ANCIEN RÉGIME. The term ancien régime (Old Regime) came into use in the late summer of 1789 as participants in the French Revolution realized how great a rupture they had made from the recent past. "Ancien régime" therefore came into existence only after the ancien régime was finished. No one was ever very specific about when it began. Sometimes revolutionaries implied that the term referred to the entire past of France at least from medieval times onward. At other times, it meant simply the recent pre-revolutionary past.
The term itself evolved during the Revolution. According to the preamble to the Constitution of 1791, the Revolution had abolished hereditary and feudal nobility, venality of office, the guilds, monastic vows, and all privileges. The text says nothing about the monarchy, the abolition of the tithe, and the ending of the church's corporate existence, and it mentions seigneurialism only by allusion. Undoubtedly, the reason was that when the Constitution was promulgated, these issues were not entirely settled. When the monarchy was abolished and the Republic founded (September 1792), the term took on a much more aggressive meaning; republican politicians portrayed the ancien régime as uniformly oppressive and claimed that the Revolution had liberated the countryside from noble domination, clerical superstition, and a cruel monarchy. Early revolutionaries believed that they had reestablished liberty and equality before the law. For the Jacobins, escaping the ancien régime was a physical and spiritual emancipation.
Historians like Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth century questioned this assumption that the Revolution was a violent break in national history. Instead, said Tocqueville, it witnessed the culmination of the construction of the centralized state. For modern historians, ancien régime is a convenient shorthand. It generally means the period in French history from about 1650 to 1789. It defines a France ruled by divine-right absolute monarchy, accompanied by a society based upon privileges for individuals, groups, corporations, provinces, towns, and so on; and capped by a monopoly of public worship reserved for the Catholic Church. The new regime, by contrast, was a constitutional monarchy based upon the rule of law, religious toleration, and equality of rights.
See also Divine Right Kingship ; France ; Monarchy ; Revolutions, Age of.
Doyle, William. The Old European Order, 1660–1800. 2nd ed. New York and Oxford, 1992.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. Garden City, N.Y., 1955.