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FRANCE in the mid-1700s

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France in the mid-1700s:
antecedents to revolution

Madame de Pompadour

Madame de Pompadour, courtesan, adequately cushioned while posing for the painter François Boucher. The inclusion of a book says something about the time.

France was large in territory. In population it had around 19 million in 1700 – more than three times the population of England, perhaps six times the population of the United Netherlands, and six times the number of Finns and Swedes ruled by the king of Sweden. And the greatness of France benefited from Italy and Germany being divided lands, and from Spain's decline as a great power.

France had a lot of land suitable for farming, and farmers in France had access to information about improvements in farming by the Dutch. But with a rise in population, farming families in France had been dividing the lands among their sons, and this left farming families struggling on too few acres. Joyce Appleby adds that France "lacked what England had in abundance, a network of rivers and canals to carry grain shipments." She writes of a "byzantine maze of feudal privileges" that made the transportation of goods so difficult that people in one region could almost starve while grain was abundant in another region. (Appleby, The Relentless Revolution, p. 84)

In France, writes Appleby, "arcane laws bogged down would-be entrepreneurs. Laborers and peasants had privileges that frustrated economic development." (Appleby, p. 156)

The policies of the monarchy and aristocrat landlords discouraged improvement of farming techniques. As the price of food rose, rather than leaving a little wealth with the farmers, the monarchy increased taxes on the farmers, and landlords revived their feudal privileges and siphoned off what wealth they could from their penurious farmer-tenants.

The yield from French farms would continue to be only little higher than the productivity of the farm lands of ancient Greece or of France in the 1200s. France's farms were producing about one eighth the per-acre harvests that would be produced at the end of the 20th century. In France one bushel of seed was producing only five or six bushels of grain.

Common people in France remained largely illiterate, especially in the rural south, but, among the literate reading had become a fad, accompanying fashions such as shaving and the wearing of wigs by both men and women. New ideas attracted people, works that were sensational by being irreverent, something to talk about with friends. Publishing books had been growing with commerce, and books were the leading media of the day. Printed material from Holland was easily smuggled into France. The writings of Pierre Bayle were widely read, as in Britain. And soon after, the writings of Montesquieu became popular.

Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour

Louis had set the fashion at his court. Nobles at his court balls were expected to move with a grace that reflected their superiority over common people. Dancing at court was frequent and dancing well was necessary for a nobleman if he were to rise or maintain his status. Those who were awkward went out of favor. Louis had taken the lead. He had invented ballet and was its first star, dancing as the ancient Greek sun god, Apollo.

Louis was also tough and had taken his kingdom into numerous wars, which cost France economically and created hardship. In 1715, when Louis XIV died, much of France thanked God and expressed delight. But, of course, the monarchy lived on as before. The five-year-old great grandson of Louis, – a member of the Bourbon family – became Louis XV. The duke of Orleans ruled as regent for Louis XV for a number of years, while Louis demonstrated no exceptional abilities. Louis was taught that he was better than other boys – necessary instruction for someone who was to rule as God's appointed authority over the masses.

Louis married in 1725, at the age of 15, and in the years ahead his wife, the queen, bore him seven children, while Louis, in the fashion of monarchs, was openly involved with several mistresses. He kept a private brothel of teenage girls, believing that if he repented at death his lifestyle would be a trifling matter. Also he was served by 2000 courtiers, whose main job was to keep him from becoming bored, and he bored easily – and lost his temper readily.

Not unlike various monarchs in China's past, Louis XV was more interested in his personal pleasures than he was in running the affairs of state. He fell under the domination of one of his young mistresses, Jeanne Antoinette Pompadour – after whom a hair style was named. Jeanne Pompadour was of middleclass origin and owed her success to her above average intelligence as well as what was thought to be her beauty. She had been married while seeking to become the king's mistress. At a ball she dropped her handkerchief next to the king and he picked it up – a gentile way for a woman to approach a man not to continue into the 21st century. She left her husband. Louis gave her an estate, a new title of marquise, and she became his official mistress.

Jeanne Pompadour tried modesty in an effort to win the acceptance of people around the king, while dislike for her remained because of her success and her bourgeois background. She kept King Louis amused with intimate parties and suppers and with outings to the theatre. Madame Pompadour became known as a patron of the arts and literature. She had a huge library of thousands of books, and she patronized the writer Voltaire.

In 1750, when Jeanne was 28 and Louis 40, their relationship became one of mere friendship, but with Jeanne Pompadour playing a larger role in running the affairs of state. She demonstrated her power over the king by removing her enemies from office and bringing her friends into government.

Jeanne Pompadour played a major role in aligning France with the Habsburgs of Austria, ending a 250-year feud between the Bourbon family and the Habsburgs. The treaty between France and the Habsburg queen, Maria Theresa was signed on May 1, 1756, contributing to the Seven Years' War, with Britain and Prussia on one side and France, Austria, Sweden and Russia on the other. Britain and France were rivals in North America and in India, in addition to Britain being Protestant and France being Catholic.

The Seven Years' War was a disaster for France. France lost its hold on what would be Canada, and to the British it lost its presence in India. This helped spread dislike for Madame Pompadour, who received blame for all of France's misfortunes. Despite widespread opinion, Louis kept her at his side, until she died in 1764 – at the age of 42. She was replaced in 1769 by a 23-year-old: Jeanne du Barry. Madame du Barry was less active politically than Pompadour had been, but still Louis only pretended to rule.

French Society

High society – nobles and high clergy – led frivolous lives at the royal court in Versailles (pronounced Vair-sEYE), and on the streets of Paris the elite enjoyed showing off their status – nothing like the wealthy young women wearing jeans as in the United States after 1945. Elaborate dress and huge and elaborate hairdos were the fashion.

Many of the upper nobility were absentee landlords living in great homes in Paris. They could be seen riding in their carriages through the streets of Paris, their footman running in front of their carriage to clear the way. Some nobles were poor and lived in the country, and some whose heritage was doubtful but who had sufficient money were paying fees to be included on the official list of nobles. Officially the nobility were supposed to be those who had most distinguished  themselves in the king's service, supposedly people of merit. France's upper nobility had come to believe – as did Voltaire – that a monarchical system of government needed a nobility to serve them.

France's nobles, including wives and children, have been estimated at around 600,000 at mid-century, when the nation's population was around 22 million. Often, France's upper nobility sent a son into the upper clergy. Often they sent a son as an officer into the military (where the higher ranking officer positions were preserved for the upper nobility), the young men holding that it was an honor to serve the king and to die beneath his flag on the field of battle. And high positions in the king's civil service were also reserved for the upper nobility. High government officials were almost a closed cast and not necessarily bright. Promotion in the civil service often depended more on acquaintance at court than on merit. Middleclass men of talent in government were frustrated and resented the system that left them out.

The nobility considered pursuit of commercial activity as demeaning. They looked with contempt upon concern with money, and they described concern over debts as living like a bourgeois. Nobles also tended to see marriage for affection as a bourgeois attitude. Some young noblemen married women from bourgeois families, happy to acquire the wealth that came with their wives. On the other hand, young men from bourgeois families who married women from noble families were often ridiculed for having married someone of pedigree but no money. And those daughters of the nobility that no one married were usually destined for a nunnery.

By the second last half of the 1700s some men were gathering at coffeehouses, where in addition to drinking coffee they read newspapers and discussed ideas. There were also reading rooms that offered access to newspapers and periodicals. Art exhibitions were popular with the middle-class and aristocracy. Middle-class and aristocratic professionals formed societies that explored intellectual issues. Among at least a few aristocrats radical chic was on the rise. According to historian Dominic Lieven the idea was brewing that "rational men of goodwill must seek society's reform." that the aristocrat "should cultivate "the virtues of simplicity, kindness, rationality and hard work." (The Aristocracy of Europe, 1815-1914, pp 1-2.)

There was In France, however, class tensions that no longer existed in England. The nobility enjoyed tax exemptions, and much of the tax burden was falling upon the peasants, who, with common townspeople, were siding with the bourgeoisie. And adding to the displeasure of the bourgeoisie and commoners was a lack of civil rights. The king could have anyone arrested without reason and imprison him as long as he wanted. The kingdom of King Louis XV had no  uniform system of law.

But it was not so much the king that the average French person feared. People across class lines revered their king. When Louis XV returned to Paris his appearance delighted the crowds. But common folk easily lost their temper, as the riots of 1750 when the rumor had spread that children were being seized for transport to the Americas. The rumors described the police as in on the kidnappings, and violence of the mobs was directed against them.

But mostly it was criminals that the French feared. French society was filled with swindlers, thieves, beggars and vagabonds, and the average Frenchman delighted in witnessing their punishment. Justice was administered in police courts in the name of the king – the king reserving to himself the right of pardon, which King Louis XV rarely used. Some punishments were inflicted in public, for the pleasure of seeing criminals suffer – not unlike the Roman spectators at the arena. Sometimes those deemed guilty of minor crimes were locked in place with a placard describing their crime. The guillotine had not yet been invented, and executions were done by hanging or by splitting a body into parts – by drawing and quartering or by breaking people on a wheel. The executioner was elegantly dressed, including a powdered wig, and he conducted himself with great airs, before large crowds.

Capital punishment was still seen as the solution to crime – a view held by Montesquieu. Many convicted of petty crimes were sentenced to death. And torture was still being used to draw confessions. A common form of torture was pouring water slowly down a suspect's throat. Another was tying the suspects feet together and driving his knees apart with a wedge. Voltaire, a participant in the French Enlightenment, protested, claiming that torture should be used only when the safety of the state was at stake.

The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church in France supported the idea that the king's power was derived from God – rather than the will of his subjects. The Church had grown in wealth and land, benefiting from tithes on harvests, parish fees, investments, their ownership of lands, donations and bequests. Church officiated over births, deaths and marriage. It charities were widespread. And it controlled education in France, including universities. But its influence was declining – slowly. The Church tried to keep the nation on the right path. But newspapers could be secretly distributed and were not easily suppressed. Suppressing printers and the opinions of authors proved futile. The Church tried condemning the theater, and excommunicated leading actresses. But the theatre went on as before, high society and the court ignoring Church admonitions. And the Church remained displeased by their libertine attitudes.

By mid-century in France, monasticism was on the decline, as was respect for the Church among intellectuals. The Church, meanwhile, had its own intellectuals, and they were absorbing some of the Enlightenment. Parish priests, living in modest circumstances, were highly respected in France – even by Voltaire – for their community work. And a few of these priests had grown skeptical of magic and claims of miracles. Some of them were troubled by popular religious culture. One described parishioners as being more superstitious than devoted and that they appeared to be baptized idolaters.(note3)  One attempted to abolish pilgrimages to a local spring, reputed to revive dead babies long enough to be properly baptized. There was criticism of bonfire ceremonies during Lent, with young men jumping over fires so that crops would grow and they would be protected from illness. The efforts of the reformist priests went little rewarded. Caution was taken not to alienate the devout. Pilgrimages, processions and devotion to saints, images and relics remained, as did the view that an energetic ringing of church bells protected a village from hail and thunderstorms.

Parish priests were displeased by the ambition, indifference and vanity of the upper clergy. The ecclesiastical nobility was living in opulence and putting on airs as great if not greater than the rest of France's upper nobility. France's lower clergy resented the authority over them by the higher clergy, and among them was an identity with commoners against the nobility in general.


The Fruits of Revolution: Property Rights, Litigation, and French Agriculture, 1700-1860, by Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, 1992

Madame de Pompadour: Mistress of France by Christine Pevett Algrant, 2002

Tortured Subjects: Pain, Truth, and the Body in Early Modern France,

France in the Eighteenth Century: Its Institutions, Customs and Costumes, by Paul Lacroix, 1876

The Relentless Revolution: a History of Capitalism, by Joyce Appleby, 2010

Christianity: a Social , by Howard Clark Kee, et al, 1991

The Ancient Regime in Europe: government and society in the major states, 1648- 1789, by Neville E Williams, 1970

Copyright © 2001-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.