he Old Order…
The French foreign minister Talleyrand once commented that anyone who had not livedbefore 1789 did not know how sweet life could be. As an aristocrat, Talleyrand could afford to make such aremark, for his social situation was enjoyed by many court noblemen who found life generally pleasant, evenelegant. Dressed in silk, often engaged only in petty intrigue, most often wined and dined to surfeit, theypursued an existence far removed from that of the vast majority of their countrymen and at severe variancewith the daily routine of the peasant who was bound by circumstance, if no longer by law, to the land.“The plowman homeward plods his weary way,” was the poetic description provided by Thomas Gray of the end of daily routine for the early eighteenth-century peasant. His was a severe, monotonous existence,briefly relieved by the conviviality that the warmth of hearth and alcohol could induce, and helped along byyoung children who participated fully in domestic and field chores. The peasant was the most numerousfigure in the Old Regime, the most fixed in social custom and practice, the most ignored by the government.Somewhere in between the lofty court gentleman and the lowly country plowman stood another individual,dedicated to trade and the activities of the marketplace, interested in making a good profit, and anxious torise to higher social station. This was the bourgeois, resident of the bourg or burg, a city dweller who,because of his place in the social order, is also known to us as a member of the “middle class.”The three social groups just mentioned were not so simply separated in reality, nor were they so definedaccording to social custom. Country nobility often lived no better than the peasants adjacent to them, whilethe wealthy bourgeoisie sometimes lived as splendidly as did aristocrats. Also, there were rich farmers morelike the bourgeoisie in wealth and attitude than the peasants and, therefore, sometimes referred to as a “ruralbourgeoisie.”Moreover, these three basic social units did not exactly correspond to the estates system, which had longdetermined political and legal conditions in the country. The three estates were, in descending order: theclergy, the nobility, and the remainder of the population, but most significantly, the bourgeoisie.Each of these estates comprised a social state, a self-contained community of custom, prerogative, andpurpose. On a most basic level, marriage among them was not sanctioned. Moreover, the language theyemployed was noticeably different, another obvious mark of distinction. The system of laws, taxes, andprivileges varied also from estate to estate, such that the only principle of equality recognized in the OldRegime was the theological one that all human beings were equally important in the eyes of God.
he Structure of the Old Regime…
Pyramidal in abstract form, this old order, the ancient regime,which persisted until 1789, still rested principally on tradition, still functioned according to custom, and hadlong been guided by a world view, a cosmology, that denied mutability -change through time- of bothbiological and social life. It was held together, beautifully if only imaginatively, by a Great Chain of Being, aseries of divinely worked links in which each group of living things was fixed and, by extension, in whicheach individual was socially set: responsible to individuals in the group above, responsible for individuals inthe group below. The well-known expression noblesse oblige reveals that the nobleman was “linked” to thepeasant below as his responsible superior. The king was answerable only to God.Today’s social scientists, less poetic than the theorists of several centuries ago, call this an “ascriptivesociety,” one in which the individual's socioeconomic function is predetermined, required by the socialposition traditionally assigned (ascribed) to his family. Birth, not talent; blood, not skill, counted. And so thepeasant sowed the field as had his ancestors before him, while the cobbler stitched soles as his childrenwould after him.