Origins of the French Revolution

By William Doyle | Go to book overview

10
The Bourgeoisie

The nobility and the clergy were the only groups in society whose limits were clearly defined in law. Historians have no such easy guidelines to follow when dealing with the bourgeoisie. Paris and other major cities did have their own legally defined bourgeoisie, although the criteria differed from city to city. 1 This status, akin to that of freeman of an English borough or city, was a privileged one and conferred important advantages, such as exemption from the taille and various other public burdens; and just to confuse matters, many nobles enjoyed the technical status of bourgeois in the towns where they lived. But nobody, at the time or since, thought that the bourgeoisie was made up of this privileged minority. Who were the bourgeoisie, then? Perhaps the best way to solve this problem is to state what they were not.

Members of the bourgeoisie were not noble. Whatever else they shared with noblemen -- and as we shall see it was an enormous amount -- they did not enjoy the same social status. There was indeed a twilight zone between the two, inhabited by office-holders whose nobility was not yet complete. But nobody seriously expected that a family with noblesse commencée would fail to complete it and fall back into roture; and meanwhile such families enjoyed most of the privileges belonging to full nobles. At the other end of the social scale we cannot be so precise, but perhaps the most fundamental criterion was indicated by a sympathetic noble observer who, early in the Revolution, defined the bourgeoisie as 'that entire class of men who live on wealth acquired from the profits of a skill or productive trade which they have accumulated themselves or inherited from their parents; . . . those . . . who have an income which is not dependent upon the work of their own hands'. 2 This meant that the bourgeoisie were not peasants either. Some historians, it is true, have dubbed the richer peasantry a 'rural bourgeoisie' on the grounds that their methods of land management were capitalistic; 3 but the only bourgeoisie whom contemporary peasants would have recognized in the countryside were lawyers, land-agents, auctioneers, or townsmen attempting to buttress

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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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