Aristocracy and its Enemies in the Age of Revolution
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.
In discussing the growing ideological attack on the French nobility, Doyle is essentially writing intellectual history and he does so with subtlety, skill and an impressive cultural range. He traces his theme through the works of philosophers like Mably and d’Argenson, playwrights such as Beaumarchais and even painters like Greuze. He also underlines its international ramifications, above all in his chapter on the Order of Cincinnatus, the original point of departure for the book. This was an attempt by veterans of the American War of Independence to found a hereditary order of chivalry to commemorate their exploits which was quickly imitated across the Atlantic by the French officers who had fought as their allies. It was furiously denounced in America as anti-republican and never achieved prominence. Yet the American attacks on the Order, including one by Benjamin Franklin, were also incorporated by the great future revolutionary Mirabeau into the most important anti-noble tract published in France before 1789, the Considerations on the Order of Cincinnatus. It is one more powerful reminder of the importance of the links between the American and French revolutions.
The literary and intellectual attacks on the French nobility after 1750 may have been strikingly phrased and involved great names but it is impossible to tell how far, if at all, they influenced public opinion, particularly in an age of heavy censorship. As Doyle convincingly argues, it was essentially political events from late 1788 that brought about the aristocracy’s destruction. In the fevered atmosphere caused by the mon-archy’s financial collapse and the elections to the Estates-General assembly all the old resentments at noble tax exemptions and social privileges suddenly surfaced. Mirabeau, Mably and Rousseau may have provided the materials but it was the revolutionary crisis that put them to use.
Doyle places justified emphasis on the speed and ferocity of the Revolution’s assault on the aristocracy. Within three months of the opening of the Estates-General, the French nobility had lost its separate status, its tax exemptions, its job monopolies and its seigneurial rights in the countryside and primogeniture had been outlawed. Just 10 months after this, hereditary nobility itself was abolished. What caused such a sudden and complete reversal of fortune? As far as the aristocracy itself is concerned, Doyle underlines two factors: arrogance and obstinacy at a moment of unprecedented crisis, but also fear in the face of an onslaught that was so intense and unexpected. Perhaps he emphasises arrogance too much and fear too little; the first reaction of any group to a frontal attack is generally to dig in rather than to compromise. But these are simply nuances in a judiciously balanced account.
The French nobility did manage to reconstitute itself after the Revolution but on a much reduced scale; as Doyle comments, it had proved itself ‘indestructible, but not immutable’. Its odyssey from the age of Louis XVI to that of Napoleon is extraordinary in itself. Yet its story has a wider significance. As Doyle shows in this important book, its experiences tell us a great deal about the nature and purposes of the Revolution itself.
is the author of
Don’t Mention the War: The British and the Germans Since 1890
(Oxford University Press)
ISBN 978 0199559855