Bread constituted the staple of most urban diets, so sharp price increases were felt quickly and were loudly protested at grain markets or at local bakers' shops. Most people directed their anger at bread suppliers rather than political authorities, although it was often the municipal and royal authorities who tried to alleviate shortages and prevent such protests. As a result, the credibility and popularity of government officials came to be linked to the functioning of the grain and bread markets.

In addition to economic differences, early modern French society was legally stratified by birth. Its three traditional divisions, or "orders," were the clergy, the nobility, and the common people. Nobles ruled over commoners, but even among commoners, specific individuals (such as officeholders) or groups (such as a particular guild or an entire town) enjoyed privileges unavailable to outsiders. Because these privileges were passed on primarily through inheritance, they tended to constrain social mobility—although without preventing it, since they could also be bought or sold. Thus individuals and groups constantly negotiated with one another and with the crown for more and better privileges. Even as these privileges maintained a close grip on eighteenth-century imaginations, writers of the Enlightenment found them too rooted in tradition and proposed that talent supersede birth as the main determinant of social standing. Even when based on merit, they argued, social differences should not be defined by law, as they were in the old regime's orders. Traditionalists countered that a hierarchy of social orders was necessary to hold society together.

When the King called for an Estates-General in 1789, the social tensions plaguing the old regime emerged as a central issue of the Revolution. Traditionally, estates representatives had belonged to one of the three orders of society, and in principle each order had an equal voice before the King. Because nobles dominated the clergy, however, the majority of representatives actually came from the two privileged orders, even though they stood for only 5 percent of the population at most. Because each voter actually would exercise one vote in the assembly, this configuration allowed the nobility two of the three votes. The King subsequently agreed to double the size of the delegation of the Third Estate, but this move failed to appease critics of the political system. Many pamphlets appeared suggesting that representatives should vote by "head" rather than by "order" (meaning all representatives should vote together as a single assembly, rather than as three separate bodies representing three separate orders).

The purpose of such pamphlets was not merely to win greater representation for the Third Estate. Their authors were making the case for a new concept of society, in which commoners, especially the educated middle classes, had the same value as the other orders. Despite the social rifts surrounding the political debate of mid-1789, most contemporaries fervently sought social unity. This suggests that social unrest may not necessarily have been the basic cause of the outbreak of the Revolution. Indeed, one wonders if the nobility's fear of losing its privileges, rather than the assertiveness of the middle classes, might have been the most important factor in the events that followed.

Far beyond the deputies' meeting hall in Versailles, another kind of social unrest was brewing in the countryside. Upon hearing about the taking of the Bastille, peasants decided they, too, could press for social change through drastic actions. In the summer of 1789 hundreds of thousands mobilized to attack lords' manors and destroy the bitter symbols of seigneurialism: weather vanes, protective walls, and especially property deeds setting forth feudal dues that peasants were required to pay the lord. When news of this rural unrest reached the newly renamed National Assembly in Paris, its deputies, feeling pressured to stay ahead of events in the countryside, responded by announcing the "abolition of feudalism." Their decrees of 4 August represented the first step toward the destruction of the theoretical basis of old regime's system of privileges. Within the year, the assembly would do away with the whole concept of nobility, setting off a vigorous anti noble propaganda campaign in the press.








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