There is significant disagreement among historians of the French Revolution as to its causes. Usually, they acknowledge the presence of several interlinked factors, but vary in the weight they attribute to each one. These factors include cultural change, normally associated with the Enlightenment; social change and financial and economic difficulties; and the political actions of the involved parties.

Beyond these relatively established facts regarding the social conditions surrounding the French Revolution, there is significant dissent among historians. Marxist historians, such as Lefebvre and Soboul, see the social tensions described here as the main cause of the Revolution, as the Estates-General allowed them to manifest into tangible political action; the bourgeoisie and the lower classes were grouped into the Third Estate, allowing them to jointly oppose the establishment. Others see the social issues as important, but less so than the Enlightenment or the financial crisis; François Furet is a prominent proponent of the former, Simon Schama of the latter.

Prior to the revolution, France was a de jure absolute monarchy, a system which became known as the Ancien Régime. In practice, the power of the monarchy was typically checked by the nobility, the Roman Catholic Church, institutions such as the judicial parlements, national and local customs and, above all, the threat of insurrection. Prior to 1789, the last severe threat to the monarchy was the Fronde civil wars from 1648 to 1653, during the minority of Louis XIV.[1] Although the earlier reign of Louis XIII had already seen a move towards centralization of the country,[2] the adulthood of Louis XIV marked the peak of the French monarchy’s power. His tactics for bringing the nobility under control included inviting them to stay at his extravagant Palace of Versailles and participate in elaborate court rituals with a detailed code of etiquette.