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Social life at the Sun King’s time
Saturday 29 November 2008
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Versailles-Chambre du Roi {JPEG} PROJECT

To portray the 17th century society


- to put back the peasants at the centre of the “feudal? system
- to show that old regime fiscal system relied essentially on peasantry


- to identify and depict the essentials of a situation
- to analyse a simple document and draw from it a few important features
- to be able to express one’s procedures


documents mentioning the peasants’ life, their social situation (pictures, texts drawn from schoolbooks)


Question: how was the 17th century society organised, given it gathered 20 millions inhabitants? With the children, make a table depicting this society. Compare successively the life of a 17th century

- courtesan, Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie in the middle of his life,
- priest,
- peasant.

Ask for reasoning and verbal exchanges around the question of class and social hierarchy.

Define the notions of:

- Clergy (the prayers, the priests, bishops, monks, about 150 000 people),
- Nobility (the fighters, the heirs to the knights, 5000 of them live with the King at Versailles. The others live in their domains in the provinces. Around 350 000 people),
- The Third Estate (the third part of the State, the workers). There are:

· The peasants who work the earth, they are 18 millions and the large majority of them are poor;

· The workers who work for the city artisans and shopkeepers, they are also called journeymen;

· The bourgeois who live in towns. Some of them are bankers, shopkeepers and are very rich.

The Third Estate represents about 19 500 000 people. Thus 18 out of the 20 millions inhabitants are in essence peasants.

The peasants’ poverty

Growing techniques not much efficient:

- Ploughs, but the number of tools is poor
- Not enough horses means insufficient manure. The ground grows poorer, the yield lower.
- No greenhouses like in the King’s Vegetable Garden (greenhouses are expensive). On some winters, the badly protected cultivation freezes.
- The cattle are badly fed, and weaken.

The Clergy and the peasants

The parish surrounds the peasants’ life. They don’t work on Sundays: it’s the day of our Lord. The religious feasts punctuate the year (Easter, Whit Sunday…). The large majority of the people can’t read. There are no calendars. The feasts are used as reference points.

The Clergy registers births, deaths and weddings.

The peasants give to the Clergy the 10th of their whole harvest (the tithe).

The Clergy is very rich. This population category doesn’t pay any taxes.

The Nobility and the peasants

The mill and the oven belong to the lord. The peasants have to use them to grind their grains and to bake their bread. They must pay taxes to the lord:

- the rent: tax paid to live on the noble’s grounds (money)
- the champart: up to the third of the harvest.

The King and the peasants The peasants have to lodge and feed the King’s armies. Some taxes are paid directly to the King:

- The tallage: tax paid by the commoners. It is the heaviest tax. Here is a little problem to solve: a wine grower worker earns ten shillings per day. He must pay 4 pounds worth of tallage every year. Given that a pound equals to twenty shillings, what proportion of his salary does it represent?
- The gabelle: tax paid on the salt one has to buy in order to preserve food. Every French region is not due to pay this tax in the same manner: there are large gabelle, small gabelle regions and even exempted regions…)

Each time the King starts a war, he levies a new tax to pay the soldiers and the weapons. Put on a chronological chart the number of wars and their length in years. Some attempts have been made to create taxes paid by everybody: the capitation and the tenth. The project was ruined by the favoured classes.

The rebellions are reprimanded by the army. The agitators are sent to the galleys.

The peasants’ diet is deficient. Their health is precarious: a child in four dies before the age of one. Life expectancy is generally no more than thirty years.


Capacity for the pupil:

- to structure the table of the 17th century society in three classes
- to define links between these social classes
- to realise the place of the peasants in the “feudal? system on whom depends mainly the old regime taxation.

Muriel Doubre. Gérard Philippe School . Plaisir (Yvelines) France

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