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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
- Types of Nobility
- Ranks and Privileges of the Members of the Second Estate
- Perceptions and Depictions of the Second Estate
KEY FACTS AND INFORMATION
Let’s know more about the Second Estate
- Before the revolution, French society was divided into three estates, or orders. All citizens who were members of the Second Estate possessed a noble title either through birth, royal gift, or venal purchase. As noble titles were of different status, titles came with different privileges. The men and women who possessed aristocratic titles like Duc (‘Duke’), Comte (‘Count’), Vicomte (‘Viscount’), Baron or Chavalier were placed in the Second Estate.. French nobility was characterised by laziness and leisure, but some, however, worked hard to consolidate and expand their status in society. Education enabled some of them to acquire and share liberal and political ideas during the first phase of the revolution.
Ranks and privileges of the members of the Second Estate
Types of nobility
- Noble titles were of different status and hierarchy. Noble people, like the clergy had their natural hierarchy. Court nobles, those closest to the monarch, had the most coveted status.
- Noblesse d’epee (‘nobles of the sword’)
These people got their nobility through military service, and considered themselves of greater importance.
- Noblesse de robe (‘nobles of the robe’)
- The financiers, administrators, magistrates or court officials were given their titles of public service.
- Other dignitaries took shortcuts and acquired titles venally, that is by purchasing them from the crown rather than having them bestowed for service. The concept of venality allowed wealthier members of the Third Estate to become members of the Second Estate. The Second Estate was generally made up of between one and one and a half percent of the population.
Privileges of the members
- Nobles like the hobereaux lived modestly and only exerted power at a local level.
- Noble titles were not just honorifics; they also empowered their owners with specific rights and privileges, and most importantly an immunity from personal taxes.
- These exemptions were among the triggers of the French Revolution, as the commoners, or the members of the Third Estate, realised they were bearing the financial burden of the whole French nation.
Entering the Second Estate
- As mentioned, it was possible to buy your way into the nobility, a process called venality.
- French Kings, as a way of generating revenue for the state, often sold venal offices to wealthy commoners.
- After some time, the holders of these venal offices were granted a noble title.
- The practice of venality increased markedly during the 1700s, and as a result became expensive.
- A venal title would guarantee that you and your descendants would not pay taxes and was an investment only the rich could afford.
- A minor office could cost 20,000 livres, whereas higher offices with immediate noble status cost around 50,000 livres.
- As per historian Sylvia Neely, it is estimated that some 6,500 commoner families acquired noble titles during the 18th century.
- France’s imperial trade enabled merchants to acquire wealth, and other fortunes came from colonial investments, banking and finance or tax farming.
Perceptions and depictions of the Second Estate
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
- In pre-revolutionary France, the nobility was often depicted as an extravagantly wealthy and lazy group that were socially disconnected.
- A novel that described this stereotype is the Les Liaisons Dangereuses (in English, Dangerous Liaisons) written in 1782 by Pierre de Laclos. It is a series of letters written by the protagonists. This novel showcased an aristocratic elite that was fascinated with intrigue, manipulation, sexual conquest and negotiation, involving other aristocrats and commoners.
- Dangerous Liaisons also had several criticisms of the Second Estate, both implied and explicit.
- Wealthy characters in the novel were involved in decadent and immoral behavior purely for the purpose of amusement.
- The main characters, in particular de Valmont, used religion in a cynical manner. De Valmont feigns religious piety while sexually pursuing a married victim.
- The feature of the novel that stands out is the resentment between the nobles and the lower classes, the servants and the bourgeoisie. They blamed the nobles for not contributing anything to society.
- Not all nobles behaved as depicted in the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
- Just like aristocrats, a lot of French nobles were obsessed with accumulating wealth and expanding their power and influence.
- By the time the revolution started, attitudes had changed. Many noblemen had transformed into energetic capitalistic businessmen who were progressive in their thinking.
- They expanded their business interests by investing in trade, commerce, and new ventures.
- Land was the main source of income for those conservative nobles.
- Wealthier nobles had large estates and ran them as businesses.
- Nobles were held in such high regard that it was considered demeaning for them to partake in commerce or trade. One could be stripped of their prestigious title for working.
- It is worth noting, however, that not all members of the Second Estate were wealthy, successful or prestigious.
- Hobereaux were provincial nobles with lesser titles and smaller landholdings. Most of them lived modestly on small estates in the countryside, in a similar fashion to English county squires.
- While most of the hobereaux did not own a lot of land and had lost most of their wealth, they retained their political privileges and exemption from personal taxation.
- The hobereaux were known for their arrogance and snobbery and were, for the most part, a frustrated class. They had all that came with privilege but lacked the wealth to live as they pleased.
- Most hobereaux despised the rising bourgeoisie (businessmen), who had robbed them of their land, wealth, and status.
- Some blamed the monarchy for their plight and for failing to protect the nobility and their property.
- Others were completely landless and lived in cities or towns and relied on investments, royal pensions, or were sponsored by nobles.
- Some wealthier members of the Second Estate became profound supporters of liberal and revolutionary ideas. Numerous reasons led to the growth of the small but vocal group of liberal nobles. They favoured:
- Industrialisation of production models, or economic modernisation
- Growth of the Enlightenment
- Access to liberal political texts by Rousseau and other philosophers
- Entry of former bourgeoisie into the Second Estate
- Circulation of British and American political ideas
- A liberal education was offered to noblemen like Marquis de Lafayette, the Duke of Noailles, and Honore Mirabeau, and they read the works of Enlightenment authors like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot.
- Lafayette was a testament to the success of the American Revolution first hand, serving as an adjutant to George Washington.
- These liberal nobles would soon become leaders of the French Revolution.
- The cahiers de doléances, also known as ‘books of grievance’, contained liberal ideas.
- Most of these cahiers de doléances were drafted by the Second Estate and were submitted to the Estates-General in 1789. A constitution was called for by many of these grievance ledgers, and a few even petitioned to end noble exemptions from taxation.
- “Despite enormous differences in status and wealth, membership of the noble order bestowed the same fundamental privileges on all. Some were honorific, like the right to wear a sword in public, to display a coat of arms… some again were judicial: the right to have their cases heard in a high court of law, to be exempt from corporal punishment, to be beheaded rather than hanged if found guilty of a capital offence. Others were financial: freedom from the taille and from the salt-tax… The most treasured possession of the Second Estate, however, was its belief in the moral superiority of the nobility: the virtues of generosity, honour, and courage were seen as the distinguishing characteristics of the true nobleman.”
Historian JH Shennan’s view