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State and Society in Eighteenth-Century France: A Study of Political Power and Social Revolution in Languedoc

State and Society in Eighteenth-Century France: A Study of Political Power and Social Revolution in Languedoc

by Stephen Miller
The old regime province of Languedoc provides the setting for Stephen Miller's rich analysis of state and society relations in eighteenth-century France. Continuing where William Beik's pathbreaking seventeenth-century study ends, this book sheds new light on the origins of the French Revolution and the social and political developments thereafter.

Beik's widely


The old regime province of Languedoc provides the setting for Stephen Miller's rich analysis of state and society relations in eighteenth-century France. Continuing where William Beik's pathbreaking seventeenth-century study ends, this book sheds new light on the origins of the French Revolution and the social and political developments thereafter.

Beik's widely acclaimed study depicted Languedoc as the classic example of the ruling compromise between crown and the social elites established by Louis XIV. Building on this study, Miller shows that the monarchical state was far from being a neutral modernizing force. Rather it was committed to reinforcing not just fiscal inequalities, but also those of personal honor, authority, and rights.

Based on years of research in the National Archives of France as well as local archives, this book surveys recent scholarship on various aspects of political culture. It then sensibly stresses the importance of evaluating Languedoc in the economic and administrative context. Miller argues that the monarchy's search for revenue in the 1770s and 1780s led to close collaboration with the high-ranking nobles and ecclesiastics of the province.

The originality of Miller's research is its discovery that this devolution of power excluded the majority of the provincial elite from the circuits of royal authority. Impetus for opposition to royal absolutism in 1788 and 1789 came from nobles anxious to protect their privileges from the efforts of the crown and its allies to draw revenue from the province. This discovery, Miller shows, helps explain the difficulty the nobles had in winning political support from common subjects after 1789.

"Miller'swork engages directly in an important debate over the nature of the absolutist state, an ongoing debate of interest to most serious scholars of eighteenth-century France. This book will advance the discussion."—Rafe Blaufarb, Florida State University

Stephen Miller is associate professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. This is his first book.

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Catholic University of America Press
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State and Society in Eighteenth-Century France


The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2008 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1517-4

Chapter One

Peasant Economy, the Seigneurial Regime, and the State

* * *

In 1781, the king's principal agent in Languedoc, an appointed revocable commissioner known as the intendant, received a report about a series of legal disputes in the diocese of Carcassonne. The litigation began in 1776 when the seneschal court of Carcassonne and the Parlement of Toulouse ruled that the consuls (the title of village leaders in Languedoc) of Aragon violated the right of Jean-Marie de Bancalis de Maurel to open the grape harvest and have his grapes harvested before anyone else did. The courts dismissed the consuls' argument that the inhabitants went ahead with the harvest after Maurel's steward and the steward's friends began gathering their grapes without giving the official notice. A few years later, the noble magistrates of the Cour des Comptes, Aides et Finances of Montpellier granted Maurel's request that the tax rolls of Aragon be invalidated, because the consuls included a herd from his land (métairie). The court ignored the consuls' claim that the herd grazed on scrubland (garrigues) for which the community paid seigneurial dues.

Maurel secured a judgment in 1780 allowing him to collect fees from the revenue of local limekilns. These fees diminished the income villagers customarily gained by selling scrap wood to the operators of the limekilns. Another ruling forced two inhabitants to pay Maurel a fine for taking their grain to a mill outside of the village and thus evading his monopoly right, known as banalité, to have all of the grain of Aragon ground for a fee in his mill. In 1781, Maurel had the provincial commander send a detachment of soldiers to detain three inhabitants for cutting timber in his woods and attacking his guards. He even granted the use of his scrubland to another community offering to pay higher rent than would Aragon. The consuls complained about all of these incidents to the royal council. In the days before the intendant's local agent, known as the subdelegate, held a hearing, Maurel reversed the ranking of the consuls to punish their insubordination.

These events are representative of a trend. Generations of historians have shown that seigneurs garnered additional revenue from their lands and perquisites in the second half of the eighteenth century. This chapter highlights two aspects of the trend that have not received much attention. First, the lords' efforts to increase their incomes had the support of state institutions, particularly the judiciary. Maurel repeatedly enlisted the support of the local courts to enforce levies and to establish his authority. The judges of these courts undoubtedly had high regard for the responsibilities and traditions of the magistracy. But many of them owned seigneuries and assumed that their prerogatives formed integral parts of the legal order. Second, the lords' economic behavior remained within a traditional mold of institutions and attitudes. Maurel sought not only to amass revenue but also to see village leaders show respect for his seigneurial authority. The legal statutes of the eighteenth century had roots in the Middle Ages and were laden with provisions for seigneurial authority and honorific displays. Royal institutions and laws anchored the country to its feudal past.

In making these two points, this chapter begins with an analysis of the production of wealth in eighteenth-century Languedoc. Landlords took advantage of the inflation of agricultural prices by sponsoring the clearing of new lands for agriculture and the removal of restrictions from the grain trade. Yet they did not invest in their landholdings, accumulate farm animals and capital, or enhance the productivity of labor on their properties. Landlords obtained most of their income from exploitative sharecropping agreements. As the peasantry's toil and ingenuity generated economic growth in the second half of the eighteenth century, the seigneurs imposed burdens to enhance their share of the output. Merchants played a similar role in the economic expansion by extending networks of textile manufacturing into the countryside. Cottage industry in rural communities provided the merchants with cloths for international markets. Yet the merchants did not gather manufactures together into productive enterprises. The upper classes left economic activity to peasant smallholders, sharecroppers, artisans, and laborers.

We will see in the second part of this chapter that landlords did not benefit from the rising prices and output solely by dint of their property. They also used their privileged relationship to the state. The local judiciary gave the lords advantages during the grape harvests and permitted them to monopolize common lands and woods. The lords obtained verdicts from the judiciary to eliminate use rights on their fields, exempt their lands from taxation, and impose seigneurial dues on peasant communities. The final part is a study of the cultural context. Nobles were the wealthiest members of a society seeped in feudal tradition. They used their influence with the authorities to obtain seigneurial prerogatives and honors consonant with their economic gains.


Georges Lefebvre pioneered the study of the social and economic context of the Revolution. One of his most influential discoveries was that nobles secured additional revenue from their landholdings and seigneurial rights in the second half of the eighteenth century. Making use of the most up-to-date research on prices and wages, Lefebvre wrote that population growth outpaced production and caused food prices to rise. Lords, tithe collectors, and other large landowners profited from the rising value of their levies in good and bad years alike, for if bad harvests reduced the volume, they also increased the value. Seigneurs espoused physiocratic doctrines favorable to economic liberalism not only out of principle, Lefebvre suggested, but also because these doctrines cast in a favorable light their efforts to raise rents and end communal rights on their fields and woods. The measures taken in the name of physiocracy formed part of a seigneurial reaction in which proprietors rigorously enforced rights inherited from the feudal past to take advantage of rising prices.

Scholarly research on the eighteenth-century countryside has born out many of Lefebvre's findings. In northern Burgundy, liberal economic doctrines influenced lords to rent their seigneuries to a single tenant capable of augmenting production and paying high rent. Burgundian seigneurs extended their landholdings by purchasing peasant parcels and applying the right of retrait féodal, which gave them first option to buy land sold within their jurisdictions. They updated the titles detailing their rights so as to benefit from those collected irregularly or incompletely in the past. The lords treated woods and marginal lands more economically by renting them or selling their products for profit. Burgundian lords made use of the royal judiciary to maintain the vitality of their seigneurial courts. They saw their right to administer justice as the soul of seigneurie and a rampart against the potential challenges of enterprising commoners.

At the end of the old regime, the model seigneurie of the countryside around Bordeaux was a vineyard based on the feudal reserve of the Middle Ages. Seigneurial dues brought in a little more than 11 percent of the lords' landed revenue and sometimes quite a bit more when the lords updated their titles after as many as 29 years of neglect and collected all of the arrears. Tithes amounted to nearly double the sums collected in seigneurial dues. The seigneurial classes secured most of their revenue, however, by paying a steward to carefully manage their vineyards. The nobles of Bordeaux purchased parcels of land and aggrandized their holdings to gain as much revenue as possible from the expanding market for wine. They took advantage of the exclusive right of urban residents to bring wine into Bordeaux tax-free, the right of first option to buy lands sold within their domains, the right to fees from seigneurial courts, and the right to take possession of uncultivated common lands within their jurisdictions. The nobles saw their seigneurial rights as means of maintaining hierarchy and securing deference from the peasantry. The seigneurial regime framed the lives of the inhabitants of the Bordelais down to the end of the old regime.

Landowners of Languedoc responded to market opportunities like their counterparts in other regions of France. The Canal du Midi, linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, provided the proprietors of upper Languedoc with access to lucrative markets in lower Languedoc, neighboring provinces, French colonies, and Spain. The price of wheat rose 42 percent in Toulouse, a grain depot along the canal in upper Languedoc, as opposed to 21 percent nationally between 1758-1770 and 1771-1789. The price of wood rose between 300 and 700 percent in the Sault region of upper Languedoc between the 1730s and the 1770s. The noble judges of the Parlement of Toulouse owned much property in upper Languedoc. They also had the second largest legal jurisdiction of the realm. They used their influence to lead the local landowners in a campaign to implement physiocratic doctrines on free trade. The magistrates repeatedly came into conflict with officials in Versailles over the legality of grain exports in times of high prices and potential shortages. In 1784, the Parlement defied the orders of the king's principal minister, the controller general Calonne, to impose restrictions on the grain trade. Its ruling declared that free trade was part of natural law and the sacred right of property, and was essential to Languedoc's economy and tax-paying capacity.

The rising price of grain encouraged the seigneurs of upper Languedoc to purchase parcels of land belonging to peasants. The seigneurs enforced the right of retrait féodal to buy land sold within their seigneuries and found pretexts to foreclose on peasant tenures when poor harvests led sharecroppers to borrow money, grain, and seed, and sink into debt. They made use of the royal edict of 1766 (applied to Languedoc in 1770) granting a fifteen-year exemption from taxes and tithes for land cultivated for the first time in 40 years. Royal policymakers believed the edict would increase incomes, facilitate tax payment, and augment taxable revenue over the long term. The dioceses with a burgeoning population of peasant smallholders, extensive viticulture, and cottage textile production such as Uzès, Narbonne, and Montpellier saw the most land clearances. But in upper Languedoc the nobles sponsored the largest projects of land reclamation. They could afford teams of oxen to clear tracts of land on which grain could be grown for the market. The subdelegate in Albi wrote to the intendant in 1786 that rising grain prices had led proprietors to prepare uncultivated land for the planting of crops.

Landowners, then, clearly sought to profit from the rising prices. Yet it would be wrong to equate the pursuit of profit with the competitive dynamic, intrinsic to capitalism, that forces economic actors to enhance their productivity. Liberalization of the grain trade and land clearances do not, in and of themselves, improve the farming of crops. In England, gentry landowners obtained nearly all of their income by consolidating and improving their landholdings to attract yeoman tenant farmers liable to increase the value of their estates. The yeomen had to compete with one another to obtain leases and farm these estates. They had to produce for exchange, reduce their price-cost ratio, continually narrow the specialization of their productive activity, and immediately adopt the latest techniques. In this way, the yeoman tenant farmers transformed the agrarian landscape of England through the development of convertible husbandry. This term denotes the rotation of tillage on the one hand, with turnips, clover, and other artificial grasses and fodder crops on the other, to improve both arable land and pasture. It allowed farmers to bring fallow land under cultivation, augment the production of fodder, rear a large stock of farm animals in stables, and build up a store of manure fertilizer for the fields. Rested, well-fed, and healthy animals replaced human labor, economized on costs, improved the soil, tilled the land well, and augmented yields.

Convertible husbandry was the single most significant means of enhancing productivity in preindustrial agriculture. It spread over the regions of England with appropriate soils and climates during the 1700s but left hardly any trace in France by the time of the Revolution. French landlords and tenant farmers did not uproot peasant tenures, reorganize the agrarian landscape, or transform the methods of husbandry. Social relations in the countryside did not oblige them to compete, invest, and raise productivity. French landowners did not turn their farms into competitive enterprises. In Languedoc, the upper classes trusted in sharecropping to appropriate the products of the soil.

The prevalence of sharecropping had roots in the Middle Ages. Several decades of research have determined that by the end of the thirteenth century, the nobility no longer possessed large demesnes (manorial land) or obtained much labor service from the peasantry. The latter gained de facto propriety rights over much of the farmland of the realm, as rents and dues became immutable, and as their value gave way under the pressure of inflation. The peasants' position on the land subsequently deteriorated as the growth of their numbers led to the subdivision of landholdings into parcels inadequate for their subsistence. From the sixteenth century onward, with the fitful yet relentless consolidation of the absolutist state, nobles used the royal courts to accumulate property and compensate for the erosion of seigneurial rents. The judiciary provided legal sanction for foreclosures when peasants went into debt from paying dues and taxes or from purchasing basic agricultural supplies. It is commonly estimated that the upper classes reduced the peasants' holdings to between 50 and 30 percent of the land by the time of the Revolution. In Languedoc, the peasants possessed about 20 percent of the farmland of the diocese of Toulouse and a slightly greater percent in neighboring dioceses. Peasants possessed over 57 percent of the Montpelliérain scrubland and over 37 percent of the entire diocese. They possessed well over 50 percent of the agricultural land of the diocese of Le Puy-en-Velay. The neighboring diocese of the Vivarais was a labyrinth of properties, over two-thirds of which belonged to the peasantry.

Although the peasants possessed much of the land, few had holdings large enough to assure their livelihood. Population growth in Languedoc ranged between 26 percent in the Vivarais from 1715-1720 to 1801 and 67 percent in the Montpelliérain from 1750 to 1789. This demographic expansion increased the density of the rural population and landholdings. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie shows that population growth led peasants to subdivide their properties among multiple heirs and left them with parcels ever less adequate for their livelihood. Proprietors of fewer than four hectares rose from 60 to 90 percent of the population of the area of the future department of the Aude between 1661 and 1789.

The rural population had no choice but to accept low wages and expensive leases from the main owners of the land. The seigneurs of the Toulousain added fees, carting services, and tax obligations to sharecropping agreements, and increased their share of harvests. The lessor's share of harvests mounted to an average of 62 percent in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Leases in the southern Massif central specified an interminable list of services, obligations, and products due to the lessors. The sharecroppers stood in a medieval relation of serfdom vis-à-vis their landlords in all but the legal contracts of the leases specifying the limits of the landlords' rights.


Excerpted from State and Society in Eighteenth-Century France by STEPHEN MILLER Copyright © 2008 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission.
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