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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. Neighboring France, the Italians and Germans were fragmented politically, and France was benefitting from Spain's decline as a great power.

France had a lot of land suitable for farming, and farmers in France had the benefit of information about Dutch improvements in farming. 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. note21

In France, writes Appleby, "arcane laws bogged down would-be entrepreneurs. Laborers and peasants had privileges that frustrated economic development." note22

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. A movement among intellectuals called the Enlightenment was on its way in France while the country remained under the inherited rule of members of the Bourbon family.

The Monarchy and Madame de Pompadour

Nobles at 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 XIV (r 1643-1715) had taken the lead. He had invented ballet and was its first star, dancing as the ancient Greek sun god, Apollo.

In 1715, Louis XIV's five-year-old great-grandson succeeded him and became Louis XV. The duke of Orleans ruled as regent for Louis XV while the young king 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 middle-class 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 genteel way for a woman to approach a man not to continue into the 20th 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 some disliked here because of her success and her bourgeois background. She kept the king amused with intimate parties and suppers and with outings to the theater. 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 champion of the Enlightenment, Voltaire.

In 1750, when Jeanne was 28 and Louis XV 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 contributed to the Seven Years' War, with Britain and Prussia on one side and France, Austria, Sweden and Russia on the other. 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, while Louis XV continued to pretend to rule.

French Society

On the streets of Paris the elite enjoyed showing off their status. Elaborate dress and huge and elaborate hairdos were the fashion. Members of the elite described as the upper nobility were absentee landlords living in great homes in Paris. They could be seen riding in their carriages, their footman running in front of their carriage to clear the way. Some other nobles were poor and lived in the countryside, 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. France's nobility believed – 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 in the mid-1700s, 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, with the higher ranking officer positions preserved for the upper nobility. And members of the upper nobility had positions reserved for them in the king's civil service. 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. middle-class 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, but some young noblemen married women from bourgeois families, happy to acquire the wealth that came with their wives. 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," and that an aristocrat "should cultivate "the virtues of simplicity, kindness, rationality and hard work." note23

Class tensions existed. 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. Common people were similar to people in other lands who viewed their king as a sort of father figure. When Louis XV returned to Paris his appearance delighted the crowds. During the riots of 1750 it was the police against whom the mobs directed their violence. The riots were a response to the rumor that children were being seized for transport to the Americas and that the police were in on the kidnappings.

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, and many convicted of petty crimes were sentenced to death. 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 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. Its charities were widespread. And it controlled education in France, including universities. The Church was displeased with libertine attitudes while high society was ignoring Church admonitions and suppression of printed materials proved futile. The Church tried condemning the theater and it excommunicated leading actresses, but the theater went on as before.

Parish priests, living in modest circumstances, were highly respected for their community work. With Catholic intellectuals absorbing aspects of the Enlightenment, 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.note24  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 reformist priests had little success. 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 and by their 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

The Aristocracy of Europe, 1815-1914, by Dominic Lieven, 1993

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 © 2001-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.