The first estate, the clergy, occupied a position of conspicuous importance in France. Though only .5 percent of the population, the clergy controlled about 15 percent of French lands. They performed many essential public functions—running schools, keeping records of vital statistics, and dispensing relief to the poor. The French church, however, was a house divided.
The lower clergy came almost entirely from the third estate; humble, poorly paid, and generally hardworking, the priests resented the wealth and arrogance of their ecclesiastical superiors. The bishops and abbots held to the outlook of the noble class into which they had been born; although some of them took their duties seriously, others regarded clerical office simply as a way of securing a large private income. Dozens of prelates turned the administration of their bishoprics or monasteries over to subordinates, kept most of the revenue themselves, and lived in Paris or Versailles.
Taxpayers hated the tithe levied by the church, even though the full 10 percent implied by the word tithe was seldom demanded. They also complained about the church’s exemption from taxation. While the peasants remained moderately faithful Catholics and regarded the village priest, if not the bishop, with esteem and affection, the bourgeoisie increasingly accepted the anticlerical views of the philosopher.
Like the higher clergy, the wealthy nobles of the Old Regime, the second estate, were increasingly unpopular. Although less than 2 percent of the population, they held about 20 percent of the land. They had virtual exemption from taxation and monopolized army commissions and appointments to high ecclesiastical office.
The French aristocracy, however, was not a single social unit but a series of differing groups. At the top were the hereditary nobles—a few descended from royalty or from feudal lords of the Middle Ages but more from families ennobled within the past two or three centuries. These “nobles of the sword” tended to view most of their countrymen, including the lesser nobility, as vulgar upstarts.
Below the nobility of the sword came the “nobility of the robe,” including the justices of the parlements and other courts and a host of other officials. The nobles of the robe, or their ancestors, had originally become nobles by buying their offices. But since these offices were then handed down from father to son, the mercenary origins of their status had become somewhat obscured over time.
By the late eighteenth century there was often little practical distinction between the nobility of the robe and of the sword; marriages between members of the two groups were common. On the whole, the nobles of the robe were, in fact, richer than the nobles of the sword, and their firm hold on key governmental positions gave them more power and influence.
Many noblemen, however, had little wealth, power, or glamor. They belonged to the lowest level of French aristocracy—the hobereaux, the “little falcons.” In an effort to conserve at least part of their traditional status, almost all of the hobereaux insisted on the meticulous collection of the surviving feudal and manorial dues from the peasantry.
Their search through old documents to justify levies sometimes long forgotten earned them the abiding hatred of the peasants and prepared the way for the document burning that occurred during the Revolution.