The French have been trying to come to terms with the Old Regime for nearly two hundred years, but they have never reached any agreement about its basic character. The Revolution keeps getting in their way, forcing them into ideological camps at the point where, in France at least, the “modern” phase of history gives way to the “contemporary”: 1789.

This way of looking at the past gives it a certain urgency. Define the Old Regime, and you will determine the understanding of the present. Map the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and you will command the ideological battleground of the twentieth. With so much at stake, it does not seem surprising that the French still argue about the Old Regime or that their arguments have produced a rich strain of historical literature, from L’Ancien régime et la Révolution (1856) by Alexis de Tocqueville to L’Ancien régime (1969-1973) by Pierre Goubert.

The Institutions of France under the Absolute Monarchy 1598-1789 by Roland Mousnier adds another dimension to the debate, for Mousnier belongs to neither of the two sides that have dominated it during the last twenty years. To the Marxists he represents reactionary ideology, to the Annales school archaic historiography.

Mousnier earned the enmity of both camps by sniping at them from the Sorbonne, where he reigned over modern history from 1955 until his retirement in 1977. He wounded the Marxists by attacking the Soviet historian Boris Porchnev, who had seen elements of class war in a series of peasant uprisings that convulsed the French countryside in the seventeenth century. Mousnier interpreted the revolts in the opposite way—as the defense of a traditional hierarchy. Provincial nobles and their peasant clienteles rose up against the agents of the state, who were trying to bleed them by taxation and to subject them to the control of a central authority.

The question might seem academic today, but it stirred passions in France during the 1960s. To the right it dramatized the evil of the left; for what could remain inviolate if the Soviets invaded the history of the Old Regime? To the left it demonstrated the danger on the right; for Mousnier seemed to open the way to obscurantism by proclaiming that the ultimate cause of the troubles in the seventeenth century was “original sin and man’s refusal to obey the commandments of God.”1

At the same time, Mousnier detected methodological sins in a pet project of the Annales school, an attempt by François Furet and Adeline Daumard to determine the social structure of eighteenth-century Paris through a statistical analysis of occupations and dowries as they appear in notarial archives. He did not object to the confusion of money and love but to the equation of money and status. Even if dowries did represent wealth, he argued, wealth did not determine social position. Frenchmen sorted themselves out according to notions of order, estate, and quality. To put quantity before quality is to misconstrue the basic character of the Old Regime.

Neither controversy was resolved. Such things do not end with a referee holding up a winner’s hand. But each marked a turning point in the understanding of the Old Regime, and each turned on the question of hierarchy.

It seems significant, too, that Mousnier defended the hierarchical view of the Old Regime from the Sorbonne, which still stands at the summit of higher education in France, despite the shock of May-June 1968 and the subsequent reorganization of the universities. Although the Annales historians have infiltrated the university system, their institutional base remains outside it, in the Ecole des Hautes Etudes. To them, the Sorbonne stands for a narrow, academic view of history, histoire historisante. To the Marxists, it represents the traditional view of history from above, history of the elite instead of the oppressed.

There has been such a surfeit of history-from-below and Annales history recently that it now seems time to reconsider history-from-the-Sorbonne. Mousnier epitomizes it. Arch mandarin and supreme universitaire, he already is beginning to sound like a voice in the wilderness. So he may have something to say.

Viewed from the top, the hierarchy described in The Institutions of France has some odd boundary lines. Great noblemen expressed their standing by the number of gibbets they used to expose the bodies of the criminals they hung: eight to a duke, six to a count, and four to a baron. Bourgeois defined their rank by the titles they appropriated from the nobility: noble homme came first, honorable next, and honnête last. At the same time, genuine nobles petitioned for the title of bourgeois in order to enjoy special privileges in towns. They did not have to fear derogation, because they knew that noblesse de race ran in their blood and was transmitted by their seed—even, somehow, in Champagne and Brie, where “the womb ennobles.” At lower levels, people marked themselves off according to who came to dinner and who came to supper, who wore long gowns and who wore short, who had a tile roof and who had thatch, who begged on the church porch and who worked the streets.


It comes as no surprise that societies have codes, but the character of the codes can be surprising. Any historian would acknowledge the importance of the seating plan at the masses said for the provincial estates of Languedoc. The first estate sat on the Gospel side, the second estate on the Epistles side, each group in comfortable pews with prayer stools, while the third estate sat stoolless on benches without backs in the choir. But who except Mousnier would notice the dividing line between those who had the right to hang funeral sashes for their dead in the church and those who had the right to paint a black mourning band, two feet wide, around its entire grounds?

Who but Mousnier would devote a whole sub-chapter to the fine points of heraldry? Who else would discuss the nuances of affronted pride involved in “points of honor”: the blow with the hand, the blow with a stick, the blow accompanied with an insult, the varieties of insult and their expiation—apology, apology on bended knee, apology on knee with submission to a return blow, and so on?

Nothing could be more trivial to a hard-nosed Marxist or a high-browed Annaliste. But Mousnier’s obsession with the symbolic forms of hierarchy suggests a point where left and right, old guard and avant-garde, might meet. Consider Foucault’s celebrated analysis of Borges’s fantasy about a Chinese encyclopedia, which divides animals into a set of bizarre categories: those belonging to the Emperor, embalmed, tame, drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, having just broken the water pitcher, and so on. It is the sheer unthinkability of those categories that seems important to Foucault, because it suggests the alien epistemological ground on which others construct the world.

Anthropologists have explored that territory for years. They see nothing extraordinary about writing treatises on classification systems that seem unthinkable to us; for they have observed how those systems order social behavior, separating those who can eat flesh from the pig’s shoulder from those who eat its underbelly, those who hunt the cassowary from those who dig for the sweet potato, those from whom one cannot receive water from those with whom one can smoke a pipe. Given the richness of that literature, it would be churlish to criticize Mousnier for studying prayer stools and gibbets.

The question is not whether but how to study them—how to penetrate a foreign set of categories and to think the unthinkable. Mousnier adopts a straightforward strategy. First, he rejects all Marxist and sociological notions about the functions of culture. Cultural forms do not derive from some prior and more fundamental order of reality, such as the social relations of production. They determine all the other aspects of social existence, or at least they did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when a man’s property and authority expressed his position in a symbolic hierarchy rather than vice versa.

To begin an account of the Old Regime at the bottom, with ground rents and demography, is to misconstrue its character. In a hierarchical society, one should begin at the top, with heraldry and coronation rites, and work one’s way down through the contemporary scale of dignities. Any other procedure would be insufficiently “scientific,” social history that is not “strictly social in character.”

Having thus dispatched his adversaries on the left and in the Annales, Mousnier faced the task of deciphering the prevailing social code and showing how it prevailed. Happily he found a trot, Charles Loyseau’s Traité des ordres (1610), which developed the contemporary view that society was and should be divided into a hierarchy of orders—that is, social groups ranked according to their intrinsic spiritual dignity, each with its special titles, ornaments, and activities. It remained for Mousnier to match Loyseau’s “picture” with “reality” or the “facts”—a manageable undertaking, as Mousnier does not suffer from epistemological doubts about the nature of reality: it, too, is a kind of picture, the social code that men carry about in their heads and express in their behavior.

The more obscure the head, the less accessible the code; so Mousnier concentrates on the high and mighty. He devotes 102 pages to the nobility, 102 to the clergy, 37 to the bourgeoisie, 10 to the urban working classes, and 10 to the peasantry. As the nobility and clergy made up only three percent of the population, the proportions might look a little lopsided. But Mousnier seems to feel it inappropriate to consider quantity in a society where only quality counted.


He therefore devotes most of the book to the nuances of status among persons of quality, beginning with the court. When seen up close, however, Versailles looks as strange as the Chinese encyclopedia. Grandees fell into certain basic categories: those whose wives could sit on a footstool in the presence of the queen, those who could ride in a royal carriage, and those who merely had been presented to the king. But lines got crossed and blurred at crucial moments, like the allocation of the “pour.” When the court traveled, the grandest panjandrums got to have “pour le duc de x” chalked on the doors of their lodgings instead of merely “monsieur le duc de x.” That distinction mattered as much as the “question du bonnet“—the problem of determining to whom the first president of the parlement of Paris would remove his hat when he made a speech—or the privilege of having one’s parasol carried by a servant in the procession of the Blessed Sacrament instead of carrying it oneself.

Such things meant a great deal to the courtiers of Louis XIV, but what precisely did they mean? Whether they expressed a pecking order or a cosmology seems not to worry Mousnier, for he never asks what makes a code cohere. True, he knows a great deal about the Old Regime: “The familiarity I have acquired with French society as a result of forty years of work among the records enables me to go beyond superficial appearances….”2 But he never cracks a code. He simply describes it.

The description thins when he descends into the ranks of the lower orders. He separates artisans into those who produced luxury goods for the wealthy and well-born (perfumers, glove-makers), those connected with transport (harness makers, saddlers), and those who satisfied the needs of ordinary people (butchers, bakers). What counted, he claims, was the quality of the clientele and the dignity of the services rendered rather than the economic value of the products. If so, why do the glove-makers lead the bakers on page 255 and follow them on page 593, while the saddlers drop from the middle to the lower ranks? Such inconsistencies would seem less important if Mousnier attributed more importance to one of the artisans’ main concerns—namely, wages. Guild officers certainly expressed corporate dignity when they marched in processions, but most artisans worked outside guilds, and they worked to win bread.

In fact, most manufacturing took place in country cottages, and most breadwinners were peasants. Mousnier lumps the peasants together summarily in the last and lowest segment of corporate society. They form a rather large residual category, however—at least 20 million souls by 1789 in contrast to 400,000 nobles and 20,000 courtiers. Should anyone object that he devoted most of his book to social distinctions that had little relevance for most Frenchmen, Mousnier has an answer ready: “Nobility was the ideal of all members of society.”

To be sure, Mousnier provides no evidence for that statement. But then he rarely bothers about evidence when he makes his most important points—that, too, goes with the mandarin style. Having spent most of his career contemplating the Old Regime from a chair in the Sorbonne, Mousnier feels free to assert propositions without substantiating them. He does not hesitate to vent his opinions, either. He feels sympathy for the Counter-Reformation; distrust of Cartesianism (“The Cartesianism taught at Saint-Sulpice bears a great deal of responsibility for the apostasy of Ernest Renan”); horror at atheism (“Atheism is as natural to man as tuberculosis”); and distaste for the leveling tendencies of modern, bourgeois society. Although it may grate on the sensibilities of modern, bourgeois readers, that point of view could be an advantage to the historian trying to understand homo hierarchicus. Perhaps it takes one to know one.

But an ability to sympathize with those on top will not carry one far toward a resolution of the problem that Foucault has placed at the head of the historian’s agenda: how can one think one’s way into an alien system of classification? The leading authority on homo hierarchicus, Louis Dumont, spent years watching a hierarchical code operate at ground level in Indian villages. He also traced it back through millennia by studying sanskrit classics. And he explained its power to order behavior, at the top of society and the bottom, in the past and in the present, by uncovering its epistemological ground: a system of relations built around opposing notions of purity and impurity.3

The lesson to be learned from Dumont is not that historians should treat vieille France as ancient India but that they should attempt to understand what holds a hierarchy together. They cannot simply contemplate its shape. Mousnier expected to read the social code of the Old Regime directly, in the way men lined up for processions and sat down for dinner. But the seating arrangements were too complex and contradictory to serve as blueprints for social structure, even in Paris and Versailles, where they can be studied in detail. Mousnier provides very little information about sociability among peasants, who usually went without dinner. When they gathered for gruel at breakfast and lunch, the main sentiment they expressed was probably hunger.

Yet hungry men can act symbolically when they break bread; and villages do have social codes, even if they don’t receive them from Versailles. Yves Castan has shown that notions of dignity, honor, and honnêteté shaped behavior among humble people in eighteenth-century Languedoc. But it was not the honor code of the court. And Castan reconstructed it in an enormous doctoral thesis by studying thousands of judicial dossiers in which he found evidence about how peasants argued their own case in their own terms.4

It would be unfair to fault Mousnier for not writing a thesis or for not arguing one. He published an excellent dissertation in the classical-monumental French style thirty-four years ago, and he has written several monographs since then. The Institutions of France is his summing up, an encyclopedic account of what made the Old Regime peculiar as a social order. It contains long descriptions of inheritance customs, feudal law, religious institutions, and corporate bodies of all sorts. And though it often bogs down in detail, it does have an argument, which can be reduced to a simple formula: the Old Regime was a society of orders in 1600; by 1789 it had become a society of classes.

Thus what seems to be a catalogue of institutions turns out upon closer inspection to be an account of social change, and Mousnier ultimately takes up a position close to those of his enemies. He even appropriates a good deal of their terrain. His Orléans is the Orléans of Georges Lefebvre, his Beauvais the Beauvais of Pierre Goubert. His Amiens cannot be distinguished from Pierre Deyon’s, or his Burgundy from that of Pierre de Saint-Jacob.

In each case, however, Mousnier reaches the familiar destination by an unexpected route. The agent of change is neither class struggle nor the play of structure and conjuncture but the state. The king became the supreme paterfamilias in a society of lineages, the supreme master and protector in a society of fealties, the supreme suzerain in a society of seigneuries. He even became a kind of pope within the Gallican church. His agents undermined the ancient authorities in the provinces and towns, while his nobility—the men of the robe ennobled through possession of royal offices—displaced the ancient nobility of the sword. Everywhere an increase in authority produced a leveling in ranks, and the leveling led to revolution; for the hierarchy could not stand once its rungs had worn away.

That theme comes straight out of Tocqueville, but Mousnier gives it a new twist. He believes that institutions embody ideas, so the ultimate driving power in history must be generated from men’s minds. The state itself drifts on deep intellectual currents—Cartesianism, neo-Stoicism, the Enlightenment. Mousnier takes this final set of categories from the ordinary history of ideas and applies it at the critical junctures of his argument. But he never analyzes the ideas themselves or the way they operated in society. In the end, therefore, he seems to be an inverted Marxist rather than an updated Tocquevillian. He arrives at class society and 1789 not by following the fault lines of the economy but by assuming seepage from bourgeois philosophies. Enlightenment and embourgeoisement—a familiar formula but not a convincing resolution of a major historical problem.

One closes the volume with a sense of a missed opportunity. As a guidebook to institutions, it does not go beyond the older works of Roger Doucet and Marcel Marion. As social analysis, it falls short of the recent work of Pierre Goubert. Most disappointing of all, it fails to sustain its argument in the field where Mousnier has most to say, the world marked off by parasols and prayer stools, where homo hierarchicus spun his strange systems of meaning.

This Issue

April 3, 1980