➢ The Second Estate was one of France’s three social orders. All citizens who were members possessed a noble title either through birth, royal gift or venal purchase.
➢ There were two main types of nobility: Those who achieve it through military accomplishments known as ‘nobles of the sword’ and those who obtained their titles venally or through public service, also known as ‘nobles of the robe.’
➢ French nobility was characterised by laziness and leisure. Some noble people, however, worked hard to consolidate and expand their fortunes and status in society.
➢ The Second Estate was known for its economic diversity. The lives of nobles were seen to be lavish and extravagant but other nobles, like the hobereaux, lived modestly and only exerted power at a local level.
➢ Education enabled some of the nobles to acquire liberal political ideas and become important leaders during the first phase of the revolution.
Before the revolution, French society was divided into three estates or orders. The men and women who possessed aristocratic titles like Duc (‘Duke’), Comte (‘Count’), Vicomte (‘Viscount’), Baron or Chevalier were placed in the Second Estate. These titles were not just for show as they gave their owners certain rights and privileges, the most notable one being they did not pay personal taxes. Different noble titles came with different privileges as not all noble titles were of equal status. Noble people, like the clergy, had their natural hierarchy. Court nobles, those closest to the monarch, had the most coveted status. Those who got their nobility through military service referred to as the noblesse d’epee (‘nobles of the sword’), considered themselves of greater importance. The financiers, administrators, magistrates or court officials were given their titles for public service and they were called the noblesse de robe (‘nobles of the robe’).
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.
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 intrigues, manipulation, sexual conquest and negotiation, involving other aristocrats and commoners. Dangerous Liaisons also had several criticisms of the Second Estate, both implied and explicit. The wealthy characters in the novel were involved in decadent and immoral behaviour 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 contributing nothing to society.
Most, but not all, of the nobles behaved as depicted in the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Just like aristocrats everywhere, a lot of French nobles were obsessed with accumulating wealth and expanding their power and influence. 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. By the time the revolution started, attitudes had changed. Many noblemen had transformed into energetic capitalistic businessmen who were progressive in their thinking. They sought to improve their businesses by expanding and diversifying their business interests by investing in trade, commerce and new ventures. For more conservative nobles who did not want attention drawn to them, their main source of income was land. Wealthier nobles had large estates and ran them as businesses. The main sources of income for the nobles that owned land were rent, feudal dues and the profits of agricultural production.
It is worth noting, however, that not all members of the Second Estate were wealthy, successful or prestigious. The hobereaux (‘old birds’) were provincial nobles with lesser titles and smaller land holdings. Most of them lived modestly on small estates in the countryside, in a similar fashion to English country 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. Many of them despised the rising bourgeoisie (businessmen), who had robbed them of their land, wealth and status. Some went to the extent of blaming the monarchy for their plight and for failing to protect the nobility and their property. It got to a point where some members of the Second Estate were completely landless. They lived in cities or towns and relied on investments, royal pensions and were sponsored by other nobles.
French kings, as a way of generating revenue for the state, often sold venal offices to wealthy commoners. After a period of 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, the venal offices became expensive. A minor office could cost 20,000 livres, whereas higher offices with immediate noble status cost around 50,000 livres. A venal title would guarantee that you and your descendants would not pay taxes. It was an investment only the rich could afford. It’s estimated that some 6,500 commoner families acquired noble titles during the 18th century as per historian Sylvia Neely. France’s imperial trade had enabled merchants to acquire wealth. Other fortunes came from colonial investments, banking and finance or tax farming.
It may come as a surprise that some wealthier members of the Second Estate became profound supporters of liberal and therefore revolutionary ideas. A number of reasons led to the growth of the small but vocal group of liberal nobles. They favoured economic modernisation, the growth of the Enlightenment, access to liberal political texts by Rousseau and other philosophers, the entry of former bourgeoisie into the Second Estate, and the 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 successes of the American Revolution first hand, serving as an adjutant to George Washington. These liberal nobles would soon become revolutionary leaders of the French Revolution. The Cahiers de Doléances (‘books of grievance’) contained liberal ideas and many of these were drafted by the Second Estate and 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.