“Walking up a long hill to ease my mare, I was joined by a poor woman, who complained of the times, and that it was a sad country. Demanding her reasons, she said her husband had but a morsel of land, one cow, and a poor little horse, yet they had a franchar (42 pounds) of wheat and three chickens to pay as a quitrent to one seigneur; and four franchar of oats, one chicken, and one franc to pay to another, besides very heavy tailles (income tax) and other taxes. She had seven children and the cow’s milk helped to make the soup. ‘But why, instead of a horse, do not you keep another cow?’ Oh, her husband could not carry his produce so well without a horse; and donkeys are little use in the country. It was said, at present, that something was to be done by some great folks for such poor ones, but she did not know who nor how, but God send us better, ‘car les tailles et les droits nous ecrasent’ (for the taxes are crushing us).
“This woman, at no great distance, might have been taken for sixty or seventy, her figure was so bent and her face so furrowed and hardened by labor, but she said she was only twenty-eight. An Englishman who has not traveled cannot imagine the figure made by infinitely the greater part of the countrywomen in France; it speaks, at the first sight, hard and severe labor. I am inclined to think that they work harder than the men, and this, united with the more miserable labor of bringing a new race of slaves into the world, destroys absolutely all symmetry of person and every feminine appearance.”
— Arthur Young, Travels in France during the Years 1787, 1788, and 1789
The French Revolution, along with the Industrial Revolution, has probably done more than any other revolution to shape the modern world. Not only did it transform Europe politically, but also, thanks to Europe’s industries and overseas empires, the French Revolution’s ideas of liberalism and nationalism have permeated nearly every revolution across the globe since 1945. In addition to the intense human suffering as described above, its origins have deep historic and geographic roots, providing the need, means, and justification for building the absolute monarchy of the Bourbon Dynasty which eventually helped trigger the revolution.
The need for absolute monarchy came partly from France’s continental position in the midst of hostile powers. The Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and then the series of wars with the Hapsburg powers to the south, east, and north (c.1500-1659) provided a powerful impetus to build a strong centralized state. Likewise, the French wars of Religion (1562-98) underscored the need for a strong monarchy to safeguard the public peace. The means for building a monarchy largely came from the rise of towns and a rich middle class. They provided French kings with the funds to maintain professional armies and bureaucracies that could establish tighter control over France. Justification for absolute monarchy was based on the medieval custom of anointing new kings with oil to signify God’s favor. This was the basis for the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings. In the late 1600’s, all these factors contributed to the rise of absolutism in France.
Louis XIV (1643-1715) is especially associated with the absolute monarchy, and he did make France the most emulated and feared state in Europe, but at a price. Louis’ wars and extravagant court at Versailles bled France white and left it heavily in debt. Louis’ successors, Louis XV (1715-74) and Louis XVI (1774-89), were weak disinterested rulers who merely added to France’s problems through their neglect. Their reigns saw rising corruption and three ruinously expensive wars that plunged France further into debt and ruined its reputation. Along with debt, the monarchy’s weakened condition led to two other problems: the spread of revolutionary ideas and the resurgence of the power of the nobles.
Although the French kings were supposedly absolute rulers, they rarely had the will to censor the philosophes’new ideas on liberty and democracy. Besides, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, they were supposedly “enlightened despots” who should tolerate, if not actually believe, the philosophes’ ideas. As a result, the ideas of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu on liberty and democracy spread through educated society.
Second, France saw a resurgence of the power of the nobles who still held the top offices and were trying to revive and expand old feudal privileges. By this time most French peasants were free and as many as 30% owned their own land, but they still owed such feudal dues and services as the corvee (forced labor on local roads and bridges) and captaineries(the right of nobles to hunt in the peasants’ fields, regardless of the damage they did to the crops). Naturally, these infuriated the peasants. The middle class likewise resented their inferior social position, but were also jealous of the nobles and eagerly bought noble titles from the king who was always in need of quick cash. This diverted money from the business sector to much less productive pursuits and contributed to economic stagnation.
Besides the Royal debt, France also had economic problems emanating from two main sources. First of all, while the French middle class was sinking its money into empty noble titles, the English middle class was investing in new business and technology. For example, by the French Revolution, England had 200 waterframes, an advanced kind of waterwheel. France, with three times the population of England, had only eight. The result was the Industrial Revolution in England, which flooded French markets with cheap British goods, causing business failures and unemployment in France. Second, a combination of the unfair tax load on the peasants (which stifled initiative to produce more), outdated agricultural techniques, and bad weather led to a series of famines and food shortages in the 1780’s.
All these factors (intellectual dissent, an outdated and unjust feudal social order, and a stagnant economy) created growing dissent and reached a breaking point in 1789. It was then that Louis XVI called the Estates General for the first time since 1614. What he wanted was more taxes. What he got was revolution.