The Third Estate

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A common depiction of the Third Estate, carrying the burden of the other Estates

Before the revolution, French society was divided into three estates or orders. The Third Estate was by far the largest of these, containing around 27 million people or 98 per cent of the nation. The Third Estate included every French citizen who did not possess a noble title and was not ordained by the church. As might be expected within such a large group, the Third Estate was marked by considerable diversity. It housed many different classes and levels of wealth; many different professions and ideas; rural, urban and provincial people alike. Members of the Third Estate ranged from lowly beggars and struggling peasants to urban artisans and labourers; from the shopkeepers and commercial middle classes to the nation’s wealthiest merchants and capitalists. Despite its enormous size and importance to the nation, the Third Estate was politically disregarded and economically exploited by the Ancien Régime. The frustrations, grievances and sufferings of the Third Estate ultimately gave rise to the French Revolution.

Peasants were at the bottom of the Third Estate’s social hierarchy. Peasant farmers comprised between 82 and 88 per cent of the population and were the nation’s poorest social class. Though levels of wealth varied, even within the peasantry, it is reasonable to suggest that most French peasants were poor. A very small percentage of peasants owned land in their own right, so were able to live independently as yeoman farmers. The vast majority, however, were either feudal tenants, métayers (tenant sharecroppers who worked someone else’s land) or journaliers (day labourers who sought work wherever they could find it). Whatever their situation, all peasants were heavily taxed by the state. If they were feudal tenants, peasants were also required to pay dues to their local seigneur or lord. If they belonged to a parish, as most did, they were expected to pay an annual tithe to the church. These obligations were seldom relaxed during difficult periods such as poor harvests, so many peasants were pushed to the brink of starvation.

Other members of the Third Estate lived and worked in towns and cities. The 18th century was a period of industrial and urban growth in France, yet most French cities remained relatively small. There were only nine cities with a population exceeding 50,000 people; Paris, with around 650,000 people, was by far the largest. Commoners in towns and cities made their living as either skilled artisans or unskilled workers. Artisans worked in industries like textiles and clothing manufacture, upholstery and furniture, clock making, locksmithing, leather goods, carriage making and repair, carpentry and masonry. A few artisans operated their own business but most worked for large firms or employers. Before doing business or gaining employment, an artisan had to first belong to the guild that managed and regulated his particular industry. Unskilled labourers worked as servants, cleaners, haulers, water carriers, washerwomen, hawkers – anything that did not require training or membership of a guild. Many Parisians, perhaps as many as 80,000 people, had no job at all; they survived by begging, scavenging, petty crime and prostitution.

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Parisian prostitutes being rounded up and taken to prison in the 1740s

The lives of urban workers, both skilled and unskilled, became increasingly difficult in the 1780s. Parisian workers toiled for meagre wages: between 30 and 60 sous a day for skilled labourers and between 15 and 20 sous a day for the unskilled. Wages had risen by around 20 per cent in the 25 years before 1789, however prices and rents had increased by 60 per cent in the same period. The poor harvests of 1788-89 pushed Parisian workers to the brink by driving up bread prices. In early 1789 the price of a four pound loaf of bread increased from nine sous to 14.5 sous, almost a full day’s pay for most unskilled labourers. Low pay and high prices were compounded by miserable living conditions in Paris. Accommodation in the capital was so scarce that workers and their families crammed into shared attics and dirty tenements, most rented from unscrupulous landlords. With rents running at several sous a day, most workers economised by sharing accommodation. Many rooms housed between six and ten people, though 12 to 15 per room was not unknown. Conditions in these tenements were cramped, unhygienic and uncomfortable. There was no heating, plumbing or common ablutions; the toilet facilities were usually an outside cesspit or open sewer, while water was fetched by hand from communal wells.

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An affluent member of the bourgeoisie, with his cane, breeches and tricorn hat

Not all members of the Third Estate were impoverished. At the apex of the Third Estate’s social hierarchy was the bourgeoisie, or capitalist middle classes. The bourgeoisie were business owners and professionals who had acquired enough wealth to live comfortably. There was also diversity within their ranks. The so called petit bourgeoisie (‘petty’ or ‘small bourgeoisie‘) were small scale traders, landlords, shopkeepers and managers. The haute bourgeoisie (‘high bourgeoisie‘) were wealthy merchants and traders, colonial landholders, industrialists, bankers and financiers, tax farmers and trained professionals like doctors and lawyers. The bourgeoisie flourished during the 1700s, on the back of France’s economic growth, modernisation, increased production, imperial expansion and foreign trade. The haute bourgeoisie rose from the middle classes to become independently wealthy, well educated and ambitious. As their wealth increased, so did their desire for social status and political representation. Many bourgeoisie craved entry into the Second Estate. They had enough money to acquire the costumes, trappings and grand residences of the noble classes, however they lacked their titles, privileges and prestige. The wealthiest of the bourgeoisie could buy their way into the nobility through venal offices, though by the 1780s this was becoming frightfully expensive.

“The social structure on the European continent still bore an aristocratic imprint, the legacy of an era when, because land was virtually the sole source of wealth, those who owned it assumed all rights over those who worked it… Almost the whole population was lumped into a ‘third order’, called in France the Third Estate. Aristocratic prerogatives condemned this order to remain eternally in its original state of inferiority. [But] throughout … France, this ordering of society was challenged by a long-term change which increased the importance of mobile wealth and the bourgeoisie, and highlighted the leading role of productive labour, inventive intelligence and scientific knowledge.”
Georges Lefebvre, historian

The thwarted social and political ambitions of the bourgeoisie gave rise to considerable frustration. The haute bourgeoisie had become the economic masters of the nation, yet government and policy were the exclusive domains of the royal court and its noble favourites. Many educated bourgeoisie found solace in Enlightenment tracts, which challenged the foundation of monarchical power and argued that government should be representative, accountable and based on popular sovereignty. When Emmanuel Sieyes published What is the Third Estate? in January 1789, it struck a chord with the self important bourgeoisie, who believed they were entitled to a hand in government. What is the Third Estate? was not the only expression of this idea; there was a flood of similar pamphlets and essays around the nation in early 1789. When these documents spoke of the Third Estate, however, they referred chiefly to the bourgeoisie – not to France’s 22 million rural peasants, its landless labourers or its urban workers. When the bourgeoisie dreamed of representative government, it was government that represented the propertied classes. The peasants and urban workers were politically invisible to the bourgeoisie – just as the bourgeoisie itself was politically invisible to the Ancien Régime.

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1. The Third Estate contained around 27 million people or 98 per cent of the nation. This number included every French person who did not have noble title or was not ordained in the church.
2. The rural peasantry made up the largest portion of the Third Estate. Most peasants worked the land as feudal tenants or sharecroppers and were required to pay a range of taxes, tithes and feudal dues.
3. A much smaller section of the Third Estate were skilled and unskilled urban workers, who lived in cities like Paris. They were poorly paid, lived in difficult conditions and were pressured by rising food prices.
4. At the pinnacle of the Third Estate were the bourgeoisie: successful business owners who ranged from the comfortable middle class to extremely wealthy merchants and landowners.
5. Regardless of their property and wealth, members of the Third Estate were subject to inequitable taxation and were politically disregarded by the Ancien Régime. This exclusion contributed to rising revolutionary sentiment in the late 1780s.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “The Third Estate”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],