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- The Eve of the French Revolution - 5/64 -

equally important art (sometimes called royal) of remembering faces and names. As she passed from one part of her palace to another, surrounded by the ladies of her court, she seemed to the spectator to surpass them all in the nobility of her countenance and the dignified grace of her carriage. She had the crowning beauty of woman, a well-poised and proudly carried head. Her gait was a gliding motion, in which the steps were not clearly distinguishable. Foreigners generally were enchanted with her, and to them she owes no small part of her posthumous popularity. The French nobility, on the other hand, complained, not unreasonably, that the queen was too exclusively devoted to the society of a few intimate companions, for whose sake she neglected other people. Her court, on this account, was sometimes comparatively deserted. But a young queen can hardly be very severely blamed if she often prefers her pleasures and her friends to the tedious duties of her position. Marie Antoinette had had little education or guidance. Her likes and dislikes were strong, nor was she entirely above petty spite. "You tell me," wrote Maria Theresa to her daughter on one occasion, "that for love of me you treat the Broglies well, although they have been disrespectful to you personally. That is another odd idea. Can a little Broglie be disrespectful to you? I do not understand that. No one was ever disrespectful to me, nor to any of your ten brothers and sisters." It was no fair-weather queen that wrote this most royal reproof. Marie Antoinette never rose to this height of dignity, where the great lady sits above the clouds. In her days of prosperity she certainly never approached it. Perhaps no mortal woman ever reached it in early life. [Footnote: Mercy-Argenteau, _passim_, and especially i. 218, 265, 279; ii. 218, 232, 312, 525; iii. 56, 113, 132 and _n_., 157, 265, 490. Tilly, _Mémoires,_ 230. Cognel, 59, 84; Wraxall, i. 85; Walpole's _Letters,_ vi. 245 (23d Aug. 1776), etc.]

It is one of the most important duties of a queen-consort to set a good example in morals. Here Marie Antoinette was deficient. Her private conduct has probably been slandered, but she brought the slanders on herself. Beside the code of morals, there is in every country a code of proprieties, and people who habitually do that which is considered improper have only themselves to thank if a harsh construction is put on their doubtful actions. The scandals concerning Marie Antoinette were numberless and public. The young queen of France chose for her intimate companions men and women of bad reputation. Her brother, Joseph II., was shocked when he visited her, at the familiar manners which she permitted. He wrote to her that English travelers compared her court to Spa, then a famous gambling-place, and he called the house of the Princess of Guéménée, which she was in the habit of frequenting, "a real gambling-hell." Accusations of cheating at cards flew about the palace, and one courtier had his pocket picked in the royal drawing-room. The queen was constantly surrounded by dissipated young noblemen, who on race days were allowed to come into her presence in costumes which shocked conservative people. She herself was recognized at public masked balls, where the worst women of the capital jostled the great nobles of the court. When she had the measles, four gentlemen of her especial friends were appointed nurses, and hardly left her chamber during the day and evening. People asked ironically what four ladies would be appointed to nurse the king if he were ill. In her amusements she was seldom accompanied by her husband. It hardly told in her favor that the latter was a man for whom a young and high-spirited woman could not be expected to entertain any very passionate affection.

The country was deeply in debt, and during a part of the reign an expensive war was going on. It was obviously the queen's duty to retrench her own expenses, and to set an example of economy. Yet her demands on the treasury were very great. Her personal allowance was much larger than that of the previous queen, and she was frequently in debt. Her losses at play were considerable, in spite of her husband's well-known aversion to gambling. She increased the number of expensive and useless offices about her court. She was constantly accessible to rapacious favorites. The feeble king could at least recognize that he owed something to his subjects; the queen appears to have thought that the revenues of France were intended principally to provide means for the royal bounty to people who had done nothing to deserve it. On the other hand, she acknowledged the duty of private charity, and believed that thereby she was earning the gratitude of her subjects. That the taxpayer was entitled to any consideration is an idea that does not seem to have entered her mind.

Had Marie Antoinette been the wife of a strong and able king, she would probably have been quite right in avoiding interference in the government of the state. Being married to Louis XVI., it was inevitable that she should try to direct his vacillating will in public matters. It therefore becomes pertinent to ask whether her influence was generally exerted on the right side.

It is evident that in the earlier part of her reign the affairs of the state did not interest her, though her feelings were often strongly moved for or against persons. Her preference for Choiseul and his adherents, over Aiguillon and his party, was natural and well founded. The Duke of Choiseul was not only the author of the Austrian alliance and of the queen's marriage, but was also the ablest minister who had recently held favor in France. Had Marie Antoinette possessed as much influence over her husband in 1774 as she obtained later, she might perhaps have overcome what seems to have been one of his strongest prejudices, and have brought Choiseul back to power, to the benefit of the country. But her efforts in that direction were unavailing. In her relations with the other ministers, Turgot, Malesherbes, and Necker, her voice was generally on the side of extravagance and the court, and against economy and the nation. This, far more than the intrigues of faction, was the cause of the unpopularity that pursued her to her grave. If the court of France was a corrupt ring living on the country, Marie Antoinette was not far from being its centre.



The inhabitants of France were divided into three orders, differing in legal rights. These were the Clergy, the Nobility, and the Commons, or Third Estate. The first two, which are commonly spoken of as the privileged orders, contained but a small fraction of the population numerically, but their wealth and position gave them a great importance.

The clergy formed, as the philosophers were never tired of complaining, a state within a state. No accurate statistics concerning it can be obtained. The whole number of persons vowed to religion in the country, both regular and secular, would seem to have been between one hundred and one hundred and thirty thousand. They owned probably from one fifth to one quarter of the soil. The proportion was excessive, but it does not appear that the lay inhabitants of the country were thereby crowded. Like other landowners, the clergy had tenants, and they were far from being the worst of landlords. For one thing, they were seldom absentees. The abbot of a monastery might spend his time at Versailles, but the prior and the monks remained, to do their duty by their farmers. It is said that the church lands were the best cultivated in the kingdom, and that the peasants that tilled them were the best, treated.[Footnote: Barthelémy, _Erreurs et mensonges historiques, xv. 40._ Article entitled _La question des congregations il y a cent ans_, quoting largely from Féroux, _Vues d'un Solitaire Patriote_, 1784. See also Genlis, _Dictionnaire des Étiquettes,_ ii. 79. Mathieu, 324. Babeau, _La vie rurale_, 133.] In any case the church was rich. Its income from invested property, principally land, has been reckoned at one hundred and twenty-four million livres a year. It received about as much more from tithes, beside the amount, very variously reckoned, which came in as fees, on such occasions as weddings, christenings, and funerals.

Tithes were imposed throughout France for the support of the clergy. They were not, however, taken upon all Articles of produce, nor did they usually amount to one tenth of the increase. Sometimes the tithe was compounded for a fixed rent in money; sometimes for a given number of sheaves, or measures of wine per acre. Oftener it was a fixed proportion of the crop, varying from one quarter to one fortieth. In some places wood, fruit, and other commodities were exempt; in other places they were charged. Tithe was in some cases taken of calves, lambs, chickens, sucking pigs, fleeces, or fish; and the clergy or the tithe owners were bound to provide the necessary bulls, rams, and boars. A distinction was usually made between the Great tithes, levied on such common articles as corn and wine, and the Small tithes, taken from less important crops. Of these the former were often paid to the bishops, the latter to the parish priest. The tithes had in some cases been alienated by the church and were owned by lay proprietors. In general, it is believed that this tax on the agricultural class in France amounted to about one eighteenth of the gross product of the soil.[Footnote: Chassin, _Les cahiers due clergé_, 36. Bailly, ii. 414, 419. Boiteau, 41. Rambaud, ii. 58 _n._ Taine, _L'ancien Régime_ (book i. chap ii.). The livre of the time of Louis XVI. is commonly reckoned to have had at least twice the purchasing power of the franc of to-day.]

The whole body of the clergy, as it existed within the boundaries of the kingdom, was not subject to the same rules and laws. The larger part of it formed what was known as the "Clergy of France," and possessed peculiar rights and privileges presently to be described. Those ecclesiastics, however, who lived in certain provinces, situated principally in the northern and eastern part of the country, and annexed to the kingdom since the beginning of the sixteenth century, were called the "Foreign Clergy." These did not share the rights of the larger body, but depended more directly on the papacy. They paid certain taxes from which the Clergy of France were exempt. The mode of appointment to bishoprics and abbacies was different among them from what it was in the rest of the country. Throughout France, and in all affairs, ecclesiastical and secular, were anomalies such as these.

The Church of France enjoyed great and peculiar privileges, both among the churches of Christendom, and among the Estates of the French realm. By the Concordat, or treaty of 1516, made between Pope Leo X. and King Francis I., the nomination to bishroprics and to considerable ecclesiastical benefices had been given to the king, while the Holy Father kept only a right of veto on appointments. The _annates_, or first-fruits of the bishoprics, taxes equal in theory to one year's revenue on every change of incumbent, but in fact of less amount than that, were paid to the Pope, and these, with other dues, made up a sum of three or four million livres sent annually from France to Rome. On the other hand, the Clergy of France was the only body in the state which had undisputed constitutional rights independent of the throne. Its ordinary assemblies were held once in ten years. The country was divided into sixteen ecclesiastical provinces, each under the superintendence of an archbishop. In each of these provinces a meeting was held, composed of delegates of the various dioceses. Each of these provincial meetings elected two bishops and two other ecclesiastics, either regular or secular. These deputies received, from their constituents, instructions called _cahiers_ to be taken by them to the Ordinary Assembly of the clergy, which was held in Paris. This body granted subsidies to the king, managed the debt and other secular affairs of the clergy, and pronounced unofficially even in matters of doctrine. Smaller Assemblies, nearly equal in power, came together at least once during the interval which elapsed between the meetings of the Ordinary Assemblies; so that as often as once in five years the Church of France exercised a true political activity. The sum voted to the king was called a Free Gift[Footnote: Don Gratuit], and the name was not altogether inappropriate, for, although required was stated by the

The Eve of the French Revolution - 5/64

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