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A night to remember

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

The Three Estates: A faut esperer q'lu jeu la finira ben tot

The Three Estates: A faut esperer q'lu jeu la finira ben tot

The night of 4 August 1789 in Paris was a night of uncontrolled passion. And the morning after, quite a few of the partakers had second thoughts.

That night, in the course of a few hours, members of the nobility and of the clergy renounced many of the centuries old privileges that came with their social position.

In 1789, France was a nation of about 28 million people, in which society was divided into three classes, the Estates. The First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate, nobility, and the Third Estate included everyone else: from rich and educated bourgeois to poor illiterate peasants.

While the first two Estates were the richest and paid hardly any taxes, the Third Estate was heavily taxed not only by the King but also by the other two Estates, through the system of privileges. In early 1789, when invited by Louis XVI to express their concerns, the French had bitterly complained about the unfair tax system in the more than 50,000 Cahiers de Doléances that were to register such concern.

So widely spread was the complaint that it is reflected in the imagery of the time, including caricatures and ceramics. Famous are the images that show the Third Estate bent over from carrying the weight of the clergy and nobility, with such taglines as: Hopefully, this game will be over soon, or I am weary of carrying them…

Less than a month after the storming of the Bastille, the night of August 4, 1789, officially marked the end of feudalism in France. The event was initiated by the need to respond to unrest that accompanied the 14 July event throughout the country. As food had become scarce nation-wide, local militias formed in the provinces, searching for hoarded grain. Violence against the hoarders grew, peasants refused to pay taxes, and rumours spread about nobles that were enacting revenge disguised as brigands. A number of castles were attacked, and feudal records destroyed.

In an attempt to calm the countryside, a night session of the National Assembly, which was working on the drafting of a constitution for France, was called at 8pm, on 4 August, 1789.

French Revolution barber dish: Je suis las de les porter

French Revolution barber dish: Je suis las de les porter

The day before, in a small gathering of liberal nobles who were trying to find a response to the crisis, the Duke d’Aiguillon, the second richest man in France after the King, had proposed to renounce feudal rights. Giving up on such rights meant that the Duke would become a lot poorer.

During the August 4 night session, the Viscount de Noailles, who in terms of wealth had much less to lose, pre-empted the Duke and spoke first. He delivered an impassioned speech in which he proposed to give up feudal rights. D’Aiguillon followed him and supported the proposal.

One-by-one, the many privileges that benefited the Second Estate were mentioned and renounced by delegates of the nobility who responded enthusiastically to the generous proposals that were being made. Goaded by the nobility delegates, the clergy had no other option than to respond to the challenge and agree to also renounce their tithes. It became a competition between the two Estates as to which would give up the most of their privileges.

The meeting went on late into the night, and collective rights, those of regions, towns, and civic corporations, were also gradually relinquished.

So many rights had been abolished during that one selfless night, that it took one week to complete the Decrees, and more than six months before they would start being implemented.

The privileges that members of the nobility and the clergy gave up covered a wide range of rights, from feudal, including serfdom, to hunting rights; even the right to maintain pigeon houses was abandoned…

French Revolutionary plate, 1791: Je suis las de les porter

French Revolution plate, 1791: Je suis las de les porter

ARTICLE I. The National Assembly hereby completely abolishes the feudal system. It decrees that, among the existing rights and dues, both feudal and censuel, all those originating in or representing real or personal serfdom shall be abolished without indemnification…

II. The exclusive right to maintain pigeon houses and dovecotes is abolished…

III. The exclusive right to hunt and to maintain uninclosed warrens is likewise abolished, and every landowner shall have the right to kill, or to have destroyed on his own land, all kinds of game…

This passionate abolition of rights - the rights of a few at the expense of a majority of others - marked a step in the adoption, at the end of August, of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.