from the middle ages by which lords extracted surplus from vassals whose property fell within their private jurisdiction. The so-called ‘feudal complex’ defies clear or rational analysis, but for that majority of the French who were peasants, its demands and burdens were a central feature of their lives. They and their descendants, looking back, would simply call the former order of things the ‘time of the lords’.

But much more than feudalism was abolished on the night of 4 August. All sorts of privileges and exemptions, mainly but far from exclusively benefiting the nobility, were suppressed by acclamation. So was the sale and heredity of public offices, the key to the recruitment of the judiciary and, insofar as many of these offices conferred noble status, (p. 3) the main avenue of entry into the nobility. Nobility itself, as a status, survived for the moment; but when its outward trappings were abolished in June 1790, in the eyes of many it only seemed the natural corollary of the wholesale abolition of its powers, prerogatives, and privileges ten months earlier.

Noble resistance to the last desperate reform plans of absolute monarchy had played a crucial part in precipitating its collapse. Resolving the crisis by convoking the Estates-General had then given the nobility unprecedented hopes of playing a regular role in future political life, since in the Estates, reflecting the medieval division of society into three functional orders (the clergy who prayed, the nobles who fought, and the third estate who worked) there was a separate chamber representing nobles. But the first great struggles of the Revolution, running from September 1788 to June 1789, had ended in the abandonment of the three separate chambers, and by implication the orders of society which they reflected. And the preceding frenzied attempts of nobles to preserve separate representation and powers had marked them out as the main enemies of national regeneration. The word ‘aristocrat’ became shorthand for anyone seeking a return to the Ancien Régime in any of its aspects. And, in case the successive suppression of all signs and relics of nobility had not been enough, the constitution when it was promulgated in September 1791 explicitly listed the main components of what was by then understood as the social Ancien Régime. The National Assembly, it declared

abolishes irrevocably the institutions which were injurious to liberty and equality of rights.

There is no longer either nobility, or peerage, or hereditary distinctions, or distinctions of orders, or a feudal regime, or inherited jurisdictions, or any of the titles, denominations or prerogatives deriving from them, or any order of chivalry, or any of the corporations or decorations for which proofs of nobility were required, or which presupposed distinctions of birth, or any other superiority other than that of public officials in the exercise of their functions.

There is no longer either venality or heredity of any public office.

There is no longer for any part of the nation or for any individual, any privilege or exception to the common law of all the French.

A further clause confirmed the suppression of guilds and corporations of the professions, arts, and crafts. This was one of the few mentions in the constitution of economic matters. Yet the cahiers had been full of complaints about economic abuses and injustices, and it soon became clear that the revolutionaries of 1789 believed that there was an economic Ancien Régime to eradicate as well as a political and social one. Disciples as most of them were of the liberalizing thought of the économistes or physiocrats of the pre-revolutionary years, they set about removing what they saw as unnatural and illegitimate constraints and burdens on the free exchange of goods and the production of wealth. Thus, economic ideology as much as social justice dictated the removal of the burdens which the ‘feudal regime’ placed on agriculture. Internal tolls and customs barriers, both public and private, were also abolished. Controls on the grain trade, an instrument of public order as much as of economic regulation, were abandoned. So were productive monopolies of all sorts, from the trade guilds of urban artisans, to (p. 4) professional associations such as the bar. The new regime was to be one in which the individual, rather than the order or corporation to which a person belonged, was to be the highest common factor in social and economic relations. Corporate bodies were perceived as profiting from privilege, that guiding principle of the former order that the revolutionaries were determined to uproot. Dedicated to the defence and promotion of their members’ livelihoods, corporations were seen as more committed to their own sectional interests than to the common well-being of a nation of free and equal citizens. As one revolutionary, excluded from public life before 1789 because of his Protestantism, put it: ‘every time one creates a corporate body with privileges one creates a public enemy, because a special interest is nothing other than this’.4

The greatest of all corporations, with the most extensive vested interests to promote, was the clergy. A separate order, largely run by nobles who filled its upper ranks, it monopolized public worship, controlled a sixth of the kingdom's land, exercised feudal rights over even more, and dominated the provision of education and charity. Sensing that the Church was increasingly under attack from freethinkers, the clergy initially saw the Revolution as an opportunity to restore its influence in national life. Clerical deputies were instrumental in breaking the deadlock which immobilized the first six weeks of the Estates-General. But subsequent months brought bitter disappointment. On 4 August the clergy lost extensive feudal rights along with all other lords. It also lost the tithe, the notional tenth of every parishioner's goods payable for the maintenance of parish priests. Less than three months later the entire property of the Church was confiscated to provide a fund of confidence to sustain the national finances. Monasteries and convents were effectively dissolved by the prohibition of binding vows. And, having committed the Nation in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen to religious toleration and the free expression of opinion, the Constituent Assembly refused in April 1790 to recognize Roman Catholicism as the national religion. When, only weeks later, a new religious regime was established, the Pope was not consulted. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy denied him any jurisdiction within France; and, in its dying days, the National Assembly annexed the age-old enclaves of papal territory in Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin. The spiritual Ancien Régime, in many areas quite literally, had been reduced to ruins.

But the Catholic Church was an international body, and the revolutionary quarrel with its French branch began to internationalize the idea of the Ancien Régime. Another of Tocqueville's insights, overschematic perhaps but not essentially inaccurate, was that ‘almost all Europe had exactly the same institutions’ that had fallen into ruin everywhere (book 1, chapter 4). Insofar as the Ancien Régime was a world of absolute monarchs, a ruling order of privileged nobles, a monopolistic established church, and overlapping and conflicting customs and jurisdictions, all weighing heavily on economic activity, it or something like it could be found in most parts of Europe. The alarmed reaction of foreign kings, nobles, and clerics to the upheavals in France shows how clearly they understood that in the challenges to the Ancien Régime there was an implicit challenge to themselves. And when in 1792 the revolutionaries launched a war to protect what they had achieved, and the first casualty was the French monarchy itself, the new-minted republicans who invaded the Netherlands and western Germany saw themselves as (p. 5) carrying revolutionary values to the rest of Europe, proclaiming ‘war on the castles’, and inviting subject peoples everywhere to rise up against the old structure of authority. By 1799 the French had overthrown Anciens Régimes west of the Rhine, in Holland, Switzerland, and south of the Alps. Over the next decade Napoleon would continue this work throughout Germany and further east, and south of the Pyrenees. And the removal of the old Iberian authorities opened the way to the transformation of colonial Anciens Régimes throughout Latin America.

Much of the Ancien Régime as the revolutionaries defined it is still accepted by historians as a meaningful framework for study. Revolutionary destruction sliced like a guillotine through its fabric, and exposed for posterity a vivid cross-section or snapshot of how things were before the cataclysm struck. But in condemning the Ancien Régime to death so comprehensively, the revolutionaries tended to erase the memory of its previous life, bequeathing a static version of the world before their own emergence which denied it vitality. Part of the myth, indeed, which they elaborated to vindicate their own actions was to depict the old order as fossilized and unchanging, its rigidities stifling any hope of change or progress. Counter-revolutionaries developed a parallel perspective. In condemning the chaos and blind destruction which the Revolution had brought, they evoked a contrasting Ancien Régime arcadia of calm, harmony, and deference, where everybody knew their place under the rule of a paternalistic nobility, a clergy offering the consolations of true religion, and a benign monarchy. It was a caricature, but perhaps no more than the picture of tyranny and hopeless inertia and misery favoured by the revolutionaries. The challenge for historians is to investigate the vital functions of the Ancien Régime before it was cut off.

Not all contemporaries looked back on it as static and unchanging. Though vehemently condemning the destruction still going on in 1790 as he wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke saw the old order as a living organism, the product of a long natural evolution on the soil of France, a rich and distinctive heritage which the French were now heedlessly throwing away in pursuit of rationalist illusions. It was still evolving, though at the slow pace of all natural things, when it was brutally killed off. Writing over half a century later, Tocqueville, too, saw the Ancien Régime as anything but static, although unlike Burke he thought its evolution was inexorably leading to a violent overthrow. Marxist perspectives, increasingly influential throughout the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, presented the Ancien Régime as the last phase of feudalism, an age of agrarian surplus extraction which came to a dramatic end on 4 August 1789. But the forces which brought about this conclusion—capitalism, and the bourgeoisie who were its products and beneficiaries—had been growing in scale and power below the feudal surface for centuries. In 1789 the Ancien Régime was merely a hollowed-out husk, easy for more dynamic elements to burst asunder.

By the mid-twentieth century a classic interpretation of the Revolution had emerged, a blend of myths inherited from the revolutionaries themselves and an overlay of Marxism, in which the Ancien Régime was depicted as both static and dynamic. In the eighteenth century a capitalist economy and a rising bourgeoisie demanding political (p. 6) rights commensurate with their economic importance confronted a despotic monarchy supported by reactionary privileged orders determined to maintain, if not to reinforce, their age-old hegemony. Later last century, however, the classic interpretation fell apart over several decades of cumulative criticism from so-called revisionist historians. Much of ‘revisionism’ focused on the origins rather than the course of the Revolution, and as a result historical perspectives on the Ancien Régime were transformed. The aim of this book is to present the pre-revolutionary order, and the template it offers for studying areas and periods beyond eighteenth-century France, as it appears in a new century when most of the dust of the revisionist challenge has settled.

No attempt has been made to forge a forced consensus. Contributors have been at liberty to interpret their themes in whatever way seems appropriate to them. The editorial role, apart from planning the overall shape of the volume and identifying contributors, has merely been to try to minimize overlaps. But the chapter plan, inevitably, reflects, as well as traditional categories, some topics and issues which have only come to prominence in scholarly debates since the 1950s. Most traditional, perhaps, is Part I, covering the state, its organization, and its resources. Even here, interpretation of how the various elements operated has been transformed. Part II, on social organization, while beginning with the groups which clashed in the terminal crisis of 1788–9, goes on to deal with wider aspects of social structuring, some of which, like gender, scarcely figured in earlier approaches. Comparably fresh topics appear in Part III, on the economy. Alongside well-established categories like feudalism, agriculture, and commerce there is discussion of the demographic old order, hardly recognized as distinctive before the mid-twentieth century, and of the slavery and serfdom which underpinned so much of the taste for luxuries which marked the old order's last century, and the social order of eastern Europe. The main novelties in Part IV on religion appear under well-established labels; but Part V reflects the now-predominant approach to the Revolution and its antecedents which sees it as a symptom of more profound long-term cultural changes which previously only attracted marginal interest.

It is now widely accepted that almost no aspect of the Ancien Régime came to an end as suddenly and decisively as the French revolutionaries had hoped when they gave it a name. Institutions might be summarily abolished, but the ideas and cultural practices which had moulded them changed at a different pace. With hindsight, the disappearance of some time-honoured ways appears to have been foreshadowed some time before revolution burst upon the scene. Others persisted far into the nineteenth century and perhaps beyond. Recognition of the untidy process by which the Ancien Régime disappeared is the rationale for Part VI, called Solvents, in which revolution ranks as only one of the factors which brought about the end of the old order. Part VII, finally, considers how far other countries beside France had recognizable Anciens Régimes. In its sheer heterogeneous variety, the Holy Roman Empire offers multiple areas for comparison. It has also been plausibly suggested that Great Britain in the ‘long’ eighteenth century, not to mention its North American colonies, had more in common with the French prototype than used to be thought credible. This section offers a critical exploration of these comparisons, concluding with a brief editorial overview.

(p. 7) No editor could hope for universal approval of a book's planned shape or the elements identified as important. I am only too conscious of certain obvious omissions. Some originally planned had to be abandoned: I had hoped, for instance, to include an essay on appearances, and one on pre-revolutionary Russia as an exemplary old regime. Nobody I approached was willing to take them on. A promised contribution on theatre was given up too late to find a substitute author. Too late, too, I realized how useful it might have been to include a piece on the Anciens Régimes of Latin America. But I thought slavery and serfdom too important to leave out in the absence of willing authors, so I rashly undertook to survey them myself. All this is less than satisfactory, and for that I accept full responsibility. On the other hand I am profoundly grateful to all the authors who have agreed to contribute, and for their patience in waiting for the final text to appear.


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(1.) Although more specific uses of the two words were older. See Ch. 5, below, p. 75.

(2.) Book iii, ch. 1, tr. M. W. Patterson (Oxford, n.d.), 152–3.

(3.) Georges Lefebvre, Quatre-Vingt Neuf (Paris, 1939), 196–7.

(4.) Rabaut de Saint-Etienne, quoted in C. B. A. Behrens, The Ancien Régime (London, 1967), 179.