A Social History of Nineteenth-Century France

By Roger Price | Go to book overview

4

The middle classes

Introduction

In a society characterized by major social inequalities status was accorded to individuals in relation to their membership of a hierarchy of social groups. Among these, contemporaries identified various intermediary groupings which they placed in between the social élite and the classes populaires. These middle classes were variously described as the bourgeoisie, the classe moyenne or petit bourgeoisie. They were an extremely diverse body of people, ranging from well-off landowners and manufacturers to self-employed artisans and shopkeepers. The criteria which contemporaries used for placing individuals socially were complicated and varied according to place, social milieu and period. To a substantial extent property and the wealth derived from it were the basic criteria. To be distinguished from the popular classes it was essential to have the means to live in relative comfort, and within the middle classes themselves differences in living standards distinguished various sub-groups. However, wealth alone did not determine rank. It was important to appear daily to be part of the social group to which one claimed to belong — through habits of dress, by wearing gloves, for example, speech, manners, accommodation, the employment of domestics, etc., i.e. by the ostentatious observance of particular norms of behaviour. Profession was another key factor. In part it determined income, although only the poorer members of the middle classes depended entirely on earned incomes. Of greater significance was the status conveyed by membership of a particular professional group because of the influence, education and life-style its members possessed. The distinctions and prejudices of the Ancien Régime survived into the nineteenth century and with them the stress on the dignity of life commensurate, in particular, with landownership or the liberal professions rather than mercantile or industrial activity. Modern sociological analysis using socio-professional categorization is hardly appropriate in these circumstances. The historian has to be more subtle. Factors such as family background, patterns of sociability, influence, life-style, education and culture all have to be taken into account. In the formation of social groups, individuals with similar backgrounds and life-styles tended to come together because they shared a whole complex of interests, as well as a sentiment of belonging to the same milieu. The choice of profession, of a place to live and especially of a

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A Social History of Nineteenth-Century France
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • A Social History of Nineteenth-Century France *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgements *
  • Introduction *
  • Part One - A Changing Environment *
  • 1 - The Economy: Continuity and Change *
  • 2 - The Demographic Indicators *
  • Part Two - Social Relationships *
  • 3 - Elites *
  • 4 - The Middle Classes *
  • 5 - Peasants *
  • 6 - Urban Working Classes *
  • Part Three - Social Institutions *
  • 7 - Religion *
  • 8 - Education *
  • 9 - In Conclusion: State and Society *
  • Notes and References *
  • Select Bibliography *
  • Index *
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