On the eve of the Revolution there were numerous factors (political, economic, social, and intellectual) which contributed to instabilities in the French state and society at large. Those viewing these instabilities from today’s perspective must remember that the French men and women living in the late eighteenth century did not know that the Revolution was going to occur. This essay will discuss these factors (including some of the most important), how they are interrelated, and why historians cannot simply agree on the relative importance of these factors.
During the course of the eighteenth century, the population of France swelled to almost 30 million people. The increase in population (of 8-10 million) during the century, put enormous strains on a society which relied on very small farms and obsolete farming methods. When Englishmen, Arthur Young, visited France in the late 1780s he could help but notice the backwardness of the many, many tiny French farms when compared with the large enclosed farms of England. To make matters worse for French peasants the tradition of privileges, many dating back to medieval times, dictated that peasant farmers give up a proportion of their crops to their landlords. Furthermore, harsh penalties existed for violating the privileges of the aristocratic landlords. For example, catching a peasant hunting on the landlord’s land meant severe punishment or even death. This all occurred in a situation where 90% of the farmers lived at or below the subsistence level, barely scraping up enough for themselves. Despite gradual improvements in conditions over the course of the 18th century, any setback (natural or manmade) had the potential for enormous consequences.
In addition to population pressure, the very structure of French society contributed to instability on the eve of the Revolution. Medieval France had been traditionally divided into three “orders” or “estates”: those who pray (clergy), those who fight...
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