Feudalism, venality, and revolution is about the political and social order revealed by the monarchy’s most ambitious effort to reform its institutions, the introduction of participatory assemblies at all levels of the government. It should draw the attention of anyone interested in the sort of social and political conditions that predisposed people to make the French Revolution. In particular, according to Alexis de Tocqueville’s influential work on the Old Regime and the French Revolution, royal centralization had so weakened the feudal power of the nobles that their remaining privileges became glaringly intolerable to commoners. Feudalism, venality, and revolution challenges this theory by showing that when Louis XVI convened assemblies of landowners in the late 1770s and 1780s to discuss policies needed to resolve the budgetary crisis, he faced widespread opposition from lords and office holders. These elites regarded the assemblies as a challenge to their hereditary power over commoners. The monarchy incorporated an administration of seigneurial jurisdictions and venal offices. Lordships and offices upheld inequality on behalf of the nobility and bred the discontent evident in the French Revolution. These findings will alter the way scholars think about the Old Regime society and state and should therefore find a large market among graduate students and professors of European history.
By presenting the first study of the letters of Félix Faulcon, a typical member of the provincial bourgeoisie, which took control of local government during the 1790s, I explain both the revolutionary movement of 1789 and the Old Regime antecedents, overlooked by historians, to the counterrevolutionary War of the Vendée in 1793. Faulcon owned an office in a local court, served in the provincial assembly, and was elected to the Estates General. He and his correspondents in the towns of Poitou used the term “feudalism” to denounce privileges allegedly dividing the country and impeding its development. They felt disgust with the nobles in charge of the assembly for refusing to do anything about “feudalism.” These sentiments led them to incite a revolutionary movement in 1789. However, Faulcon and his correspondents did not use “feudalism” as historians do today, to mean rights over the peasantry. Well-to-do townspeople, such as Faulcon, actually benefited from these rights, sometimes owning lordships and more often managing those of nobles. They continued to burden the peasants through sharecropping tenures after 1789, when they controlled local government. These enduring relationships left an undercurrent of resentment, which erupted in the War of the Vendée, when the devout inhabitants of the countryside rose up against the anti-religious policies of the Republic imposed by the officialdom in the towns.
In this chapter, I question how it came to pass that wealthy commoners with vested interests in the Old Regime, through the ownership of offices, led a revolution against it in 1789. Venal officers had status and authority within their jurisdictions, and often extracted patronage from the king in return for implementing royal policies. The crown introduced the provincial assemblies in an effort to replace office holders, interested in defending their fiefdoms, with public-spirited men focused on the problems facing the country. Tens of thousands of office holders of the Third Estate protested against this attack on their jurisdictions by extoling their record of public service. They thereby came to envision a bureaucracy immune from intrusive policies such as the assemblies. A bureaucracy, they believed, would offer regular salaries, and promotions based on experience and talent. They associated such an administration with the national interests and relinquished their attachment to venal posts within a failing monarchy. As a result of this process, venal jurists, in great numbers in the National Assembly, spearheaded the abolition of privileges and the creation of a modern bureaucracy in the first years of the Revolution.
In this chapter, I elucidate the previously overlooked background of the liberal nobles who embraced the Revolution in 1789. Louis XVI authorized village elections as part of the reforms creating the provincial assemblies in 1787. The plan was to have the peasants’ representatives improve conditions in rural areas and tax the nobility. Protests erupted all over the realm, however, as nobles saw the elections as violations of the seigneurial jurisdictions underpinning the constitution of the monarchy. Yet a minority of the Second Estate, from the vantage point of the provincial assemblies, saw these protests as counterproductive. The experience gained in the assemblies of working with the peasants’ representatives showed these nobles that they could lead more assuredly, with a modicum of support, by putting themselves at the head of reforms. In this way, I show that the comte de Virieu, the duc du Châtelet, the comte d’Egmont, the vicomte de Beauharnais, and other nobles, after serving in the assemblies, went on to play a key role in the Estates General, breaking with their peers, going over to the National Assembly, and initiating the abolition of feudalism on the Night of August 4, 1789.
Historians generally regard the monarchy as either a modernizing leveler of decentralized feudal rights or as a traditional edifice shielding the vested interests of the nobility. I argue that the monarchy displayed both characteristics, embodying what I call “incomplete centralization.” It comprised, on the one hand, reformist statesmen such Turgot, Du Pont de Nemours, and Calonne, who envisioned broad-based assemblies in seven of the provinces to streamline the state and eliminate tax privileges; and, on the other hand, court nobles accustomed to doling out feudal domains, church offices, and other privileges as patronage to build support for their factions in Versailles. These nobles prevailed upon Louis XVI to put the aristocracy in control of the assemblies. They also incited opposition among noble clients in the provinces to the fiscal reforms entrusted to the assemblies. Their actions contributed directly to the exclusion of commoners who then began to turn against the regime upon seeing it accord inordinate influence to the nobles close to the king.
Historians have written about the growth of manufacturing in Lyonnais but have not explored the concrete ways it affected politics in the decades before the Revolution. I demonstrate that the political culture of the province promoted free trade as the means of furthering the expansion of local workshops. Immersed in this culture, the members of the provincial assembly publicly criticized the royal monopolies and tax farms inhibiting commerce. Yet when it came to actually reforming these institutions, they recoiled before the vested interests of local investors, court nobles, and royal finances. The discrepancy between the assembly’s liberal declarations and lack of action focused the gaze of commoners on the enduring privileges which, by all accounts, restricted opportunities and perpetuated poverty. People were thus motivated to join violent and fatal revolts in the summer of 1789 against the offices and personnel of the monopoly companies and tax farmers in St.-Étienne and Lyon.
This chapter explores how a revolution against the nobility took shape in a typical province in the heart of France. Louis XVI and his minister Jacques Necker created the first provincial assembly in Berry in 1778 with the goal of distributing taxes more equitably, improving infrastructure, and drawing criticism away from the crown. The experiment generated excitement across the province. In particular, I am the first to document the political paths of the duc de Béthune-Charost and Heurtault de Lamerville, nobles inspired by participating in the assembly to renounce feudal rights and improve the agriculture on their estates. But the comte d’Artois, the king’s brother and largest landholder in Berry, thwarted any infringements of his privileges. The rest of the provincial nobles, seeing their chance, followed suit and obstructed the assembly’s eight reforms. Commoners grew frustrated with this obstruction and reacted by taking part in revolts against seigneurial authority, forcing several nobles to flee the province in 1789.