Abstract and Keywords
The concept of a group called “the bourgeoisie” is unusual in being both central to early modern and modern European history, and at the same time highly controversial. In old regime France, people frequently used the words “bourgeois” or “bourgeoisie” but what they meant by them was very different from the meaning historians later assigned to those terms. In the nineteenth century the idea of a “bourgeoisie” became closely associated with Marxian historical narratives of capitalist ascendancy. Does it still make sense to speak of a “bourgeoisie”? This article attempts to lay out and clarify the terms of the problem by posing a series of questions about this aspect of the social history of Ancien Régime France, with a brief look across the Channel for comparison. It considers first the problem of definition: what was and is meant by “the bourgeoisie” in the context of early modern French history? Second, what is the link between eighteenth-century economic change and the existence and nature of such a group, and can we still connect the origins of the French Revolution to the “rise” of a bourgeoisie? And finally, can the history of perceptions and representations of a bourgeoisie or middle class help us to understand why the concept has been so problematic in the longer run of French history?