Under the ancien regime (society before the French Revolution in 1789) French society was divided into what were called estates, or social orders. These were upheld both by tradition and law. There were three estates, which were structured as follows.
The First Estate encompassed the Catholic clergy. This included senior Church positions (bishops, abbots, etc.) and technically the poor parish priests who ministered to peasants in the French countryside. Higher Church officials, many of whom were also secular nobility, enjoyed considerable privileges. They were exempt from taxation and collected revenue from tithes and other fees.
The Second Estate included the hereditary aristocracy. There were two types of nobility: those who descended from old nobility (nobility of the sword, or noblesse d'épée) and newer nobility (nobility of the robe, or noblesse de robe). The latter were mostly bureaucrats and officeholders who had purchased their positions from the king. The Second Estate was largely immune from taxation, including the taille, or head tax.
The Third Estate, in short, included everyone else in French society. The vast majority of the third estate were peasants, but this order also included urban workers (known as sans-culottes). But the Third Estate also included the bourgeoisie, a comfortable class of merchants, lawyers, and business owners whose wealth was growing throughout the eighteenth century. While many purchased their way into the nobility, as mentioned above, many others greatly resented the system of taxation that protected the nobility and especially the clergy.