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Third Estate

The "Third Estate" referred to the poor, forgotten people of France.

Although France was a birthplace of Enlightenment thinking, France was still living under the Ancien Regime. Society was made up of three classes called estates. The First Estate was the clergy (church officials), and the Second Estate was the nobility. The clergy and nobles made up only two percent of the population, but they owned one-third of the land, and they paid few taxes. Everyone else belonged to the Third Estate, the commoner class in France. They paid the taxes that financed France’s government.

clergy = religious officials such as priests, monks, and bishops; people who perform religious services.

Third Estate = the common, working-class people of France, before the French Revolution.

The commoners of the large Third Estate included rural peasants, the urban poor, artisans, and the middle class. The middle class, or bourgeoisie (burzh -wah-zee), was made up of successful and educated people like large landowners, merchants, doctors, lawyers, scholars, and government officials. They had wealth and economic power and paid taxes, but they had little say in government. In America, it was the middle class who led the revolution against England; in France, the middle class was growing restless too.

bourgeoisie = a French term for the middle class, including successful and educated people like large landowners, merchants, doctors, lawyers, scholars, and government officials.

In 1789, King Louis XVI (the Sun King’s great, great, great grandson) called representatives from France’s three estates to the palace at Versailles for a meeting of the Estates General, an old institution from medieval times that had met only once in the past three centuries. The king needed cash.