The Fall of the Ancien Régime
The Ancien Régime, a regime most often associated with early modern France, was prevalent in many societies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was a socio-political system in which everyone was the subject of an absolute King and their rights were determined by their social standing: that of the Clergy (those who pray), the Nobility (those who fight) and the Peasantry (those who work). As both Britain and France moved towards the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they experienced the development of a “bourgeoisie”, or mercantile class, which disrupted the social order as it was, in effect, an upper class peasantry. The impact of this new class was particularly visible in France, where its members had a significant influence on the revolution and the fall of the Ancien Régime. Furthermore, rising literacy rates and the demise of Church power further disrupted the Ancien Régime’s natural order. In Britain there has been a dispute over when and why the Ancien Régime fell, due to the decline in power and belief in an absolute monarch and that of the Church of England happening at very different times. Both nations, however, experienced demise in the power of the regime and this article will consider three of the main causes of this.
Increasing Literacy of the Population
The increase in literacy rates, leading to the spread of the ideas of the enlightened philosophes, can be seen as very important to the French Revolution, and thus the fall of the Ancien Régime. William Doyle suggested that a century before the outbreak of the French Revolution the proportion of people who could neither read nor write was “79 per cent”; by the time that revolution broke out this had decreased to only “63 per cent”. He further told us that there were similar figures in England, as in 1641 approximately 1,200,000 were literate, but by 1696, after the Glorious Revolution, 1,850,000 could be considered literate. This increase in literacy rates led to the easier spread and understanding of political ideas which did not fit with the ideas of the Ancien Régime. The significant “expansion of the book trade” in France was evident from the beginning of the 1700s; there was also the production of a daily newspaper in Paris which began in 1777.
The introduction of censorship in the reign of Louis XIV is evidence that this increase in learning posed a threat to the monarchy, the state, and the “old order”. This could be due to the fact that increased ability to read meant that people could keep up to date with what was happening in government, as well as the increased ability to write meaning that the French people could write pamphlets complaining about things they did not agree with or about the way their country was run. Thus they could discredit their “superiors” on the social scale. Furthermore, if more people were reading ideas from the philosophes then they were likely to question similar ideas; for example, the purpose of the monarchy or church – key establishments to the Ancien Régime. On Louis XIV’s death there was “an outburst of writings that would formerly [have] been instantly suppressed” and the government lost its control of public opinion. This in itself shows the popularity of these controversial writings. Additionally, increased readings of the philosophes’ works would have meant that the French people were becoming more aware of ideas that “undermined the established order”. Furet argued that “the revolution embraced a radical idea of popular sovereignty” and this meant that everything would be done for the benefit of the people – abuse of power could only be excused if the people benefitted from it. Consequently the people were gaining more power, undermining the station of an absolute monarch (Louis XVI) who was thus losing it. Therefore the democratic ideology advocated by many of the French philosophes, coupled with the ability of the people to read and discuss these ideas, was at the heart of the revolution and the end of the Ancien Régime.
The Development of a Middle Class
The influence of a middle class, between peasant and noble status, is clear in British and French politics before the fall of the Ancien Régime. The bourgeoisie in France have been the focus of “Marxist” interpretations of history when looking at causes of the French revolution and the following breakdown of the Ancien Régime. After the revolutionaries succeeded in defeating the King, there was an attempt to establish a constitutional monarchy. However, in 1792, Louis XVI and his family were taken prisoner. This, and the revolutionary wars, led to the First Republic in France, in which there was no royal authority and the Church had very little power. Considering the fact that the Ancien Régime relied on an absolute ruler, the removal of either the ruler or their absolute powers can be seen as an end to the “old order”. In England, the 1688 Glorious Revolution
seriously limited the power of the new rulers, William and Mary. They were unable to directly interfere with laws, such as the introduction of freedom of speech in parliament, and they were unable to maintain a standing army in peacetime. They also explicitly agreed to power being shared between monarchs and Parliament. This revolution ensured that the power of the House of Commons (consisting of the gentry, merchants and professionals, similar to the bourgeoisie in France) was maintained and that the monarch was far less influential in matters of state. As Thomas Hobbes suggests “That king whose power is limited is not superior to him, or them, that have the power to limit it” and therefore the influence and power of Parliament in British politics helped to break down the Ancien Régime.
The fall of the Church
Despite Parliament gaining a lot of power after the 1688 Glorious Revolution, some historians do not believe that the Ancien Régime fell then. Some historians see that the influence of the Church of England, not only on politics but on everyday life, was so great that the Ancien Régime in Britain did not disappear until “the erosion of the numerical position of the Church of England,” which was much later. Considering the clergy were a key concept of the Ancien Régime, whilst they still had power, even if that of an absolute monarch was diminished, the Ancien Régime could still be considered to be alive. Thus, as Clark suggests, the “advance of Dissent, Roman Catholicism and religious indifference”, or in other words, religious toleration, eventually diminished the Church’s power to the extent that the Ancien Régime could be considered to no longer be in use. Therefore, the fall of the Ancien Régime in Britain can be considered to have occurred with the repeal of the Test Act and Corporation Act in 1828 and the emancipation of Catholics in 1829.
Overall it is clear that the key end to the influence of the Ancien Régime came with the decline of the power of the monarchy and the Church. Once the mercantile and peasant classes had gained the power to ask for and gain the things they wanted, the theory of a system based on obedience fell apart. This came with the 1688 Glorious Revolution and the 1829 emancipation of Catholics in Britain; for France, the Revolution sparked the end of elite power. Thus we can see that for different places the Ancien Régime fell at different times, and for some places it slowly fell apart across a long period of time; as to why, that can be assumed to have many aspects. However, the rising of the under classes to challenge the authority of the elite, and to take some power themselves through parliaments, was incredibly important in weakening the power of the Ancien Régime.
Written by Lauren Miller
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