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The French Revolution: The Abolition of Privileges

Here is how France TV offered a reminder about the famous myth of the abolition of privileges that I had learned at school:

“On August 4th, for the purpose of restoring order, deputies voted to end the privileges of the nobility and the clergy: the inegalitarian society of the Ancien Regime came to an end.”

What exactly does this story about the abolition of privileges cover?

Indeed, in the summer of 1789 the “agitation is spreading to the countryside”, as France TV says, and it is an understatement to say that this period is known as the “Great Fear”. Henri Guillemin retains only one aspect: the bourgeois fear. Since the peasants want to steal the property of the nobles, the bourgeois are terrified at the thought of suffering the same fate. It’s a little more complicated than that because he mixes several trends. Everyone is afraid of each other. There is a rumour that “brigands” would be recruited by the aristocracy to steal the peasants’ wheat and “hoard” the grain, i.e., to store it for resale at a high price before the new harvest, at the time when they are the rarest on the market and where their price is the highest. It will be remembered that Necker was much enriched by this kind of speculation. In fact, this aristocratic complot is largely imaginary, but the peasants believe in it and arm themselves against the “brigands”. Once armed, they take the opportunity to fight against a much less imaginary enemy: the lord who has walked all over them for generations. They besiege the castles and demand that they are given the “terriers” to burn them. The “terriers” (or “land terriers”) are old charters in which the feudal rights of the noble on which they depend are inscribed. In the heat of the moment, they take the opportunity to burn some castles (and even some castellans in passing).

It is necessary to say a few words about the feudal rights that the peasants revolt against: this term, already a bit unsuitable at the time, designated not only the feudal rights per se (i.e., those deriving from the “fief contract”), but also seigniorial taxes such as the salt tax (a kind of VAT on salt), the champart (a tax levied in kind after the tithe due to the clergy, proportional to the harvest and varying between 1/10th to 1/16th), the “cens” (a kind of property tax), the “lods” and “ventes” (percentage taken from the sale of land called “censive”), etc. The feudal rights themselves are few in number, not so high, and sometimes even purely honorary. The seigneurial taxes related to the exploitation of the land, they are much more juicy.

If the peasants are so exasperated, it is because they have the feeling that the aristocracy takes their money from them in exchange for services that it does not render to them. They consider that it only uses it to finance its luxurious lifestyle and they can not stand it anymore. The Parisians having given them the example, they take action.

The repression is fierce, there are hanged people all over the territory, but in Paris, it is quickly understood that repression alone will not put an end to the revolt of the peasants. They have to be given a bone to chew. They must be made to believe that the problem of feudal rights is solved. A nice lie is going to be invented for them, quite crude in reality, but one that will work with the fire of God. It will work so well that we even still believe it today. Let’s explain it in detail.

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To calm the peasant revolt, the nobles do not want to go so far as to renounce their feudal rights (or more exactly their seigniorial taxes), as it would be the death of their class. The only thing they are willing to concede to the peasants is the right to redeem them as one redeems rent. This idea is discussed on August 3rd by some members of the Breton Club. One of the most eminent members of the old nobility, the Duke of Aiguillon, is appointed to make a speech the next day in front of the Assembly where he will present this proposal. But the next day, during the famous meeting of August 4th, he was surprised to see another noble, the Viscount of Noailles, burn his politeness by presenting before him a proposal smarter than his: instead of forcing the peasants to buy back all feudal rights, he proposes to oblige them to redeem only seigniorial royalties linked to the land, the only ones that have a real value. Other rights, honorary rights, and prerogatives of little value such as corvées (1), mortmain rights (2), and personal servitudes (3), he suggests to sacrifice them purely and simply. It will not be a big loss but it will have a big symbolic significance and it will calm the peasants.

As soon as the Viscount of Noailles finished his speech, the Duke of Aiguillon rose to the tribune. He says a thousand very kind things about the peasants, he understands them from the depths of his soul, he excuses their little excesses, goes so far as to sharply criticise the survival of feudal law, and so on, but he adds – and here one feels that he really speaks with his heart:

“The barbarous remnant of the feudal laws still existing in France are, it cannot be denied, a property, and all property is sacred. Equity forbids the abandonment of any property without just compensation to the owner.”

In other words: as barbaric as my rights are, they are my “sacred” property and I will have to be paid to renounce them. The message is clear. All the more clear that the Duke of Aiguillon specifies how much he intends to be paid: “to the last 30”. It is necessary to explain this expression that is no longer used today. For example, one can redeem a land rent. “Redeeming an annuity” means paying a large sum once to get out of the obligation to pay a small amount regularly. This big sum is calculated in years. At the end of the 18th century, a land rent is generally estimated to be the equivalent of about 20 years of annuities, and this is called “redeeming the last 20”. When the Duke of Aiguillon proposes to “authorise” the peasants, “if they wish”, to redeem the feudal rights “to the last 30”, he means: I renounce my feudal rights provided that my peasants pay me the equivalent of what they earned me in 30 years. You are very good, my lord.

The speech of the Duke of Aiguillon provokes a lively debate. Finally the Assembly agrees with the proposal of the Viscount of Noailles: we will “allow” the peasants to redeem the rights that bring in a lot of money, and to sweeten the pill, we will sacrifice the archaic rights that are primarily symbolic and bring back peanuts.

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The atmosphere is festive, the tenderness is general, elans of inspiration ring out. The nobility is as drunk with its own generosity and the others have tears in their eyes. A Breton deputy named Le Guen du Kérangall, a cloth and wine merchant in Landivisiau in Finistère, goes up to the rostrum dressed like a peasant, and gives this small, terribly moving speech:

“Let us be fair, gentlemen, let them bring here these titles that outrage not only modesty but humanity itself. Let them bring here these titles that humiliate the human species by demanding that men be hitched to a cart like plowing animals. Let them bring here these titles that force men to spend the nights beating the ponds to prevent frogs from disturbing the sleep of their voluptuous lords. […] Who of us, Gentlemen, in this age of enlightenment, would not make an expiatory pyre of these infamous scrolls, and would not carry the torch to make a sacrifice on the altar of the public good?”

All members of the Assembly felt their little heart melt, but at no time did Le Guen du Kérangall dispute the principle of redeeming seigneurial rights, the only ones that are really juicy.

That’s about all that happened during this famous day called the “abolition of privileges”. The deputies voted for a decree that more or less repeated the terms of the proposal of the Viscount of Noailles and returned home, quite moved by their own grandeur of soul but, at the foundations of what they decided, there is nothing to make a fuss about. Other decrees will come in the following days and the final text will be adopted on August 11th. It starts with a sentence that is worth its weight in gold: “The National Assembly completely destroys the feudal regime”. It couldn’t be more wrong. The text merely distinguishes between “rights and dues, both feudal and censuel (cens)”, that are abolished without compensation and “all others declared redeemable”. It does not establish a precise list and does not even specify the price at which they are redeemable.

Where does this legend of the “night of August 4th” and the “abolition of privileges”, disseminated without the slightest verification by all history textbooks, come from? How is it possible that they all swallowed so easily the initial sentence of Article 1 of the text of August 11th, which proclaims the total destruction of the feudal regime? The historians of the 19th century probably had something to do with it. A certain Louis Lamborelle, for example, writes this in 1874 (4):

“Meeting of the National Assembly on August 4th, 1789. This meeting was a sacred festival, the tribune an altar, the hall of deliberations was a temple. […] This memorable session may […] contain in itself the entire revolution; it cut down up to the roots the old tree of feudalism.”

Michelet himself reaches seventh heaven when it comes to August 4th:

“Here is the solemn hour when the abdicated feudalism, abjure, curses itself, it is tenderness, it is a boundless exaltation, it is France visible in all the richness of its heart, the night of August 4th carried away the thousand years of the Middle Ages.”

Of course, as we well know, historians of the 19th century often tend to retain only the emotional aspects of history, even if it means inventing when reality is a little faded. In their defence, it must be said that in this case they have some excuses because if the legislative firecrackers of August 4th did not change anything at the foundations, they still caused a fuss nevertheless. From August 5th, the rumour that privileges have been abolished spreads in the countryside like wildfire. At first, it is enough to calm the revolts. But very quickly the buzz and the intox are deflated and the farmers realise that they did not get much. None of them, of course, will redeem anything. The peasants who can cash out 30 years of feudal rights do not rush around the fields and anyway, they say to themselves, what would it be worth to go broke for a system that we imagine to be moribund? So not only will they not buy anything, but they will refuse to continue to pay the feudal rights that we continue to demand from them (let us specify in this respect that in fact, contrary to what one might call the legend or the propaganda manoeuvre of August 4th, they had not really been abolished). The result will be tensions that will put the country on the brink of civil war.

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This question of feudal rights will be truly resolved only by a Convention in a law dated July 17th, 1793. Two decrees define the terms: that of the 7 ventose year II, which specifies that the legislature has removed without compensation “the land rents that had been created even for a concession of funds with a mixture of cens and other signs of lordship or feudalism” and that of 29 Floreal Year II, where the Convention decides that “any royalty or rent originally vitiated by the slightest mark of feudalism is removed without compensation whatever its name, even if it had been declared redeemable by the previous laws”. History will retain only the pantomime of August 4th 1789, but it is really this law of July 17th 1793 that buries feudalism. And it is these “terrible bloodthirsty tyrants” of the Montagnard Convention that have written and voted on it (which allows us to remind you that, surprising as it may seem, their historical contribution is not reduced to serial guillotining).

(1) The corvée is an unpaid compulsory job. Since it does not exceed two or three days a year, it does not matter much to the nobility.

(2) The mainmorte was a ban placed on a serf to transmit his patrimony to the rest of his family after his death. It was the Lord who inherited his property. Since this usage almost disappeared in the 17th century, the nobles did not make a big sacrifice in renouncing it.

(3) In any case, as is evident from the testimony of many intendants, peasants had not paid for personal servitude for a long time. After the July revolt, it was self-evident that they would no longer be paid at all, whether the nobles renounced it or not.

(4) Louis Lamborelle, The Good Old Times; Historical Research On Feudality And The Church.


Jean-Philippe Gaborieau

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