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by Raymond F. Betts

The Old Order

The Structure of the Old Regime
Pyramidal in abstract form, this old order, the ancient regime, which persisted until 1789, still rested principally on tradition, still functioned according to custom, and had long been guided by a world view, a cosmology, that denied mutability--change through time--of both biological and social life. It was held together, beautifully if only imaginatively, by a Great Chain of Being, a series of divinely worked links in which each group of living things was fixed and, by extension, in which each individual was socially set: responsible to individuals in the group above, responsible for individuals in the group below. The well-known expression noblesse oblige reveals that the nobleman was "linked" to the peasant below as his responsible superior. The king was answerable only to God.

Today's social scientists, less poetic than the theorists of several centuries ago, call this an "ascriptive society," one in which the individual's socioeconomic function is predetermined, required by the social position traditionally assigned (ascribed) to his family. Birth, not talent; blood, not skill, counted. And so the peasant sowed the field as had his ancestors before him, while the cobbler stitched soles as his children would after him.

For most of the population the regularity of the social order was matched by the routine of daily existence. Time was still measured in seasons, the day marked by the rising and setting of the sun. Wars, by tradition and often in practice, did not begin until after the spring planting and were halted or concluded at the time of the harvest. Winters were lean and long, the time of the year when the term "hearth" truly described the family situation, as one and all crowded around the fireplace that provided light and heat. And even the ermine-enrobed nobility suffered from the tyranny of the season; it is reported that the wine froze at the king's dinner table one wintry day at resplendent Versailles.

Although the overseas expansion of trade and colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had greatly stimulated commerce and given rise to new urban centers, the Old Regime remained agrarian and rural, with most of the population engaged in the cultivation of grain crops, in particular--wheat, barley, and oats--that were distributed regionally. Good harvests were critical to social stability. A major source of social discontent was the shortage of bread, which a poor wheat crop was bound to create. The "bread riots" of the eighteenth century, those tense and disorderly moments when urban dwellers rose to raid the bakery and destroy property in protest, suggest that, along with bad harvests, inadequate and irregular distribution of food crops remained a major problem. A local shortage could occur in a country where another part of the land was adequately supplied.

The "bread riot" was therefore not a revolutionary action, not a movement directed to the overthrow of the existing system, but an action taken against bad management. Its objective was immediate: the removal of hunger pangs. No vision of a new world in which everyone lived happily-ever-after appeared before the down-turned eyes of the urban poor or the work-ridden peasantry. Yet if earthly happiness was for the vast majority of the population the subject of fairy tales, change was already taking place that suggested new promise, because of new wealth and economic opportunity.

The estates system, which fit together so well in medieval theory and practice, was coming apart in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Members of the estates were no longer so sharply differentiated in function as they had been. The clergy's concern was, of course, still spiritual, but not all men of the cloth exclusively or particularly prayed or worshipped. More than one prince of the church, like Cardinal Richelieu of France (1585-1642), was primarily an astute politician and most active as a minister of state. The sword still worn by the nobleman suggested that, as a "lord temporal," his particular task was the defense of the realm. The French nobles of the eighteenth century seemed to spend as much time maneuvering on the ballroom floor as on the battlefield, while in England many aristocrats left the battlefield for the marketplace. In the middle of the seventeenth century, for instance, Sir John Weston, son of the Earl of Portland, was the owner of an important soap manufactory. Finally, the bourgeoisie enjoyed a certain social mobility before the revolutionary age. Buying aristocratic titles in the France of Louis XIV, or marrying into noble families throughout Europe, some of them disdainfully left behind their common origins in order to imitate the elegant manners of the class into which they had ascended. Yet a few played important roles in state politics while retaining their middle-class status. The son of a Rheims clothier, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), was the most significant minister of Louis XIV; and a successful Swiss banker named Jacques Necker (1732-1804) served as financial adviser to Louis XVI.

Such examples as these, if exceptional, do indicate that the Old Regime was not so rigid in its social ordering as tradition prescribed. In reviewing the seventeenth century, a group of historians recently declared the age a time of "general crisis," during which the social order was severely disturbed as a result of a major shift from a medieval economy to the first stage of modern capitalism.

This crisis has also been seen as one of irregular growth and development. Population increase and epidemics of the plague, prosperity and depression, the growth of new trade centers and the decline of old ones made for a variegated pattern, not a simple economic design across the European continent. But one sharp line can be traced: the economy moved from a Mediterranean base to an Atlantic one. The scope of European trade was becoming oceanic and worldwide; the cities that now counted were North Atlantic in location or access: London and Bristol in England; Bordeaux and Nantes in France; Amsterdam in Holland.

NEXT:  Economic Growth

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