The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800: The Challenge

By R. R. Palmer | Go to book overview

The Provincial Estates and Parlements of France

France there were two kinds of bodies of a public character that played an active role in political life, as distinct from the bureaucrats and functionaries of the king. They were the Provincial Estates and the Parlements. The former resembled the assemblies of estates, diets, or parliaments found in other parts of Europe. In most of the French provinces the estates had gradually ceased to meet. In the enth century they still met only in Languedoc, Brittany, Burgundy, Artois, and Bearn; and only in the first two were the Provincial Estates of any importance. In Languedoc and Brittany they exercised a power of consent to taxation by making a "free gift" to the king. This consent was sometimes forced, but they enjoyed more real freedom in dividing the tax burden among the individual taxpayers. In general, they defended the constitutional liberties of their provinces, as incorporated in the old agreements, or "contracts," by which the provinces had come under the French crown in former times.

The Estates of Languedoc met once a year. The archbishop of Narbonne always presided. The First Estate consisted of the 23 bishops of the province. The Second Estate consisted of 23 "barons," not elected by the nobles of Languedoc but appointed by the King to represent them. The Third Estate consisted of 46 "votes" -- the same as the other two houses combined. These 46 votes were exercised by 68 deputies, 2 from each diocesan city, and 1 or 2 from various other towns in turn by a system of rotation. Many of these towns were what came to be called rotten boroughs in England -- places once notable enough to be chosen for representation, but since decayed. Usually it was the town magistrates who attended the estates. No one was elected to the Estates of Languedoc. Voting was not by chamber, but by head. With double representation for the Third Estate, and with voting by head, the Estates of Languedoc before the Revolution enjoyed the two formal advantages demanded by the Third Estate on a national scale for the Estates General of 1789. The burghers, however, who could muster as many votes as clergy and nobles combined, by no means dominated the assembly of Languedoc. Some of the mayors who sat for towns enjoyed noble status. Two-thirds of the burgher representatives came from diocesan cities, where the influence of the bishops was strong. It was the bishops who governed in Languedoc, in cooperation with the King's agent, the intendant, because the bish

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