Origins of the French Revolution

By William Doyle | Go to book overview

9
The Nobility

Like most countries of eighteenth-century Europe, France was dominated by nobles. All the king's ministers were noble -- apart from the extraordinary case of Necker. The royal court was exclusively peopled by nobles. All the intendants were noble, as were nearly all the bishops and other high ecclesiastical dignitaries. Almost all army officers, and a substantial proportion of naval ones, were noble. So were all members of the sovereign courts, by definition. 1 Nobles also possessed the lion's share of the country's wealth. They owned between a quarter and a third of the land and pocketed about a quarter of the total agricultural revenue. 2 Through their position in the church they also enjoyed the usufruct of between 15 and 25 per cent of that institution's revenues. 3 They exercised seignorial rights over most of the land they did not own. Most of the immense capital invested in venal offices was noble capital. Most heavy industry was financed by noblemen, 4 and even the world of banking and high finance was full of noble men of business. 5 The only important sectors of economic life that they did not dominate were those of light industry and trade -- and their participation was not unknown even there. Indeed, it has been argued that even in the sectors they did not dominate, nobles were the boldest and most enterprising participants, pioneering new techniques and opening up new markets. 6 And finally, nobles dominated France's cultural life. They were the greatest patrons of the arts, the leaders of fashion, and the mainstays of the intellectual world. They filled the academies, national and provincial. The aristocratic ladies of the salons were the midwives of the Enlightenment, ventilating the latest ideas, introducing and protecting new writers. 7 A remarkable number of the writers themselves were noble, too: one need only think of Montesquieu, Condorcet, d'Holbach, or Jaucourt. Not all nobles, of course, were men of power, wealth, or influence. But the vast majority of such men were nobles.

We cannot yet be sure how many nobles there were in 1789. Recent estimates vary between 110,000 to 120,000 and 350,000. Either way, they

-111-

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Origins of the French Revolution
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Prefatory Note vii
  • Contents *
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Writings on Revolutionary Origins Since 1939 3
  • 1 - The Classic Interpretation 5
  • 2 - Revisionism 10
  • 3 - Post-Revisionism 35
  • Part II - The Breakdown of the Old Regime 43
  • 4 - The Financial Crisis 45
  • 5 - The System of Government 54
  • 6 - Opposition 65
  • 7 - Public Opinion 76
  • 8 - Reform and its Failure, 1787-1788 91
  • Part III - The Struggle for Power 109
  • 9 - The Nobility 111
  • 10 - The Bourgeoisie 121
  • 11 - The Election Campaign, September 1788 to May 1789 131
  • 12 - The Economic Crisis 148
  • 13 - The Estates-General, May and June 1789 157
  • 14 - The People of Paris 166
  • 15 - The Peasantry 178
  • 16 - Conclusion: The New Regime and its Principles 189
  • Notes 197
  • Further Reading 226
  • Index of Authors Cited 229
  • General Index 233
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