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Grievances of 1789 - The Cahier de Doléances from St Arnoult-en-Yvelines
Grievances of 1789 - The Cahiers de Doléances from St Arnoult-en-Yvelines


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 of France.

Image Above

Pages from 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 Doléances Written?

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.

How to pronounce cahiers de doléances?

Source: forvo


Cahiers de Doléances in History

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 Paris.

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, 1789.

Here it is, provided by the Centre Historique des Archives Nationales:

King Louis XVI: Letter January 24, 1789, re assembly of the Estates General at Versailles on April 27, 1789.
King Louis' Letter of January 24, 1789
Click to read.

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
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.


Did Women 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, when General de Gaulle signed a document that gave French women the right to vote.

Back to 1789.


The Cahiers de Doléances of 1789

:: 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 vary 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 the clergy (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.

  • The 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 should meet on a regular basis, especially to decide on tax issues. And speaking of taxes, 85 % of the clergy were favorable to tax equality.

  • However, the 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 speech.

:: What did the nobility (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,

  • individual freedom

  • the abolition of the lettres de cachet

  • that the deputies to the Estates General were declared inviolable

  • freedom of speech

  • that 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:

Map Location of Touraine, France
Map Location of Touraine, France

Some 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 the common 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 Necker.

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 taille, the vingtième, 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 income.

  • 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.

  • Sometimes, the 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 useless.

  • Meanwhile other cahiers 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 main requests.

  • The demands for equality in taxation, the abolition of the royal corvée and the militia, and the renewal of indirect taxes are very strong.

  • 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?

To get into the many preserved documents, take for example the original  cahiers of the Charente département.

Here is the Charente département on a map:

Map of the Charente département, France
Charente département, France
Google Map


And here are the links to the text of ALL cahiers of 1789 (clergy, nobility, and third estate) which you can browse alphabetically by bailliage (bailiwick) or sénéchaussées (seneschalsy).

Parliamentary Archives, volume I:
From Agen to Amont

Parliamentary Archives, volume II:
From Angoumois to Chateau-Thierry

Parliamentary Archives, volume III:
From Colmar to Metz

Parliamentary Archives, volume IV:
From Mirancourt to Paris

Parliamentary Archives, volume V:
From Paris to Villefranche



My eye-balls are bleeding. Could my life possibly get any more boring?


Go here for more on Taxation in Pre-Revolutionary France.





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