Before the revolution, French society was divided into three Estates or orders. The Second Estate contained France’s nobility: the men and women who possessed aristocratic titles like Duc (‘Duke’), Comte (‘Count’), Vicomte (‘Viscount’), Baron or Chevalier. A noble title was not just an honorific: it also endowed its owner with certain rights and privileges, most notably an exemption from personal taxes. Not all noble titles were of equal status. The nobility, like the clergy, had its own natural hierarchy. Court nobles (those closest to the monarch) were the most prestigious. The noblesse d’epee (‘nobles of the sword’) earned their titles through military service, so considered themselves of greater importance. The noblesse de robe (‘nobles of the robe’) were granted their noble titles for non-military service, for their work as financiers, administrators, magistrates or court officials. Hundreds of men also acquired titles venally, by purchasing them from the crown rather than having them bestowed for service. Venality allowed wealthier members of the Third Estate to join the ranks of the Second Estate. In total, the Second Estate made up between one and one and a half per cent of the population.
The nobility in pre-revolutionary France is often depicted as an extravagantly wealthy and lazy group, disconnected from the realities of French society. An example of this stereotype can be found in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (in English, Dangerous Liaisons), a 1782 novel by Pierre de Laclos. Told as a series of letters between the main protagonists, Dangerous Liaisons depicted an aristocratic elite that was fascinated with intrigues, manipulation, sexual conquest and negotiation, involving other aristocrats and commoners. Dangerous Liaisons contained several criticisms of the Second Estate, both implied and explicit. Its wealthy characters, who had little else to do, engaged in decadent and immoral behaviour purely to relieve their boredom. The main characters used religion in a cynical manner, particularly the main character de Valmont, who feigns religious piety while sexually pursuing a married victim. Above all, the nobles in Les Liaisons Dangereuses show disdain for the lower classes, the servants and the bourgeoisie, while themselves contributing little or nothing to society.
The stereotypes perpetuated in Les Liaisons Dangereuses were undoubtedly true of some nobles but not all. Like aristocrats everywhere, the majority of French nobles were interested in accumulating wealth and expanding their power and influence. Before the 1700s it was considered demeaning for noblemen to engage in any form of trade or commerce. It was even possible to be stripped of one’s noble titles for working (dérogeance). By the time of the revolution, however, those attitudes had fallen away. Many noblemen had become energetic businessmen, capitalist and progressive in their thinking. They sought to expand and diversify their business interests by investing in trade, commerce and new ventures. In this respect, they were little different from the businessmen of the bourgeoisie. For more conservative nobles, their main source of income was land. Wealthier nobles owned large estates and ran them as businesses. The main sources of income for these landed nobles were rents, feudal dues and the profits of agricultural production.
Not all members of the Second Estate were wealthy, successful or prestigious. Provincial nobles with lesser titles and smaller land holdings were called hobereaux (‘old birds’). Most of these hobereaux lived modestly on small estates in rural areas, in a similar fashion to English country squires. While these hobereaux had lost most of their land and wealth, they retained their political privileges and exemption from personal taxation. For the most part, the hobereaux were a frustrated class: they had all the arrogance and snobbery that comes with privilege but lacked the wealth to live as they wished. Many of them resented the rising bourgeoisie, who had outstripped them in land, wealth and status. Some blamed the monarchy for their plight, for failing to protect the nobility and their property. Some members of the Second Estate were completely landless. They lived in cities or towns and relied on investments, royal pensions or sponsorship from other nobles.
JH Shennan, historian
As mentioned above, it was possible to buy your way into the nobility, a practice called venality. French kings had often sold venal offices to wealthy commoners, as a device for generating revenue for the state. After a period of time, the holders of these venal offices were granted a noble title. The sale of venal offices increased markedly during the 1700s. These venal offices did not come cheap. A minor office could cost 20,000 livres, while higher offices with immediate noble status were in excess of 50,000 livres. A venal title would exempt you and your descendants from all personal taxation, however, so it was a sound investment for those who could afford it. Historian Sylvia Neely estimates that around 6,500 commoner families acquired noble titles during the 18th century. Most were merchants who acquired wealth from France’s booming imperial trade. Others made their fortunes from colonial investments, banking and finance or tax farming.
Ironically, some wealthier members of the Second Estate became prominent supporters of liberal and therefore revolutionary ideas. Several factors led to the growth of a small but vocal group of liberal nobles: economic modernisation, the entry of former bourgeoisie into the Second Estate, the growth of the Enlightenment, access to liberal political texts by Rousseau and other philosophes, and the circulation of British and American political ideas. Noblemen like Marquis de Lafayette, the Duke of Noailles and Honore Mirabeau received a liberal education and read the work of Enlightenment authors like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot. In the case of Lafayette, he experienced the successes of the American Revolution first hand, serving as an adjutant to George Washington. These liberal nobles would shortly become prominent leaders of the French Revolution. Liberal ideas could also be found in many of the cahiers de doléances (‘books of grievance’) that were drafted by the Second Estate and submitted to the Estates General in 1789. Many of these grievance ledgers called for a constitution; a few even petitioned to end noble exemptions from taxation.
1. The Second Estate was one of France’s three social orders. It contained all French citizens who possessed a noble title, either through birth, royal gift or venal purchase.
2. There were two types of nobility: ‘nobles of the sword’, who earned their titles for military service, and ‘nobles of the robe’, who obtained their titles venally or for public service.
3. The French nobility was often stereotyped as lazy, decadent and leisure loving – however many actively worked to consolidate and expand their fortunes and status in society.
4. There was considerable economic diversity within the Second Estate. While some nobles were very rich and powerful, others like the hobereaux lived modestly and only exerted power at a local level.
5. Through education, travel and exposure to Enlightenment texts and ideas, a number of nobles acquired liberal political ideas and became important leaders during the first phase of the revolution.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “The Second Estate”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/second-estate/.