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Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme by Edmond Geoffroy, 1670 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Molière‘s (15 January 1722 – February 1773) Bourgeois gentilhomme, a five-act comedy, premièred on 14 October 1670, at the Château de Chambord, before the court and Louis XIV himself. Although it is a play, i.e. fiction, the Bourgeois gentilhomme may constitute our best portrayal of a rich bourgeois in 17th-century France. By the Grand Siècle, the second half of the 17th century, several levels of bourgeoisie were emerging: “petite,” “moyenne,” “haute,” and “grande bourgeoisie.” Monsieur Jourdain had obviously climbed to the upper half of that ladder. He is sufficiently rich to hire various “masters:” dancing, music, philosophy, all of whom make futile attempts to teach him “aristocracy.”

Edmond Geoffroy

Moreover, as is usually the case in comedies, Monsieur Jourdain is opposing the marriage of his daughter Lucile to the man she loves, Cléonte, a bourgeois. Monsieur Jourdain will not be able to force Lucile into an unhappy marriage because the conventions governing comedy favour the marriage of the young couple. Cléonte will fool Monsieur Jourdain into believing he has been turned into a mamamouchi, a Turkish aristocrat, and he will marry Lucile disguised as the son of the grand Turc.

The “Alazôn” vs the “Eirôn

In comedies, the young couple, their loyal servants and, at times, avuncular figures always overcome the alazôn of the theater of ancient Greece, the blocking character. Monsieur Jourdain, will be opposed by a collective eirôn. The same stock characters exist in the Commedia dell’arte.

Le Bourgeois gentilhomme is a comédie-ballet. The music was composed by Italian-born Lully (Giovanni Battista Lulli; 28 November 1632 – 22 March 1687) and the choreography was the work of Pierre Beauchamp (30 October 1631 – February 1705). Monsieur Jourdain meets his demise—he is fooled—during the ballet, entitled Ballets des Nations.

“Jacqueries” & “Croquants”

According to popular lore, the mob who stormed the Bastille on 14 July 1789 consisted, to a larger or lesser extent, of famished peasants. It is altogether possible, and  probable, that famished peasants were among the ruffians who stormed the Bastille. For instance, there had been peasant uprisings:

Croquants” (crushing) was the name given to members of the First and Second Estates who levied taxes from the Third Estate: peasants and bourgeois. The worst of these taxes wasla Taillea temporary direct land tax that had become a permanent tax in 1439, the 15th century.

However, in all likelihood, the citizens who stormed the Bastille were a diverse group but mostly bourgeois. In the 17th century, there was a “drift to the city.” W. H. Lewis writes that “the least-favoured faubourg [suburb] of the most oppressive town offered a better way of life to the ambitious commoner than did the countryside[.]”[i]

Among the citizens of a town, there were thugs and other malfaisants. As for the word “jacquerie,” Jacques was the name given peasants, hence Jacquou le Croquant[ii], the title of a 2007 film on a young rebel. The film’s monarchy, however, is that of the Bourbon restoration (1815-1830), not the monarchy of l’ancien régime.

The “Sans-Culottes” (without Knee Breeches)

It would appear that the people who stormed the Bastille on 14 July 1789 were a motley group who became a mob.  Among the people who helped radicalize the Revolution, there may have been peasants, but allow me to repeat that France’s Third Estate did not consist solely of peasants and “petit bourgeois.” It was a more varied group that probably included the frequently idealized sans-culottes (without knee breeches).

Idealized sans-culotte by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761–1845).
Idealized sans-culottes by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761–1845) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story has been told otherwise. The popular view is that starving peasants stormed the Bastille. As stated above, starving peasants may have been involved in the storming of the Bastille, but the more likely account is that an angry mob led the charge. (See History Bastille Day) Peasants often inhabited distant “provinces,” too far from Paris. Most lived under the authority of a seigneur who may have been a good person, but not necessarily. We have yet to discuss Mozart‘s Marriage of Figaro (K 492), an opera buffa, on an Italian libretto (the text) by Lorenzo da Ponte, of the second of three plays by Pierre Beaumarchais called the Figaro trilogy.[iii]



The Syndics of the Drapers' Guild by Rembrandt, 1662.

The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild by Rembrandt, 1662 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Guilds or Corporations

Bourgeois were persons who started to live in a bourg (as in neighbour, a town) in the 12th century. They were commerçants, tradesmen, doctors, lawyers, etc. According to W. H. Lewis, “to the French noble, [the town] was a portion of his seigneurie which had enfranchised itself from his yoke, obtained many financial privileges, and was growing steadily richer while he [noble] grew poorer and more insignificant.”[iv] Beginning in the Middle Ages, guilds were formed to protect tradesmen who, however, often had to pay costly dues to the guild. Our trade unions date back to these medieval guilds and the people they protected were bourgeois who, by the seventeenth century, were numerous as well as rich and often living in Paris.

Some aristocrats were Mayors, but most stayed away from towns. However, although Monsieur Jourdain does not succeed in marrying his daughter to a nobleman, many aristocrats and their sons married bourgeoises, the ingénue of comedy, because of the dowry they brought. Daughters had to be endowed, which was difficult for aristocrats who spent a fortune living away from the family castle to be near Louis XIV’s court and be noticed by him.

Le Bourgeois gentilhomme is a comedy, a formulaic and Shakespearian “[a]ll’s well that ends well.” However, many bourgeoises were forced to marry a decrepit old man. Molière’s Miser (L’Avare; 1668) is not poor, on the contrary. Yet, given that Anselme is willing to marry Élise without a dowry: “sans dot,” Harpagon, the miser, wants her to marry Anselme. But Anselme turns out to be Valère’s rich father and, therefore, the father of the man who wants to marry Élise, the Miser’s daughter. He is also the father of the young woman, Mariane, who wants to marry the Miser’s son (Cléante).

An Élite Bourgeoisie

By 1789, some bourgeois had risen in status. In fact, they had already done so in the seventeenth century and the town they inhabited could be Paris. Colbert (29 August 1619 – 6 September 1683) a bourgeois, was Louis XIV’ Minister of Finance from 1765 to 1783. We also know Charles Perrault (12 January 1628 – 16 May 1703) who created the fairy tale as we know it, the Contes de ma mère l’Oye [The Tales of Mother Goose] (mid 1690s). His sources were Italian, but as told by Italians, fairy tales were at times too bawdy for children. Perrault was a salonnier (salonist) and his brother Claude Perrault, a medical doctor and architect. Claude Perrault designed the colonnade du Louvre, the east façade, the columns of the Louvre.

The East Façade by Claude Perrault

The East Façade of the Louvre, by Claude Perrault

Painting by Auguste Couder showing the opening of the Estates-General

Painting by Auguste Couder showing the opening (5 May 1789) of the Estates-General (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Estates-General

Consequently, when Louis XVI convened the Estates-General in 1789, the Third Estate was not necessarily the lesser estate. Jean-Sylvain Bailly (15 September 1736 – 12 November 1793; by guillotine), who presided over the Tennis Court Oath (20 June 1789), was a bourgeois, a freemason and the Mayor of Paris. I doubt that he participated in the storming of the Bastille, on 14 July 1789, but sans-culottes may have been participants as well famished peasants. The Revolutions behind the Revolution were, to a large extent, the advent of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.    

“As the feudal society was transformed into the early capitalist society of Europe, the bourgeoisie were the spearhead of progress in industry and science and of social change.

By the 17th century, this middle class was supporting principles of natural rights and constitutional government against the theories of divine right and privilege of the sovereign and the nobility. Thus, members of the bourgeoisie led the English revolution of the 17th century and the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century. These revolutions helped to establish political rights and personal liberty for all free men.” Armstrong Economics.com

Marat, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just

Maximilien de Robespierre and Louis-Antoine-Léon de Saint-Just were not peasants. Robespierre was a lawyer, and Saint-Just’s father, a knight of the Order of Saint-Louis, had been a Calvary Officer who had married the daughter of a notary. Jean-Paul Marat was a medical doctor and Georges Danton, a lawyer.

“In the 18th century, before the French Revolution (1789–99), in the French feudal order, the masculine and feminine terms bourgeois and bourgeoisie identified the rich men and women who were members of the urban and rural Third Estate — the common people of the French realm, who violently deposed the absolute monarchy of the Bourbon King Louis XVI (r. 1774–91), his clergy, and his aristocrats.(See Bourgeoisie,Wikipedia.)


Sources and Resources


[i]  W. H. Lewis, The Splendid Century: Life in the France of Louis XIV (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957 [1953]), p. 161.

[ii]Croquant” is derived from “croquer:” to bite as in to crush. “Croquant” uprisings were often called “jacqueries.” The 2007 film adaptation of a novel by Eugène Le Roy (1836-1907) is entitled Jacquou [Jacques] le Croquant.

[iii] You may remember that Pierre Beaumarchais recruited soldiers who would serve in the American War of Independence, one of whom was Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, the architect and civil engineer who designed the National Mall in Washington. The Figaro trilogy consists of The Barber of Seville (Le Barbier de Séville) 1775 (1773), The Mariage of Figaro (Le Mariage de Figaro), 1778, and The Guilty Mother (La Mère coupable), 1792 (1791). The Barber of Seville is an opera by Rossini and The Guilty Mother (La Mère coupable), an opera by Darius Milhaud.

[vi] W. H. Lewis, p. 160.

Molière by Nicolas Mignard

Molière by Nicolas Mignard

“bourgeoisie”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 14 Jun. 2014
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Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 16 Jun. 2014

“sansculotte”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 16 Jun. 2014

“Alexis de Tocqueville”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 14 Jun. 2014

Versailles The Sun King

The Sun King

© Micheline Walker
16 June 2014



(Photo credit: Google images)