The Ancien Regime
The Ancien Regime or the Old Order refers to the structure of governance and society which prevailed in
continental Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The absolute monarchies that developed in
the seventeenth century strictly controlled all aspects of life, including religious expression, economic
opportunity, legal matters, and social position. By the eighteenth century, these continental rulers were
known as 'enlightened despots' which referred to their efforts to modernize society, develop rational
economies, and bring efficiency to the machinery of government.
The structure of ancien society is best understood as a society of orders. Status in society was determined
almost exclusively by birth and was differentiated by dress and lifestyle, not by income. The Higher Order
was the exclusive rank of privilege, exemplified by the nobility. They enjoyed certain prerogatives and
exemptions accorded their superior status. Aristocrats paid little or no taxes. The Lower Order contained
the masses of the population of Europe (90%). As a group, they had no rights or privileges to speak of.
Commoners paid an assortment of taxes that provided the necessary revenues to sustain the ranks of the
privileged. In the eighteenth century commoners formed the third 'estate,' an indication of their
underprivileged position in European society. The Church received its due by forming the 'first estate.'
This seemed only natural since most of the clergy came from the ranks of the nobility.
The eighteenth century is also known as the 'Enlightenment,' a term phrased by the brilliant nineteenth
century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. This expression was meant to convey how eighteenth-
century thinkers viewed their world, as one governed not by religious ideas but by the rational precepts of
science. These thinkers, or philosophes, challenged the prevailing social structure by arguing that liberty
for all men was a necessary prerequisite for a developing, modern society. But, they didn't mean 'all men.'
Women in general were excluded as were people in the lower order. Only men of property deserved the
right to enjoy this privilege.
Read: Merriman, Modern Europe
- Chp. 8-10; chp. 11: 417-429; 445; 453-465
Identify and State the Significance:
Enlightenment ideals: progress for humanity could be achieved only by rooting out the wrongs left by
superstition, religious fanaticism, ignorance, and outmoded forms of justice and encouraging intellectual
Enlightenment writers attacked the legal use of torture to extract confessions, favoured the spread of
education to eliminate ignorance, supported religious toleration, and criticized censorship by state or church
The Enlightenment emerged in 1740 but reached its peak in the second half of the 18C
Enlightenment writers referred to themselves as
(they were public intellectuals dedicated to
solving the real problems of the world) ex/ Voltaire
Conflicts with Church and State