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4 August 2011

On this day in history: Feudalism abolished in France, 1789

In the course of the evening of 4th August 1789, less than a month after the storming of the Bastille, the deputies of the National Constituent Assembly swept away centuries of tradition. Two noble deputies of liberal inclination, the Duke d'Aiguillon and the Viscount de Noailles, initiated the swathe of reforms when they proposed an end of personal servitude and the feudal rights of aristocrats. The nobles hoped that these reforms would mollify the peasants who had engaged in a spate of vengeful attacks on the rural nobility.

In the spirit of what was later characterised as patriotic intoxication, France's élite sacrificed their feudal privileges one-by-one. This spirit was often far from altruistic, as the urban nobility denounced the rights enjoyed by their rural cousins and vice versa. Enmities between the estates of the realm also became visible; in response to the bishop of Chartres' proposal that game-laws be abolished, the duke du Châtelet suggested that the clergy give up their tithes.

The cull of feudal rights continued through the night. Following the ending of the individual privileges of the nobility and clergy, the assembly turned to the issue of the collective rights abolishing the privileges of certain regions, towns, civic corporations and companies. The next morning the French people awoke in a nation transformed.

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