ABSTRACT

In the eighteenth century France was a largely agrarian society ruled by an absolute monarchy. In terms of its class structure, it was divided into three “orders” or “estates,” groups that had a legally defined status. The two privileged estates were the nobility and the clergy. The nobility consisted of men and their families who had been “ennobled” by the king. They held a high status, commanded great respect, and were generally wealthy. Nobles enjoyed many privileges that were unavailable to other members of French society. They were exempt from many taxes, especially the more burdensome ones, and the highest positions in the government and the army were available only to men of noble status. Ministers of the king were all of noble status, as were all members of the royal court and nearly all army officers. And nobles had special rights, such as the right to put weather vanes on their houses (a sign of high status), to occupy special seats in the churches, and to keep animals, such as rabbits and doves, that did damage to crops and that those of non-noble status were forbidden to keep.