Renaissance France’s society rested on groups whose members shared certain rights and privileges, and on the principle that everyone was unequal. The old three-orders model – clergy, fighters (noble), and workers – rested on the esteem attached a given social role, but economic roles added a second principle. Other divisions involved religion, gender, age, and education. Encounters with the non-European world slowly added in race.

The idealised society of orders bore little relationship to social reality, and the dissonance between reality and theory often led to violence. Urban elite factions often turned to the king to interfere on their behalf in the local power struggle; such requests facilitated greater royal control of towns. If the nobility remained the dominant lay order, the power of legal elites transformed French politics and society, in large measure because they had advanced literacy. The truly literate – female and male – formed a formidable, if informal power group.

France’s largest group was the Christian commonwealth, but its unity shattered by the late 1550s, when France developed a substantial Protestant minority. Even within the Catholic community, laypeople objected to Church corruption, and the legal elite contested successfully the Church’s jurisdiction over laypeople – even over clerics accused of civil crimes. The King of France and the Pope fought bitterly over this issue for centuries.

Status and jurisdiction reciprocally defined each other. Noble and ecclesiastical lords with courts kept lists of all households of their ‘subjects’. Those holding jurisdiction – the clergy, royal judges, noble lords, merchants, the king – fought each other incessantly to preserve and expand their judicial powers. Jurisdiction provided one key separation: peasants lived under the jurisdiction of a lord; urbanites mainly had their own courts.

Hierarchy involves creation of the categories of us and them, but how can we tell who belongs? Because identity and status were relational, ever changing with the circumstance, this question had few easy answers. The complex web of social relations in French overseas settlements meant that many metropolitan categories made no sense, and the existence of slavery – banned in France itself – in these settlements led to changed attitudes that in turn affected France’s own social ideas.

One was supposed to stay ‘in one’s place’ but people constantly tried, and often succeeded, in changing their status. Prescriptive literature and social norms insisted that France was, and should remain, a stable status society, but if we look beneath the surface, we can see that social mobility was far more common than social norms admitted, and that subordinate groups, like women, found ways to resist and even to expand their opportunities.

Throughout this period, kings and others appealed to ‘citizens’ to protect the ‘patrie’. Appeals to a group called ‘the French’ or ‘the French people’ slowly increased, so that by the eighteenth century politics could revolve around a French nation. This abstract division between the French and others remained deeply embedded within the old categories – above all gender and religion – but the old society of orders model had largely disappeared.