Abolition of feudalism in France
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During the French Revolution, the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism on 4 August 1789, sweeping away both the seigneurial rights of the Second Estate (the nobility) and the tithes gathered by the First Estate (the Roman Catholic clergy).
While one can question motivations (and while many later expressed regrets and attempted retreat), historians agree that the Viscount de Noailles and the Duke d'Aiguillon proposed the redemption and consequent abolition of feudal rights and the suppression of personal servitude, as well as the various privileges of the nobility. Members of the First Estate were at first reluctant to enter into the patriotic fervour of the night but eventually the Bishops of Nancy and Chartres sacrificed their tithes. In the course of a few hours, France abolished game-laws, seigneurial courts, the purchase and sale of posts in the magistracy, of pecuniary immunities, favoritism in taxation, of surplice money, first-fruits, pluralities, and unmerited pensions. Towns, provinces, companies, and cities also sacrificed their special privileges. A medal was struck to commemorate the day, and the Assembly declared Louis XVI the "Restorer of French Liberty."
This "Saint Bartholomew of abuses," as François Mignet calls it, has often been the subject of hyperbole in the analyses of contemporaries and historians. The atmosphere inside the Assembly was so heady that confusion reigned in the provinces for months afterwards as to the true meaning of the laws. The real product of the night was not formalised until the Feudal Committee reported back on 5 March 1790. The Committee reintroduced the mainmorte (explicitly outlawed by the original decrees) and set a rate of redemption for real rights (those connected to the land) that was impossible for the majority of peasants to pay. As the Russian anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin would write, "The Assembly was carried away by its enthusiasm, and in this enthusiasm nobody remarked the clause for redeeming the feudal rights and tithes, which the two nobles and the two bishops had introduced into their speeches – a clause terrible even in its vagueness, since it might mean all or nothing, and did, in fact, postpone… the abolition of feudal rights for five years – until August 1793.
This article incorporates text from the public domain History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814, by François Mignet (1824), as made available by Project Gutenberg.