The Old Regime

The Old Regime, or Ancien Régime, is the term which came into existence during the French Revolution and is used by modern historians to refer to the reigns of Louis XIV, XV and XVI: a period (1654 to 1789) characterised by privilege, hierarchy, the notion of a divinely appointed absolute monarch and a powerful Catholic Church.

Understanding the significance of privilege (from the Latin ‘privus’ and ‘lex/leg-’, or ‘private law’) is key to understanding the world of the Old Regime:  ‘Society was imagined not as individuals equal before the law but as groups, each with different legal statuses and functions’ (Suzanne Desan, ‘Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon’); ‘Privilege bounded how life was experienced’ (Jeff Horn, ‘Privileged Enclaves: Entrepreneurial Opportunities in Eighteenth-Century France’).  Although the concepts of individual rights and universal rights were issues of concern to Enlightenment thinkers, these ideas in practice would have meant little to the overwhelming majority of people in France during Casanova’s time there.

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.

The head of this hierarchical society, of course, was the absolute monarch who, from 1715 to 1774, was Louis XV, member of the House of Bourbon (a branch of the Capetian dynasty that had ruled France since 987).  By the end of the reign of Louis XIV, the monarchy exerted an unprecedented degree of control over France, his authority exercised through royal officials.  His control, however, was not total and there was a balance to be struck with local elites: noble, municipal and regional.

According to tradition, the king was father to France as God was father to mankind. He was appointed by God, endorsed and underpinned by the Catholic Church and stood above the law (in fact, he made the law).  He had the right to imprison and condemn men to death without trial.  This aspect of his authority was particularly resented, symbolised notoriously in the shape of the Bastille, the massive fortress prison with its imposing towers situated on the eastern edge of Paris.  The Bastille came to represent the cruel and arbitrary exercise of royal power.  By the time of the French Revolution ‘it stood for injustice, not just of the criminal system but of the monarchy itself.  It stood for despotism and tyranny’ (Suzanne Desan, ‘Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon’).

Family life under the Old Regime was very much conceived of in the same light, with the father being the dominant authority in the home as the king was in the nation (women were viewed very much as dependents).  Both hierarchies of power were seen as natural.  The father had the right to rule, punish and reward.  The father had authority even over his adult children.  A father’s consent was required for marriage.  Like the state, the needs and wants of the individual were expected to be subsumed beneath the needs of the community as a whole, in this case the family.  Thus arranged marriages, for the sake of beneficial family alliances or to ensure a family heir, were common.

Censorship, of course, was the norm.  Up until 1699, it had been undertaken by several bodies: the Parlement of Paris, the Sorbonne and the Church as well as by the royal chancellor.  From 1699, however, the chancellor, Louis II Phélypeaux, comte de Pontchartrain, imposed royal authority over all censorship.  Under Pontchartrain and his nephew, Abbé Jean-Paul Bignon, royal censors were charged with examining every publication request in France and issuing certificates of approval (or royal privilege).  Hundreds of books, pamphlets and plays were banned.  Texts would be confiscated and burned and writers, printers, publishers and booksellers fined or imprisoned.  Of the 1,000 people imprisoned in the Bastille between 1750 and 1779, 40% were to do with the book trade.  Voltaire himself was imprisoned there twice during his lifetime.  The Bastille was also used to confine dangerous books in a secure vault.  18 titles authored by Voltaire made their way there, along with works by Rousseau and Diderot.  Predictably, of course, books that were banned were made all the more desirable and popular. Many books and pamphlets, probably more than half, were printed outside France, particularly in Amsterdam and Switzerland, and smuggled back in.

Censorship, however, was not simply about the imposition of repressive and authoritarian values.  Many of the royal censors themselves, such as Enlightenment author Bernard de Fontenelle, were in favour of open debate about politics, social reform, science and religion.  Historian Raymond Birn (‘Royal Censorship of Books in Eighteenth-Century France’)  argues that censors acted more as cultural intermediaries than agents of repression.  There was no clear, fixed criteria for censorship and different censors would have different ideas and agendas which changed over time.  Books would be condemned if they overstepped the line in questioning religious orthodoxy, were poorly written or vulgar.  Scientific writing that lacked intellectual and factual rigour would also not be approved.  And books that highlighted government corruption and hypocrisy, such as those of Voltaire, no matter how elegantly written and accurate, were unlikely to find approval even if the censor was sympathetic towards them as the censors themselves were not immune from punishment.  One overworked censor, Jean-Pierre Tercier, in 1758 mistakenly granted royal privilege to Claude-Adrien Helvétius’s ‘De l’esprit’ (‘On the Mind’) which rejected free will and religious morality.  Needless to say, Tercier didn’t last much longer in his job.

The French economy, however, during the eighteenth century was rapidly changing.  Wealth generated by global trade and slave plantations such as those of St Domingue was driving a consumer revolution and with it the development of a rich bourgeois elite.  Suzanne Desan comments: ‘this new hierarchy of money, this new wealth of silk merchants, financiers and slave traders, sat uneasily with the old social hierarchy of privilege, based on birth, blood and land’ (‘Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon’).  Inevitably, in the face of this new power and the scathing analyses of the Enlightenment philosophes, many were beginning to question the legitimacy of the Old Regime:  ‘No eighteenth-century French regime could escape the tensions between liberty and license, privilege and possibility’ (Jeff Horn ‘Privileged Enclaves: Entrepreneurial Opportunities in Eighteenth-Century France’).

In his memoirs Casanova reflects upon this change:

At this period the Parisians fancied that they loved the king. They certainly acted the part of loyal subjects to admiration. At the present day they are more enlightened, and would only love the sovereign whose sole desire is the happiness of his people, and such a king—the first citizens of a great nation—not Paris and its suburbs, but all France, will be eager to love and obey. As for kings like Louis XV, they have become totally impracticable; but if there are any such, however much they may be supported by interested parties, in the eyes of public opinion they will be dishonoured and disgraced before their bodies are in a grave and their names are written in the book of history.
(Memoirs of Casanova, Under the Leads, Chapter XXXI)

Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the unabridged London edition of 1894 (Gutenberg project)

Dave Thompson (2017) 

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