The Origins of Contemporary France, Volume 1 (of 6) - The Ancient Regime
by Hippolyte A. Taine
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by Hippolyte A. Taine



BOOK FIRST. The Structure of the Ancient Society.

CHAPTER I. The Origin of Privileges.

CHAPTER II. The Privileged Classes.

CHAPTER III. Local Services Due by the Privileged Classes.

CHAPTER IV. Public services due by the privileged classes.

BOOK SECOND. Habits and Characters.

CHAPTER I. Social Habits.

CHAPTER II. Drawing room Life.

CHAPTER III. Disadvantages of this Drawing room Life.

BOOK THIRD. The Spirit and the Doctrine.

CHAPTER I. Scientific Acquisition.

CHAPTER II. The Classic Spirit, the Second Element.

CHAPTER III. Combination of the two elements.

CHAPTER IV. Organizing the Future Society.

BOOK FOURTH. The Propagation of the Doctrine.

CHAPTER I. Success in France.

CHAPTER II. The French Public.

CHAPTER III. The Middle Class.

BOOK FIFTH. The People

CHAPTER I. Hardships.

CHAPTER II. Taxation the principal cause of misery.

CHAPTER III. Intellectual state of the people.

CHAPTER IV. The Armed Forces.

CHAPTER V. Summary.


Why should we fetch Taine's work up from its dusty box in the basement of the national library? First of all because his realistic views of our human nature, of our civilization and of socialism as well as his dark premonitions of the 20th century were proven correct. Secondly because we may today with more accuracy call his work:

"The Origins of Popular Democracy and of Communism."

His lucid analysis of the current ideology remains as interesting or perhaps even more interesting than when it was written especially because we cannot accuse him of being part in our current political and ideological struggle.

Even though I found him wise, even though he confirmed my own impressions from a rich and varied life, even though I considered that our children and the people at large should benefit from his insights into the innermost recesses of the political Man, I still felt it would be best to find out why his work had been put on the index by the French and largely forgotten by the Anglo-Saxon world. So I consulted a contemporary French authority, Jean-Francois Revel who mentions Taine works in his book, "La Connaissance Inutile." (Paris 1988). Revel notes that a socialist historian, Alphonse Aulard methodically and dishonestly attacked "Les Origines..", and that Aulard was specially recruited by the University of Sorbonne for this purpose. Aulard pretended that Taine was a poor historian by finding a number of errors in Taine's work. This was done, says Revel, because the 'Left' came to see Taine's work as "a vile counter-revolutionary weapon." The French historian Augustin Cochin proved, however, that Aulard and not Taine had made the errors but by that time Taine had been defamed and his works removed from the shelves of the French universities.

Now Taine was not a professional historian. Perhaps this was as well since most professional historians, even when conscientious and accurate, rarely are in a position to be independent. They generally work for a university, for a national public or for the ministry of education and their books, once approved, may gain a considerable income once millions of pupils are compelled to acquire these.

Taine initially became famous, not as a professional historian but as a literary critic and journalist. His fame allowed him to sell his books and articles and make a comfortable living without cow-towing to any government or university. He wrote as he saw fit, truthfully, even though it might displease a number of powerful persons.

Taine did not pretend to be a regular historian, but rather someone enquiring into the history of Public Authorities and their supporters. Through his comments he appears not only as a decent person but also as a psychologist and seer. He describes mankind, as I know it from my life in institutions, at sea and abroad in a large international organization. He describes mankind as it was, as it was seen by Darwin in 'THE EXPRESSIONS OF EMOTIONS IN MAN AND ANIMALS. Taine described the human being as he was and is and had the courage to tell the French about themselves, their ancient rulers, and the men of the Revolution, even if it went against the favorable opinion so many of his countrymen had of this terrible period. His understanding of our evolution, of mankind and of the evolution of society did not find favor with men who believed that they in the socialist ideology had found the solution to all social ills. Only recently has science begun to return to Darwin in order to rediscover the human being as Taine knew him. You can find Taine's views of humanity confirmed in Robert Wright's book 'THE MORAL ANIMAL.' (Why we are the way we are.)

Taine had full access to the files of the French National archives and these and other original documents. Taine had received a French classical education and, being foremost among many brilliant men, had a capacity for study and work which we no longer demand from our young. He accepted Man and society, as they appeared to him, he described his findings without compassion for the hang-ups of his prejudiced countrymen. He described Man as a gregarious animal living for a brief spell in a remote corner of space, whose different cultures and nations had evolved haphazardly in time, carried along by forces and events exceeding our comprehension, blindly following their innate drives. These drives were followed with cunning but rarely with far-sighted wisdom. Taine, the prophet, has more than ever something to tell us. He warned his countrymen against themselves, their humanity, and hence against their fears, anxieties, greed, ambitions, conceit and excessive imagination. His remarks and judgments exhort us to be responsible, modest and kind and to select wise and modest leaders. He warns us against young hungry men's natural desire to mass behind a tribune and follow him onwards, they hope, along the high road to excitement, fame, power and riches. He warns us against our readiness to believe in myth and metaphysics, demonstrating how Man will believe anything, even the most mystical or incomprehensible religion or ideology, provided it is preached by his leaders. History, as seen by Taine, is one long series of such adventures and horrors and nowhere was this more evident than in France before, during and after the Revolution in 1789.

Taine became, upon reading 'On the Origins of the Species' a convinced Darwinian and was, the year after Darwin, honored by the University of Oxford with the title of doctor honoris causa in jure civili for his 'History of English Literature'. Taine was not a methodical ideologist creating a system. He did not defend any particular creed or current. He was considered some kind of positivist but he did not consider himself as belonging to any particular school.

The 6 volumes of "Les Origines de la France Contemporaine" appeared one after the other in Paris between 1875 and 1893. They were translated into English and published in New York soon afterwards. They were also translated into German. Taine's direct views displeased many in France, as the Royalists, the bonapartist and the Socialists felt hurt. Still, the first edition of Volume II of "LE REGIME MODERNE" published by Hachette in 1894 indicated that "L'ANCIEN REGIME" at that time had been printed in 18 editions, "LA REVOLUTION" volume I in 17 editions, volume II in 16 editions and volume III in 13 editions. "LE REGIME MODERNE" volume I had been printed in only 8 editions. Photographic reprints appeared in the US in 1932 and 1962.

Taine's description and analysis of events in France between 1750 and 1870 are, as you will see colorful, lucid, and sometimes intense. His style might today appear dated since he writes in rather long sentences, using parables to drive his points firmly home. His books were widely read in academic circles and therefore influenced a great many political students in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Lenin, who came to Paris around 1906, might well have profited by Taine's analysis. Hitler is also likely to have profited by his insights. Lenin was like so many other socialists of his day a great admirer of Robespierre and his party and would undoubtedly have tried to find out how Robespierre got into power and why he lost his hold on France the way he did. Part of Taine's art was to place himself into the place of the different people and parties who took part in the great events. When pretends to speak for the Jacobins, it so convincingly done, that it is hard to know whether he speaks on 'their' behalf or whether he is, in fact, quoting one of them.

Taine, like the Napoleon he described, believed that in order to understand people you are aided if you try to imagine yourself in their place. This procedure, as well as his painstaking research, make his descriptions of the violent events of the past ring true.

Taine knew and described the evil inherent in human nature and in the crowd. His warnings and explanations did not prevent Europe from repeating the mistakes of the past. The 20th century saw a replay of the French Revolution repeated in all its horror when Lenin, Mao, Hoxa, and Pol Pot followed the its script and when Stalin and Hitler made good use of Napoleon's example.

Taine irritated the elite of the 3rd French republic as well as everyone who believed in the popular democracy based on one person one vote. You can understand when you read the following preface which was actually placed in front of "The Revolution" volume II. Since it clarifies Taine's aims and justifications, I have moved and placed it below.

Not long before his death Taine, sensing that his wisdom and deep insights into human nature and events, no longer interested the elite, remarked to a friend that "the scientific truth about the human animal is perhaps unacceptable except for a very few".[0001] Now, 100 years later, after a century of ideological wars between ambitious men, I am afraid that the situation remains unchanged. Mankind remains reluctant to face the realities of our uncontrolled existence! A few men begin, however, to share my misgivings about the future of a system which has completely given up the respect for wisdom and experience preferring a system of elaborate human rights and new morals. There is reason to recall Macchiavelli's words:

"In times of difficulty men of merit are sought after, but in easy times it is not men of merit, but such as have riches and powerful relations, that are most in favor."

And let me to quote the Greek historian Polybius' observations[0002] about the cyclic evolution of the Greek city states:

". . . What then are the beginnings I speak of and what is the first origin of political societies? When owing to floods, famines, failure of crops or other such causes there occurs such a destruction of the human race as tradition tells us has more than once happened, and as we must believe will often happen again, all arts and crafts perishing at the same time, when in the course of time, when springing from the survivors as from seeds men have again increased in numbers and just like other animals form herds—it being a matter of course that they too should herd together with those of their kind owing to their natural weakness—it is a necessary consequence that the man who excels in bodily strength and in courage will lead and rule over the rest. We observe and should regard as a most genuine work of nature this very phenomenon in the case of the other animals which act purely by instinct and among who the strongest are always indisputable the masters—I speak of bulls, boars, cocks, and the like. It is probable then that at the beginning men lived thus, herding together like animals and following the lead of the strongest and bravest, the ruler's strength being here the sole limit to his power and the name we should give his rule being monarchy.

But when in time feelings of sociability and companionship begin to grow in such gatherings of men, then kingship has truck root; and the notions of goodness, justice, and their opposites begin to arise in men.

6. The manner in which these notions come into being is as follows. Men being all naturally inclined to sexual intercourse, and the consequence this being the birth of children, whenever one of those who have been reared does not on growing up show gratitude to those who reared him or defend them, but on the contrary takes to speaking ill of them or ill-treating them, it is evident that he will displease and offend those who have been familiar with his parents and have witnessed the care and pains they spent on attending to and feeding their children. For seeing that men are distinguished from the other animals possessing the faculty of reason, it is obviously improbable that such a difference of conduct should escape them, as it escapes the other animals: they will notice the thing and be displeased at what is going on, looking to the future and reflecting that they may all meet with the same treatment. Again when a man who has been helped or succored when in danger by another does not show gratitude to his preserver, but even goes to the length of attempting to do him injury, it is clear that those who become aware of it will naturally be displeased and offended by such conduct, sharing the resentment of their injured neighbor and imagining themselves in the same situation. From all this there arises in everyone a notion of the meaning and theory of duty, which is the beginning and end of justice. Similarly, again, when any man is foremost in defending his fellows from danger, and braves and awaits the onslaught of the most powerful beasts, it is natural that he should receive marks of favor and honor from the people, while the man who acts in the opposite manner will meet with reprobation and dislike. From this again some idea of what is base and what is noble and of what constitutes the difference is likely to arise among the people; and noble conduct will be admired and imitated because advantageous, while base conduct will be avoided. Now when the leading and most powerful man among people always throws the weight of his authority the side of the notions on such matters which generally prevail, and when in the opinion of his subjects he apportions rewards and penalties according to desert, they yield obedience to him no longer because they fear his force, but rather because their judgment approves him; and they join in maintaining his rule even if he is quite enfeebled by age, defending him with one consent and battling against those who conspire to overthrow his rule. Thus by insensible degrees the monarch becomes a king, ferocity and force having yielded the supremacy to reason.

7. Thus is formed naturally among men the first notion of goodness and justice, and their opposites; this is the beginning and birth of true kingship. For the people maintain the supreme power not only in the hands of these men themselves, but in those of their descendants, from the conviction that those born from and reared by such men will also have principles like to theirs. And if they ever are displeased with the descendants, they now choose their kings and rulers no longer for their bodily strength and brute courage, but for the excellency of their judgment and reasoning powers, as they have gained experience from actual facts of the difference between the one class of qualities and the other. In old times, then, those who had once been chosen to the royal office continued to hold it until they grew old, fortifying and enclosing fine strongholds with walls and acquiring lands, in the one case for the sake of the security of their subjects and in the other to provide them with abundance of the necessities of life. And while pursuing these aims, they were exempt from all vituperation or jealousy, as neither in their dress nor in their food and drink did they make any great distinction, but lived very much like everyone else, not keeping apart from the people. But when they received the office by hereditary succession and found their safety now provided for, and more than sufficient provision of food, they gave way to their appetites owing to this superabundance, and came to think that the rulers must be distinguished from their subjects by a peculiar dress, that there should be a peculiar luxury and variety in the dressing and serving of their viands, and that they should meet with no denial in the pursuit of their amours, however lawless. These habits having given rise in the one case to envy and offence and in the other to an outburst of hatred and passionate resentment, the kingship changed into a tyranny; the first steps towards its overthrow were taken by the subjects, and conspiracies began to be formed. These conspiracies were not the work of the worst men, but of the noblest, most high-spirited, and most courageous, because such men are least able to brook the insolence of princes.

8. The people now having got leaders, would combine with them against the ruling powers for the reasons I stated above; king-ship and monarchy would be utterly abolished, and in their place aristocracy would begin to grow. For the commons, as if bound to pay at once their debt of gratitude to the abolishers of monarchy, would make them their leaders and entrust their destinies to them. At first these chiefs gladly assumed this charge and regarded nothing as of greater importance than the common interest, administering the private and public affairs of the people with paternal solicitude. But here again when children inherited this position of authority from their fathers, having no experience of misfortune and none at all of civil equality and liberty of speech, and having been brought up from the cradle amid the evidences of the power and high position of their fathers, they abandoned themselves some to greed of gain and unscrupulous money-making, others to indulgence in wine and the convivial excess which accompanies it, and others again to the violation of women and the rape of boys; and thus converting the aristocracy info an oligarchy aroused in the people feelings similar to those of which I just spoke, and in consequence met with the same disastrous end as the tyrant.

9. For whenever anyone who has noticed the jealousy and hatred with which they are regarded by the citizens, has the courage to speak or act against the chiefs of the state he has the whole mass of the people ready to back him. Next, when they have either killed or banished the oligarchs, they no longer venture to set a king over them, as they still remember with terror the injustice they suffered from the former ones, nor can they entrust the government with confidence to a select few, with the evidence before them of their recent error in doing so. Thus the only hope still surviving unimpaired is in themselves, and to this they resort, making the state a democracy instead of an oligarchy and assuming the responsibility for the conduct of affairs. Then as long as some of those survive who experienced the evils of oligarchical dominion, they are well pleased with the present form of government, and set a high value on equality and freedom of speech. But when a new generation arises and the democracy falls into the hands of the grandchildren of its founders, they have become so accustomed to freedom and equality that they no longer value them, and begin to aim at pre-eminence; and it is chiefly those of ample fortune who fall into this error. So when they begin to lust for power and cannot attain it through themselves or their own good qualities, they ruin their estates, tempting and corrupting the people in every possible way. And hence when by their foolish thirst for reputation they have created among the masses an appetite for gifts and the habit of receiving them, democracy in its turn is abolished and changes into a rule of force and violence. For the people, having grown accustomed feed at the expense of others and to depend for their livelihood on the property of others, as soon as they find a leader who is enterprising but is excluded from the honors of office by his poverty, institute the rule of violence; and now uniting their forces massacre, banish, and plunder, until they degenerate again into perfect savages and find once more a master and monarch.

Such is the cycle of political revolution, the course pointed by nature in which constitutions change, disappear, and finally return to the point from which they started. Anyone who clearly perceives this may indeed in speaking of the future of any state be wrong in his estimate of the time the process will take, but if his judgment is not tainted by animosity or jealousy, he will very seldom be mistaken to the stage of growth or decline it has reached, and as to the form into which it will change. And especially in the case of the Roman state will this method enable us to arrive at a knowledge of its formation, growth, and greatest perfection, and likewise of the change for the worse which is sure follow some day. For, as I said, this state, more than any other, has been formed and has grown naturally, and will undergo a natural decline and change to its contrary. The reader will be able to judge of the truth of this from the subsequent parts this work."

The modern reader may think that all this is irrelevant to him, that the natural sciences will solve all his problems. He would be wise to recall that the great Roman republic in which Polybius lived more than 2200 years ago, did indeed become transformed into tyranny and, in the end, into anarchy and oblivion. No wonder that the makers of the American constitution keenly studied Polybius. Not only has Taine's comments and factual description of the cyclic French political history much to teach us about ourselves and the dangers which lie ahead, but it also shows us the origins and weakness of our political theories. It is obvious that should ask ourselves the question of where, in the political evolution we are now? Are we still ruled by the corrupt oligarchs or have we reached the stage where the people has become used to be fed on the property of others? If so dissolution and anarchy is just around the corner.

"The Revolution, Vol. II, 8th ed.

Svend Rom. Hendaye, France. February 2000.



In this volume, as in those preceding it and in those to come, there will be found only the history of Public Authorities. Others will write that of diplomacy, of war, of the finances, of the Church; my subject is a limited one. To my great regret, however, this new part fills an entire volume; and the last part, on the revolutionary government, will be as long.

I have again to regret the dissatisfaction I foresee this work will cause to many of my countrymen. My excuse is, that almost all of them, more fortunate than myself, have political principles which serve them in forming their judgments of the past. I had none; if indeed, I had any motive in undertaking this work, it was to seek for political principles. Thus far I have attained to scarcely more than one; and this is so simple that will seem puerile, and that I hardly dare express it. Nevertheless I have adhered to it, and in what the reader is about to peruse my judgments are all derived from that; its truth is the measure of theirs. It consists wholly in this observation: that


Hence the difficulty in knowing and comprehending it. For the same reason it is not easy to handle the subject well. It follows that a cultivated mind is much better able to do this than an uncultivated mind, and a man specially qualified than one who is not. From these two last truths flow many other consequences, which, if the reader deigns to reflect on them, he will have no trouble in defining.

Paris 1881.


[Footnote 0001: Page XLVI of the Introduction to the Edition by Robert Lafont in 1986 by "Les Origines de la France Contemporaine".]




In 1849, being twenty-one years of age, and an elector, I was very much puzzled, for I had to nominate fifteen or twenty deputies, and, moreover, according to French custom, I had not only to determine what candidate I would vote for, but what theory I should adopt. I had to choose between a royalist or a republican, a democrat or a conservative, a socialist or a bonapartist; as I was neither one nor the other, nor even anything, I often envied those around me who were so fortunate as to have arrived at definite conclusions. After listening to various doctrines, I acknowledged that there undoubtedly was something wrong with my head. The motives that influenced others did not influence me; I could not comprehend how, in political matters, a man could be governed by preferences. My assertive countrymen planned a constitution just like a house, according to the latest, simplest, and most attractive plan; and there were several under consideration—the mansion of a marquis, the house of a common citizen, the tenement of a laborer, the barracks of a soldier, the kibbutz of a socialist, and even the camp of savages. Each claimed that his was "the true habitation for Man, the only one in which a sensible person could live." In my opinion, the argument was weak; personal taste could not be valid for everyone. It seemed to me that a house should not be built for the architect alone, or for itself, but for the owner who was to live in it. Referring to the owner for his advice, that is submitting to the French people the plans of its future habitation, would evidently be either for show or just to deceive them; since the question, obviously, was put in such a manner that it provided the answer in advance. Besides, had the people been allowed to reply in all liberty, their response was in any case not of much value since France was scarcely more competent than I was; the combined ignorance of ten millions is not the equivalent of one man's wisdom. A people may be consulted and, in an extreme case, may declare what form of government it would like best, but not that which it most needs. Nothing but experience can determine this; it must have time to ascertain whether the political structure is convenient, substantial, able to withstand inclemency, and adapted to customs, habits, occupations, characters, peculiarities and caprices. For example, the one we have tried has never satisfied us; we have during eighty years demolished it thirteen times, each time setting it up anew, and always in vain, for never have we found one that suited us. If other nations have been more fortunate, or if various political structures abroad have proved stable and enduring, it is because these have been erected in a special way. Founded on some primitive, massive pile, supported by an old central edifice, often restored but always preserved, gradually enlarged, and, after numerous trials and additions, they have been adapted to the wants of its occupants. It is well to admit, perhaps, that there is no other way of erecting a permanent building. Never has one been put up instantaneously, after an entirely new design, and according to the measurements of pure Reason. A sudden contrivance of a new, suitable, and enduring constitution is an enterprise beyond the forces of the human mind.

In any event, I came to the conclusion that if we should ever discover the one we need it would not be through some fashionable theory. The point is, if it exists, to discover it, and not to put it to a vote. To do that would not only be pretentious it would be useless; history and nature will do it for us; it is for us to adapt ourselves to them, as it is certain they will accommodate themselves to us. The social and political mold, into which a nation may enter and remain, is not subject to its will, but determined by its character and its past. It is essential that, even in its least traits, it should be shaped on the living material to which it is applied; otherwise it will burst and fall to pieces. Hence, if we should succeed in finding ours, it will only be through a study of ourselves, while the more we understand exactly what we are, the more certainly shall we distinguish what best suits us. We ought, therefore, to reverse the ordinary methods, and form some conception of the nation before formulating its constitution. Doubtless the first operation is much more tedious and difficult than the second. How much time, how much study, how many observations rectified one by the other, how many researches in the past and the present, over all the domains of thought and of action, what manifold and age-long labors before we can obtain an accurate and complete idea of a great people. A people which has lived a people's age, and which still lives! But it is the only way to avoid the unsound construction based on a meaningless planning. I promised myself that, for my own part, if I should some day undertake to form a political opinion, it would be only after having studied France.

What is contemporary France? To answer this question we must know how this France is formed, or, what is still better, to act as spectator at its formation. At the end of the last century (in 1789), like a molting insect, it underwent a metamorphosis. Its ancient organization is dissolved; it tears away its most precious tissues and falls into convulsions, which seem mortal. Then, after multiplied throes and a painful lethargy, it re-establishes itself. But its organization is no longer the same: by silent interior travail a new being is substituted for the old. In 1808, its leading characteristics are decreed and defined: departments, arondissements, cantons and communes, no change have since taken place in its exterior divisions and functions. Concordat, Code, Tribunals, University, Institute, Prefects, Council of State, Taxes, Collectors, Cours des Comptes, a uniform and centralized administration, its principal organs, are still the same. Nobility, commoners, artisans, peasants, each class has henceforth the position, the sentiments, the traditions which we see at the present day (1875). Thus the new creature is at once stable and complete; consequently its structure, its instincts and its faculties mark in advance the circle within which its thought and its action will be stimulated. Around it, other nations, some more advanced, others less developed, all with greater caution, some with better results, attempt similarly a transformation from a feudal to a modern state; the process takes place everywhere and all but simultaneously. But, under this new system as beneath the ancient, the weak is always the prey of the strong. Woe to those (nations) whose retarded evolution exposes them to the neighbor suddenly emancipated from his chrysalis state, and is the first to go forth fully armed! Woe likewise to him whose too violent and too abrupt evolution has badly balanced his internal economy. Who, through the exaggeration of his governing forces, through the deterioration of his deep-seated organs, through the gradual impoverishment of his vital tissues is condemned to commit inconsiderate acts, to debility, to impotency, amidst sounder and better-balanced neighbors! In the organization, which France effected for herself at the beginning of the (19th) century, all the general lines of her contemporary history were traced. Her political revolutions, social Utopias, division of classes, role of the church, conduct of the nobility, of the middle class, and of the people, the development, the direction, or deviation of philosophy, of letters and of the arts. That is why, should we wish to understand our present condition our attention always reverts to the terrible and fruitful crisis by which the ancient regime produced the Revolution, and the Revolution the new regime.

Ancient regime, Revolution, new regime, I am going to try to describe these three conditions with exactitude. I have no other object in view. A historian may be allowed the privilege of a naturalist; I have regarded my subject the same as the metamorphosis of an insect. Moreover, the event is so interesting in itself that it is worth the trouble of being observed for its own sake, and no effort is required to suppress one's ulterior motives. Freed from all prejudice, curiosity becomes scientific and may be completely concentrated on the secret forces, which guide the wonderful process. These forces are the situation, the passions, the ideas, the wills of each group of actors, and which can be defined and almost measured. They are in full view; we are not reduced to conjectures about them, to uncertain divination, to vague indications. By singular good fortune we perceive the men themselves, their exterior and their interior. The Frenchmen of the ancient regime are still within visual range. All of us, in our youth, (around 1840-50), have encountered one or more of the survivors of this vanished society. Many of their dwellings, with the furniture, still remain intact. Their pictures and engravings enable us to take part in their domestic life, see how they dress, observe their attitudes and follow their movements. Through their literature, philosophy, scientific pursuits, gazettes, and correspondence, we can reproduce their feeling and thought, and even enjoy their familiar conversation. The multitude of memoirs, issuing during the past thirty years from public and private archives, lead us from one drawing room to another, as if we bore with us so many letters of introduction. The independent descriptions by foreign travelers, in their journals and correspondence, correct and complete the portraits, which this society has traced of itself. Everything that it could state has been stated, except,

* what was commonplace and well-known to contemporaries,

* whatever seemed technical, tedious and vulgar,

* whatever related to the provinces, to the bourgeoisie, the peasant, to the laboring man, to the government, and to the household.

It has been my aim to fill this void, and make France known to others outside the small circle of the literary and the cultivated. Owing to the kindness of M. Maury[0011] and the precious indications of M. Boutaric, I have been able to examine a mass of manuscript documents. These include the correspondence of a large number of intendants, (the Royal governor of a large district), the directors of customs and tax offices, legal officers, and private persons of every kind and of every degree during the thirty last years of the ancient regime. Also included are the reports and registers of the various departments of the royal household, the reports and registers of the States General in 176 volumes, the dispatches of military officers in 1789 and 1790, letters, memoirs and detailed statistics preserved in the one hundred boxes of the ecclesiastical committee, the correspondence, in 94 bundles, of the department and municipal authorities with the ministries from 1790 to 1799, the reports of the Councilors of State on mission at the end of 1801, the reports of prefects under the Consulate, the Empire, and the Restoration down to 1823. There is such a quantity of unknown and instructive documents besides these that the history of the Revolution seems, indeed, to be still unwritten. In any event, it is only such documents, which can make all these people come alive. The lesser nobles, the curates, the monks, the nuns of the provinces, the aldermen and bourgeoisie of the towns, the attorneys and syndics of the country villages, the laborers and artisans, the officers and the soldiers. These alone enable us to contemplate and appreciate in detail the various conditions of their existence, the interior of a parsonage, of a convent, of a town-council, the wages of a workman, the produce of a farm, the taxes levied on a peasant, the duties of a tax-collector, the expenditure of a noble or prelate, the budget, retinue and ceremonial of a court. Thanks to such resources, we are able to give precise figures, to know hour by hour the occupations of a day and, better still, read off the bill of fare of a grand dinner, and recompose all parts of a full-dress costume. We have even, on the one hand, samples of the materials of the dresses worn by Marie Antoinette, pinned on paper and classified by dates. And on the other hand, we can tell what clothes were worn by the peasant, describe the bread he ate, specify the flour it was made of, and state the cost of a pound of it in sous and deniers.[0012] With such resources one becomes almost contemporary with the men whose history one writes and, more than once, in the Archives, I have, while tracing their old handwriting on the time-stained paper before me, been tempted to speak aloud with them.

H. A. Taine, August 1875.


[Footnote 0011: Taine's friend who was the director of the French National Archives. (SR.)]

[Footnote 0012: One sou equals 1/20th of a franc or 5 centimes. 12 diniers equaled one sou. (SR.)]



In 1789 three classes of persons, the Clergy, the Nobles and the King, occupied the most prominent position in the State with all the advantages pertaining thereto namely, authority, property, honors, or, at the very least, privileges, immunities, favors, pensions, preferences, and the like. If they occupied this position for so long a time, it is because for so long a time they had deserved it. They had, in short, through an immense and secular effort, constructed by degrees the three principal foundations of modern society.

I. Services and Recompenses of the Clergy.

Of these three layered foundations the most ancient and deepest was the work of the clergy. For twelve hundred years and more they had labored upon it, both as architects and workmen, at first alone and then almost alone.—In the beginning, during the first four centuries, they constituted religion and the church. Let us ponder over these two words; in order to weigh them well. On the one hand, in a society founded on conquest, hard and cold like a machine of brass, forced by its very structure to destroy among its subjects all courage to act and all desire to live, they had proclaimed the "glad tidings," held forth the "kingdom of God," preached loving resignation in the hands of a Heavenly Father, inspired patience, gentleness, humility, self-abnegation, and charity, and opened the only issues by which Man stifling in the Roman 'ergastulum' could again breathe and see daylight: and here we have religion. On the other hand, in a State gradually undergoing depopulation, crumbling away, and fatally becoming a prey, they had formed a living society governed by laws and discipline, rallying around a common aim and a common doctrine, sustained by the devotion of chiefs and by the obedience of believes, alone capable of subsisting beneath the flood of barbarians which the empire in ruin suffered to pour in through its breaches: and here we have the church.—It continues to build on these two first foundations, and after the invasion, for over five hundred years, it saves what it can still save of human culture. It marches in the van of the barbarians or converts them directly after their entrance, which is a wonderful advantage. Let us judge of it by a single fact: In Great Britain, which like Gaul had become Latin, but whereof the conquerors remain pagan during a century and a half, arts, industries, society, language, all were destroyed; nothing remained of an entire people, either massacred or fugitive, but slaves. We have still to divine their traces; reduced to the condition of beasts of burden, they disappear from history. Such might have been the fate of Europe if the clergy had not promptly tamed the fierce brutes to which it belonged.

Before the bishop in his gilded cope or before the monk, the converted German "emaciated, clad in skins," wan, "dirtier and more spotted than a chameleon,"[1101] stood fear-stricken as before a sorcerer. In his calm moments, after the chase or inebriety, the vague divination of a mysterious and grandiose future, the dim conception of an unknown tribunal, the rudiment of conscience which he already had in his forests beyond the Rhine, arouses in him through sudden alarms half-formed, menacing visions. At the moment of violating a sanctuary he asks himself whether he may not fall on its threshold with vertigo and a broken neck.[1102] Convicted through his own perplexity, he stops and spares the farm, the village, and the town, which live under the priest's protection. If the animal impulse of rage, or of primitive lusts, leads him to murder or to rob, later, after satiety, in times of sickness or of misfortune, taking the advice of his concubine or of his wife, he repents and makes restitution twofold, tenfold, a hundredfold, unstinted in his gifts and immunities.[1103] Thus, over the whole territory the clergy maintain and enlarge their asylums for the oppressed and the vanquished.—On the other hand, among the warrior chiefs with long hair, by the side of kings clad in furs, the mitered bishop and abbot, with shaven brows, take seats in the assemblies; they alone know how to use the pen and how to discuss. Secretaries, councilors, theologians, they participate in all edicts; they have their hand in the government; they strive through its agency to bring a little order out of immense disorder; to render the law more rational and more humane, to re-establish or preserve piety, instruction, justice, property, and especially marriage. To their ascendancy is certainly due the police system, such as it was, intermittent and incomplete, which prevented Europe from falling into a Mongolian anarchy. If, down to the end of the twelfth century, the clergy bears heavily on the princes, it is especially to repress in them and beneath them the brutal appetites, the rebellions of flesh and blood, the outbursts and relapses of irresistible ferocity which are undermining the social fabric.—Meanwhile, in its churches and in its convents, it preserves the ancient acquisitions of humanity, the Latin tongue, Christian literature and theology, a portion of pagan literature and science, architecture, sculpture, painting, the arts and industries which aid worship. It also preserved the more valuable industries, which provide man with bread, clothing, and shelter, and especially the greatest of all human acquisitions, and the most opposed to the vagabond humor of the idle and plundering barbarian, the habit and taste for labor. In the districts depopulated through Roman exactions, through the revolt of the Bagaudes, through the invasion of the Germans, and the raids of brigands, the Benedictine monk built his cabin of boughs amid briers and brambles.[1104] Large areas around him, formerly cultivated, are nothing but abandoned thickets. Along with his associates he clears the ground and erects buildings; he domesticates half-tamed animals, he establishes a farm, a mill, a forge, an oven, and shops for shoes and clothing. According to the rules of his order, he reads daily for two hours. He gives seven hours to manual labor, and he neither eats nor drinks more than is absolutely essential. Through his intelligent, voluntary labor, conscientiously performed and with a view to the future, he produces more than the layman does. Through his temperate, judicious, economical system he consumes less than the layman does. Hence it is that where the layman had failed he sustains himself and even prospers.[1105] He welcomes the unfortunate, feeds them, sets them to work, and unites them in matrimony and beggars, vagabonds, and fugitive peasants gather around the sanctuary. Their camp gradually becomes a village and next a small town; man plows as soon as he can be sure of his crops, and becomes the father of a family as soon as he considers himself able to provide for his offspring. In this way new centers of agriculture and industry are formed, which likewise become new centers of population.[1106]

To food for the body add food for the soul, not less essential. For, along with nourishment, it was still necessary to furnish Man with inducements to live, or, at the very least, with the resignation that makes life endurable, and also with the poetic daydreams taking the place of massing happiness.[1107] Down to the middle of the thirteenth century the clergy stands almost alone in furnishing this. Through its innumerable legends of saints, through its cathedrals and their construction, through its statues and their expression, through its services and their still transparent meaning, it rendered visible "the kingdom of God." It finally sets up an ideal world at the end of the present one, like a magnificent golden pavilion at the end of a miry morass.[1108] The saddened heart, athirst for tenderness and serenity, takes refuge in this divine and gentle world. Persecutors there, about to strike, are arrested by an invisible hand; wild beasts become docile; the stags of the forest come of their own accord every morning to draw the chariots of the saints; the country blooms for them like a new Paradise; they die only when it pleases them. Meanwhile they comfort mankind; goodness, piety, forgiveness flows from their lips with ineffable sweetness; with eyes upturned to heaven, they see God, and without effort, as in a dream, they ascend into the light and seat themselves at His right hand. How divine the legend, how inestimable in value, when, under the universal reign of brute force, to endure this life it was necessary to imagine another, and to render the second as visible to the spiritual eye as the first was to the physical eye. The clergy thus nourished men for more than twelve centuries, and in the grandeur of its recompense we can estimate the depth of their gratitude. Its popes, for two hundred years, were the dictators of Europe. It organized crusades, dethroned monarchs, and distributed kingdoms. Its bishops and abbots became here, sovereign princes, and there, veritable founders of dynasties. It held in its grasp a third of the territory, one-half of the revenue, and two-thirds of the capital of Europe. Let us not believe that Man counterfeits gratitude, or that he gives without a valid motive; he is too selfish and too envious for that. Whatever may be the institution, ecclesiastic or secular, whatever may be the clergy, Buddhist or Christian, the contemporaries who observe it for forty generations are not bad judges. They surrender to it their will and their possessions, just in proportion to its services, and the excess of their devotion may measure the immensity of its benefaction.

II. Services and Recompenses of the Nobles.

Up to this point no aid is found against the power of the sword and the battle-ax except in persuasion and in patience. Those States which, imitating the old empire, attempted to rise up into compact organizations, and to interpose a barrier against constant invasion, obtained no hold on the shifting soil; after Charlemagne everything melts away. There are no more soldiers after the battle of Fontanet; during half a century bands of four or five hundred outlaws sweep over the country, killing, burning, and devastating with impunity. But, by way of compensation, the dissolution of the State raises up at this very time a military generation. Each petty chieftain has planted his feet firmly on the domain he occupies, or which he withholds; he no longer keeps it in trust, or for use, but as property, and an inheritance. It is his own manor, his own village, his own earldom; it no longer belongs to the king; he contends for it in his own right. The benefactor, the conservator at this time is the man capable of fighting, of defending others, and such really is the character of the newly established class. The noble, in the language of the day, is the man of war, the soldier (miles), and it is he who lays the second foundation of modern society.

In the tenth century his extraction is of little consequence. He is oftentimes a Carlovingian count, a beneficiary of the king, the sturdy proprietor of one of the last of the Frank estates. In one place he is a martial bishop or a valiant abbot in another a converted pagan, a retired bandit, a prosperous adventurer, a rude huntsman, who long supported himself by the chase and on wild fruits.[1109] The ancestors of Robert the Strong are unknown, and later the story runs that the Capets are descended from a Parisian butcher. In any event the noble of that epoch is the brave, the powerful man, expert in the use of arms, who, at the head of a troop, instead of flying or paying ransom, offers his breast, stands firm, and protects a patch of the soil with his sword. To perform this service he has no need of ancestors; all that he requires is courage, for he is himself an ancestor; security for the present, which he insures, is too acceptable to permit any quibbling about his title.-Finally, after so many centuries, we find each district possessing its armed men, a settled body of troops capable of resisting nomadic invasion; the community is no longer a prey to strangers. At the end of a century this Europe, which had been sacked by the Vikings, is to throw 200,000 armed men into Asia. Henceforth, both north and south, in the face of Moslems and of pagans, instead of being conquered it is to conquer. For the second time an ideal figure becomes apparent after that of the saint,[1110] the hero; and the newborn sentiment, as effective as the old one, thus groups men together into a stable society.—This consists of a resident corps of men-at-arms, in which, from father to son, one is always a soldier. Each individual is born into it with his hereditary rank, his local post, his pay in landed property, with the certainty of never being abandoned by his chieftain, and with the obligation of giving his life for his chieftain in time of need. In this epoch of perpetual warfare only one set-up is valid, that of a body of men confronting the enemy, and such is the feudal system; we can judge by this trait alone of the perils which it wards off, and of the service which it enjoins. "In those days," says the Spanish general chronicle, "kings, counts, nobles, and knights, in order to be ready at all hours, kept their horses in the rooms in which they slept with their wives." The viscount in his tower defending the entrance to a valley or the passage of a ford, the marquis thrown as a forlorn hope on the burning frontier, sleeps with his hand on his weapon, like an American lieutenant among the Sioux behind a western stockade. His dwelling is simply a camp and a refuge. Straw and heaps of leaves cover the pavement of the great hall, here he rests with his troopers, taking off a spur if he has a chance to sleep. The loopholes in the wall scarcely allow daylight to enter; the main thing is not to be shot with arrows. Every taste, every sentiment is subordinated to military service; there are certain places on the European frontier where a child of fourteen is required to march, and where the widow up to sixty is required to remarry. Men to fill up the ranks, men to mount guard, is the call, which at this moment issues from all institutions like the summons of a brazen horn.—Thanks to these braves, the peasant(villanus) enjoys protection. He is no longer to be slaughtered, no longer to be led captive with his family, in herds, with his neck in the yoke. He ventures to plow and to sow, and to reply upon his crops; in case of danger he knows that he can find an asylum for himself, and for his grain and cattle, in the circle of palisades at the base of the fortress. By degrees necessity establishes a tacit contract between the military chieftain of the donjon and the early settlers of the open country, and this becomes a recognized custom. They work for him, cultivate his ground, do his carting, pay him quittances, so much for house, so much per head for cattle, so much to inherit or to sell; he is compelled to support his troop. But when these rights are discharged he errs if, through pride or greed, he takes more than his due.—As to the vagabonds, the wretched, who, in the universal disorder and devastation, seek refuge under his guardianship, their condition is harder. The soil belongs to the lord because without him it would be uninhabitable. If he assigns them a plot of ground, if he permits them merely to encamp on it, if he sets them to work or furnishes them with seeds it is on conditions, which he prescribes. They are to become his serfs, subject to the laws on mainmorte.[1111] Wherever they may go he is to have the right of fetching them back. From father to son they are his born domestics, applicable to any pursuit he pleases, taxable and workable at his discretion. They are not allowed to transmit anything to a child unless the latter, "living from their pot," can, after their death, continue their service. "Not to be killed," says Stendhal, "and to have a good sheepskin coat in winter, was, for many people in the tenth century, the height of felicity"; let us add, for a woman, that of not being violated by a whole band. When we clearly represent to ourselves the condition of humanity in those days, we can comprehend how men readily accepted the most obnoxious of feudal rights, even that of the droit du seigneur. The risks to which they were daily exposed were even worse.[1112] The proof of it is that the people flocked to the feudal structure as soon as it was completed. In Normandy, for instance, when Rollo had divided off the lands with a line, and hung the robbers, the inhabitants of the neighboring provinces rushed in to establish themselves. The slightest security sufficed to repopulate a country.

People accordingly lived, or rather began to live once more, under the rude, iron-gloved hand which used them roughly, but which afforded them protection. The seignior, sovereign and proprietor, maintains for himself under this double title, the moors, the river, the forest, all the game. It is no great evil, since the country is nearly a desert, and he devotes his leisure to exterminating large wild beasts. He alone possessed the resources. He is the only one that is able to construct the mill, the oven, and the winepress; to establish the ferry, the bridge, or the highway, to dike in a marsh, and to raise or purchase a bull. To indemnify himself he taxes for these, for forces their use. If he is intelligent and a good manager of men, if he seeks to derive the greatest profit from his ground, he gradually relaxes, or allows to become relaxed, the meshes of the net in which his peasants and serfs work unprofitably because they are too tightly drawn. Habits, necessity, a voluntary or forced conformity, have their effect. Lords, peasants, serfs, and bourgeois, in the end adapted to their condition, bound together by a common interest, form together a society, a veritable corporation. The seigniory, the county, the duchy becomes a patrimony which is loved through a blind instinct, and to which all are devoted. It is confounded with the seignior and his family; in this relation people are proud of him. They narrate his feats of arms; they cheer him as his cavalcade passes along the street; they rejoice in his magnificence through sympathy.[1113] If he becomes a widower and has no children, they send deputations to him to entreat him to remarry, in order that at his death the country may not fall into a war of succession or be given up to the encroachment of neighbors. Thus there is a revival, after a thousand years, of the most powerful and the most vivacious of the sentiments that support human society. This one is the more precious because it is capable of expanding. In order that the small feudal patrimony to become the great national patrimony, it now suffices for the seigniories to be combined in the hands of a single lord, and that the king, chief of the nobles, should overlay the work of the nobles with the third foundation of France.

III. Services and Recompenses of the King.

Kings built the whole of this foundation, one stone after another. Hugues Capet laid the first one. Before him royalty conferred on the King no right to a province, not even Laon; it is he who added his domain to the title. During eight hundred years, through conquest, craft, inheritance, the work of acquisition goes on; even under Louis XV France is augmented by the acquisition of Lorraine and Corsica. Starting from nothing, the King is the maker of a compact State, containing the population of twenty-six millions, and then the most powerful in Europe.—Throughout this interval he is at the head of the national defense. He is the liberator of the country against foreigners, against the Pope in the fourteenth century, against the English in the fifteenth, against the Spaniards in the sixteenth. In the interior, from the twelfth century onward, with the helmet on his brow, and always on the road, he is the great justiciary, demolishing the towers of the feudal brigands, repressing the excesses of the powerful, and protecting the oppressed.[1114] He puts an end to private warfare; he establishes order and tranquility. This was an immense accomplishment, which, from Louis le Gros to St. Louis, from Philippe le Bel to Charles VII, continues uninterruptedly up to the middle of the eighteenth century in the edict against duels and in the "Grand Jours."[1115] Meanwhile all useful projects carried out under his orders, or developed under his patronage, roads, harbors, canals, asylums, universities, academies, institutions of piety, of refuge, of education, of science, of industry, and of commerce, bears his imprint and proclaim the public benefactor.-Services of this character challenge a proportionate recompense; it is allowed that from father to son he is wedded to France; that she acts only through him; that he acts only for her; while every souvenir of the past and every present interest combine to sanction this union. The Church consecrates it at Rheims by a sort of eighth sacrament, accompanied with legends and miracles; he is the anointed of God.[1116] The nobles, through an old instinct of military fealty, consider themselves his bodyguard, and down to August 10, 1789, rush forward to die for him on his staircase; he is their general by birth. The people, down to 1789, regard him as the redresser of abuses, the guardian of the right, the protector of the weak, the great almoner and the universal refuge. At the beginning of the reign of Louis XVI "shouts of Vive le roi, which began at six o'clock in the morning, continued scarcely interrupted until after sunset."[1117] When the Dauphin was born the joy of France was that of a whole family. "People stopped each other in the streets, spoke together without any acquaintance, and everybody embraced everybody he knew."[1118] Every one, through vague tradition, through immemorial respect, feels that France is a ship constructed by his hands and the hands of his ancestors. In this sense, the vessel is his property; it is his right to it is the same as that of each passenger to his private goods. The king's only duty consists in being expert and vigilant in guiding across the oceans and beneath his banner the magnificent ship upon which everyone's welfare depends.-Under the ascendancy of such an idea he was allowed to do everything. By fair means or foul, he so reduced ancient authorities as to make them a fragment, a pretense, a souvenir. The nobles are simply his officials or his courtiers. Since the Concordat he nominates the dignitaries of the Church. The States-General were not convoked for a hundred and seventy-five years; the provincial assemblies, which continue to subsist, do nothing but apportion the taxes; the parliaments are exiled when they risk a remonstrance. Through his council, his intendants, his sub-delegates, he intervenes in the most trifling of local matters. His revenue is four hundred and seventy-seven millions.[1119] He disburses one-half of that of the Clergy. In short, he is absolute master, and he so declares himself.[1120]—Possessions, freedom from taxation, the satisfactions of vanity, a few remnants of local jurisdiction and authority, are consequently all that is left to his ancient rivals; in exchange for these they enjoy his favors and marks of preference.-Such, in brief, is the history of the privileged classes, the Clergy, the Nobles, and the King. It must be kept in mind to comprehend their situation at the moment of their fall; having created France, they enjoy it. Let us see clearly what becomes of them at the end of the eighteenth century; what portion of their advantages they preserved; what services they still render, and what services they do not render.


[Footnote 1101: "Les Moines d'Occident," by Montalembert, I. 277. St. Lupicin before the Burgundian King Chilperic, II. 416. Saint Karileff before King Childebert. Cf. passim, Gregory of Tours and the Bollandist collection.]

[Footnote 1102: No legend is more frequently encountered; we find it as late as the twelfth century.]

[Footnote 1103: Chilperic, for example, acting under the advice of Fredegonde after the death of all their children.]

[Footnote 1104: Montalembert, ibid., II. book 8; and especially "Les Forets de la France dans l'antiquite et au Moyen Age," by Alfred Maury. Spinoe et vepres is a phrase constantly recurring in the lives of the saints.]

[Footnote 1105: We find the same thing to day with the colonies of Trappists in Algiers.]

[Footnote 1106: "Polyptique d'Irminon," by Guerard. In this work we see the prosperity of the domain belonging to the Abbey of St. Germain des Pres at the end of the eighth century. According to M. Guerard's statistics, the peasantry of Paliseau were about as prosperous in the time of Charlemagne as at the present day.]

[Footnote 1107: Taine's definition would also fit contemporary (1999) drugs and video entertainment which also provide mankind with both hope, pleasure and entertainment. (SR.)]

[Footnote 1108: There are twenty-five thousand lives of the saints, between the sixth and the tenth centuries, collected by the Bollandists.—The last that are truly inspired are those of St. Francis of Assisi and his companions at the beginning of the fourteenth century. The same vivid sentiment extends down to the end of the fifteenth century in the works of Fra Angelico and Hans Memling.—The Sainte Chapelle in Paris, the upper church at Assisi, Dante's Paradise, and the Fioretti, furnish an idea of these visions. As regards modern literature, the state of a believer's soul in the middle ages is perfectly described in the "Pelerinage a Kevlaar," by Henri Heine, and in "Les Reliques vivantes," by Tourgueneff.]

[Footnote 1109: As, for example, Tertulle, founder of the Platagenet family, Rollo, Duke of Normandy, Hugues, Abbot of St. Martin of Tours and of St. Denis.]

[Footnote 1110: See the "Cantilenes" of the tenth century in which the "Chansons de Geste" are foreshadowed.]

[Footnote 1111: Laws governing the feudal system (1372) where the feudal lord is unable to transmit his property by testament but has to leave them to the next holder of the title. The "mainmortables" were serfs who belonged to the property. (SR.)]

[Footnote 1112: See in the "Voyages du Caillaud," in Nubia and Abyssinia, the raids for slaves made by the Pacha's armies; Europe presented about the same spectacle between the years 800 and 900.]

[Footnote 1113: See the zeal of subjects for their lords in the historians of the middle ages; Gaston Phoebus, Comte de Foix, and Guy, Comte de Flandres in Froissart; Raymond de Beziers and Raymond de Toulouse, in the chronicle of Toulouse. This profound sentiment of small local patrimonics is apparent at each provincial assembly in Normandy, Brittany, Franche-Comte, etc.]

[Footnote 1114: Suger, Life of Louis VI.]

[Footnote 1115: "Les Grand Jours d'Auvergne," by Flechier, ed. Cheruel. The last feudal brigand, the Baron of Plumartin, in Poitou, was taken, tried, and beheaded under Louis XV in 1756.]

[Footnote 1116: As late as Louis XV a proces verbal is made of a number of cures of the King's evil.]

[Footnote 1117: "Memoires of Madame Campan," I. 89; II. 215.]

[Footnote 1118: In 1785 an Englishman visiting France boasts of the political liberty enjoyed in his country. As an offset to this the French reproach the English for having decapitated Charles I., and "glory in having always maintained an inviolable attachment to their own king; a fidelity, a respect which no excess or severity on his part has ever shaken." ("A Comparative View of the French and of the English Nation," by John Andrews, p.257.)]

[Footnote 1119: Memoirs of D'Augeard, private secretary of the Queen, and a former farmer-general.]

[Footnote 1120: The following is the reply of Louis XV. to the Parliament of Paris, March 3, 1766, in a lit de justice: "The sovereign authority is vested in my person. . . The legislative power, without dependence and without division, exists in myself alone. Public security emanates wholly from myself; I am its supreme custodian. My people are one only with me; national rights and interests, of which an attempt is made to form a body separate from those of the monarch, are necessarily combined with my own, and rests only in my hands."]


I. Number of the Privileged Classes.

The privileged classes number about 270,000 persons, comprising of the nobility, 140,000 and of the clergy 130,000.[1201] This makes from 25,000 to 30,000 noble families; 23,000 monks in 2,500 monasteries, and 37,000 nuns in 1,500 convents, and 60,000 curates and vicars in as many churches and chapels. Should the reader desire a more distinct impression of them, he may imagine on each square league of territory[1202], and to each thousand of inhabitants, one noble family in its weathercock mansion. In each village there is a curate and his church, and, every six or seven leagues, a community of men or of women. We have here the ancient chieftains and founders of France; thus entitled, they still enjoy many possessions and many rights.

II. Their Possessions, Capital, and Revenue.

Let us always keep in mind what they were, in order to comprehend what they are. Great as their advantages may be, these are merely the remains of still greater advantages. This or that bishop or abbot, this or that count or duke, whose successors make their bows at Versailles, was formerly the equals of the Carlovingians and the first Capets. A Sire de Montlhery held King Philippe I in check.[1203] The abbey of St. Germain des Pres possessed 430,000 hectares of land (about 900,000 acres), almost the extent of an entire department. We need not be surprised that they remained powerful, and, especially, rich; no stability is greater than that of an associative body. After eight hundred years, in spite of so many strokes of the royal ax, and the immense change in the culture of society, the old feudal root lasts and still vegetates. We remark it first in the distribution of property.[1204] A fifth of the soil belongs to the crown and the communes, a fifth to the Third-Estate, a fifth to the rural population, a fifth to the nobles and a fifth to the clergy. Accordingly, if we deduct the public lands, the privileged classes own one-half of the kingdom. This large portion, moreover, is at the same time the richest, for it comprises almost all the large and imposing buildings, the palaces, castles, convents, and cathedrals, and almost all the valuable movable property, such as furniture, plate, objects of art, the accumulated masterpieces of centuries.—We can judge of it by an estimate of the portion belonging to the clergy. Its possessions, capitalized, amount to nearly 4,000,000,000 francs.[1205] Income from this amounts to 80 or 100 millions. To this must be added the dime (or tithes), 123 millions per annum, in all 200 millions, a sum which must be doubled to show its equivalent at the present day. We must also add the chance contributions and the usual church collections.[1206] To fully realize the breadth of this golden stream let us look at some of its affluents. 399 monks at Premontre estimate their revenue at more than 1,000,000 livres, and their capital at 45,000,000. The Provincial of the Dominicans of Toulouse admits, for his two hundred and thirty-six monks, "more than 200,000 livres net revenue, not including the convent and its enclosure; also, in the colonies, real estate, Negroes and other effects, valued at several millions." The Benedictines of Cluny, numbering 298, enjoy an income of 1,800,000 livres. Those of Saint-Maur, numbering 1672, estimate the movable property of their churches and houses at 24,000,000, and their net revenue at 8 millions, "without including that which accrues to Messieurs the abbots and priors commendatory," which means as much and perhaps more. Dom Rocourt, abbot of Clairvaux, has from 300,000 to 400,000 livres income; the Cardinal de Rohan, archbishop of Strasbourg, more than 1,000,000.[1207] In Franche-Comte, Alsace and Roussillon the clergy own one-half of the territory, in Hainaut and Artois, three-quarters, in Cambresis fourteen hundred plow-areas out of seventeen hundred.[1208] Almost the whole of Le Velay belongs to the Bishop of Puy, the abbot of La Chaise-Dieu, the noble chapter of Brionde, and to the seigniors of Polignac. The canons of St. Claude, in the Jura, are the proprietors of 12,000 serfs or 'mainmorts.'[1209] Through fortunes of the first class we can imagine those of the second. As along with the noble it comprises the ennobled. As the magistrates for two centuries, and the financiers for one century had acquired or purchased nobility, it is clear that here are to be found almost all the great fortunes of France, old or new, transmitted by inheritance, obtained through court favors, or acquired in business. When a class reaches the summit it is recruited out of those who are mounting or clambering up. Here, too, there is colossal wealth. It has been calculated that the possessions of the princes of the royal family, the Comtes of Artois and of Provence, the Ducs d'Orleans and de Penthievre then covered one-seventh of the territory.[1210] The princes of the blood have together a revenue of from 24 to 25 millions; the Duc d'Orleans alone has a rental of 11,500,000.[1211]—These are the vestiges of the feudal regime. Similar vestiges are found in England, in Austria, in Germany and in Russia. Proprietorship, indeed, survives a long time survives the circumstances on which it is founded. Sovereignty had constituted property; divorced from sovereignty it has remained in the hands formerly sovereign. In the bishop, the abbot and the count, the king respected the proprietor while overthrowing the rival, and, in the existing proprietor a hundred traits still indicate the annihilated or modified sovereign.

III. Their Immunities.

Such is the total or partial exemption from taxation. The tax-collectors halt in their presence because the king well knows that feudal property has the same origin as his own; if royalty is one privilege seigniory is another; the king himself is simply the most privileged among the privileged. The most absolute, the most infatuated with his rights, Louis XIV, entertained scruples when extreme necessity compelled him to enforce on everybody the tax of the tenth.[1212] Treaties, precedents, immemorial custom, reminiscences of ancient rights again restrain the fiscal hand. The clearer the resemblance of the proprietor to the ancient independent sovereign the greater his immunity.—In some places a recent treaty guarantees him by his position as a stranger, by his almost royal extraction. "In Alsace foreign princes in possession, with the Teutonic order and the order of Malta, enjoy exemption from all real and personal contributions." "In Lorraine the chapter of Remiremont has the privilege of assessing itself in all state impositions."[1213] Elsewhere he is protected by the maintenance of the provincial Assemblies, and through the incorporation of the nobility with the soil: in Languedoc and in Brittany the commoners alone paid the taille[1214]—Everywhere else his quality preserved him from it, him, his chateau and the chateau's dependencies; the taille reaches him only through his farmers. And better still, it is sufficient that he himself should work, or his steward, to communicate to the land his original independence. As soon as he touches the soil, either personally or through his agent, he exempts four plowing-areas (quatre charrues), three hundred arpents,[1215] which in other hands would pay 2,000 francs tax. Besides this he is exempt on "the woods, the meadows, the vines, the ponds and the enclosed land belonging to the chateau, of whatever extent it may be." Consequently, in Limousin and elsewhere, in regions principally devoted to pasturage or to vineyards, he takes care to manage himself, or to have managed, a certain portion of his domain; in this way he exempts it from the tax collector.[1216] There is yet more. In Alsace, through an express covenant he does not pay a cent of tax. Thus, after the assaults of four hundred and fifty years, taxation, the first of fiscal instrumentalities, the most burdensome of all, leaves feudal property almost intact.[1217]—For the last century, two new tools, the capitation-tax and the vingtiemes, appear more effective, and yet are but little more so.—First of all, through a masterstroke of ecclesiastical diplomacy, the clergy diverts or weakens the blow. As it is an organization, holding assemblies, it is able to negotiate with the king and buy itself off. To avoid being taxed by others it taxes itself. It makes it appear that its payments are not compulsory contributions, but a "free gift." It obtains then in exchange a mass of concessions, is able to diminish this gift, sometimes not to make it, in any event to reduce it to sixteen millions every five years, that is to say to a little more than three millions per annum. In 1788 it is only 1,800,000 livres, and in 1789 it is refused altogether.[1218] And still better: as it borrows to provide for this tax, and as the decimes which it raises on its property do not suffice to reduce the capital and meet the interest on its debt, it has the adroitness to secure, besides, a grant from the king. Out of the royal treasury, each year, it receives 2,500,000 livres, so that, instead of paying, it receives. In 1787 it receives in this way 1,500,000 livres.-As for the nobles, they, being unable to combine together, to have representatives, and to act in a public way, operate instead in a private way. They contact ministers, intendants, sub-delegates, farmer-generals, and all others clothed with authority, their quality securing attentions, consideration and favors. In the first place, this quality exempts themselves, their dependents, and the dependents of their dependents, from drafting in the militia, from lodging soldiers, from (la corvee) laboring on the highways. Next, the capitation being fixed according to the tax system, they pay little, because their taxation is of little account. Moreover, each one brings all his credit to bear against assessments. "Your sympathetic heart," writes one of them to the intendant, "will never allow a father of my condition to be taxed for the vingtiemes rigidly like a father of low birth."[1219] On the other hand, as the taxpayer pays the capitation-tax at his actual residence, often far away from his estates, and no one having any knowledge of his personal income, he may pay whatever seems to him proper. There are no proceedings against him, if he is a noble; the greatest circumspection is used towards persons of high rank. "In the provinces," says Turgot, "the capitation-tax of the privileged classes has been successively reduced to an exceedingly small matter, whilst the capitation-tax of those who are liable to the taille is almost equal to the aggregate of that tax." And finally, "the collectors think that they are obliged to act towards them with marked consideration" even when they owe; "the result of which," says Necker, "is that very ancient, and much too large amounts, of their capitation-tax remain unpaid." Accordingly, not having been able to repel the assault of the revenue services in front they evaded it or diminished it until it became almost unobjectionable. In Champagne, on nearly 1,500,000 livres provided by the capitation-tax, they paid in only 14,000 livres," that is to say, "2 sous and 2 deniers for the same purpose which costs 12 sous per livre to those chargeable with the taille." According to Calonne, "if concessions and privileges had been suppressed the vingtiemes would have furnished double the amount." In this respect the most opulent were the most skillful in protecting themselves. "With the intendants," said the Duc d'Orleans, "I settle matters, and pay about what I please," and he calculated that the provincial administration, rigorously taxing him, would cause him to lose 300,000 livres rental. It has been proved that the princes of the blood paid, for their two-twentieths, 188,000 instead of 2,400,000 livres. In the main, in this regime, exception from taxation is the last remnant of sovereignty or, at least, of independence. The privileged person avoids or repels taxation, not merely because it despoils him, but because it belittles him; it is a mark of the commoner, that is to say, of former servitude, and he resists the fisc (the revenue services) as much through pride as through interest.

IV. Their Feudal Rights.

These advantages are the remains of primitive sovereignty.

Let us follow him home to his own domain. A bishop, an abbe, a chapter of the clergy, an abbess, each has one like a lay seignior; for, in former times, the monastery and the church were small governments like the county and the duchy.—Intact on the other bank of the Rhine, almost ruined in France, the feudal structure everywhere discloses the same plan. In certain places, better protected or less attacked, it has preserved all its ancient externals. At Cahors, the bishop-count of the town had the right, on solemnly officiating, "to place his helmet, cuirass, gauntlets and sword on the altar."[1220] At Besancon, the archbishop-prince has six high officers, who owe him homage for their fiefs, and who attend at his coronation and at his obsequies. At Mende,[1221] the bishop, seignior-suzerain for Gevaudan since the eleventh century, appoints "the courts, ordinary judges and judges of appeal, the commissaries and syndics of the country." He disposes of all the places, "municipal and judiciary." Entreated to appear in the assembly of the three orders of the province, he "replies that his place, his possessions and his rank exalting him above every individual in his diocese. He cannot sit under the presidency of any person; that, being seignior-suzerain of all estates and particularly of the baronies, he cannot give way to his vassals." In brief that he is king, or but little short of it, in his own province. At Remiremont, the noble chapter of canonesses has, "inferior, superior, and ordinary judicature in fifty-two bans of seigniories," nominates seventy-five curacies and confers ten male canonships. It appoints the municipal officers of the town, and, besides these, three lower and higher courts, and everywhere the officials in the jurisdiction over woods and forests. Thirty-two bishops, without counting the chapters, are thus temporal seigniors, in whole or in part, of their episcopal town, sometimes of the surrounding district, and sometimes, like the bishop of St. Claude, of the entire country. Here the feudal tower has been preserved. Elsewhere it is plastered over anew, and more particularly in the appanages. In these domains, comprising more than twelve of our departments, the princes of the blood appoint to all offices in the judiciary and to all clerical livings. Being substitutes of the king they enjoy his serviceable and honorary rights. They are almost delegated kings, and for life; for they not only receive all that the king would receive as seignior, but again a portion of that which he would receive as monarch. For example, the house of Orleans collects the excises,[1222] that is to say the duty on liquors, on works in gold or silver, on manufactures of iron, on steel, on cards, on paper and starch, in short, on the entire sum-total of one of the most onerous indirect taxes. It is not surprising, if, having a nearly sovereign situation, they have a council, a chancellor, an organized debt, a court,[1223] a domestic ceremonial system, and that the feudal edifice in their hands should put on the luxurious and formal trappings which it had assumed in the hands of the king.

Let us turn to its inferior personages, to a seignior of medium rank, on his square league of ground, amidst the thousand inhabitants who were formerly his villeins or his serfs, within reach of the monastery, or chapter, or bishop whose rights intermingle with his rights. Whatever may have been done to abase him his position is still very high. He is yet, as the intendants say, "the first inhabitant;" a prince whom they have half despoiled of his public functions and consigned to his honorary and available rights, but who nevertheless remains a prince.[1224]—He has his bench in the church, and his right of sepulture in the choir; the tapestry bears his coat of arms; they bestow on him incense, "holy water by distinction." Often, having founded the church, he is its patron, choosing the curate and claiming to control him; in the rural districts we see him advancing or retarding the hour of the parochial mass according to his fancy. If he bears a title he is supreme judge, and there are entire provinces, Maine and Anjou, for example, where there is no fief without the judge. In this case he appoints the bailiff; the registrar, and other legal and judicial officers, attorneys, notaries, seigniorial sergeants, constabulary on foot or mounted, who draw up documents or decide in his name in civil and criminal cases on the first trial. He appoints, moreover, a forest-warden, or decides forest offenses, and enforces the penalties, which this officer inflicts. He has his prison for delinquents of various kinds, and sometimes his forked gibbets. On the other hand, as compensation for his judicial costs, he obtains the property of the man condemned to death and the confiscation of his estate. He succeeds to the bastard born and dying in his seigniory without leaving a testament or legitimate children. He inherits from the possessor, legitimately born, dying in testate in his house without apparent heirs. He appropriates to himself movable objects, animate or inanimate, which are found astray and of which the owner is unknown; he claims one-half or one-third of treasure-trove, and, on the coast, he takes for himself the waif of wrecks. And finally, what is more fruitful, in these times of misery, he becomes the possessor of abandoned lands that have remained untilled for ten years.-Other advantages demonstrate still more clearly that he formerly possessed the government of the canton. Such are, in Auvergne, in Flanders, in Hainaut, in Artois, in Picardy, Alsace, and Lorraine, the dues de poursoin ou de sauvement (care or safety within the walls of a town), paid to him for providing general protection. The dues of de guet et de garde (watch and guard), claimed by him for military protection; of afforage, are exacted of those who sell beer, wine and other beverages, whole-sale or retail. The dues of fouage, dues on fires, in money or grain, which, according to many common-law systems, he levies on each fireside, house or family. The dues of pulverage, quite common in Dauphiny-and Provence, are levied on passing flocks of sheep. Those of the lods et ventes (lord's due), an almost universal tax, consist of the deduction of a sixth, often of a fifth or even a fourth, of the price of every piece of ground sold, and of every lease exceeding nine years. The dues for redemption or relief are equivalent to one year's income, aid that he receives from collateral heirs, and often from direct heirs. Finally, a rarer due, but the most burdensome of all, is that of acapte ou de plaid-a-merci, which is a double rent, or a year's yield of fruits, payable as well on the death of the seignior as on that of the copyholder. These are veritable taxes, on land, on movables, personal, for licenses, for traffic, for mutations, for successions, established formerly on the condition of performing a public service which he is no longer obliged to perform.

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