Grievances of 1789 - The Cahiers de Doléances from St
Cahiers de Doléances
The cahiers de doléances, or
in English books of grievances, were lists of complaints,
suggestions, hopes, requests,
demands, and opinions of French citizens concerning problems in the kingdom
the cahiers de doléances submitted by the parish Saint Arnoult-en-Yvelines, located 60 km or 37 miles
southwest of Paris.
Archives départementales des Yvelines
Why Were the Cahiers de
The cahiers de doléances were
written on occasion of the convocation of the
Estates General, also
called States General.
In a nutshell, the Estates
General was an assembly of deputies who represented the
French citizens before the king. The nation elected these
deputies, but also equipped them with a written outline of issues
that they should bring to the king's attention.
In the history of
France, the Estates General met a total of 103 times. The first Estates
General was assembled by
Philip IV the Fair on April 10, 1302, at
The first cahiers de doléances go back to 1484,
and in these early documents only the two privileged orders, clergy and nobility, expressed themselves.
Everything changed on January 24, 1789,
when the governors of the French provinces received
a letter from
King Louis XVI. This letter decreed an
assembly of the Estates General at Versailles on April 27,
Here it is, provided by the
Centre Historique des Archives Nationales:
The Estates General had not been
assembled since 1614. And the French king only agreed to
summon this council of representatives in view of a general increase of discontent.
So, on occasion of the election of
the deputies to the 1789 Estates General — 1,200 deputies had
to be elected by the people and their cahiers had to
be written — an unprecedented
public debate ensued.
Elected were 300 deputies for
the clergy, 300 for the nobility, and 600 deputies for the
Third Estate, or in French Tiers État (the common
people). Due to last minute cancellations only 1139
deputies showed up. But
it was still the largest number of assembled representatives
in the history of France.
Here's a picture:
Opening of the Estates General,
Versailles, May 5, 1789
Bibliotheque nationale de France
The shier amount of the 1789
cahiers (some 60,000 cahiers were written) make
them exceptional historical documents
that provide us with a pretty accurate picture of France in early 1789.
Many people could neither read
nor write. We therefore have to take into account that the drafting of the cahiers de doléances
might have been sometimes influenced by rural notables, local
lawyers, or other powerful individuals. But overall, the writing is without any doubt authentic.
These cahiers represent an
enormous collection of unprecedented thoughts and views. The idea that it
was possible to transform
and reform the existent order gained momentum and was a powerful
contributor to the outbreak of the
French Revolution in
the summer of 1789.
Therefore, the most numerous, and
historically the most important cahiers de doléances are those which were written
at provincial meetings during the spring of 1789, in preparation of the assembly of the Estates General.
Participate in the 1789 Elections?
To be an eligible voter of the
Third Estate, you had to be at least 25 years old, a French citizen
and resident, and you
had to be able to understand the role of taxation.
Women were not
invited to vote. Some women, however, participated in the
writing of the cahiers.
It took until April 21, 1944,
General de Gaulle
signed a document that gave French women the right to
Back to 1789.
The Cahiers de Doléances
:: How was the writing of the
1789 cahiers organized?
These cahiers de doléances were
written according to the rules established by the royal
decree (the king's letter) from January 24, 1789.
This decree was the electoral law, regulating the election
of the deputies as well as the writing of the cahiers. It
stipulated that the bailliage or
bailiwick (called sénéchaussée or seneschal in the south
of France) was the electoral constituency.
The cahiers were drafted
separately by each of the three representative bodies — the
clergy, the nobility, and the common people.
The nobles and the clergy
assembled directly per bailliage, whereas the
cahiers of the third estate were written in each parish in
the country and in each guild in the cities (cahiers of the
carpenters, cahiers of the masons, etc.)
:: What kind of cahiers were submitted?
Some cahiers are very
short, others very long. Some were signed, others were not.
Some were written on different sheets of paper.
Styles, writing, and spelling
considerably from one cahier to another. But almost
all of them are random in their composition. Grievances, for
example, can begin with the subject of taxes, then go on to the subject of
justice, and then return to taxes, and so on.
The urban cahiers were more
political than the ones written in rural areas. In other
words, people in the cities were more concerned with
politics than people who lived in the country.
:: What did
(First Estate) wish to improve?
Seeing themselves as the defender
of the one true faith, the clergy often demanded that only the Catholic
religion was recognized, and condemned the edict of November
1787, which granted civil status to Protestants.
clergy often decried a general decline of morals. There were
several ideas on how to
oppose this trend. It was suggested, for example, to abolish certain religious holidays.
This, so it was argued, would not only benefit the poor
farmer who had to work every day of the year anyway, but it would also
put an end to shameless excesses that had more and more
frequently replaced religious contemplation on these sacred days.
Sometimes the clergy spoke out against exemptions and privileges
of any kind.
It was proposed that the Estates General
on a regular basis, especially to decide on tax issues. And
speaking of taxes, 85 % of the clergy were favorable to tax
clergy remained committed to maintaining the
distinction between the orders. Only 15 % of its members
demanded the vote by head, and very few were in favor of a union with
the Third Estate.
The simple priests asked for an
improvement of their material conditions.
The entire order rejected religious tolerance and freedom of
:: What did
(Second Estate) wish to improve?
The nobility was divided between
liberals and conservatives. In the center of France, the
influence of Louis-Philippe-Joseph, Duke of Orleans, one of the
most liberal nobles at the time, was considerable.
Thus, the cahiers de doléances of the nobility of Touraine,
for example, request
among other things,
the abolition of
the lettres de cachet
the deputies to the Estates General
were declared inviolable
freedom of speech
all currently existing taxes were declared illegal in their extension
or origin, but extended until they
would have been
approved by the Estates General
absolute respect for all letters
entrusted to the post office
And here is the former province of Touraine on a map:
of Touraine, France
of the cahiers of the nobility demanded that the Estates-General
draft a constitution.
Others proposed that the clergy should pay the debt
of the royal treasury.
Some nobles suggested the
abolition of feudal rights under condition of compensation.
The nobility showed itself also
in favor of a
limitation of the monarchy's absolutism.
They wanted more or less a partial tax equality, but defended
their honorary privileges.
:: What did
people (Third Estate) wish to improve?
Almost all of the cahiers of the third
estate begin with words of gratitude to the king for having
convoked the Estates General. Sometimes, it was heavy flattery and could even include the royal minister
The grievances of the Third
Estate range from local miseries to political opinions. Most of the rural
cahiers are moderate and reflect esteem for the king.
The most frequently
addressed topic concerned indirect taxes, notably the gabelle
or salt tax, which was felt particularly unfair because salt was considered
"a gift of nature" but yet it was heavily taxed
and, on top of it, its tax
collectors often were corrupt.
Duties on wine and tobacco,
products that helped the average person endure their
difficult lives, were also complained about.
Direct taxes, such as the
or the capitation, were also criticized. The Third
Estate requested their reform,
or a general tax simplification, for example a replacement by
a single tax per capita for all subjects, including nobles and clerics,
and in proportion to the individual's
Equally, the property tax was
requested to be applied proportionally to the ratio of
each property, again without distinction of order.
A hot topic, and subject of
lively criticism, was royal justice. Proceedings should be handled more swiftly.
The same rules of justice should apply to all individuals across the kingdom.
There was no
excuse for arbitrary justice.
The cahiers of the Third
Estate also request the
standardization of weights and measures throughout the
kingdom, as well as the abolition
of internal customs and tolls, which would promote trade.
cahiers of the Third Estate demand that
nobility is no longer hereditary, but should only be granted to those
who through their dedication to society proved worthy.
The suppression of religious orders, especially the
mendicant orders (the ones that live entirely
on alms) were often mentioned and denounced as
made a case for traditional religious practices in order to avert
natural disasters (i.e. God's discontent), such as vicious storms, intense cold,
hail, etc. that had frequently struck in 1787 -1788.
When it came to political issues, notably
the question of voting by head not by order, was one of the
The demands for equality in taxation, the abolition of the royal
the militia, and the renewal of indirect taxes are very
Royal power should be limited by
a constitution, and a national representation should meet regularly and should be vested with the right
to allow or veto taxes.
Other than that, equality and freedom of
speech were repeatedly demanded.
Where Can I Read
the Cahiers de Doléances of 1789?