The Abolition of Feudalism: Peasants, Lords, and Legislators in the French Revolution

By John Markoff | Go to book overview

CHAPTER
9

WORDS AND THINGS: THE FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY BOURGEOISIE DEFINES THE FEUDAL REGIME

As it carried on its dialogue with the countryside, the legislature continually reconstructed a rationale for what it was doing. The conceptual center of these discussions was the term "feudal," used quite commonly at the onset of the Revolution to indicate a presumably delimited collection of claims of one party upon another (feudal rights), rather less commonly to indicate, holistically, a particular form of social order that was historically specific ("the feudal regime" but never "a feudal regime") and, increasingly commonly, and, even more abstractly, an organizing principle of social relations, with no very exact English equivalent (féodalité).

The seigneurial rights could hardly be discussed in the three legislatures that wrote and rewrote the laws without referring to conceptions of the feudal. In this chapter we sketch the evolution of these conceptions. In the last chapter we saw how legislators undertook actions under pressure from the countryside and from the militants of Paris. Legislators sought rationales for these actions. Such rationales were not to be constructed out of whole cloth, for the deputies did more than simply react to pressures: they had

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