Abolition of feudalism in France

One of the central events of the French Revolution was to abolish feudalism, and the old rules, taxes and privileges left over from the age of feudalism. The National Constituent Assembly, acting on the night of 4 August 1789, announced, "The National Assembly abolishes the feudal system entirely."[1] It abolished both the seigneurial rights of the Second Estate (the nobility) and the tithes gathered by the First Estate (the Catholic clergy).[2][3] The old judicial system, founded on the 13 regional parlements, was suspended in November 1789, and finally abolished in 1790.[4]

The Event

The Viscount de Noailles and the Duke d'Aiguillon proposed the redemption and consequent abolition of feudal rights and the suppression of personal servitude, as well as the various privileges of the nobility. Members of the First Estate were at first reluctant to enter into the patriotic fervour of the night but eventually the Bishops of Nancy and Chartres sacrificed their tithes. Historian Georges Lefebvre summarizes the night's work:

Without debate the Assembly enthusiastically adopted equality of taxation and redemption of all manorial rights except for those involving personal servitude — which were to be abolished without indemnification. Other proposals followed with the same success: the equality of legal punishment, admission of all to public office, abolition of venality in office [the purchase of an office], conversion of the tithe into payments subject to redemption, freedom of worship, prohibition of plural holding of benefices, suppression of annates (the year's worth of income owed the Pope and the bishop upon investiture).... Privileges of provinces and towns were offered as a last sacrifice.[5]

In the course of a few hours, France abolished game-laws, seigneurial courts, the purchase and sale of posts in the magistracy, of pecuniary immunities, favoritism in taxation, of surplice money, first-fruits, pluralities, and unmerited pensions. Towns, provinces, companies, and cities also sacrificed their special privileges. A medal was struck to commemorate the day, and the Assembly declared Louis XVI the "Restorer of French Liberty." [6] Furet emphasizes that the decisions of August 1789 survived and became an integral part of the founding texts of modern France.

They destroyed aristocratic society from top to bottom, along with its structure of dependencies and privileges. For this structure they substituted the modern, autonomous individual, free to do whatever was not prohibited by law.... The Revolution thus distinguished itself quite early by its radical individualism. [7]

This "Saint Bartholomew of abuses," as François Mignet calls it, has often been the subject of hyperbole in the analyses of contemporaries and historians. The atmosphere inside the Assembly was so heady that confusion reigned in the provinces for months afterwards as to the true meaning of the laws. The real product of the night was not formalised until the Feudal Committee reported back on 5 March 1790. The Committee reintroduced the mainmorte (explicitly outlawed by the original decrees) and set a rate of redemption for real rights (those connected to the land) that was impossible for the majority of peasants to pay (30 times the yearly rent).

The Russian anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin wrote:

The Assembly was carried away by its enthusiasm, and in this enthusiasm nobody remarked the clause for redeeming the feudal rights and tithes, which the two nobles and the two bishops had introduced into their speeches – a clause terrible even in its vagueness, since it might mean all or nothing, and did, in fact, postpone… the abolition of feudal rights for five years – until August 1793.[8]

Kropotkin concludes "The Feudal rights remain"[9] and scorns the other historians "The historic legend is lovingly used to embellish this night, and the majority of historians, copying the story as it has been given by a few contemporaries, represent it as a night full of enthusiasm and saintly abnegation.".


Originally the peasants were supposed to pay for the release of seigneurial dues; these dues affected more than a fourth of the farmland in France and provided most of the income of the large landowners.[10] The majority refused to pay and in 1793 the obligation was cancelled. Thus the peasants got their land free, and also no longer paid the tithe to the church.[11]

Sutherland has examined the results for peasants and landlords. The peasants no longer had to pay the tithe to the Church. The land owners, however, were now allowed to raise rents by the same amount as the former tithe. The national government then taxed away this new income to owners by raising land taxes. Sutherland concludes that the peasants effectively paid twice, in terms of higher rents and heavier taxes. Many tried to evade the burden. In the long run, however, the new burdens on the tenants and landlords, were largely offset by major gains in productivity, which made everyone richer. [12]

See also


  1. Stewart, p 107 for full text
  2. Furet, 1989
  3. Markoff,
  4. Paul R. Hanson, The A to Z of the French Revolution (2007) p 250-51
  5. Lefebvre, Georges (1962). The French Revolution: Vol. 1, from Its Origins To 1793. Columbia U.P,. p. 130.
  6. J.M. Thompson, The French Revolution (1943), pp 90-111
  7. Furet, Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, p 112
  8. Kropotkin, P. (1927)."4 August and Its Consequences", The Great French Revolution, 1789–1793 (N. F. Dryhurst, Trans.) New York: Vanguard Printings. (Original work published 1909)
  9. Kropotkin, P. (1927), The Great French Revolution, Chapter XVIII, 1789–1793 (N. F. Dryhurst, Trans.) New York: Vanguard Printings. (Original work published 1909)
  10. Robert Forster, "The survival of the nobility during the French Revolution." Past and Present (1967): 71-86 in JSTOR.
  11. Paul R. Hanson, The A to Z of the French Revolution (2013) pp 293-94
  12. D.M.G. Sutherland, "Peasants, Lords, and Leviathan: Winners and Losers from the Abolition of French Feudalism, 1780–1820," Journal of Economic History (2002) 62#1 pp 1-24

Further reading

Primary sources

This article incorporates text from the public domain History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814, by François Mignet (1824), as made available by Project Gutenberg.

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