“Ancien Régime”

"The Ancien Régime"

Revised October Oct 25, 2001. Your comments and suggestions would be appreciated.

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   The Ancien Régime (the 'old system' or 'order of things') was a term coined to describe life before the turmoil of the French Revolution (1789). It was used nostalgically by upper classes and aristocrats who suffered from the newly introduced changes. But those who had suffered under the old system and were benefiting from the changes, or hoped to do so, used the term Ancien Régime despairingly. Its origins stretched back into the feudal times; some of the feudal era's features persisted into the 18th century.1

  Theoretically absolute monarchies, aristocrats and a growing bureaucracy ruled most of western Europe under the Ancien Régime. Economically it was characterized by a scarcity of food, the predominance of agriculture as a way of life, poor roads and slow transport. The Austrian Emperor Joseph II had roads improved. However, even then they were not built by the government; the right to build a road was given to private companies. For example, in 1764 a company was granted the right to build the road from Hoboken (south of Antwerp) to nearby Hemiksem and to buy the necessary pieces of land for the road and the drainage ditches along the road.
  Pedestrians could use the road free but the toll for other users was: one solidus per vehicle; one solidus per horse or donkey mounted or not; two farthings per ox, bull or cow; one farthing per pig, calf or goat, half a farthing per sheep. Government officials' transport was toll exempted, as were armies and their wagons. But, whoever made a detour to avoid the toll was to be punished with a heavy fine of 25 guldens (guilders).
2 At the entance/exit of these roads there was a gate ('bareel') and nearby usually there was a tavern ('estaminet') like that shown here.3

  Socially, Europe before the French Revolution was based on an aristocratic élite who held various inherited legal privileges. The two established churches, Roman Catholic and later Protestant, were both intimately related to the state and to the
aristocracy. There was also an urban labor force usually organized into guilds, and a rural peasantry subject to high taxes and to residual feudal requirements of labor for the landlord. Over 70% of all Europeans lived in the countryside and few traveled more than a few miles from their birthplace. By any modern standard their lives were difficult.
   Within any region the most striking aspect of the Ancien Régime was the great contrast in the lives and experiences of people of different social ranks. In general, the peasantry, from the point of view of their traditionally limited expectations, tended to prosper. This varied from region to region, from state to state and from time to time.
   However the peasant always lived in various styles of economic and social dependency, exploitation, vulnerability and in the early days,
direct control by the landowners. Most peasants 'owed' the lord 'work days'. Nearly all were subject to 'dues' which included charges for their (compulsory) use of the local lord's or landowner's grain mill and ovens to bake bread. Since they rarely owned land most peasants had to pay rent for the plot of land on which they lived and tried to grow enough food for subsistence.
   Despite living on the land the peasantry were the first to suffer from the frequent failed harvests and often had greater difficulty finding food than urban dwellers whose local governments usually stored grain reserves.

  4So how can we reconcile the above with contemporary agronomists' views that the Southern Netherlands was the Mecca of agriculture? The highest yield of rye and wheat per hectare in all of Europe occurred routinely in Flanders and Brabant! This was due to very labor-intensive farming with progressive fertilization techniques, crop rotation and the cultivation of food supplemented by growing fodder and industrial crops, such as flax. Farmsteads as small of 3 hectares could produce a surplus for the market.
  But all the resulting relative prosperity turned out  in the long run not to benefit the primary producers. Their relative security led to a population explosion and further fragmentation of the land into smaller and smaller plots, so that for example in Lede, east of Gent in the County of Flanders, the number of holdings smaller than 0.3 hectares (0.8 acres!), tripled in the 18th century. During the same period land rents increased fivefold and encouraged small farmers and their families to undertake cottage industries such as the processing of flax into linen cloth. This 'drive' by the farmers to maintain their economic self-sufficiency probably was a major factor in the concurrent stagnation or decline in 'textile towns' such as Lille, Kortrijk, Gent and Brugge during the period that the production of linen in the countryside doubled in the 18th century. The resulting decline in the profitability of capital investments in the larger towns induced merchants, city-based manufacturers and bureaucrats to snap up land. In the second half of the 18th century landowners built houses with gardens of 0.2 hectares (1/2 acre) since this brought an average profit of 7% per annum on invested capital, 50% more than the rent from 1 hectare of arable land. Although cottagers could grow enough food for their families on slivers of land they could afford to rent, they became more and more dependent on home industries, flax processing and lace making.
  A further 'squeeze' was applied by free-enterprising merchants through the "
putting out" system in which the merchant contracted (put out) flax to a weaver to be made into linen cloth. This allowed the merchant to extract what little surplus cottagers and their families gained in the home flax industry.

It might be expected that the poor would have benefitted after 1794
from the importation of '
freedom, equality and brotherhood'
proclaimed during the French Revolution but . . .

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1"The Western Heritage", Vol. II, 3rd ed. by D. Kagan et al., Macmillan pub. N.Y. 1987
ISBN 0-02-363220-8. Jules Vanhaelemeesch , Henrietta Diehl and Arthur Hagen helped edit this page.
2From "The history of Hoboken" by H.Dierckx, page 158 quoted by Jos Smits <j.smits_faes@pandora.be>
3Photo of his greatgrandmother's tavern "In Den Oude Bareel" was provided by George Bruggeman.
"Poverty & Capitalism in Pre-industrial Europe" by Catharina Lis & Hugo Soly,
  Harvester Press, Hassocks, Sussex, England 1979 ISBN 0-85527-504-9.