2.3.1 The Inequality of the Feudal System

Should nation be the foundation of identity?

Big Ideas:

  • Feelings of nationalism grew and developed as a shared identity for groups.
  • Nationalism is shaped by social, economic, political, geographic, and historical factors.

Social, political, and economic factors impact the development of nationalism and a nation-state's identity, as perceived by its citizens. For France in 1789, at the beginning of the French Revolution, the social, political, and economic structure was a system of classes or estates. Estates were groups of people that held certain positions in society, and it was difficult (often impossible) to move from one estate to another. This strict social order, called the feudal system, was named the Ancien RĂ©gime, or Old Regime. It was a class system in which the higher the class, the more important the person.

As you can see in the diagram (right), authority and power flowed from the King down to his subjects in the First, Second, and Third Estates.

Go to your textbook, Understanding Nationalism, and read page 42. This page will further your understanding of the situation in France before the Revolution.

Take notes on the 2.4 Notebook Organizer (Word, PDF, Google Doc). You will also use the 2.4 Notebook Organizer for content in the pages that follow. You may refer to How to Take Notes. When you are done, return here to continue.

It is important to review the roles of the king and the three estates during the French Revolution. Of particular significance are the factors that led to the development of nationalism in France. Click each of the tabs in the diagram below to explore the roles of the king and the three Estates, and take notes using the 2.4 Notebook Organizer.

The King of France was an absolute monarch ruling all three estates.

  • Many of the monarchs of Europe were absolute monarchs.

  • European monarchs had the support of the Catholic Church in Rome. The Catholic Church was very powerful, and dominated religion throughout Europe. With the support of the Church European monarchs claimed they could rule absolutely through the "divine right of kings."

  • Although the Church was very influential, and monarchs usually listened to the clergy, a monarch had to make sure the nobility was loyal. The nobility could replace a monarch they did not like. However, if the nobility wanted to replace a monarch, they had to ensure they had the power to do so. Any unsuccessful attempt at getting rid of a monarch, or even plotting to do so, was considered treason and was penalized with death.

  • Any rebellion by commoners was put down swiftly and brutally by the monarch's soldiers.

King Louis XIV proclaiming his grandson King of Spain.

  • Monarchs inherited wealth that had been gathered by the rulers who came before them.

  • Monarchs obtained more money from taxing the lower classes of people. In France, the king received the most taxes from the Third Estate.

  • Monarchs also obtained money from any colonies within their kingdoms. For example, French monarchs received wealth from the colony of New France, which eventually became Canada.

  • Monarchs sometimes borrowed money from wealthy businessmen, rather than financing their own needs.

  • Monarchs ruled over just about every part of the lives of their subjects.

  • A monarch usually inherited his right to rule.

  • A monarch’s territory was not usually referred to as a country, but rather as a "kingdom". For example, in 1789 the Kingdom of France was ruled by King Louis XVI. It was his kingdom and not the kingdom of the French people.

  • The French monarchy held its traditional position for centuries.

  • The French monarchy had palaces in many locations in the city of Paris, France. The main palace occupied by the French monarchy in 1789 was the palace of Versailles, located just outside Paris.

  • The French monarchy ruled the kingdom of France.

The First Estate in France consisted of the clergy, who generally resisted any changes to the Ancien RĂ©gime.

  • The clergy owed their loyalty to the Catholic Church and its Pope in Rome, Italy.

  • Through the clergy, the Catholic Church had considerable control over the people while looking after their spiritual needs.

  • The Church supported the traditional divine right of kings.

  • Although it was true that the First Estate had a great deal of influence over the French people, it was the Second Estate and ultimately the king that had the real power in France. The First Estate’s power was mostly in spiritual matters, which was very important.

  • The Church was very rich, both in money and in property.

  • The clergy had many privileges. One of the greatest privileges was not having to pay taxes to the king.

  • The clergy made up only about 1% of France’s population.

  • The clergy were considered to be high in social rank.

  • For the most part, the clergy were well-educated.

  • The clergy urged all French people to obey God and the king.

  • The First Estate held its traditional position for centuries.

The Catholic Church's home was in Rome, Italy, but its clergy were all over Europe.

The Second Estate was made up of the nobility or aristocracy who mostly resisted any changes to the Ancien RĂ©gime.

  • The nobility owed its loyalty to the king of France, and then to the First Estate.

  • After the king, the nobility held the greatest power in France. Although the king was an absolute monarch, the nobility had some say in the governing of France.

Public Domain. Click image to enlarge.

  • Most of the nobility were rich and owned almost all the land. However, some poor nobility owned little or no land.

  • The nobility often inherited land and charged peasants high rents to farm those lands.

  • The nobility had many privileges, such as not having to pay taxes to the king.

  • Nobles held the best and most profitable positions in the army and government.

  • The nobility formed only about 2% of France’s population.

  • The nobility considered themselves above the Third Estate. As such, they believed themselves to be better and worth more than the commoners of the Third Estate. Therefore, the Second Estate often treated the Third Estate quite poorly and definitely not equally.

  • For the most part, the nobility were well-educated.

  • Manual labour was considered beneath the attention of the nobility. Such labour was for the Third Estate.

  • The Second Estate held its traditional position for centuries.

  • The French nobility were scattered throughout France, but the ideal place to be was as part of the King's court.

The Third Estate included commoners who were open to the Enlightenment ideas of change.

  • The Third Estate owed its loyalty to the king of France first, and then to the First and Second Estates.

  • Commoners from the Third Estate were mostly peasant farmers, but some were workers and members of the middle class. The middle class consisted mostly of businessmen and lawyers.

  • Peasants farmed the noblemen’s land because most peasants did not own land. Peasants were usually poor, and the rents on farmland were often high. Most peasant farmers barely earned enough to feed their families, let alone pay rent and taxes.

  • The middle class provided goods and services. Businessmen ran shops, bakeries, blacksmiths, construction companies, and so on. Some of the middle class were well-off from the profits of their businesses.

  • The Third Estate had no privileges and had to pay taxes to the Church, to the nobles, and to the king.

  • Commoners made up the majority (about 97%) of French society.

  • Commoners were born into this way of life, which was then passed on to their children. The people of the Third Estate could not move up the social ladder. The one exception was that a commoner could enter the First Estate as a lower member of the clergy.

  • The peasant farmers were poorly educated, if at all. Peasants mostly found out about Enlightenment ideas through word of mouth on the street.

  • Many of the middle class (businessmen and lawyers) were fairly well-educated. It was mostly the educated middle class who were able to understand much of what the Enlightenment philosophers wrote.

  • The Third Estate held its traditional position for centuries.

  • Commoners lived throughout France on farms and in villages and cities.

Watch the TED-Ed video "What caused the French Revolution?" and take notes using the 2.4 Notebook Organizer. In this video, Tom Mullaney highlights the various factors that led to the French Revolution, including an overview of the Ancien RĂ©gime and the three estates. How did the Third Estate demonstrate a sense of nationalism? Add your ideas to the 2.4 Notebook Organizer.

Summary: Roles of the King and the Three Estates in France before the Revolution

Before 1789, there were factors that kept France and the French people from developing a sense of nationalism. Contending non-nationalist loyalties were the primary concerns for the three estates.

Social Factors Socially, almost no movement occurred between the Third Estate and the other estates. If you were born a commoner in the Third Estate, you would remain a commoner for the rest of your life.
Economic Factors Economic inequality existed between the Third Estate and the other estates. The Third Estate did the work and paid the taxes. The First and Second Estates paid no taxes. They had all the rights and privileges and none of the hard labour. The king, at the top of society, ruled over everybody in France.
Political Factors Political power was unequal. The Third Estate had no way to make changes to get a say in their own affairs. Political power was in the hands of the king and the first two estates.

As you can see from the charts below, the Third Estate made up the largest percentage of the French population before the Revolution, and yet, they were charged the most taxes and were arguably subjected to the hardest working conditions. These inequalities led to a desire for change.

Distribution of French Population by Estates before the French Revolution

Continue to take notes on the 2.4 Notebook Organizer (Word, PDF, Google Doc). You may refer to How to Take Notes. When you are done, return here to continue.
In the next section of Unit 2, you will take a closer look at the factors that shaped the development of nationalism in France. Take notes using the Notebook Organizers and reference supplementary materials provided.