Old Regime

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In the History of France the Old Regime or Ancien Régime refers to the aristocratic social and political order between the 14th and 18th centuries under the Valois and Bourbon dynasties of kings. It is the prevailing political and social system in place prior to the French Revolution, and it was deliberately and systematically destroyed by the Revolution.

The Old Regime was characterized by a rigid class system that reflected a hierarchical feudal order, with a strong monarch, strong Catholic Church, and strong local nobility. The Church and the nobility owned nearly all the land and the peasant farmers had no say whatever. The upper middle class (called the bourgeoisie) compsising intellectuals, lawyers and wealthy businessmen had little political power.

The term "old regime" is often applied to other countries for the traditionalism before modernization.

Society and Population

France in the Ancien Régime covered a territory of around 200,000 square miles, and supported 20 million people in 1700. At least 80% of the population were peasants.[1]

France had the second largest population in Europe around 1700. Britain had five or six million, Spain had eight million, and the Austrian Habsburgs had around eight million. Russia was the most populated European country at the time. France's lead slowly faded after 1700, as other countries grew faster.


Very few women held power - some queens did, as did the heads of Catholic convents. In the Enlightenment the writings of philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau gave political program for reform of the ancien régime, founded on a reform of domestic mores. Rousseau's conception of the relations between private and public spheres is more unified than that found in modern sociology. Rousseau argued that the domestic role of women is a structural precondition for a "modern" society.[2]


Salic law prohibited women from rule; however, the laws for the case of a regency, when the king was too young to govern by himself, brought the queen into the center of power. The queen could assure the passage of power from one king to another—from her late husband to her young son—while simultaneously assuring the continuity of the dynasty.

Education for girls

Educational aspirations were on the rise and were becoming increasingly institutionalized in order to supply the church and state with the functionaries to serve as their future administrators. Girls were schooled too, but not to assume political responsibility. Girls were ineligible for leadership positions and were generally considered to have an inferior intellect to their brothers. France had many small local schools where working-class children - both boys and girls - learned to read, the better "to know, love, and serve God." The sons and daughters of the noble and bourgeois elites, however, were given quite distinct educations: boys were sent to upper school, perhaps a university, while their sisters - if they were lucky enough to leave the house - would be sent to board at a convent with a vague curriculum. The Enlightenment challenged this model, but no real alternative presented itself for female education. Only through education at home were knowledgeable women formed, usually to the sole end of dazzling their salons.[3]


A large proportion of children lived in broken homes or in blended families and had to cope with the presence of half-siblings and stepsiblings in the same residence. Brothers and sisters were often separated during the guardianship period and some of them were raised in different places for most of their childhood. Half-siblings and stepsiblings lived together for rather short periods of time because of their difference in age, their birth rank, or their gender. The lives of the children were closely linked to the administration of their heritage: when both their mothers and fathers were dead, another relative took charge of the guardianship and often removed the children from a stepparent's home, thus separating half-siblings.[4]

The experience of stepmotherhood was surrounded by negative stereotypes; the Cinderella story and many other jokes and stories made the second wife an object of ridicule. Language, theater, popular sayings, the position of the Church, and the writings of jurists all made stepmother a difficult identity to take up. However, the importance of male remarriage suggests that reconstitution of family units was a necessity and that individuals resisted negative perceptions circulating through their communities. Widowers did not hesitate to take a second wife, and they usually found quite soon a partner willing to become a stepmother. For these women, being a stepmother was not necessarily the experience of a lifetime or what defined their identity. Their experience depended greatly on factors such as the length of the union, changing family configuration, and financial dispositions taken by their husbands.[5]

By a policy adopted at the beginning of the 16th century, adulterous women during the ancien régime were sentenced to a lifetime in a convent unless pardoned by their husbands and were rarely allowed to remarry even if widowed.


The religious violence in 16th century France erupted within the context of instability in municipal authority. There was normally room for tolerance of Protestantism in the community; in the early 17th century, a culture of religious coexistence existed based on the Edict of Nantes (1598), which gave the Huguenots (Protestants) considerable legal rights. There also seems to have a sort of routine tolerance in the everyday life of mixed communities, which remained almost normal as long as both churches were unable to shift back toward orthodox intransigence. Against this background, the agitation of the 1620s revealed how unmotivated the Protestants really had become, since their political fate had in fact been sealed around 1575, after the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

Reformation and the Protestant Minority

French Protestantism, which was largely Calvinist derived its support from the lesser nobles and trading classes. Its two main strongholds were south west France and Normandy, but even in these districts the Catholics were a majority. Protestantism in France was considered a grave threat to national unity, as the Huguenot minority felt a closer affinity with German and Dutch Calvinists than with their fellow Frenchmen. In an effort to cement their position they often allied with French enemies. The aminosity between the two sides led to the French Wars of Religion and the tragic St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. The religious wars ended in 1593, when the Huguenot Henry of Navarre (1553-1610), who was already effectively king of France became a Catholic and was recognised by both Catholics and Protestants as King Henry IV (reigned 1589-1610).

The main provisions of the Edict of Nantes (1598), which Henry IV had issued as a charter of religious freedoms for the Huguenots, were as follows;

  1. Huguenots were allowed to hold religious services in certain towns in each province;
  2. they were allowed to control and fortify eight cities;
  3. Special courts were established to try Huguenot offenders;
  4. Huguenots were to have equal civil rights with the Catholics.

The military privileges were incorporated in the Edict in order to allay the fears of the minority. Over time it became clear these privileges would be open to abuse and when in 1620 the Huguenots proclaimed a constitution for the 'Republic of the Reformed Churches of France', the Prime Minister Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642) invoked the entire powers of the state; He captured La Rochelle after a long siege in 1628. The subsequent Treaty of Alais left the Huguenots their religious freedom but revoked their military freedoms.


Montpelier was among the most important of the 66 "villes de sûreté" that the Edict of 1598 granted to the Huguenots. The city's political institutions and the university were all handed over to the Huguenots. Tension with Paris led to a siege by the royal army in 1622. Peace terms called for the dismantling of the city's fortifications. A royal citadel was built and the university and consulate were taken over by the Catholic party. Even before the Edict of Alès (1629), Protestant rule was dead and the ville de sûreté was no more.

By 1620 the Huguenots were on the defensive, and the government increasingly applied pressure. A series of small civil wars that broke out in southern France between 1610 and 1635 were long considered by historians to be regional squabbles between rival noble families. New analysis shows that these civil wars were, in fact, religious in nature, remnants of the French Wars of Religion that largely ended with the Edict of Nantes in 1598. Small wars in the provinces of Languedoc and Guyenne show Catholic and Calvinist groups using destruction of churches, iconoclasm, forced conversions, and the execution of heretics as weapons of choice.

Louis XIV acted more and more aggressively to force the Huguenots to convert. At first, he sent missionaries to convert them, backed by a fund to financially reward converts to Catholicism. Then he imposed penalties and closed their schools and excluded them from favorite professions. Escalating the attack, he tried to forcibly re-Catholicize the Huguenots by the employment of armed dragonnades (soldiers) to occupy and loot their houses, and finally by the revocation (Oct. 18, 1685) of the liberal Edict of Nantes of 1598. The revocation forbade Protestant services, the children were to be educated as Catholics, and emigration was prohibited. It proved disastrous to the Huguenots and costly for France. It precipitated civil bloodshed, ruined commerce, and resulted in the illegal flight from the country of about 180,000 Protestants, many of whom became intellectuals, doctors and business leaders in Britain as well as Holland, Prussia and South Africa. 4000 went to the American colonies. The English welcomed the French refugees, providing money from both government and private agencies to aid their relocation. Those Huguenots who stayed in France became Catholics and were called "new converts." Only a few Protestant villages remained in isolated areas.[6]


Louis XIV supported the Gallican cause that gave the government a greater role than the pope in choosing bishops, and gave the government the revenues when a bishopric was vacant. There would be no inquisition in France, and papal decrees could operate only after the government approved them. Louis avoided schism—he wanted more royal power over the French Church but did not want to break free of Rome. The pope likewise recognized the "most Christian king" was a powerful ally who could not be alienated.[7]


From the end of the Wars of Religion to the French Revolution, Menat, a Cluniac abbey dating back to 1107, ruled over the Sioule Valley in the northwest region of the Clermont diocese. The monks were large landholders and developed a diversified and complex set of links with their neighbors; they received seigniorial rights, provided work to the rural poor, and were in daily contact with notaries public, merchants, and surgeons. While they did not directly manage the religious life of the faithful (parish priests did that), monks did constitute a motivating force in it through their setting up of a parish clergy, providing alms and social services, and playing the role of intercessors. Until the French Revolution, the monastic community constituted a key element of the economic, social, and religious life of a local French territory under the Old Regime.


Communities of nuns in France on the eve of Revolution had, on average, 25 members and a median age of 48 years. Nuns were both entering the profession later and living longer than before. In general, they had little wealth. Recruitment varied from region to region and by convent lifestyle (active or contemplative, austere or opulent, lower class or middle class). The nature of male and female monasticism differed greatly in France both before and during the revolution. Convents tended to be more isolated and less centrally controlled. This made for greater diversity among them than among male monasteries.[8]

Rural society

In the 17th century rich peasants who had ties to the market economy provided much of the capital investment necessary for agricultural growth, and frequently moved from village to village (or town). Geographic mobility, directly tied to the market and the need for investment capital, was the main path to social mobility. The "stable" core of French society, town guildspeople and village laboureurs, included cases of staggering social and geographic continuity, but even this core required regular renewal. Accepting the existence of these two societies, the constant tension between them, and extensive geographic and social mobility tied to a market economy holds the key to a clearer understanding of the evolution of the social structure, economy, and even political system of early modern France. Collins (1991) argues that the Annales School paradigm underestimated the role of the market economy; failed to explain the nature of capital investment in the rural economy; and grossly exaggerated social stability.[9]


Two massive famines struck France between 1693 and 1710, killing over two million people. In both cases the impact of harvest failure was exacerbated by wartime demands on the food supply.[10]


The proud French army was controlled by the aristocracy, and most soldiers were peasant volunteers. There was no draft until the Revolution in 1798.

See also


  • Baker, Keith, ed. The Political Culture of the Old Regime (1987), articles by leading scholars
  • de Tocqueville, Alexis. Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856), classic study by leading conservative
  • Doyle, William. Old Regime France: 1648-1788 (2001) excerpt and text search
  • Goubert, Pierre. Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen (1972), social history from Annales School
  • Jones, Colin. The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon (2002) excerpt and text search
  • Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. The Ancien Regime: A History of France 1610 - 1774 (1999), survey by leader of the Annales School excerpt and text search
  • Lynn, John A. The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667-1714 (1999) excerpt and text search
  • Parker, David. Class and State in Ancien Régime France: The Road to Modernity? (1997), by a Marxist
  • Wolf, John B. Louis XIV (1968), the standard scholarly biography online edition


  • McManners, John. Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France. Vol. 1: The Clerical Establishment and Its Social Ramifications; Vol. 2: The Religion of the People and the Politics of Religion(1999)
  • Van Kley, Dale. The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791 (1996)
  • Ward, W. R. Christianity under the Ancien Régime, 1648-1789 (1999).


  1. Pierre Goubert, The Ancien Regime (1973) pp. 2-9. There was no nationwide census before 1789 and therefore these figures are estimates. France lagged behind most of Europe in this regard; Spain and Sweden held censuses in 1717 and 1720 respectively.
  2. Jennifer J. Popiel, "Making Mothers: The Advice Genre And The Domestic Ideal, 1760-1830," Journal of Family History 2004 29(4): 339-350
  3. Carolyn C. Lougee, "'Noblesse,' Domesticity, and Social Reform: The Education of Girls by Fenelon and Saint-Cyr," History of Education Quarterly 1974 14(1): 87-113
  4. Sylvie Perrier, "Coresidence of Siblings, Half-siblings, and Step-siblings in 'Ancien Regime' France." 'History of the Family 2000 5(3): 299-314 online at EBSCO
  5. Sylvie Perrier, "La Maratre Dans La France D'ancien Regime: Integration Ou Marginalite?" ["The Stepmother in Ancien Régime France: Integration or Marginality?] Annales De Demographie Historique 2006 (2): 171-188 in French
  6. John Wolf, Louis XIV, ch 24; Bertrand Van Ruymbeke, "Escape from Babylon." Christian History 2001 20(3): 38-42. Issn: 0891-9666 Fulltext: Ebsco
  7. John Wolf, Louis XIV, 388-92
  8. Elizabeth Rapley and Robert Rapley, "An Image of Religious Women in the 'Ancien Regime:' the 'Etats Des Religieuses' of 1790-1791." French History 1997 11(4): 387-410
  9. James B. Collins, "Geographic and Social Mobility in Early-Modern France." Journal of Social History 1991 24(3): 563-577. Issn: 0022-4529 Fulltext: Ebsco. For the Annales interpretation see Pierre Goubert, The French Peasantry in the Seventeenth Century (1986) excerpt and text search
  10. Cormac Ó Gráda and Jean-Michel Chevet, "Famine and Market in 'Ancien Regime' France." Journal of Economic History 2002 62(3): 706-733 online