What Was the Social Structure of the Ancien Régime?

While some historical sources have exaggerated disparities in pre-revolutionary French society, Ancien Régime France was nonetheless deeply stratified. It was divided into three formal tiers: the First Estate was the Catholic Church, the Second was the nobility, while the Third was comprised everyone else.

In the years leading up to the French revolution, the Church in France was extremely powerful, influential and wealthy. It owned approximately 15 percent of the land and paid no taxes to the state. The French nobility, like the church, enjoyed many privileges unavailable to the common classes. Among the most significant of these were the right to jury trial and exemption from taxes. While not all nobles were exempt from taxation, the richest were. Though most of the nobility were hereditary aristocracy, there were also some who relied on acquired rather than inherited wealth. The nobility also populated the powerful and lucrative church offices.

By the time of the revolution, 80 percent of the French population consisted of peasantry, with a further 8 percent representing the urban poor and another 8 percent being the newly arrived Bourgeoisie class. The peasants paid the vast majority of taxes, had virtually no political recourse, and suffered from constant poverty, food shortages and rabid inflation. Serfdom also still existed in France, being a status that had lost all right to military protection and existed solely to enrich the nobility. The inequalities of Ancien Régime society were therefore highly consequential in fomenting the revolutionary call for social and political change.