Ancien régime literally means the prior or former regime, but the most common English rendering is “old regime” or simply ancien régime. Over time, the phrase has acquired both a literal and a metaphorical significance. The original French term was coined to refer to the political and social order that existed before the French Revolution of 1789. Indeed, the first important uses of the term were by the revolutionaries themselves, such as the radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat and the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre.
This circumstance itself helped lend a pejorative connotation to the term because its users aimed to legitimize their ongoing overthrow of the old order. Quickly, however, this literal usage came to be accepted as merely descriptive. Conservatives such as Joseph de Maistre (Considerations on France, 1796) and moderate liberals such as Benjamin Constant (On the Strength of the Present Government of France, and on the Necessity of Rallying to It, 1796) or Germaine de Staël (On the Present Circumstances That Might End the Revolution, and on the Principles That Should Found the Republic in France, 1797) were already using it in this fashion in the 1790s.
The richest definition of the ancien régime appeared in Alexis de Tocqueville's 1856 book, L'ancien régime et la révolution (The Old Regime and the Revolution). Tocqueville took the term as a description of the French political and social order before 1789 and served notice, even in the preface, that the formative influence of the ancien régime on the character and trajectory of the revolution itself would be a central question in his work. Since that time, theorists and comparativists have frequently analyzed the independent and discrete status of the old regime in something like Tocqueville's fashion.
In scope, the phrase has sometimes seemed to refer to a political and social order that included the Middle Ages and early modern period. More often, however, ancien régime means a regime that existed between the end of the Middle Ages and the revolution. Different authors have dated the beginning of this putatively distinct regime in different ways, some locating it in the fourteenth century, others from the end of the Hundred Years War (1453), still others from the establishment of the Renaissance monarchy (1498 or 1515) or even the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons (1598).
There is perhaps as much diversity of opinion about the attributes of the ancien régime as about its chronology. Some put the emphasis on the political, defining that period as one characterized by absolute monarchy buttressed by a religious, even divine-right form of legitimacy. Because most European governments were monarchical until World War I, this political definition must place the emphasis on the social and religious underpinnings of the monarchy.
Others, however, use the term to refer more to the social hierarchy that existed before the revolution of 1789. Most societies in prerevolutionary Europe were structured around juridical distinctions between functionally defined classes, or orders (états in French): the first estate (clergy), the second estate (war-fighting nobility), and the third estate (commoners). The theory was that the clergy pray, the nobility fight, and the commoners work and that this arrangement was sanctioned by God. Broadly speaking, this functional definition of society disappeared as an explicit principle of legitimation in or shortly after 1789, even if landed nobilities continued to exist and to exercise considerable power in regimes as various as England, Germany, and Russia thereafter.
It is worth noting that the term ancien régime is rarely used to describe the old economic order. Economic historians use a number of different markers to distinguish between modern and premodern, most of which are at best indirectly related to the social and political attributes of the ancien régime, as that term is generally employed. Some emphasize the Industrial Revolution, which began before the French Revolution and was mostly independent of it. Others stress the commercial revolution of the post-Columbian Atlantic. Here, too, the concept of commercial society was a feature of eighteenth-century thought, and some critics of the ancien régime in fact advocated an expansion of the values and institutions of commercial society.
Although the term is French and was designed to make sense of French experience, it has been readily extended (as indicated in the foregoing) to other European countries that had similar institutions: monarchies, aristocracies, hierarchical social orders, established churches, elements of serfdom, and the like. Indeed, Arno Mayer argues for the essential continuity of such a broadly defined ancien régime right up to 1914, when the conflagration of World War I swept aside all the monarchies and empires—notably the Hohenzollern in Germany, the Romanov in Russia, the Habsburg in Central Europe, and the Ottoman in southeastern Europe and the Middle East—once and for all.
Absolutism, Aristocracy, Conservatism, de Maistre, Joseph Marie, Divine Right of Kings, Enlightenment, Legitimacy, Tocqueville, Alexis de, Universal Monarchy
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