The populations of European nations in the middle of the 18th century put France clearly as the western world leader with 28 million people living and working there. Italy had a population of 17 million. Russia had about 24 million inhabitants. Prussia had 9 million people, Austria had 8 million, Ireland had 4 million. The rest of the countries in the Baltics and in the north had less than a million people. That said, France was a country with harsh divides by class. Will and Ariel Durant make the point that “Each of the classes was divided into subgroups or layers, so that nearly everyone could enjoy the sight of persons below them.”
Take food in Revolutionary era France for example. About 70% of the land was owner by farmers. And the nobility and clerics owned the rest. So what was left was sold at the markets through wholesalers. Generally, the science of crops was still about stone aged, where manure was used to fertilize the ground and productive farms had short windows where harvesting had to be done with beasts of burden and cheap labor. Yields in general were fairly low.
This left people in a permanent disconsolate state of unsatisfied hunger. And that meant that the population in general had to be suppressed. This meant using the church, and using force of arms. So the royalty had to rely on clerics to support them in their dogma preaching the divine right of kings. The churches were not packed in mid 18th century France. They were divided and extremist doctrines at play. But the parishioners were fewer than eras before. So of course church needed the support of the crown, and the crown needed the support of the masses. Even half the masses. In return for this support, the church was allowed to assess some income in the forms of tithes. In other words, you paid this while on the earth, and you can redeem the rewards in the world to come.
It’s a little like life insurance. You pay me. Then when you die, I pay you.
With the support of weakened churches, the noblesse de la robe, four thousand aristocrats and nobles exercised a dicey control over France. They were the Deep State of the day, in administrative, judicial and tax collecting services. These posts were not relegated by the King, they were sold. In the days of Richeleau and Louis XIV, like today, money meant power.
So the next stratus of power were the middle class. These were bankers, brokers, merchants and manufacturers, journalists and the press, doctors, professors, writers, poets and painters.
Below them were the farmers, tradesmen, seafaring traders, and anyone who transported people or goods.
The fact of the matter is that the upper middle classes, the successful if small business people, the small farmers and the large scale farmers, the fish mongers, the builders, all of them invested in the exchanges, all of them made loans to the local and national government, and it was the upper middle class that rubbed up against the nobility. They were moving the country forward, not the relics of a day gone by. Well, plus ça change, plus ça la meme chose. These people benefited from the millions of miles of great roads and open harbors. They wanted as much power as the elites who were often born with their richesse and deep by virtue of chance, not skill in governance. Ad such, the rising middle class was really the creator of the revolution. Not just the poor and the starving field workers. It was this new French Yuppie class that supported the plays of Beaumarché and Molière that upbraided the life styles and positions of the elites. It was the up and coming middle class that read Voltaire and joined Freemason lodges, all in search of a better was to lead the country and to live.
It was this group that read LaPlace, and Lamarck and Lavoisier. They embraced science and questioned everything. It was in this context that this was the precursor to the age of reason, a time when people en masse began to question monarchy and demand more from government.
These days, it is important to remember that revolution can come from any where.