Pre-revolutionary France was not created as a whole but was instead a jigsaw of lands which had been haphazardly aggregated over the preceding centuries, the different laws and institutions of each new addition often kept intact. The latest addition was Corsica, coming into the French crown's possession in 1766. By 1789 France comprised an estimated 28 million people and was divided into provinces of vastly varying size, from the huge Brittany to the tiny Foix. Geography varied greatly from mountainous regions to rolling plains. The nation was also divided into 36 'generalities' for administrative purposes and these again varied in size and shape to both each other and the provinces. There were further subdivisions for each level of the church.
Laws varied too. There were thirteen sovereign courts of appeal whose jurisdiction unevenly covered the whole country: the Paris court covered a third of France, the Pav court just its own tiny province. Further confusion arose with the absence of any universal law beyond that of royal decrees. Instead the precise codes and rules varied across France, with the Paris region mainly using customary law and the south a written code. Lawyers who specialised in handling the many different layers flourished. Each region also had its own weights and measures, tax, customs and laws. These divisions and differences were continued at the level of every town and village.
Rural and Urban
France was still essentially a feudal nation, with lords due a range of ancient and modern rights from their peasants who comprised about 80% of the population. The majority of these still lived in rural contexts and France was a predominantly agricultural nation, even though this agriculture was low in productivity, wasteful and using out of date methods. An attempt to introduce modern techniques from Britain had not succeeded. Inheritance laws, whereby estates were divided up between all the heirs, had left France divided into many tiny farms; even the large estates were small when compared to other European nations. The only major region of large-scale farming was around Paris, where the always hungry capital city provided a convenient market. Harvests were critical but fluctuating, causing famine, high prices and riots.
The remaining twenty per cent of France lived in urban areas, although there were only eight cities with a population in excess of 50,000 people. These were home to guilds, workshops and industry, with workers often travelling from rural areas to urban ones in search of seasonal – or permanent – work. Death rates were high. Ports with access to overseas trade flourished, but this capital didn't penetrate far into the rest of France.
France was governed by a king who ruled thanks to the grace of God; in 1789 this was Louis XVI, crowned on June 11th 1775. Ten thousand people worked in his main palace at Versailles, and 5% of his income was spent supporting it. The rest of French society considered itself divided into three groups: the estates.
The First Estate were the clergy, who numbered around 130,000 people, owned a tenth of the land and were due tithes of one tenth of everyone's income, although the practical applications varied hugely. They were immune from tax and frequently drawn from noble families. They were all part of the Catholic Church, the only official religion in France. Despite strong pockets of Protestantism, over 97% of the French population considered themselves Catholic.
The Second Estate were the nobility, numbering around 120,000 people. These were formed in part from people born into noble families, but certain highly sought after government offices also conferred noble status. Nobles were privileged, didn't work, had special courts and tax exemptions, owned the leading positions in court and society – almost all of Louis XIVs ministers were noble – and were even allowed a different, quicker, method of execution. Although some were enormously rich many were no better off than the lowest of the French middle classes, with a strong lineage and little else besides feudal dues.
The remainder of France, over 99%, formed the Third Estate. The majority were peasants who lived in near poverty, but around two million were the middle classes: the bourgeoisie. These had doubled in number between the years of Louis XIV and XVI and owned around a quarter of French land. The common development of a bourgeoisie family was for one to make a fortune in business or trade and then plough that money into land and education for their children, who joined professions, abandoned the 'old' business and lived their lives comfortable, but not excessive existences, passing their offices down to their own children. One notable revolutionary, Robespierre, was a fifth generation lawyer. One key aspect of bourgeois existence was venal offices, positions of power and wealth within the royal administration which could be purchased and inherited: the entire legal system was comprised of purchasable offices. Demand for these was high and the costs rose ever higher.
France and Europe
By the late 1780s France was one of the world's 'great nations'. A military reputation which had suffered during the Seven Years War had been partly salvaged thanks to France's critical contribution in defeating Britain during the American Revolutionary War and their diplomacy was highly regarded, having avoided war in Europe during the same conflict. However, it was with culture that France dominated.
With the exception of England, the upper classes across Europe copied French architecture, furniture, fashion and more while the main language of royal courts and the educated was French. Journals and pamphlets produced in France were disseminated across Europe, allowing the elites of other nations to read and quickly understand the literature of the French revolution. A backlash against this French domination had already begun, with groups of writers arguing that national languages and cultures should be pursued instead, but this would only bring changes in the next century.