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Kingdom of France
The French nobility (French: la noblesse) was the privileged social class in France during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period until the French Revolution in 1789. The nobility was revived in 1805 with limited rights as a titled elite class from the First Empire to the fall of the July Monarchy in 1848, when all privileges were abolished, and survived in hereditary titles until the Second Empire fell in 1870.
In the political system of pre-Revolutionary France, the nobility made up the Second Estate of the Estates General (with the Catholic clergy comprising the First Estate and the bourgeoisie and peasants in the Third Estate). Although membership in the noble class was mainly passed down though hereditary rights, it was not a closed order. New individuals were appointed to the nobility by the monarchy, or they could purchase rights and titles or join by marriage.
Sources differ about the actual number of nobles in France, however, proportionally, it was among the smallest noble classes in Europe. For the year 1789, the French historian François Bluche gives a figure of 140,000 nobles (9,000 noble families) and states that about 5% of nobles could claim descent from feudal nobility before the 15th century. With a total population of 28 million, this would represent merely 0.5%. The historian Gordon Wright gives a figure of 300,000 nobles (of which 80,000 were from the traditional noblesse d'épée), which agrees with the estimation of the historian Jean de Viguerie, or a little over 1%.
The French nobility had specific legal and financial rights and prerogatives. The first official list of these prerogatives was established relatively late, under Louis XI after 1440, and included the right to hunt, the right to wear a sword and have a coat of arms, and, in principle, the right to possess a fief or seigneurie. Nobles were also granted an exemption from paying the taille, except for non-noble lands they might possess in some regions of France. Furthermore, certain ecclesiastic, civic, and military positions were reserved for nobles. These feudal privileges are often termed droits de féodalité dominante.
With the exception of a few isolated cases, serfdom had ceased to exist in France by the 15th century. In early modern France, nobles nevertheless maintained a great number of seigneurial privileges over the free peasants that worked lands under their control. They could, for example, levy the cens tax, an annual tax on lands leased or held by vassals. Nobles could also charge banalités for the right to use the lord's mills, ovens, or wine presses. Alternatively, a noble could demand a portion of vassals' harvests in return for permission to farm land he owned. Nobles also maintained certain judicial rights over their vassals, although with the rise of the modern state many of these privileges had passed to state control, leaving rural nobility with only local police functions and judicial control over violation of their seigneurial rights.
However, the nobles also had responsibilities. Nobles were required to honor, serve, and counsel their king. They were often required to render military service (for example, the impôt du sang or "blood tax").
The title of "noble" was not indelible: certain activities could cause dérogeance, loss of nobility. Most commercial and manual activities were strictly prohibited, although nobles could profit from their lands by operating mines and forges.
Despite common perceptions, the nobility in France was never an entirely closed class. Titles of nobility were generally hereditary, but many were awarded by the French monarchy for loyal service and many opportunities, both legal and illegal, were available for wealthy individuals to eventually gain titles of nobility for themselves or their descendants.
The children of a French nobleman (whether a peer or not), unlike those of a British peer, were not considered commoners but untitled nobles.
From 1275 to 1578, non-nobles could acquire titles of nobility after three generations by buying lands or castles, providing that those fiefs had formerly belonged to a noble lord or the king and had been given in feudal homage. Non-nobles could not possess noble fiefs without paying a special tax on them (the franc-fief) to their liege-holder.
The most ancient noble family, by this process, extant in France had been ennobled in 1349 (the Marquesses of Vibraye and Lords of Cheverny).
In the 16th century, families could acquire nobility by possessing certain important official or military charges, generally after two generations.
Many titles of nobility were usurped by non-nobles in the Renaissance and early 17th century by purchasing fiefs and by "living nobly", i.e. by avoiding commercial and manual activity and by finding some way to be exempted from the official taille lists. In this way, the family would slowly come to be seen as noble.
The king could grant titles of nobility to individuals by lettres patentes and convert their lands into noble fiefs or, for non-nobles possessing noble fiefs, to grant them possession of the noble titles. The king could also confer on noble fiefs special privileges, such as peerage for certain duchies. In general, these lettres needed to be officially registered with the Parlement. In the case of an unwilling Parlement, nobles were termed à brevet (as in duc à brevet or duke by certificate).
French nobility is generally divided into the following classes:
Nobles sometimes made the following distinctions based on the age of their status:
Commoners were referred to as roturiers. Magistrates and men of law were sometimes called robins.
The acquisition of titles of nobility could be done in one generation or gradually over several generations:
The noblesse de lettres became, starting in the reign of Francis I, a handy method for the court to raise revenues; non-nobles possessing noble fiefs would pay a year's worth of revenues from their fiefs to acquire nobility. In 1598, Henry IV undid a number of these anoblissments, but eventually resumed the practice.
The noblesse de cloche dates from 1372 (for the city of Poitiers) and was found only in certain cities with legal and judicial freedoms; by the Revolution these cities were only a handful.
The noblesse de chancellerie first appeared during the reign of Charles VIII at the end of the 15th century. To hold the office of chancellor required (with few exceptions) noble status, so non-nobles given the position were raised to the nobility, generally after 20 years of service. Non-nobles paid enormous sums to hold these positions, but this form of nobility was often derifded as savonnette à villain ("soap for serfs").
The noblesse de robe existed by longstanding tradition. In 1600 it gained legal status. High positions in regional parlements, tax boards (chambres des comptes), and other important financial and official state offices (usually bought at high price) conferred nobility, generally in two generations, although membership in the Parlements of Paris, Dauphiné, Besançon and Flanders, as well as on the tax boards of Paris, Dole and Grenoble elevated an official to nobility in one generation.
These state offices could be lost by a family at the unexpected death of the office holder. In an attempt to gain more tax revenues, the king's financial advisor Paulet instituted the Paulette in 1604, a yearly tax of 1/60th of the price of the office that insured hereditary transmission. This annual tax solidified the hereditary acquisition of public office in France, and by the middle of the 17th century the majority of office holders were already noble from long possession of thereof.
Henry IV began to enforce the law against usurpation of titles of nobility, and in 1666–1674 Louis XIV mandated a massive program of verification of hereditary titles. Oral testimony maintaining that parents and grandparents had been born noble and lived as such were no longer accepted: written proofs (marriage contracts, land documents) proving noble rank since 1560 were required to substantiate noble status. Many families were put back on the lists of the taille and/or forced to pay fines for usurping noble titles.
There were two kinds of titles used by French nobles: some were personal ranks and others were linked to the fiefs owned, called fiefs de dignité.
During the ancien régime, there was no distinction of rank by title (except for the title of duke, which was often associated with the strictly regulated privileges of the peerage, including precedence above other titled nobles). The hierarchy within the French nobility below peers was initially based on seniority; a count whose family had been noble since the 14th century was higher-ranked than a marquis whose title only dated to the 15th century. Precedence at the royal court was based on the family's ancienneté, its alliances (marriages), its hommages (dignities and offices held) and, lastly, its illustrations (record of deeds and achievements).
In his full style, a noble shall use his rank, his title, and his dignity, as in Marie Jean de Caritat, écuyer, marquis de Condorcet or Louis de Rouvroy, chevalier, duc de Saint-Simon, pair de France.
In principle, the expression seigneur (lord of the manor) applied to anyone possessing a fief, but the term was often used to imply a grand seigneur, or a noble of high rank or status.
The use of the nobiliary particle de in noble names (Fr: la particule) was not officially controlled in France (unlike von in the German states), and is not reliable evidence of the bearer's nobility. A simple tailor could be named Marc de Lyon, as a sign of his birthplace. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the de was adopted by some non-nobles (like Honoré de Balzac) in an attempt to appear noble.
Each rank of nobility — royal prince, prince belonging to collateral lines of the royal family (prince du sang), duc, marquis, comte, vicomte, baron, etc. — conferred its own privileges; dukes for example could enter royal residences in a carriage, duchesses could sit on a stool with the queen. Dukes in France — the most important group after the princes — were further divided into those who were also "peers" (Duc et Pair) and those who were not. Dukes without a peerage fell into one of two groups: those without peerage fiefs, or those for whom the Parlement refused to register the lettres patentes conferring a peerage on them.
Noble hierarchies were further complicated by the creation of chivalric orders — the Chevaliers du Saint-Esprit (Knights of the Holy Spirit) created by Henry III in 1578; the Ordre de Saint-Michel created by Louis XI in 1469; the Order of Saint Louis created by Louis XIV in 1696 — by official posts, and by positions in the Royal House (the Great Officers of the Crown of France), such as grand maître de la garde-robe (the grand master of the royal wardrobe, being the royal dresser) or grand panetier (royal bread server), which had long ceased to be actual functions and had become nominal and formal positions with their own privileges. The 17th and 18th centuries saw nobles and the noblesse de robe battle each other for these positions and any other sign of royal favor.
Attending the ceremony of the king's waking at Versailles (the smaller and intimate petit lever du roi and the more formal grand lever du roi), being asked to cross the barriers that separated the royal bed from the rest of the room, being invited to talk to the king, or being mentioned by the king... all were signs of favor and actively sought after.
Economic studies of nobility in France reveal great differences in financial status. At the end of the 18th century, a well-off family could earn 100,000–150,000 livres per year, although the most prestigious families could gain two or three times that much. For provincial nobility, yearly earnings of 10,000 livres permitted a minimum of provincial luxury, but most earned far less. The ethics of noble expenditure, the financial crises of the century and the inability of nobles to participate in most fields without losing their nobility contributed to their poverty.
In the 18th century, the Comte de Boulainvilliers, a rural noble, posited the belief that French nobility had descended from the victorious Franks, while non-nobles descended from the conquered Gauls. The theory had no validity, but offered a myth for an impoverished noble class.
The idea of what it meant to be noble went through a radical transformation from the 16th to the 17th centuries. Through contact with the Italian Renaissance and their concept of the perfect courtier (Baldassare Castiglione), the rude warrior class was remodeled into what the 17th century would come to call l'honnête homme ('the honest or upright man'), among whose chief virtues were eloquent speech, skill at dance, refinement of manners, appreciation of the arts, intellectual curiosity, wit, a spiritual or platonic attitude in love, and the ability to write poetry. Most notable of noble values are the aristocratic obsession with "glory" (la gloire) and majesty (la grandeur) and the spectacle of power, prestige, and luxury. For example, Pierre Corneille's noble heroes have been criticised by modern readers who have seen their actions as vainglorious, criminal, or hubristic; aristocratic spectators of the period would have seen many of these same actions as representative of their noble station[verification needed].
The château of Versailles, court ballets, noble portraits, triumphal arches were all representations of glory and prestige. The notion of glory (military, artistic, etc.) was seen in the context of the Roman Imperial model; it was not seen as vain or boastful, but as a moral imperative to the aristocratic classes. Nobles were required to be "generous" and "magnanimous", to perform great deeds disinterestedly (i.e. because their status demanded it – whence the expression noblesse oblige – and without expecting financial or political gain), and to master their own emotions, especially fear, jealousy, and the desire for vengeance. One's status in the world demanded appropriate externalisation (or "conspicuous consumption"). Nobles indebted themselves to build prestigious urban mansions (hôtels particuliers) and to buy clothes, paintings, silverware, dishes, and other furnishings befitting their rank. They were also required to show liberality by hosting sumptuous parties and by funding the arts.
Conversely, social parvenus who took on the external trappings of the noble classes (such as the wearing of a sword) were severely criticised, sometimes by legal action; laws on sumptuous clothing worn by bourgeois existed since the Middle Ages.
The traditional aristocratic values began to be criticised in the mid 17th century: Blaise Pascal, for example, offered a ferocious analysis of the spectacle of power and François de La Rochefoucauld posited that no human act—however generous it pretended to be—could be considered disinterested.
By relocating the French royal court to Versailles in the 1680s, Louis XIV further modified the role of the nobles. Versailles became a gilded cage: to leave spelled disaster for a noble, for all official charges and appointments were made there. Provincial nobles who refused to join the Versailles system were locked out of important positions in the military or state offices, and lacking royal subsides (and unable to keep up a noble lifestyle on seigneural taxes), these rural nobles (hobereaux) often went into debt. A strict etiquette was imposed: a word or glance from the king could make or destroy a career. At the same time, the relocation of the court to Versailles was also a brilliant political move by Louis. By distracting the nobles with court life and the daily intrigue that came with it, he neutralized a powerful threat to his authority and removed the largest obstacle to his ambition to centralize power in France.
Before Louis XIV imposed his will on the nobility, the great families of France often claimed a fundamental right to rebel against unacceptable royal abuse. The Wars of Religion, the Fronde, the civil unrest during the minority of Charles VIII and the regencies of Anne of Austria and Marie de Medici are all linked to these perceived loss of rights at the hand of a centralizing royal power.
Much of the power of nobles in these periods of unrest comes from their "clientèle system". Like the king, nobles granted the use of fiefs, and gave gifts and other forms of patronage to other nobles to develop a vast system of noble clients. Lesser families would send their children to be squires and members of these noble houses, and to learn in them the arts of court society and arms.
The elaboration of the Ancien Régime state was made possible only by redirecting these clientèle systems to a new focal point (the king and the state), and by creating countervailing powers (the bourgeoisie, the noblesse de robe). By the late 17th century, any act of explicit or implicit protest was treated as a form of lèse-majesté and harshly repressed.
Many key Enlightenment figures were French nobles, such as Montesquieu, whose full name was Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu.
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At the beginning of the French Revolution, on August 4, 1789 the dues that a peasant had to pay to the lord, such as the banalités of Manorialism, were abolished by the National Constituent Assembly; noble lands were stripped of their special status as fiefs; the nobility were subjected to the same taxation as their co-nationals, and lost their privileges (the hunt, seigneurial justice, funeral honors). The nobles were, however, allowed to retain their titles.
Nevertheless, it was decided that certain annual financial payments which were owed the nobility and which were considered "contractual" (i.e. not stemming from a usurpation of feudal power, but from a contract between a landowner and a tenant) such as annual rents (the cens and the champart) needed to be bought back by the tenant for the tenant to have clear title to his land. Since the feudal privileges of the nobles had been termed droits de feodalité dominante, these were called droits de féodalité contractante. The rate set (May 3, 1790) for purchase of these contractual debts was 20 times the annual monetary amount (or 25 times the annual amount if given in crops or goods); peasants were also required to pay back any unpaid dues over the past thirty years. Unfortunately, no system of credit was established for small farmers, and only well-off individuals could take advantage of the ruling. This created a massive land grab by well-off peasants and members of the middle-class, who became absentee landowners and had their land worked by share-croppers and poor tenants.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen had adopted by vote of the Assembly on August 26, 1789, but the abolition of nobility did not occur at that time. The Declaration declared in its first article that "Men are born free and equal in rights; social distinctions may be based only upon general usefulness." It was not until June 19, 1790, that hereditary titles of nobility were abolished. The notions of equality and fraternity won over some nobles such as the Marquis de Lafayette who supported the abolition of legal recognition of nobility, but other liberal nobles who had happily sacrificed their fiscal privileges saw this as an attack on the culture of honor.
Nobility and hereditary titles were abolished by the Revolutions of 1789 and 1848, but hereditary titles were restored by decree in 1852 and have never since been abolished in law. However, since 1875 the President of the Republic neither confers nor confirms French titles (specific foreign titles continued to be authorised for use in France by the office of the President as recently as 1961), but the French state still verifies them, civil courts can protect them, and criminal courts can prosecute their abuse.
The Restoration of Louis XVIII saw the return of the old nobility to power (while ultra-royalists clamored for a return of lost lands). The electoral laws of 1817 limited suffrage to only the wealthiest or most prestigious members (less than .5%) of the population, which included many of the old nobility.
Napoléon Bonaparte established his own hereditary titles during the Empire, and these new aristocrats were confirmed in legal retention of their titles even after Napoleon's overthrow. In all, about 2200 titles were created by Napoleon I:
(There were 239 remaining families holding First Empire titles in 1975. Of those, perhaps 130–140 were titled. Only one title of prince and seven titles of duke remain.) Napoleon also established a new knightly order in 1802, the Légion d'honneur, which still exists.
Between 1830 and 1848 Louis Philippe, King of the French retained the House of Peers established by the Bourbons under the Restoration (although he made the peerage non-hereditary) and granted hereditary titles (but without "nobility").
The Second Empire of Napoleon III also conferred hereditary titles until monarchy was again abolished in 1870. If the Third Republic returned once again to the principles of equality espoused by the Revolution (at least among the political Radical party), in practice the upper echelons of French society maintained their notion of social distinction well into the 20th century (as attested to, e.g., by the presence of nobility and noble class distinctions in the works of Marcel Proust). The use of their titles was officially sanctioned.
French courts have, however, held that the concept of nobility is incompatible with the equality of all citizens before the law proclaimed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, and remains part of the Constitution of 1958. Therefore, "nobility", as legal concept and status, has been effectively abolished in France.
Nonetheless, extant titles which were hereditary under one of France's monarchical regimes are considered part of the legal name which descend according to their original grants (insofar as they pass from and to males only), are incapable of becoming a legal part of the name by self-assumption or prolonged usage, and are entitled to the same protections in French civil and criminal courts as the name, even though they afford neither privilege nor precedence (cf., peerage of the United Kingdom). Regulation of titles is carried out by a bureau of the Ministry of Justice, which can verify and authorize the bearer to make legal use of the title in official documents such as birth certificates.
In France, the signet ring (chevalière) bearing the coat of arms is traditionally worn by French noblemen on the ring finger of their left hand, contrary to usage in most other European countries (where it is worn on the little finger of either the right or left hand, depending on the country); French noble women however wear it on their little finger. The chevalière may either be worn facing up (en baise-main) or facing toward the palm (en bagarre). In contemporary usage, the inward position is increasingly common, although for some noble families the inward position is traditionally used to indicate that the wearer is married.