Ancien Régime France: 4 Harsh Realities of Life Before the Revolution

For most people in Ancien Régime France, life was incredibly difficult. What were the factors that made it so harsh?

Feb 17, 2024By Greg Pasciuto, BA History
ancient regime french revolution


Before the French Revolution, life in France was defined by the Ancien Régime (French for “Old Rule”). This era of French history spanned three centuries and saw two ruling dynasties come and go. For most French people during this period, life was harsh and uncertain. The threat of a failed harvest always loomed over France’s poorest towns and villages. In stark contrast to the peasant majority, the upper classes enjoyed major fiscal and administrative advantages, especially the clergy. Social stratification was the rule of the day. How did these harsh realities ultimately boil over during the Revolution of 1789?


1. Ancien Régime Society Made Social Mobility Difficult

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Medieval French depiction of the Three Estate social system, 13th century, via Wikimedia Commons


In books on the Ancien Régime, historians typically divide French society into three Estates. The First Estate consisted of the Catholic Church and its clergy. The Second Estate was made up of the nobility. The Third Estate — which comprised as much as 98 percent of the French population — included peasants, craftsmen, and small business owners. Although the Estate system glosses over the nuances of Ancien Régime social life, it remains a good framework through which to understand social stratification in pre-revolutionary France.


Social class was omnipresent under the Ancien Régime. This could make upward social mobility almost impossible. It was common for the First and Second Estates to intermingle; the majority of upper-level Catholic clerics came from noble families. For those born into the Third Estate, however, it was almost impossible to move up the social ladder. If you were born poor in Ancien Régime France, you would most likely stay poor for the rest of your life.


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Combat between French royal troops and rebellious residents of Paris during the early French Revolution, via


Because the Third Estate encompassed so many different groups of people, some inevitably possessed more means than others. The 18th century would see a major shift in some of the Third Estate’s fortunes. France’s economy remained overwhelmingly agricultural, but economic growth during the first half of the century enabled the rise of a new business class: the bourgeoisie.

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These wealthier members of the Third Estate could purchase noble titles and rise above their original station. Many were even wealthier than the poorest nobles. Still, the bourgeoisie resented the First and Second Estates’ privileges. This anger would be a major driver of revolutionary unrest in the 1780s.


2. The State Strictly Enforced Religious Orthodoxy

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The Coronation of Charlemagne, by Friedrich Kaulbach, 1861, via Live Science


It would be impossible to separate Ancien Régime France from the influence of the Catholic Church. The Church controlled the French education system and mandated the membership of all French subjects. If there were any criteria for “being French,” following the Catholic faith was the most important.


Ties between the French monarchy and the Church in Rome dated back to the early Middle Ages. Kings since Clovis I and Charlemagne styled themselves as defenders of the faith in their domains. Tensions did sometimes flare up between the French Crown and the Pope, such as during the Avignon Papacy of the 14th century. However, altar and throne never truly tried to divorce from each other. Under the Ancien Régime, popes regarded France as “the eldest daughter of the Church.” From François I to Louis XIV and beyond, both the Valois and Bourbon dynasties attached themselves at the hip to the Church.


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Noon, from The Four Times of Day, depicting Huguenot churchgoers (right) in Soho, London, by William Hogarth, 1738, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


With the rise of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church’s status in France came under threat. Catholics and Protestants waged a series of wars between 1562 and 1598. The conflict only ended when King Henri IV, a Protestant convert to Catholicism, issued the Edict of Nantes, granting French Protestants religious liberties.


However, Henri’s grandson, Louis XIV, would gradually eliminate Protestants’ freedoms. This culminated in the exodus of over 150,000 Protestants from France during the 1680s. Hundreds of thousands more Protestants remained in the kingdom, forced to hide their religion. Persecution would ease up over time, but Protestants still would not gain freedom of worship until 1789.


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Portrait of Cornelius Jansen, the namesake of the Jansenist movement, via Learn Religions


Protestantism was not the only religious threat to Church and state in Ancien Régime France, either. One reform movement arose within Catholicism itself: Jansenism. Followers of this unique theological movement challenged the Church hierarchy on what they viewed as innovations to Christian doctrine. For instance, Jansenist scholars placed greater emphasis on predestination than the mainstream Church.


For King Louis XIV and his allies in Rome, this dissent would not stand. The French king shut down Jansenist monasteries and imprisoned religious critics. Wherever the religious threat came from, the Ancien Régime sought to enforce Catholic orthodoxy at all costs — to varying degrees of success.


3. Taxation Was Highly Irregular and Affected Different Estates Differently

Depiction of the opening of the Estates General in 1789, via Encyclopedia Britannica


Taxation in Ancien Régime France was a complicated and lopsided business. Even during the politically absolutist reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, the French monarchy was unable to create and enforce a kingdom-wide tax system. Different areas were taxed in different ways. Unlike today, France did not have a consistent, standardized currency.


In spite of all this fiscal disunity, taxation under the Ancien Régime did have some commonalities. One of the most important was the tithing system. The law required that all French people (including nobles) had to pay ten percent of their income every year to the Catholic Church. In part due to tithes, the Church became one of the single wealthiest institutions in all of France.


Another dark reality of the Ancien Régime’s tax system was that not everybody paid the same taxes. The burden of taxation overwhelmingly fell on members of the Third Estate. The First and Second Estates did have to pay some money to the government, but these payments were disproportionately lower than those of their poorer countrymen. Historians cite this uneven taxation system as another major factor that led to the French Revolution.


4. Ancien Régime France Did Not Have a Common Language

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Map of historical languages spoken in mainland France, via the French Ministry of Culture


Today, French people take great pride in their national language. However, the very idea of a standardized, national French language is a modern development. During the Ancien Régime, nobody really spoke “French” aside from social elites. Communication between people from different provinces would undoubtedly have been challenging, to say the least.


The languages people spoke in Ancien Régime France depended on where they lived. The Romance language family (derived from Latin) predominated across the kingdom, but there was no standard vernacular for all of France. French people in the northern part of the country spoke different languages and dialects to Southerners. Starting in the 16th century, the Crown did attempt to establish a national language for administrative purposes. However, the efforts of early figures like Cardinal Richelieu would not bear fruit until the late 1800s.


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Door to a home in Occitan-speaking southern France, via


Modern scholars of historical linguistics classify pre-modern French languages into two main branches: the langues d’oïl and the langues d’oc. The langues d’oïl were spoken in the north, while the langues d’oc had the most speakers in the south. The langues d’oïl around Paris would evolve over the centuries to become Standard French, imposed by successive governments across the country.


The langues d’oc would eventually give rise to the modern Occitan language, which still has speakers in southern French areas like Toulouse. Somewhat surprisingly, Occitan continues to lack a single written standard. Unfortunately, many Occitan dialects are now endangered, due to the spread of Standard French.


Other languages in Ancien Régime France didn’t belong to the Romance family at all. In Brittany in the northwest, locals spoke Breton — a Celtic language more closely related to Welsh than to French. The northeastern Alsace region was predominantly German-speaking. After the 19th century, French would largely displace these languages, but they have not entirely disappeared.


The Collapse of the Ancien Régime and the Formation of Modern France

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The execution of King Louis XVI by guillotine, 1793, via Encyclopedia Britannica


The French Ancien Régime was simultaneously rigid and adaptable. Over the course of three hundred years, France underwent seismic changes in demographics, religion, and economics. The Catholic Church and the Crown tried to forge a sense of uniformity, but they weren’t always successful. Political absolutism did not translate into national unity (in the modern sense) by any means.


By 1789, the Ancien Régime’s economic struggles and insistence on staying true to the old social hierarchy proved unmanageable. Not only did the bourgeoisie rise up, but the poorer classes did, too. In the end, the Bourbon dynasty caved. The Catholic Church also faced bouts of persecution by the enraged revolutionaries in the 1790s.


While the French Revolution tried to sweep away everything from the Ancien Régime, it ultimately failed. The Ancien Régime had defined three hundred years of French history. As France entered the 19th century, its new leaders tried their hardest to erase the past, but they couldn’t completely turn back the clock. The French people’s reckoning with the ideologies of the Ancien Régime and the Revolution alike would persist well into our contemporary era.

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By Greg PasciutoBA HistoryGreg is a Stonehill College graduate and aspiring writer and editor from Boston, MA. When he isn’t working his full-time job, you might find him reading, completing creative word searches, or just looking to learn new skills for life. His historical interests are particularly centered on the history of religion and the interactions of different cultural groups. Not limited to a single geographic region, Greg enjoys uncovering the stories of cultures all around.