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Aristocracy and its Enemies in the Age of Revolution

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Munro Price reviews a book on the assault of the nobility in 18th-century France
A book by William Doyle records how the fate of the French aristocracy during the Revolution is a striking historical cautionary tale of pride coming before a fall. In Britain the idea that noble arrogance and oppression of the peasantry brought an inevitable nemesis in 1789 was popularised above all by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and in the public imagination, nobles remain the archetypal victims of the Revolution. Some of this is myth: in fact only a little more than eight per cent of those executed during the Terror were aristocrats. Yet the revolutionaries’ assault on the nobility was real enough. In the decade after 1789, thousands of nobles were persecuted or forced to emigrate, their privileges comprehensively stripped away and their status formally abolished. Although the French nobility survived and even revived under Napoleon, it never recovered its former power and wealth.

In his excellent and thought-provoking new book, William Doyle explores in detail how the French Revolution’s epoch-making attack on aristocracy, the first in modern history, came about. For most of the 18th century the French nobility seemed secure in its traditional privileges including exemption from the most important direct tax, the taille; an array of semi-feudal rights over the peasantry; separate legal status from commoners; and a monopoly of the highest civil and military posts in the state. The first hint of an assault on these came in the 1750s as the Enlightenment gathered pace, but more important were the disasters of the Seven Years’ War. These discredited the old regime in general but especially a nobility whose traditional justification had always been military prowess.

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