The Ancien Régime refers to the society before the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, the two events that ended the Early modern period (1492-1789) and marked the emergence of the Late modern period (1789-1929). The Ancien Régime was based on an estates society, that is, structured in three classes or estates. Belonging to one or the other class is due to family origin, blood or birth. It is an immobile society, where the passage from one estate to another is very difficult. It is marked by the inequality before the law of its members: the different estates are not equal before the law, they do not have the same rights and duties.

The privileged classes own most of the lands and enjoy a series of privileges: they do not pay taxes, they hold public positions (diplomacy and the army) and they also have their own justice. There are two privileged estates: the Nobility (counts, dukes and marquises who own land and are linked to the King’s Court) and the Clergy. We can differentiate between a high clergy (abbots, bishops, cardinals, etc.), of noble origin, and a low clergy (parish priests, monks). In Catholic countries the Church had enormous wealth: in Spain it was 50% of the land.

The underprivileged estate was the Ordinary people (also called the Third Estate). He lacked privilege, had no political power, and had to pay taxes. It was a diverse group: the majority were peasants who worked the lands of the nobles and the clergy or artisans with small businesses, but the bourgeoisie, merchants of the cities, with wealth and cultural training, were also within the Third Estate. It was these who demanded real changes and caused the revolutions that changed the system.

The Ancien Régime societies were basically agrarian. 80% of the population was dedicated to the cultivation of the fields. It was a traditional agriculture, based on manual and animal work, which had very archaic tools and only animal fertilizers. For this reason, the land wasn’t very productive and crops depended on pests and the climate. The land was unevenly distributed, mostly in the hands of the privileged estates (nobility and clergy). The peasantry also paid the tithe to the Church (tenth of the harvest).

Outside of agriculture, the other economic sectors were unimportant. The artisan workshops were organized into guilds that controlled the different productive sectors (carpentry, shoemaking, painting, etc.). The union controlled production, prices and the opening of new workshops. Commercial activity was scarce and generally did not exceed the narrow scope of the town or the region due to the difficulty of transportation.

The form of government in the Ancien Régime was the absolute monarchy. The King is the most important of the nobles: his power is of divine origin and did not come from below (the people), but from above (directly from God). The King concentrates all the political power: he accumulated the legislative power (makes the law), the executive (the highest authority of government) and the judicial (supreme judge). His power had no limits, it was absolute.

In front of the absolutist despots the enlightened despots appeared, kings who used some principles of the Enlightenment to carry out reforms: modernize the administration and the army, reorganize taxes, favor economic development and strengthen royal power (especially against the clergy, who he loses some of his wealth and control of education).

Possible exam questions

Possible question 1

Define Ancien Régime and name three of its characteristics.

Possible question 2

Explain three characteristics of the Ancien Régime.

Possible question 3

Explain what enlightened despotism was and name two monarchs that adopted it.

Possible question 4

What was the bourgeoisie? why was it important in the falling of the Ancien Régime?

Possible question 5

What year and why did the Thirteen Colonies declare its independence from the UK?