- The Third Estate was a large estate with around 27 million people. This was 98 percent of the nation. It included French citizens who did not have noble French titles and was not ordained by the Church.
- A large number of peasants were found in the Third Estate. Most of them worked as feudal tenants or sharecroppers and were required to pay a range of taxes, tithes and feudal dues.
- The Third Estate was also made up of a small percentage of skilled and unskilled urban workers who worked in cities like Paris. They earned meagre salaries despite being pressured by rising food prices, and they lived under difficult conditions.
- The most valued members of the Third Estate were the bourgeoisie. They were successful business owners who ranged from the comfortable middle class to extremely wealthy merchants and landowners.
Despite all their wealth, members of the Third Estate had to pay personal taxes and were politically disregarded by Ancien Régime. Understandably so, this exclusion contributed to rising talks about a revolution in the late 1780s.
French society was divided into three estates or orders prior to the French Revolution. The largest of these estates was the Third Estate. It contained around 27 million people or 98 percent of the nation. Every commoner was part of the Third Estate. Commoners were people not ordained by the Church or those who lacked titles. This inclusion of commoners ensured that the Third Estate was diverse. There were many different classes and levels of wealth, many different professions, and ideas, and there were also rural, provincial and urban residents. In addition, the Third Estate was also comprised of lowly beggars and struggling peasants who worked as urban artisans and labourers; from the shopkeepers and commercial middle classes to the nation’s wealthiest merchants and capitalists. Political frustrations, grievances and sufferings of the Third Estate ultimately led to the French Revolution.
In cities like Paris, some members of the Third Estate lived and worked there. Despite the 18th century being a period of industrial and urban growth in France, many French cities remained relatively small. There were only nine cities that had over 50,000 people – the largest being Paris with around 650,000 people. Being a skilled artisan or an unskilled labourer was how people got by in towns and cities. The textile and clothing industries were where artisans worked mainly in upholstery and furniture, clockmaking, locksmithing, leather goods, carriage making and repair, carpentry and masonry. A few of these artisans operated their own businesses while most worked for large firms or employers. There were guilds that an artisan had to belong to in order to do business or gain employment. By contrast, unskilled labourers worked as servants, cleaners, hauliers, water carriers, washerwomen and hawkers and these occupations did not require training or membership to a guild. Begging, scavenging, petty crime and prostitution were some of the things 80,000 unemployed people were subjected to.
By the 1780s, the lives of urban workers, both skilled and unskilled, became increasingly difficult. Parisian workers worked for meager wages, which were between 30 and 60 sous a day for skilled labourers and between 15 and 20 sous a day for unskilled labourers. Before 1789, wages had risen by around 20 percent, however, food prices and rent had increased by 60 percent in the same period resulting in the struggles they faced. Due to poor harvests experienced in 1788-89, many Parisian workers were struggling to keep up with skyrocketing bread prices. The price of a four-pound loaf of bread increased from nine sous to 14.5 sous by early 1789. This was almost a full day’s pay for most unskilled labourers. Another problem faced by Parisians was accommodation. Most families crammed into shared attics and dirty tenements, most rented from unscrupulous landlords. As the rents cost a whole day’s work, most workers economised by sharing accommodation. Many rooms housed between six and ten people, though 12 to 15 per room was also common. The living conditions in these tenements were horrible. Spaces were cramped, unhygienic and uncomfortable. There were no heating, plumbing or toilet facilities. They usually relieved themselves in an open sewer, while water was fetched by hand from communal wells.
Wealthy businessmen, the bourgeoisie or the capitalistic middle classes did not suffer as much as the artisans and unskilled labourers. They were at the top of the social hierarchy. Through their businesses, the bourgeoisie were professionals who had acquired enough wealth to live comfortably. There was also social stratification among the bourgeoisie as there was also diversity within their ranks. The petit bourgeoisie, ‘petty’ or ‘small bourgeoisie’ were small-scale traders, landlords, shopkeepers, and managers. The crème de la crème was the haute bourgeoisie, termed the ‘high bourgeoisie‘, and were wealthy merchants and traders, colonial landholders, industrialists, bankers and financiers, tax farmers and trained professionals like doctors and lawyers. These people prospered during the 1700s, due to France’s economic growth, modernisation, increased production, imperial expansion and foreign trade. The status of the haute bourgeoisie rose from the middle class to become independently wealthy and well educated. This was also marked by their exodus as they joined The Second Estate and improved social status and political representation. They, however, lacked titles, privileges and prestige but had enough money to acquire the costumes, trappings and grand residences of the noble classes. The only way the wealthiest of the bourgeoisie could gain nobility was by buying it through venal offices, though by the 1780s this was becoming very expensive.
The frustrations of the bourgeoisie were compounded by the rising prices of venal titles as it thwarted their social and political aspirations. The haute bourgeoisie helped in building France’s economy yet the government excluded them from policymaking as they left that to the exclusive domains of the royal court and its noble favourites. Many educated bourgeoisie tried to push for reforms through enlightenment tracts, which challenged the foundation of monarchical power and argued that government should be representative, accountable and based on popular appeal. A book published in January 1789 by Emmanuel Sieyes titled, What is the Third Estate? struck a chord with the self-important bourgeoisie, who believed they were entitled to play a role in government. This book was not the only expression of this idea as there was a flood of similar pamphlets and essays circulating around the nation in early 1789. These documents had the flaw of only speaking of the bourgeoisie and disregarding other members of The Third Estate, though. The peasants and urban workers were politically ignored by the bourgeoisie just as the bourgeoisie was itself politically ignored by the Ancien Régime.