Browse Primary Sources
Primary sources from world and global history, including images, objects, texts, and digitally-born materials – annotations by scholars contextualize sources.

Montesquieu’s Attack on the Nobility

In his Persian Letters, published anonymously and abroad in 1721, Charles–Louis de Sécondat, Baron de Montesquieu, president of the Parlement of Bordeaux and a noble himself, made a scathing critique of nobility that set the tone for the philosophes’ attack on the inequality of eighteenth–century French society.

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Voltaire’s Understanding of Inequality

This passage from François–Marie Arouet, pen–named Voltaire, who was perhaps the best–known writer of the eighteenth century, illustrates the spirit of investigation of the Enlightenment. The philosophes wanted to understand the rationale behind inequality, were particularly interested if there were natural reasons for it, or if inequality came wholly from social conventions.

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A Bread Riot

Bread was the basic staple of most people’s diets, and variations in the price of bread were keenly felt by the poor, especially by women who most frequently bought bread in the marketplace.

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Apprentices and Masters

Unlike the Marquis de Mirabeau, (see document Tension between Rich and Poor) Jacques Savary sought to promote commerce and those who engaged in it. In this excerpt from his 1757 edition of The Perfect Merchant, which was widely read, Savary comments on the proper relations between apprentices learning a trade and the masters who owned the shop.

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The Saint–Marcel Neighborhood

The writer Louis–Sébastien Mercier recorded in his Portrait of Paris detailed and witty commentaries on many aspects of life among the common people. In this article on the Saint–Marcel neighborhood, he comments on the difficulties faced by urban workers.

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People under the Old Regime

This image shows "the people" as a chained and blindfolded man being crushed under the weight of the rich, including both clergy and nobility. Such a perspective on the period before 1789 purposely exaggerates social divisions and would have found few proponents before the French Revolution, but the image does reveal the social clash felt so intensely by the revolutionaries.

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The Traditional Order Defended

This newspaper article considers the question of equality from the opposite point of view—arguing that without social distinctions making clear who should lead and who should follow, society cannot hold together.

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Arthur Young Views the Countryside

Arthur Young, an Englishman, traveled across France on the eve of the Revolution recording his impressions of life there, particularly those aspects that seemed to him to compare unfavorably with his native land.

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Two Peasants Repairing a Cart

This image of peasants repairing a cart demonstrates both the hard work done by cultivators and their fragile economic situation, which could easily be imperiled by a broken cart. Under such circumstances, poor people constantly repaired durable and personal goods, such as carts or clothing, because they could not afford to replace them with new ones.

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Poverty in Auvergne

The difficulty of life in rural regions led some to leave home and seek a better life elsewhere, particularly in the growing cities. Such migration worried some observers, who feared villages would be emptied and no one would be left to work the land. In the excerpt below, a local government official in the Auvergne region comments on the causes and effects of emigration.

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