Hierarchy and privilege in France

An extract from Dave’s article ‘The Old Regime’.

First of all, the social hierarchy was divided into three broad categories, or Estates.  These Estates were extremely rigid and immobile, with the large majority of the population living and dying according to their ascribed status.  In addition, there were numerous other social divisions and economic sub-categories that worked within and across these Estates with their own defined privileges.  Were you a member of the First Estate (the Catholic Church, divided into ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ clergy – around one percent), the Second Estate (the nobility – also around one percent), or the Third Estate (the rest – rural, urban, bourgeoisie, wage labourers, free peasants, villeins)?  Were you a father or husband?  Were you protestant, catholic or Jewish? Were you a member of a trade guild:  a glassmaker’s, a stonecutter’s, a locksmith’s?  Did you live in Rouen or Bordeaux?  And which part of Bordeaux or Rouen? In the suburbs of Rouen, for example:

… there were fourteen privileged enclaves, with the most notable being the parish of Saint-Sever across the river from the old city. Seigneurs exercising the right of high justice limited the tax and police powers of Rouen’s municipal authorities and circumscribed the regulations of the city’s corporations chartered by the crown.  
(Jeff Horn ‘Privileged Enclaves: Entrepreneurial Opportunities in Eighteenth-Century France’).

Your privilege (your rights and obligations) were determined by those groups of which you were a member.  The Church had the right to collect tithes, censor books and hold land tax-free.  It registered births, marriages and deaths.  It ran schools and hospitals and organised poor relief.  It policed morality.  The nobility, like the church, were also exempt from most taxes.  They could collect rent from the peasants as well as labour dues and dues on a wide range of goods such as salt, cloth, bread, wine and the use of mills, ovens and wine-presses.  They had the right to hunt and wear a sword. Certain military, civic and ecclesiastic positions were reserved for them.  They were required to fight for the king and offer counsel.  They were mostly prohibited from manual labour or direct involvement in commerce (these would be part of the privileges of others) and could lose their noble status.  A father had the right to manage the family property.  A husband could imprison his wife in a convent for two years for adultery. A Jew could publically profess their faith but could not own land and would have to pay a special tax.  Moreover, Sephardic Jews in the southwest had more rights than Ashkenazi Jews in the north east. Only a member of a glassmaker’s guild could make stained-glass windows.  Only a merchant under the aegis of the French East Indies Company could trade in the Indian and Pacific Oceans as that company had received a 50-year monopoly from Louis XIV.

A Pinterest page on the Old Regime is freely available to everyone here

‘The Prologue’, and chapters 1 and 2 of ‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ are now freely available here.

6 long form articles on Casanova’s life and times are freely available here.

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