The Three Estates of Pre-Revolutionary France (2023)

Society in the Kingdom of France in the period of the Ancien Regime was broken up into three separate estates, or social classes: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. These classes and their accompanying power dynamics, originating from the feudal tripartite social orders of the Middle Ages, was the fabric in which the kingdom was woven.

The Three Estates of Pre-Revolutionary France (1)

During the reign of King Louis XVI of France (r. 1774-1792), the first two estates enjoyed a significantly greater degree of privilege than the third, despite the Third Estate representing more than 90% of the French population and paying almost all taxes. The Third Estate itself was divided between the rising middle class known as the bourgeoisie and the increasingly impoverished working class that came to be known as sans-culottes. As social inequality worsened, tensions between the estates and the Crown, as well as each other, would be one of the most significant causes of the French Revolution (1789-1799). From the meeting of the Estates-General in May 1789 onward, the issue of social classes would remain a dominating theme throughout the Revolution.

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Background: The Tripartite Order

Serfs were usually bound to the lands they worked.

Following the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, the resultant vacuum in Europe gave rise to feudalism, the hierarchical system that relied on landholdings, or fiefdoms, as sources of power. By 900 CE, around 80% of Europe's arable land was ruled by lords and their families, who had obtained ownership through hereditary claims or military might. This ruling class of landlords, known as the nobility or aristocracy, would rule over serfs, who worked the lords' lands in exchange for military protection. These serfs were usually bound to the lands they worked. The medieval Church held influence over both these groups, with members of the clergy coming from either of the other two orders. At least three-quarters of the bishops and upper echelons of the medieval clergy came from the nobility, while most of the lower parish clergy came from peasant families.

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Known as the tripartite order, the three social groups were referred to in Latin as:

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(Video) The 3 French Estates


  • Oratores – those who pray
  • Bellatores – those who fight
  • Laboratores – those who work

Many 11th- and 12th-century thinkers believed that this was the natural hierarchy of humanity; those who prayed deserved their place of privilege and influence as the protectors of the souls of the community, while those who fought deserved their place as the ruling class by offering stability and protection. The laboring serfs worked the fields of their lords and paid their taxes, completing the final side of this feudal triangle of mutual dependencies.

The Three Estates of Pre-Revolutionary France (2)

This tripartite order is not entirely accurate, as it fails to take into account wealthier commoners such as master artisans and merchants, and those who worked in cities. As this outlier group expanded over time to include financiers, entrepreneurs, lay professionals, and lawyers, the gap between these wealthier Laboratores and those still living as serfs widened, and a subgroup of the Laboratores, the burghers, or bourgeois, eventually came into being.

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The First & Second Estates: Clergy & Nobility

By 1789, the eve of revolution, the three estates of the realm still constituted the fabric of French society. Aside from the king himself, who was known as "the first gentleman of the realm," every Frenchman was organized into one of the three orders (Doyle, 28). According to French historian Georges Lefebvre, out of the 27 million people who lived in France in 1789, no more than 100,000 belonged to the First Estate, while approximately 400,000 belonged to the Second. That left an overwhelming majority, roughly 26.5 million people, to the Third Estate.

The First Estate wielded a significant amount of power and privilege in Ancien Regime France. Since the king claimed that his authority was derived from a divine right to rule, the Church was closely linked to the Crown and the functions of government. The political and societal power of the Gallican Church was wide-reaching throughout the realm. Since the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, French people were automatically considered to be Catholics, and all records of birth, death, and marriage were kept in the hands of parish priests. Almost the entirety of France's educational system was controlled by the Church; it also had a monopoly on poor relief and hospital provision. The Church also retained powers of censorship over anything lawfully printed. Catholicism, as guaranteed by the Gallican Church of France, was so important that "without Catholic sacraments the king's subjects had no legal existence; his children were reputed bastards and had no rights of inheritance" (Lefebvre, 8). Only in the years immediately preceding the revolution did French Protestants finally begin to see their rights somewhat recognized.

Clergymen were not obliged to pay any taxes to the state.

French clergy had organized themselves into a formidable institution, creating a General Assembly, which met every five years to oversee the Church's interests. Such an assembly that represented an entire estate was unique to the First Estate at the time, providing the clergy with their own courts of law. This form of organization allowed the Church to fight off every attempt by the government to limit its financial freedoms, and as a result, clergymen were not obliged to pay any taxes to the state. Instead, the Church routinely gifted a certain amount of money to the Crown in the form of a free donation and sometimes borrowed money on behalf of the state, assuming the interest charges.

(Video) French Revolution: The 3 Estates

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The First Estate collected tithes from its own landed property, which was very extensive in northern France. Altogether, the lands owned by the Church constituted about one-tenth of all territory within the kingdom. Additionally, bishops, abbots, and chapters were also lords over some villages and collected manorial taxes.

The Second Estate also enjoyed many privileges. Some were purely honorific, such as the right of the nobility to wear a sword, while other privileges were much more useful, such as the exemption of the nobility from the basic direct tax known as the taille. The justification for this immunity was that the nobles' ancestors had risked their lives to defend the kingdom, paying what was called the 'blood tax' and therefore were not expected to contribute money as well. Yet unlike the clergy, the nobility was not exempted from all taxes, as by the reign of Louis XVI (r. 1774–1792), they were expected to pay poll-taxes and the vingtième (or "twentieth"), the latter of which required every French subject outside clergymen to pay 5% of all net earnings. But even these tax obligations, Lefebvre argues, were watered down by the privileges of the nobility as to not constitute much of a financial burden.

The Three Estates of Pre-Revolutionary France (3)

Under the Ancien Regime, the nobility still constituted the ruling class, despite some of their influence and powers having been eroded as the Crown centralized authority during the reign of King Louis XIV of France (r. 1643-1715). In 1789, the nobility personally controlled one-fifth of all territory in the kingdom, from which they collected their feudal dues. Considered to have been imbued with a natural right to rule on account of their births, aristocrats accounted for all senior administrative ministers, all senior military officers, and almost the entirety of the king's cabinet; the notable exception being Jacques Necker (1732-1804), a Swiss Protestant commoner, who raised quite a stir when he was named Louis XVI's finance minister.

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Yet during the reign of Louis XVI, many members of this ruling class of old nobility found themselves drifting away from power. In a society where power was determined by proximity to the king, it became important for those who desired high office to maintain a presence at court in the Palace of Versailles, which constituted a considerable expense. Furthermore, the rise of the wealthy bourgeois class created a wave of new nobility, as rich bourgeois purchased venal offices that ennobled their holders and married their daughters into noble families. Half of the nobility were no better off than the average middle-class bourgeois, and many were much poorer. Some of the old nobility, styled as the nobility of the sword, became envious of the new, wealthy, administrative class of nobles referred to as the nobility of the robe, who they saw as nothing more than jumped-up bourgeois commoners.

To protect the prospects of the nobility of the sword, the French government passed the Ségur Ordinance in 1781, which barred anyone from signing on as a military officer who could not trace noble lineage back at least four generations. Since a military career was a popular path to prestige and esteem, this caused outrage amongst the upper echelons of the Third Estate. At the same time, the old nobility began taking cues from the rising bourgeoisie and some became involved in business, buying shares of industries, granting mining concessions on their properties, or speculating in real estate.

(Video) What caused the French Revolution? - Tom Mullaney

The Third Estate: The Bourgeois & Working Classes

Far from the neatly packaged term of "those who work" that described the third feudal order, the Third Estate of Bourbon France was a messy collection of everyone from the wealthiest non-nobles in the kingdom to the most impoverished beggars. It represented over 90% of the population, but the experiences of those in the upper tiers of the estate were vastly different from those in the bottom tiers. The first subgroup comprised the upper and middle classes known as the bourgeoisie, while the second refers to the working class and the unemployed. During the Revolution, this latter group became known as the sans-culottes (literally "without culottes"), a name denoting their poverty, since only the nobility and wealthy bourgeois wore culottes, fashionable silk knee-breeches.

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The bourgeoisie was a steadily growing class. By 1789, about 2 million people could fall into this category, more than double the amount that there had been half a century prior. They controlled a massive share of national wealth; most industrial and commercial capital, almost one-fifth of all French private wealth, was bourgeois-owned, as was a quarter of land and a significant portion of government stock. The wealthiest bourgeois lived lives of luxury, not too dissimilar to the lifestyles of nobles. It was in vogue for a bourgeois family hoping to climb the social ladder to dress in silks, drink coffee imported from the West Indies, and decorate their homes with prints and wallpaper. According to scholar William Doyle, it was primarily bourgeois capital that built theatres in Paris and Bordeaux, just as it was the bourgeois who funded newspapers, colleges, and public libraries.

The Three Estates of Pre-Revolutionary France (4)

Doyle credits the rise of the bourgeois in the 18th century to the sudden "extraordinary commercial and industrial expansion” of that period (Doyle, 23). The fortunes of bourgeois families mostly originated from business and were secured through safe investments such as land. Besides Protestants and Jews, to whom social mobility was limited, bourgeois families rarely stayed in the business that enriched them for more than one generation, and money not invested in land would go toward superior education for their children. With this education, "the way was open to the professions, where mercantile origins could be forgotten" (Doyle, 24).

Reaching this status was seen as the goal for many bourgeois families, who would often stagnate on this comfortable, middle-class social rung. Yet not all bourgeois families were satisfied stopping at a middle-class status and, for those who had the money, higher ambitions were indeed attainable. As the financial crisis was becoming increasingly dire during the reign of Louis XVI, the government sold about 70,000 public offices, representing a combined worth of 900 million livres. Some of these venal offices were ennobling, others were hereditary once purchased, but all of them dramatically increased one's social standing. By the means of purchasing ennobling offices, over 10,000 bourgeois bought their way into the nobility during the 18th century.

As the bourgeois grew richer, the poor were getting poorer.

As the bourgeois grew richer, the poor were getting poorer. Peasants made up 80% of the French population, and many of them lived in the countryside. Poverty and unemployment were rampant amongst this group; even in the best of times, it is estimated that 8 million people were unemployed, and in bad times 2-3 million more might join them. France's fast-growing population meant jobs were becoming scarcer. Wages remained stagnant throughout the century while prices tripled. The unlucky string of bad harvests that struck France during the 1770s and 80s also contributed to the economic woes of farmers, whose financial security was tied directly to the success of harvests. This came on top of the working class already being responsible for most of the taxes.

An influx of peasants moved to cities looking for work. By 1789, 600,000 people lived in Paris, resulting in a rise of thievery, begging, smuggling, and prostitution in the city, as there were not enough unskilled jobs to go around. Many people had no hope of breaking into skilled trades where they had no experience, as these trades tended to be tightly organized. Jobs as domestic servants were especially sought after, since this occupation often came with shelter, food, and clothing, although the popularity of these positions made them exceedingly hard to find.

(Video) The Three Estates

The sans-culottes were looked down upon by the well-off, who saw the begging and prostitution of the lower classes as a sign of their moral depravity. Monasteries cut back on bread doles given to the needy, on the basis that such handouts encouraged idleness, while hospitals and poor houses began receiving less funding. In 1783, Louis-Sébastien Mercier described the growing divide between the haves and have-nots as such:

The distance which separates the rich from other citizens is growing daily…hatred grows more bitter and the state is divided into two classes: the greedy and insensitive, and murmuring malcontents. (Doyle, 23)

The Estates-General

The Estates-General was a legislative and consultative assembly comprised of the three estates. Although it had no true power on its own and could be called and dismissed by the king at will, the Estates-General allowed the voices of the estates to be heard by presenting grievances and petitions to the king and advising the Crown on fiscal matters. First summoned in 1302 by King Philip IV of France (r.1285-1314), the Estates-General would be intermittently called until 1614, after which it would not sit for 175 years, a period coinciding with the push of the Bourbon kings for centralization of power and absolute monarchy.

In the absence of the Estates-General, the estates were not entirely at the king’s mercy. The First Estate had their own assemblies that they used to protect their interests, while the nobility and the bourgeois relied on the thirteen French parlements, which were appellate courts that oversaw the provinces. Although they had no official legislative powers, these courts did have methods to check and undermine royal power. A royal edict had to be validated by a parlement before it could go into effect in that parlement's jurisdiction, and they also retained a right to protest certain edicts they found unfavorable. The king could circumvent this by issuing a lit de justice which demanded his edicts go into effect regardless of validation by the parlements, but during the 18th century, parlements declared this power to be illegitimate and would suspend all functions of the courts whenever the king attempted to use it. The edict would therefore remain unenforceable until some compromise was reached between Crown and parlement.

The Three Estates of Pre-Revolutionary France (5)

The parlements were especially hostile toward financial reform. Under the pretense of protecting the taxpayer, they halted any reform that would limit the financial privileges of the nobility and the wealthier bourgeois. In 1770, Maupeau, the chancellor of France, tried to completely destroy the parlements in order to achieve some financial reform. This did not last long, for when Louis XVI became king in 1774, he restored power to the parlements, and Maupeau was fired.

In 1788, as a financial crisis gripped France, Louis XVI was forced to announce that the Estates-General would convene the following year to discuss tax reform. The announcement caused much excitement, especially after it was revealed that each estate would be represented by an equal number of delegates, as they had been in the 1614 meeting. When the Third Estate demanded double representation due to its much greater population, it was granted this concession. This ended up not mattering, however, as it was announced that each estate would receive only one collective vote each, meaning that the single vote of the 578 representatives of the Third Estate would count the same as the other two estates.

This shifted the discussion away from financial reform and toward the imbalance of societal power. In January 1789, months before the Estates-General was to meet, Abbé Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (1748-1836) published a pamphlet called What is the Third Estate? In this pamphlet, Sieyès argues that the Third Estate was the only legitimate estate since it made up almost the entirety of France's population and paid most of the taxes. The First and Second Estates, therefore, were dead weight and should be abolished. Sieyès' pamphlet, very popular in the months leading up to the Estates-General, helped shift the conversation toward the rampant inequality in France.

The three estates of the realm, although making up one nation, were vastly different from one another in terms of privilege and power. This disparity, serving as the focus of discussion at the 1789 meeting of the Estates-General, would serve as one of the most significant factors in the French Revolution.

Editorial ReviewThis article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.

(Video) The French Revolution: Crash Course World History #29


What were the 3 estates in pre revolutionary society of France? ›

The First Estate consisted of members of the Catholic Church (the clergy). The Second Estate consisted of members of the aristocracy (the nobility). The Third Estate comprised all other members of french society (the commoners).

How many estates were there in pre revolutionary France? ›

Before the revolution in France, a time known as the Ancien Regime, society was divided into three distinct classes, known as the Three Estates.

What was the problem of the 3rd estate with the 1st and 2nd estates that help push people to the French Revolution? ›

One of the first issues that came up at the Estates General was how they would vote. The king said that each estate would vote as a body (each estate would get 1 vote). The members of the Third Estate did not like this. It meant that they could always be outvoted by the much smaller First and Second Estates.

What were the causes of the French Revolution What were the 3 estates? ›

The causes of the French Revolution can be narrowed to five main factors: the Estate System, absolutism, Enlightenment ideas, food shortages, and the American Revolution. The Estate System placed people into groups based on birth and was known as the Ancien Regime.

What were the three estates and explain each? ›

This assembly was composed of three estates – the clergy, nobility and commoners – who had the power to decide on the levying of new taxes and to undertake reforms in the country. The opening of the Estates General, on 5 May 1789 in Versailles, also marked the start of the French Revolution.

What was the 1st 2nd and 3rd estate French Revolution? ›

The three estates were the different classes in France at the time of the revolution, each representing a particular segment of society. The first estate was the clergy; the second estate, the nobility, and the third estate the commoners.

Which of the 3 estates was most responsible for starting the French Revolution? ›

It was the last of the Estates General of the Kingdom of France. Summoned by King Louis XVI, the Estates General of 1789 ended when the Third Estate formed the National Assembly and, against the wishes of the King, invited the other two estates to join. This signaled the outbreak of the French Revolution.

What were the three estates in French Revolution quizlet? ›

First Estate was the Priests and Bishops. The Second Estate was the Nobles, and the Third Estate was the peasants or poor people. The Nobles and Priests getting richer and not paying taxes and the poor getting poorer. Plus the 3rd estate did not have a fair say in the government.

Who made up the first estate in pre revolutionary France? ›

Prior to the French Revolution of 1789, the First Estate was comprised of all the members of the Catholic Church (the clergy).

Why was the estate system in France unfair? ›

The representation was not proportional to the population of each estate. The third estate represented over 98 per cent of the population, but the other two estates could outvote them because of the disproportional representation.

Why was the 2nd estate unfair? ›

Indeed, they were exempt from paying many of the taxes from which France gained its money. This was the cause of the extreme inequality between the 1st and 2nd Estate compared to the 3rd Estate.

Why was the 3rd estate unhappy with the Estates General? ›

The Third Estate was frustrated at the Estates General meeting in 1789 because that Estate represented the interests of the common people, and these were at odds with the interests of the elites of the First and Second Estates.

What did the three estates want? ›

Estates General

Whereas the King sought tax reform, the First and Second Estates sought to protect their power and privilege. The Third Estate wanted greater representation and greater political power to address issues of inequality.

What happened to the three estates after the French Revolution? ›

After a failed attempt to keep the three estates separate, that part of the deputies of the nobles who still stood apart joined the National Assembly at the request of the King. The Estates-General ceased to exist, becoming the National Assembly.

What are two reason the third estates were so angry with the French monarchy? ›

By 1789, the estates system had begun to anger the citizens of the third estate as they resented their position within French society. The third estate was forced to pay heavy taxed while the other two did not and many in the peasant class felt as though they were being crushed by the clergy and nobility.

What are some facts about the Third Estate in the French revolution? ›

The Third Estate contained around 27 million people or 98 per cent of the nation. This included every French person who did not have a noble title or was not ordained in the church. 2. The rural peasantry made up the largest portion of the Third Estate.

What did the third estates do? ›

The Third Estate, which had the most representatives, declared itself the National Assembly and took an oath to force a new constitution on the king.

What were the three feudal estates? ›

The three Medieval estates were the Clergy (those who prayed), the Nobility (those who fought) and lastly the Peasantry (those who labored).

What did the 1st and 2nd estate want in the French revolution? ›

Both the First Estate and Second Estate did not want anything to change in France unless there was chance they could gain more political power.

Who made up the 2nd estate? ›

The Second Estate was made up of all members of the nobility who were not members of the First Estate. This included members of the royal family, although not the King himself. The King was considered to be separate from all three estates.

How did the second estate cause the French revolution? ›

However, the Second Estate was not unified. They were divided between the immemorial nobility, the ancient aristocratic elite with high esteem but little income, and the ennobled families, which were recently made nobles and held most government offices. This system of inequality led to the French Revolution.

Who was in the first estate and what privileges did they have? ›

It contained all persons ordained in a Catholic religious order, from cardinals and archbishops down to priests, monks and nuns. 2. The First Estate wielded considerable ideological power and political influence in France, due to the strong religious beliefs of the majority of the population.

What was one important result of the Estates General? ›

One important result of the Estates General occurred in 1789, after King Louis XVI called on the Estates General to meet. One important result of this Estates General meeting was the end of feudalism in France.

What were the demands of the Third Estate of the French society? ›

They demanded that voting be conducted by the assembly as a whole, where each member would have one vote. Was this answer helpful?

What is the 1st estate quizlet? ›

The first estate was the clergy and high church officials. The second estate were the French nobility. Individuals from first and second estates were exempt from taxes. The third estate was composed of the rest of the population and the bourgeoisie.

What is the Estates General quizlet? ›

The Estates General was a representative assembly of the Ancien Régime, comprised of deputies from all Three Estates, summoned occasionally by the king, often in times of war or crisis, the Estates General had no sovereign or legislative power, its role was to advise or support the king.

Why did the 3rd estate form the National Assembly quizlet? ›

The Third Estate declared itself to be the National Assembly because they wanted the voting system to be fair and they would have the majority vote. When the king wanted the old ways, the third estate replied by making itself the National Assembly and drafted a new constitution.

Why was the first estate important to the French Revolution? ›

The First & Second Estates: Clergy & Nobility

That left an overwhelming majority, roughly 26.5 million people, to the Third Estate. The First Estate wielded a significant amount of power and privilege in Ancien Regime France.

Why is the Third Estate important? ›

In early modern Europe, the 'Estates' were a theoretical division of a country's population, and the 'Third Estate' referred to the mass of normal, everyday people. They played a vital role in the early days of the French Revolution, which also ended the common use of the division.

What were the 3 major parts of Napoleon's grand empire? ›

His Grand Empire had three parts: the French Empire, dependent states, and allied states. The dependent states were kingdoms that Napoleon's relatives ruled, including Spain, Holland, Italy, and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. The allied states were those Napoleon defeated and forced to join him in war against Britain.

What are the three estates of French society? ›

French society was divided into three classes known as Estates with the First Estate being the clergy, the Second Estate being the nobility and the Third Estate, which included the rest of the society consisting of peasants and the middle class merchants and professionals.

What did the 3rd estate do in the French Revolution? ›

The Third Estate, which had the most representatives, declared itself the National Assembly and took an oath to force a new constitution on the king.

What were the three estates of medieval society? ›

The three Medieval estates were the Clergy (those who prayed), the Nobility (those who fought) and lastly the Peasantry (those who labored). These estates were the major social classes of the time and were typically gender specific to men, although the clergy also included nuns.

What were the 3 estates quizlet? ›

First Estate was the Priests and Bishops. The Second Estate was the Nobles, and the Third Estate was the peasants or poor people.

What was the purpose of the estate system of France? ›

The estate to which a person belonged was very important because it determined that person's rights, obligations and status. Usually a person remained in one estate for his or her lifetime, and any movement from upwards in the estate system could take many generations.

Why was it called the Estates General? ›

The Estates-General (or States-General) of 1789 was the first meeting since 1614 of the general assembly representing the French estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate).

What is the estates system? ›

Definition of Estate System

(noun) A stratified system consisting of the clergy, nobility, and commoners; with interlocking legal rights and obligations.

Why was the Third Estate important? ›

In early modern Europe, the 'Estates' were a theoretical division of a country's population, and the 'Third Estate' referred to the mass of normal, everyday people. They played a vital role in the early days of the French Revolution, which also ended the common use of the division.

Why was the Third Estate so angry in pre revolution France? ›

King Louis XVI, aware of the injustices of the French tax policy, tried to reform the tax code to make it more fair, but was repeatedly thwarted by the overrepresented nobles and clergy. This angered the Third Estate, which refused to vote in the Estates General, and formed instead the National Assembly.

How was the 3rd estate treated? ›

Finally, the 3rd Estate comprised the rest of the population. They had very little rights and paid nearly half of their income in taxes. Individuals in the 3rd Estate could be peasants, lawyers, laborers, or land workers who were toiling away on the lands of the Nobles.

How much land did the Third Estate own? ›

– The peasants, who alone constituted 75 to 80% of the total population, were by far the largest segment of the Third Estate. They owned about 35 to 40% of the land, although their landholdings varied from area to area and over half had little or no land on which to survive.

What was the largest social group in the Third Estate called? ›

Third Group—Peasants: largest group within the Third Estate. This group was 80 percent of France's population. This group paid half of their income to the nobles, tithes to the Church, and taxes to the king's agents.


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