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date: 19 May 2019


Abstract and Keywords

In cultural terms the Ancien Régime began with the Renaissance and the Reformation. The monolithic authority of the medieval Catholic Church had gone, and the next three centuries were a time when extensive energies were devoted by anxious established churches to maintaining some authority by monopolizing education and persecuting dissent. By the eighteenth century, irreligion and “free thought” were coming to be seen as even more dangerous than the latter. Partly this was because the spread of literacy, and the growing desire of moneyed elites to invest in expensive education, gave increasing numbers access to media that might subvert faith or obedience if uncontrolled. The revolutionaries of 1789 condemned censorship and religious intolerance as cardinal vices of the Ancien Régime. They looked back on the growth of free thought or “philosophy” as the source of their reforming agenda.

Keywords: literacy, free thought, Ancien Régime, Reformation, Renaissance, religious intolerance, reforming agenda

Translating the full flavour of the term Ancien Régime into English is difficult. The first recorded attempts in 1792 even mistranslated ancien as ‘ancient’; whereas in normal usage, the word meant ‘old’ in the sense of ‘former’. More cautious users have sought to avoid any confusion by leaving both words in French, and this has been the general practice throughout this volume. The range of things challenged by the French revolutionaries may well have appeared ancient to them and their contemporaries, in the sense of immemorial, traditional, and stretching back far beyond living memory. But no reader of earlier chapters here could conclude that there was anything truly ancient about it.

Admittedly the old order was haunted by the legacy of the ancient world—by classical literature, ideas, and terminology; not to mention the Christian religion, which was the most pervasive and enduring link with antiquity. But few of the institutions and habits that eighteenth-century reformers and revolutionaries hoped to change could be traced back meaningfully even as far as the end of the first millennium. The ‘feudal régime’ so grandiloquently renounced on 11 August 1789 had then scarcely begun to emerge. The nobility abolished less than a year later had been no more fully established, and in any case its character had been transformed by purchase from the sixteenth century onwards. So, indeed, had much of French life. The whole complex of privilege which epitomized so much of what the revolutionaries hated, largely arose from the discovery by cash-strapped kings that subjects who hated paying taxes would happily pay for advantages and exemptions. Nor did the monarchy which adopted these expedients have much in common with its medieval antecedents, either in its structure, its practices, or the resources it sought to tap. Absolute monarchy, the initial target of the revolutionaries, emerged slowly and unsteadily over the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The authority and power of the four last Louis before 1792 had little but the title of king in common with those of their last medieval namesake. And the main foreign challenges confronting them were certainly not the same. Matching the dynastic power of the Habsburgs, and later the maritime strength of Great Britain, demanded efforts of organization and finance quite beyond the capacity of medieval (p. 557) rulers. It was under the mounting strain of these efforts that the Ancien Régime finally fell apart.

Nor can most of the economic Ancien Régime be seen as a prolongation of the middle ages. If the world in 1789 was still overwhelmingly agrarian, European economic life had been transformed by the discovery, in the closing years of the fifteenth century, of a sea route to the riches of the east, and of the hitherto unknown resources of the Americas to the west. The following three centuries saw the gestation of a world economy centred on the insatiable appetites of Europeans for what the rest of the world produced. To manage their role in it, states adopted one form or another of control which together became known as mercantilism. To keep some of its key elements going, they connived at the expansion of a new slavery quite distinct from that of ancient times. Only in the last three decades of the eighteenth century did these institutions begin to be questioned and dismantled. In western Europe, meanwhile, medieval serfdom had largely disappeared by the sixteenth century, although remnants lingered over two more centuries. In the east, a new serfdom, unprecedented earlier in these regions, took hold and strengthened over the same period. Underlying both trends was scarcity of population. The demographic Ancien Régime, at least, did have medieval roots. A rhythm of population surges savagely curtailed by periodic visitations of plague and other natural scourges went back to the Black Death of 1348. It started to fade in the 1730s. Relatively unchecked population growth after that played a part in precipitating the revolutions that assailed the Ancien Régime, and voluntary contraception began to be practised around the same time. And so the old pattern of population growth held in check by natural constraints was already almost a thing of the past when it was identified by Malthus in 1798 as fated to happen forever.1

In cultural terms the Ancien Régime began with the Renaissance and the Reformation. The monolithic authority of the medieval Catholic Church had gone, and the next three centuries were a time when extensive energies were devoted by anxious established churches to maintaining some authority by monopolizing education and persecuting dissent. By the eighteenth century, irreligion and ‘free thought’ were coming to be seen as even more dangerous than the latter. Partly this was because the spread of literacy, and the growing desire of moneyed elites to invest in expensive education, gave increasing numbers access to media that might subvert faith or obedience if uncontrolled. The revolutionaries of 1789 condemned censorship and religious intolerance as cardinal vices of the Ancien Régime. They looked back on the growth of free thought or ‘philosophy’ as the source of their reforming agenda. Even those appalled by the destruction and slaughter of the Revolution agreed, although they deplored rather than gloried in it. Irresponsible criticism, they thought, had fatally undermined the old order.

‘Old Order’ is another common way of translating ancien régime, but again it is less than satisfactory. For although pre-revolutionary society was organized legally into functional orders, the spirit of the Ancien Régime was one of spectacular disorder. Custom guided much of the way it functioned. Confusion of boundaries, rights, powers, and jurisdictions was universal. It was a paradise for lawyers, a labyrinth for litigants. (p. 558) Only when it was gone did nostalgic conservatives begin to view the Ancien Régime as a benign product of nature that had functioned in the best interests of all—especially when compared with the apparent chaos and bloodshed wrought by the revolutionaries as they tried to destroy it. But most revolutionaries were unrepentant. They had a lofty mission to tidy up the world. Their aim was to construct an order that was planned along rational, utilitarian, and humanitarian lines; where ignorance, prejudice, and ‘superstition’ did not inhibit progress; where justice was guaranteed, simple, and accessible; where natural equity was not affronted and thwarted by exceptionalism and privilege; and where all public powers were constrained by clear ground-rules enshrined in a written constitution.

These are consensual principles of the modern world. We all pay them lip-service. In that sense, the determination of the embattled revolutionaries over the winter of 1792–3 to export their principles has been vindicated in the very long term. Their perception was that the Ancien Régime was not confined to France, and would need to be overthrown wherever else it existed if their revolution was ever to be secure.2 They had begun by repudiating the traditional niceties of relations between states, renouncing expansionist ambitions. Now, in a war they insisted was defensive, they were seeking nothing less than regime change among their enemies. Although the idea of the Ancien Régime originated in France, and largely reflected specific French circumstances, there was much abroad to mirror them. The rest of Europe was generally ruled by kings, nobilities, and established churches, custom and routine governed everyday life, and most other states were composites brought together over time, just like the kingdom of France, by dynasticism or conquest, with constituent parts often quite disparate in their governance.3 In recognition of these similarities, acknowledging that France could not be isolated from a range of economic and cultural trends which affected the rest of the continent and its overseas dependencies, this volume has frequently strayed beyond the French kingdom. Messy and unsystematic in its essence, the Ancien Régime is surely impossible to confine conceptually to the country and culture where it was first defined. In many ways, prerevolutionary France was simply one assemblage among many of features, ways of doing things, neither more nor less exceptional than other polities for which their own historians make exceptionalist claims. Cases testing this idea are explored in Part VII: predictably with no consensus.

Nor is there much more agreement about when the Ancien Régime disappeared, although few would accept that the French revolutionaries destroyed it as swiftly and definitively as they hoped. They swept away absolute monarchy, the estates of the church, religious intolerance, the old judicial system, venality of office, legal and administrative confusion, and privileges of all sorts. The feudal complex of rights and property, the ‘time of the lords’ in the countryside, never reappeared. But when they tried to abolish nobility, they failed,4 and when they abolished slavery, they soon had second thoughts. Without the decisive decade and a half of Napoleonic rule, many other revolutionary abolitions might have proved transient. Napoleon, however, was a son of the Revolution. (p. 559) He consolidated most of its work and, as has often been observed, the throne ascended by the restored Bourbons was his, not that of their martyred brother.

And meanwhile, Napoleon had destroyed the political Ancien Régime in much of the rest of Europe. He dissolved the ecclesiastical states of Germany and, while he ruled, the papal state in Italy. He prompted the dissolution of the oldest political entity in Europe, the thousand-year-old Reich, and ruthlessly remodelled German and Italian territories, often several times over. And, by driving ruling dynasties out of the Iberian peninsula, he precipitated a crisis of authority which within a few years brought the disintegration of their transatlantic empires. All attempts made after his downfall to restore prerevolutionary ways and institutions failed before long. A generation of upheaval had shaken out the old cement; and in any case, even those who dreamt of bringing back the imagined stability of prerevolutionary times wanted to introduce safeguards against renewed disruptions which were completely out of character with what they hoped to restore. Isolated Ancien Régime elements might be brought back, but nothing could put the shattered edifice together again in any recognizably coherent form.

The French revolutionaries invented the Ancien Régime by dint of their efforts to destroy it. But how assured was its viability even before their attack? Its collapse certainly took almost everybody by surprise, but in retrospect signs of strain can be seen. The demands of military competition were imposing increasing organizational and fiscal pressure on the leading states. The need for more efficient taxation was eroding privileges and exemptions and, throughout eastern Europe, raising doubts about the value of serfdom. An expanding, educated public was increasingly questioning established habits and institutions, led on in the public sphere by the sceptical rationality of the Enlightenment. It was already achieving its first triumphs in economic matters, where controls and exclusions were being abandoned, and slavery questioned. The last attempts to tighten rather than relax controls brought on the disintegration of the British north Atlantic empire, with multiple repercussions throughout the world of Europeans. Against this background, the French revolutionary onslaught might seem as much a symptom as a cause of the Ancien Régime's disintegration, simply accelerating a process already under way.5

When, finally, might that process have been complete? Thirty years ago Arno J. Mayer argued that in essence much of the Ancien Régime lasted until the twentieth century. The French Revolution was merely ‘the first act of the breakup of Europe's ancien régime’.6 Its last act was what Mayer called the Thirty Years War of the twentieth century, between 1914 and 1945, when Europe was plunged into a crisis by the determination of privileged elites, whose members ran the great powers, to preserve their hegemonies by going to war. That elites which felt threatened should risk anything so potentially suicidal has left most historians sceptical of Mayer's argument. But it drew on some incontrovertible evidence. Down to the First World War, all the great powers except France were still monarchies—and France too might have been one again if the Bourbon pretender had not spurned his inheritance out of purblind loyalty to the white flag of the family which had ruled before 1792. Noblemen continued to dominate the upper reaches of almost all state (p. 560) hierarchies and social structures. The bourgeoisie, despite its expanding economic power and numbers, remained almost as culturally subservient as it had been in the eighteenth century. Women (although Mayer did not mention them) were still resolutely excluded from official forms of empowerment. Representative institutions were still generally weak, and even in Great Britain the House of Lords was a proactive ‘citadel of the landed aristocracy’.7 In economic terms agriculture had still to be overtaken by industry as the leading sector everywhere except in Great Britain; and with the same exception agrarian elites were powerful enough to insist on protection during the agricultural depression which set in in the 1870s.

All these were persistent elements and echoes of the Ancien Régime. Some of them, in fragmented forms, persist still. Europe still boasts nine monarchies, and nobilities can be found everywhere, some with residual official recognition. The constitution of the United Kingdom is still unwritten, and there remain a handful of hereditary peers in its legislature. There is an established church, or rather two, one in England and one in Scotland, not to mention separate systems of civil law. Devolution, indeed, has recently brought even more diversity to this four-centuries-old composite state.

Yet in the end these are isolated relics, like old buildings and ruins marooned among vast modern developments. Nothing substantial is now left of the Ancien Régime beyond a few random and incoherent echoes. Some of its features had been in decay even before the idea of it was invented. Economic and demographic patterns had begun to change earlier in the eighteenth century, and these developments accelerated over the nineteenth. The arrival of railways quite literally transformed the landscape, stimulating heavy industry, boosting urbanization, generalizing markets. When they established themselves in transoceanic territories in the 1860s, the abundance of cheap food that railways and steamships brought within Europe's reach underlay the great depression that sapped the foundations of the old agrarian elites. By the twentieth century, the triumph of industrial society was unchallenged. Secular society likewise: despite sustained rearguard actions, Christianity has continued to retreat as an element in most people's lives, and secularized states deny it any official influence. Nationalism, a force only embryonic before 1789, emerged in the course of the nineteenth century as a mainspring of international ambition and conflict; and nation-states based on language and shared culture, rather than dynastic chance, became the norm. Author of the first detached reflections on the Ancien Régime by someone too young to remember it, Alexis de Tocqueville believed that it had been overwhelmed in France by the irresistible advance of equality and democracy. He did not believe that the Revolution which followed had promoted the cause of liberty. Yet during Tocqueville's lifetime most forms of human bondage disappeared in the European world, and only a few years after his death in 1859 serfdom was abolished in Russia and slaves freed in the United States. He was, however, right about democracy and equality. Representative institutions gained steadily in importance, and by the early twentieth century most men were entitled to civil equality and some say in political power through voting. When, between 1918 and 1944, women acquired the same rights, it marked the abandonment of the last of the major status inequalities so fundamental to all Anciens Régimes. Mayer may have been misguided in seeing the First World War as the product (p. 561) of an ‘over-reaction of old elites to overperceived dangers to their over-privileged positions’.8 But he was probably not wrong in finding the final disappearance of the Ancien Régime's last significant vestiges around 1945.


(1.) T. R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (London, 1798).

(2.) As Jacques-Pierre Brissot declared in Nov. 1792, ‘We cannot be calm until Europe, all Europe, is in flames’. Quoted in T. C. W. Blanning, The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars (London, 1986), 137.

(3.) See D. W. Hayton, James Kelly, and John Bergin (eds.), The Eighteenth Century Composite State: Representative Institutions in Ireland and Europe, 1689–1800 (Basingstoke, 2010).

(4.) See William Doyle, Aristocracy and its Enemies in the Age of Revolution (Oxford, 2009).

(5.) For the wider global dimension, see C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Oxford, 2004), and a stimulating collection of essays inspired by this author: David Armitage and Sanjay Subrahmanyam (eds.), The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c.1760–1840 (Houndmills, 2010).

(6.) Arno J. Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War (London, 1981), 15.

(7.) Ibid. 153.

(8.) Ibid. 307.