1. Describe and analyze concepts of nobility in France over the period from the late sixteenth century to the late eighteenth century.
With the growing need of financial support for the French monarchy in the sixteenth century, government offices were sold which would confer nobility upon those who purchased them. These newer nobles were known as “robe” nobles, in contrast to the traditional “sword” nobility who earned their titles through military service. The distinction and separation of the “sword” nobility and the “robe” nobility brought about new views on the concept of nobility throughout France from the late sixteenth century to the late eighteenth century which largely included the ideas that of the “sword” nobility which asserted their superiority to the “robe” due to the sacrifice their ancestors gave in battle, that which stated the financial sacrifice of the “robe” nobility to be equal to that of the “sword,” and that which spoke out against the corruption of the noble title.
The “sword” nobility would often view itself as superior to the “robe” nobility. In Document 9, a quote from Gilles Andrï¿½ de La Roque’s Treatise on the Nobility, in 1678 says “The great nobles of the sword are drawn from a race so ancient that its beginning are lost in time, and they have won their renown by their calls to battle and by military exploits. They are the pinnacle of human achievement and the leaders of the first hierarchy. . . . ” This statement from Gilles Andrï¿½ de La Roque exemplifies the feeling of superiority to the “robe” nobility to even call the nobles of the sword a different race and “the pinnacle of human achievement.”
Though he expressly states that a “robe” nobleman “may in time become a gentleman, but he can never be a member of this race of warriors, because he will always lack the ancient roots that it requires.” Being a sword noble himself, Gilles Andrï¿½ de La Roque represents the view of the majority of the sword nobility. However, others also of the sword nobility did not express distaste for the appointment of “robe” nobility titles due to their lack of valor in battle but rather because of the damage it had on the title of the nobility already in place.
Document 4 quotes a pamphlet written by Henri, Prince of Condï¿½, a sword noble, in 1614 as saying the sword nobility had been “banished from judicial and financial affairs for lack of money” and that “there is no longer any reward for virtue.” This presents the argument from the perspective of a sword nobleman who believes the emphasis on financial base in society was too strong, in that it diminished the authority and authenticity of the sword noble title. Baron Franï¿½ois-Philippe Loubert, a sword nobleman and cavalry colonel agrees with this argument in his Critical Study of the French Army in 1781, stating “money corrodes everything and breaks down the barriers that honor and glory once erected between citizens. Now it seems to be all that is required to aspire to any office.”
On the opposing side, some viewed the authenticity and authority of the “robe” nobility to be equal to that of the “sword” nobility. In his preamble to an edict granting nobility, King Louis XIV said that “An individual who sacrifices his wealth to support the armies that protect the state can merit, in a manner of speaking, the same reward as those who shed blood to defend it.” Though his high position lends credibility to the document, as the monarch of the state and the one who is appointing the title to the “robe” nobles for financial support, Louis’s statements can easily be drawn to bias. However, interestingly enough, Pierre de La Primaudaye states in his 1577 work, The French Academy, that “It does one no good to boast of an ancient lineage or to live for the luster of one’s noble and virtuous ancestors if you are worth nothing by yourself.”
As Pierre de La Primaudaye is a sword noble himself, it is interesting that he would bring equality to the argument by declaring nobility to be the truly derived from one’s own doings instead of that of a lineage which has no course on one’s own actions. In his play Dom Juan, Moliï¿½re, a non-noble playwright, seems to concur with the idea of nobility through actions when, in a conversation between the character Dom Louis to his son, Dom Juan, it is stated “a noble who lives badly is an unnatural monster-virtue is the first title of nobility. The way you act is much more important than the way you sign your name.” This presents the perspective of a non-noble on the comparison of the robe and sword nobilities.
The noble title was in some cases corrupt, as some made fraudulent claims of nobility while others took their titles to allow them to take any action without consequence. An example of the latter occurred in Mondeville in 1586 when “Pierre Morin claimed that his status as a noble man permitted him to commit several acts of assault by using a stick to beat poor laborers and workingmen. . . . He went so far as to lodge some of his soldiers in their houses, pillage the poor unfortunate people, and intimidate them in ways that prevented them from paying their royal taxes.” This quote was taken from a testimony to the Parlement of Rouen from the villagers of Mondeville.
This position presents the perspective of the non-nobles as the victims of the nobility. From the documents given we are also shown the presence of fraudulent claims of noble titles during the time period. Editor Philippe-Antoine Merlin writes in his Universal Dictionary of Civil, Criminal, Canonical, and Proprietary Jurisprudence, that “Laws against fraudulent claims of nobility are more necessary than ever. . . Men without titles, and even some with recently granted ones, boldly pass themselves off as members of great and honored families. Others, though widely known to be of common birth, call themselves marquis, count, baron, or viscount. . . “
Merlin emphasizes the need of laws against such fraudulent claims which asserts the assumption to the reader that such claims are common in society. One such case is that of Antoine de Montchrestien in 1621. A newspaper obituary for de Montchrestien states “He studied, devoted himself to French poetry, and succeeded in writing some good verses. Then, at the age of twenty, he learned fencing and horseback riding from masters. While keeping company with nobles, he played the noble, the gallant one, the hardy one, the quarrelsome one, so as to fight a duel. He called himself the Baron of Vatteville, but in fact there was no land or estate of Vatteville.”
Though the concepts of nobility in France from the late sixteenth to the late eighteenth century differed from person to person, there was a general line between the robe and sword nobility. There generally existed those who stood for the superiority of the “sword” nobility to the “robe” nobility, those who stood for the equality of the two, and those who stood against the corruption of either and nobility through one’s own personal actions rather than those of one’s ancestors, be it financially or through battle.