From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Ancien Régime(also known as pre-revolutionary France), refers primarily to the aristocratic, social, and political system established in France under the Valois and Bourbon dynasties (14th century to 18th century). The term is French for "Former Regime," but rendered in English as "Old (or Ancient) Regime", "Old Order," or "Old Rule".
As defined by the creators of the term, the Ancien Régime developed out of the French monarchy of the Middle Ages, and was swept away centuries later by the French Revolution of 1789. More generally, ancien régime refers to any political and social system having the principal features of the French Ancien Regime. Europe's other anciens régimes had similar origins, but diverse fates: some eventually evolved into constitutional monarchies, whereas others were torn down by wars and revolutions.
Power in the Ancien Régime relied on three pillars: the monarchy, the clergy, and the aristocracy. Society was divided into three Estates of the realm: the First Estate, Roman Catholic clergy; the Second Estate, the nobility; and the Third Estate, the rest of the population.
The Ancien Régime retained many aspects of a feudal system that had existed since at least the 8th century, in particular noble and aristocratic privilege, and was supported by the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. It differed from that earlier feudal order in that political power had increasingly become concentrated in an absolute monarch.
The term dates from the Age of Enlightenment (first appearing in print in English in 1794) and was originally pejorative in nature. Similar to other sweeping criticisms of the past, such as the consciously disparaging term Dark Ages for what is more commonly known as the Middle Ages, ancien regime was not a neutral historical descriptor. It was created by the French Revolutionaries to promote their cause, coloring pre-revolutionary society with disapproval and implying approval of a "New Order".
For some authors, though, the term came to denote a certain nostalgia. Talleyrand famously quipped:
- Celui qui n'a pas vécu au dix-huitième siècle avant la Révolution ne connaît pas la douceur de vivre
The reason for this affection was the perceived decline in culture and values following the Revolution, where the aristocracy lost much of its economic and political power to what was seen as a rich, but coarse and materialistic bourgeoise. The theme recurs throughout nineteenth-century French literature, with Balzac and Flaubert alike attacking the mores of the new upper classes. To this mindset, the Ancien Régime expressed a bygone era of refinement and grace, before the Revolution and its associated changes disrupted the aristocratic tradition and ushered in a crude, uncertain modernity.
- Absolute monarchy
- French Revolution
- Causes of the French Revolution
- Early Modern France
- Early Modern Europe
- The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France
- French Enlightenment
- Royal privileges