A Chance for Democracy Gone Wrong
If you were living in Medieval Europe, you’d probably find yourself asking “who the heck is in charge?” ALL the time.
After the fall of Rome in 476 AD, there was no central power in Western Europe. The political landscape was left wide open and it changed constantly for the next 1,300 years. In fact, it wasn’t until the 20th century when Western Europe went more than 50 years without new borders.
Of course, the nobility, aka the aristocracy, aka the ones with all the land, were the ones in charge. But they could never really agree who was the boss. They were always fighting to be on top.
Since no one could ever really agree who was in charge, people came up with different ways of distributing and organizing power.
In England, you had Parliament. This started as a council to the king and eventually became the chief lawmaking body in English society.
In France, you had the Estates General. Similar in theory to Parliament, the Estates General was a body made up of the different classes in French society. It was meant to advise the king and help run the French state.
The French kings initially played ball. But over time they grew fed up with sharing power.
The story of the French Estates General helps us better understand how medieval society worked. It also sets the context for the French Revolution, a period of massive social change that entirely reshaped the world and arguably launched our modern era.
The Estates of the Realm: The Foundation of the Estates General
The idea of the Estates General sounds good on paper. It comes from the idea that there were three distinct estates, or groups, of the realm, meaning the Kingdom of France.
The first group (the First Estate) was the nobility, also known as the aristocracy. They owned most if not all of the land. They were responsible for ruling the people and protecting them by assembling and equipping armies when needed.
The second group was the clergy (the Second Estate). This is a fancy word for church people, aka priests, bishops, cardinals, etc.
The third group (the Third Estate) was pretty much everyone else. These were the people who worked the land and did most of the manual labor needed to support society. They were known as the “commoners” or the “peasants.”
This last group represented about 90 percent of the population. They had absolutely no political power (at least not officially) and yet paid all the taxes and did all the work.
Sounds pretty fair, right? What could possibly go wrong with this?
At this point, you might be wondering where the kings and queens fit into the picture.
Technically, the king came from the nobility and was initially considered more of a “first among equals” type thing. However, over the course of the Middle Ages (c. 500 – 1500 AD), kings were able to consolidate a lot of the political power and acquired more and more of it. This was especially true in France.
More of an Idea than a Reality
From a distant perspective, this social order makes sense. It is how things worked for the most part. But things were hardly this clear.
Within each group there was inequality. Some nobles were wealthier than others, owning more land or land that produced more crops and thus gave them more income. Some of the clergy came from the nobility. They held higher positions than commoners who became clergy.
Within the Third Estate, there were lots of different groups. The lowest of the low were the serfs. These people were bound to their lord and his land. They were allowed to work that land, but they had to give a certain amount of their produce to their lord. They were also often required to do other things to benefit their lord, such as grind their grain in his mills, use his wagons and roads, or even sell their grain directly to him (so that he could turn and sell it for more).
All in all, being a serf was a pretty bad deal.
Other members of the Third Estate were skilled craftsmen and artisans, who had more economic freedom and control over their livelihoods. Moving into the High and Late Middle Ages (1000 AD – 1500 AD), trade across Europe started expanding. This made these same craftsmen wealthier and also gave rise to a merchant class.
These were people who would buy goods and bring them somewhere else to sell. Their success made them wealthy, which gave them power.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, some merchants even became nobles. But many more did not, which created even more tension.
In the end, this idea of a clear-cut division of society into three distinct groups was far from reality. But it served as an easy way of understanding society and how it should be governed.
The First Estates General
This idea that there were three distinct social groups within society gave rise to the institution of the Estates General. This was an institution that represented the various groups — the three estates — to assist in affairs of the state.
But isn’t the king the absolute power? Why does he need the Estates?
Well, in reality, his power was not absolute. The nobility still had most of the power, especially in their own counties and duchies. For example, the king could not directly tax the people of, say, the Duchy of Normandy. Only the Duke of Normandy could really do that.
Of course, the king could try to do stuff like this. But the Duke would have likely responded with “Yeah? You and what army? Try and collect!”
At this point, the king would have to either give up or go to war, which was both costly and risky.
Now, if the Duke of Normandy went to a meeting of the Estates General and an agreement was made to tax everyone in the realm, well, then it was okay. The king could go ahead and collect his money.
The Estates General was also used to sort of give the king permission to do things that might be deemed controversial.
For example, the very first Estates General was called in 1302 AD by Phillip IV because he was in conflict with the Pope. Philip IV wanted to tax the clergy directly and make himself in charge of the Catholic Church in France.
The Pope, who was immensely powerful in his own right, didn’t want any of it. But there wasn’t a whole lot he could do except condemn Philip IV and hope his people would turn against him.
Considering the influence the Pope had, this wasn’t super farfetched.
By winning the support of the Estates General, however, Philip IV had an answer to the Pope’s objection and was able to move forward with his initiative.
An Early Form of Democracy? Not so Fast
This whole thing sounds rather democratic, doesn’t it? And it looks a lot like what was going on in England at the time. During this same period, Parliament was growing increasingly influential and taking power away from the king.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. First, for an institution to be democratic, it needs to be representative.
For the Third Estate, this was hardly the case.
Those sent to the meetings of the Estate could only come from bonne villes, which were towns given a special designation by the crown due to their importance. And only a small group of people could vote for these representatives, usually those with property and money. Most of the time, the representatives were city officials, who would have had ties to the king.
What this meant is that the vast majority, probably more than 98 percent, of the Third Estate was completely excluded from the Estates General. And considering they were the ones doing all the work and paying most if not all of the taxes, this turned out to be a pretty raw deal.
The First and Second Estates were far better represented. But this was only true because they were much smaller groups. Even then, the king has to ask you to come to a meeting of the Estates General.
In other words, the king would call together a group of “yes men” to help him do what he wanted. That’s hardly a democracy.
An “As-Needed” Institution
Unlike in England where Parliament was becoming more and more powerful, and the king was bound by law to get its permission for certain actions, the Estates General was more of an as-needed institution.
If the king needed money? Enter the Estates General. If the king wanted to oppose the Pope? Time for the blessing of the Estates General. If he wanted to launch a costly international war? It might be good to call the Estates General.
This was its primary role throughout the 14th and 15th century. But as French kings became increasingly powerful, they saw the Estates General as more of an obstacle than a support group. Little by little, they turned away from it.
Absolute Monarchs and the Decline of the Estates
Starting in the 15th century, but even more so in the 16th and 17th, the French monarchy became obsessed with the idea of being “absolute monarchs.” What this meant is that they had complete and total control over the French state.
Thanks to the continuity of the Capetian dynasty, the King of France became increasingly powerful over time. He brought more and more counties and duchies into the royal domain and built alliances that lasted and worked. This made it very hard for ambitious nobles to challenge the king. It also gave rise to the idea of being an absolute monarch.
To top things off and really flex his muscles, the king stopped calling the Estates General to enact laws or raise taxes. Instead, he just started doing whatever he wanted.
So, between 1614 AD and 1789 AD, the king did not summon the Estates General even once. Doing so would be an admission that he was not in complete and total control, and he simply could not have that.
A lot also happened during this time. The French had built an overseas empire that had a presence in North America, as well as parts of Asia and Africa. This made the crown quite rich, but also made the government quite expensive to run. The population had grown considerably as well, but commoners still had absolutely no say in the government.
So, when the crown kept raising taxes, over and over again, to pay for their palaces and overseas wars, you can see how French society turned into a ticking time bomb.
There was also a growing class of people with considerable wealth and influence who were still considered part of the Third Estate. Known as the bourgeoisie, this group was fed up with having no real power at all.
The Estates General and the French Revolution
Eventually, King Louis XIV called the Estates General in 1789 to discuss the many problems facing the kingdom.
Things did not go well.
By this point in time, society had grown and changed so much it was comical to think there were just three classes. It’s estimated the Third Estate numbered around 25 million people. The First Estate, the one with all the money and land and that paid no taxes, had around 100,000 people.
Inspired by Enlightenment ideas that called for equality and challenged the very idea of absolute monarchs, as well as the American Revolution, the French commoners revolted in 1789 AD. They reorganized the Estates General as the “National Assembly” and took up arms against the nobility, launching a cultural revolution unlike any other in history.
France, and the world, would never be the same again.
A Changing Society and an Unchanging Nobility
In many ways, the story of the Estates General could be seen as a missed opportunity for the French nobility. Had they decided to use this institution to include people in society, perhaps this massive revolution would have never happened. Perhaps they would still have their land, and their ancestors would still be alive.
Just look at England. By embracing Parliament and expanding its role in society, the English monarchy has endured until this very day.
In the end, the French monarchy and nobility saw the Middle Ages how so many of us in the modern world do: as a static time of little progress.
But this simply isn’t true. It was a dynamic era in which society was evolving and changing all the time. But the French nobility responded by trying to keep everything exactly, 100 percent the same.
It blew up in their face.
Today, the French Revolution is considered a starting point for the modern age. It ushered in dramatic changes around Europe and the world. But we have to ask, if the nobility had been just a little more flexible, would it have ever happened?
Written by Matthew Jones