While interested historians would certainly be most welcome to attend Robert Descimon's Seminar at the EHESS, any newcomer would have to attend and follow the discussions carefully for months, before measuring up to the very remarkable level of collective savoir that prevails therein. Individuals work on separate projects and contribute to the general findings of the Seminar. There may well be at least one more volume of Épreuves containing brilliant case studies framed by a rigorous social history. The Descimon Seminar is what a true seminar should be.
Robert Descimon and Élie Haddad, eds., Épreuves de Noblesse (Paris: Belles Lettres, 2010), pp. 459, 35 €.
Like many other truly great works of history, the Introduction to this volume is so carefully crafted and descriptive that it could serve as the Conclusion! Given this fact, I shall briefly note three underlying themes, then proceed to the book itself.
Out of urban commoner elites, there arose families in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that provided legal services for the monarchy, in return for permitting these same paralegal families to create titles, corporations, and judicial spheres of action in society that assured the dominance not only of the kings but also of the warrior class, the nobles. From generation to generation, these legal professionals worked out the transmission of their privileges to serve by working out hierarchies —hierarchies in titles and hierarchies in the value of that title in hard money that was paid to the monarchs in return for interest, as for a loan.
With increased wealth these holders of legal titles bought lands constituted as seigneuries, and the wealthiest among them married their daughters to the sons of their land-holding neighbors. The noblization of the Robe who held titles would never be completed, because in every generation economic, political, legal, and other social influences changed the terms of Sword and Robe nobilities. The Robe would never be entirely integrated into the Sword hierarchies in the Ancien Régime.
The second introductory point to mention is that the strong Sword-noble patrimonial exclusivities accorded with a strong advantaging in the Robe, forced as it were to concentrate on selecting older, if not always the oldest, competent males to succeed the family elders in office. Pulling together the capital to buy a more prestigious office often involved very complex exchanges and relations involving marriage — the bride's dowry providing the necessary capital. To which might be added the personal wealth (propres) of, say, an aunt or an uncle. Some families were far better than others at planning and carrying out generational transfers of offices and wealth.
The third introductory point is that the para-legals became jurists, shouldering the enormous task of listing, enforcing, and in some cases regularizing rights, as these were articulated in the lives and institutions of both the first and the second estates. Going further still with the second estate, the nobility of the Sword slowly ceased to be a recognized rank founded on the seigneurie and life style, and became a dignity with certain privileges as stated in royal legislation drafted by ... none other than the jurists!
So many other points deserve to be mentioned; but by presenting the chapters of the book, I hope to bring out these points, and illustrate the three general introductory points mentioned above. The contents of Épreuves de Noblesse are, figuratively, the valves and muscles at the heart of the Ancien Régime. Let's make a short roster of those historians with whom Descimon and Haddad, and the authors of the various chapters, are in dialogue. Jean de Terre Rouge and Nicolas Oresme come immediately to my mind, and after that come Claude de Seyssel, Jean Bodin, Charles Loyseau, l'Hospital, Jean Domat, Boullainvilliers, Montesquieu, Le Paige, Voltaire, Guizot, Tocqueville père, Tocqueville fils, Thierry, Guizot, Chéruel, Olivier-Martin, Chabod, Porchnev, Labrousse, Le Febvre, Furet, and Mousnier. So many others have done as I am doing now, when presenting the problems of understanding the Ancien Régime; but the historians I have listed here really created the edifice of Ancien-Régime studies. Descimon and his seminar members come at the end of that list, with their precise case studies of the Robe nobility that provide the material for diagnosing the construction of the so-called Absolute Monarchy, and perhaps its destruction as well.
The first part of the book is titled "the patrimonialization of the [royal] office." Royal powers to appoint were already in decline in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; but when the office of trésorier des parties casuelles was invented and filled in 1522-1523, the legalization of the dignity-venality nexus increasingly turned the money paid for an office into a sure investment. The forty-day rule still could inspire anxiety, especially in a neo-stoic environment; but assurance about the heritability and transmission of an office increased after 1604, with the so-called paulette legislation that regulated an annual payment. It was the king and the council who renewed this legislation; and while vague threats of non-renewal worried parlementaires, for example, during decades when absolute sovereignty and highly coercive royal actions were possible, did not in fact take place, and the paulette was regularly renewed.
With increased assurance of heritability, the price of lay councilorships in the Parlement began to rise rapidly, until Colbert's policy of fixing office prices. This policy was countervened, but across the decades of the Sun King's personal reign, the prices of parlementary offices declined. Average figures are given, but they do not mean much without comparable figures for other royal offices, dowries, and perhaps even house prices in Paris. The new creations of offices are not dealt with in this chapter, but it is clear that sales of newly-created offices in the 1640s coincided with a steep rise in prices, a perceived threat by the Robe that culminated in the Fronde.
While office prices declined after the 1660s, dowries continued to rise on into the 1690s, when they trailed off. I suspect that this was a lag, not unlike lags in other financial markets; but it is also possible that the barriers against marrying the daughter of a financier were slowly being lowered, permitting couples with "fresh" money to buy an office in the "illustrious Senate" that was the Parlement. In fact, this occurred very infrequently.
The next chapter is about the juridical framing that had to take place before there could be a synthesis of dignity and venality. Descimon has visited this question before, particularly in an essay where he works out the evolution in cases in the Parlement, and does not restrict himself solely to evolutions in legislation. It is in a festschrift for Nancy Lyman Roelker, edited by Michael Wolfe: Changing Identities in Early Modern France (Durham, N.C., 1996), pp. 95-123.
With a remarkable economy of words, Robert Descimon and Simone Geoffroy-Poisson state the customary law of Paris concerning property and marriage (1523, 1580, the paulette of 1604). They demonstrate that there was a uniquely constituted joining of older property terms (e.g., the seigneurie) and the terms used about venal office. Aristocratic patrilinealism and office are cemented together with the help of precedents from ecclesiastical practice (not Roman law), to determine the laws of inheritance. The rights of women to contribute to purchasing an office, to borrow in order to purchase an office, to transmit or sell (between living persons) or inherit an office are carefully described; but a woman is never allowed to actually hold the office! The dignity of the office redounds on her, just as the nobility it brings redounds on her; but that very portion of the crown in the office was reserved for males. Descimon and Geoffroy-Poisson accept Sarah Hanley's work on the "family-state" compact, having first explored and elaborated upon its uniquely French implications.
Other points to be noted are the difficulties that develop out of the need to favor a son as the heir to a family-owned office, and at the same time respect the fundamentally egalitarian laws of succession. The number of children whose marriages were arranged was not really determined by demographic considerations, or by limited possibilities owing to insufficient capital for dowries, but rather by the need to avoid the terrible litigious entanglements that could develop over transmitting property.
Curiously, erstwhile Robe owners of seigneuries assumed the names of lands they had sold, very probably because they were still wishing, in one way or another, to possess property they no longer owned. Long-Robe families developed elaborate strategies to avoid losing, through an inheritance, an office that had become associated with it in the past. Chances were slim of buying back a presidency that the family had lost. The success of the Nicolaï family, which held the office of first president in the Chambre des comptes for three centuries, marked a success that no other family could match. Holders of royal office in the Ancien Régime were, of course, nobles by right of their office — usually seigneurs because they possessed numerous terres. But far more significant, these men constituted the Robe!
With great precision and clarity, Eric Viguier and Mathieu Marraud present the Maupeou Reforms within the context of the dignity-office as property nexus. They draw on the Supplément à la Gazette de France and some other periodicals, to ferret out alleged individual and family responses to the chancellor's efforts to recruit from the old Parlement a new, non-venal superior court. Office prices had declined dramatically across the eighteenth century; but owing to the explosion that followed Maupeou's attempt to avoid all reimbursements, it was proposed that a seller or his male exerciser who agreed to join the new court would receive 40,000 to 50,000 livres for each office. Such a proposal tested the corporate solidarity of the sovereign courts; and, just as in the Fronde, gossipy, nasty, ad-hominem public pressure was exerted on individuals who were willing to accept the chancellor's offer.
The arguments under Maupeou on behalf of the status quo seem to be as far away as possible from Chancellor Bellièvre's charge, back in 1604, that venality of judicial office would corrupt justice itself. By 1771, the office as property had become an argument for stability, and Maupeou and his "henchmen" were accused of bribing the judges to sell and join the new court; names were named. Opportunists also allegedly came to the fore; they were anything but disinterested about what they might receive if they supported Maupeou. No one was sufficiently eminent, nor protected by a Long-Robe heritage, to avoid calumny. For example, President d'Aligre allegedly was willing to accommodate the chancellor in exchange for a dukedom. He also was said to have feared exile in some remote place where he would not have the "commerce des filles de spectacle" (p. 76). All these recriminations did not do the image of the courts any good, because pulling out all the tropes about the corrupt judge undermined the Robe's claims to be disinterested magistrates and virtuous royal officials.
There were also cases where families were in financial trouble.
Settlement was a choice forced upon them. One family sold an office in
the Parlement and bought an office of maître des requêtes! The Maupeou
Reforms were aimed specifically at the contesting sovereign courts. An
office that, by right, permitted some of its corps of maîtres des
requêtes to attend the Parlement, even though most of their duties were
in the Conseil du roi, reveals the political aims of the
chancellor, not his ideas about judicial reform.
Certainly the royal councilors who had supported Maupeou lost prestige and power, though they were not all scuttled. Monarchy's rhythms (see my piece on this theme:"Monarchy in Action"), meant that Louis XVI and his councilors would be given a chance, just as Louis XIV and his mother had been given a chance in 1643. They squandered it. No Mazarin would have saved the régime, but a Sully, a Dubois, a Fleury might have. Note the variety of political styles in these three ministers, hiding fists of iron. The Robe thought it had won in 1774; but "in the eyes of the nation" the grands corps no longer were what they had been.
There are many aspects of social history that may be called "bourgeois"! Not the least is the focus on the ascendency of individuals and families: success and upward mobility. Claire Chatelain's recent fine study of the Miron family is an important exception, as is that of the Spifame as researched and analyzed here by Robert Descimon, Élodie Milles, and Pavel Ouvarov. An ancient Lucquois family already well-established in France by the early fourteenth century, the Spifame combined jewelry-selling with various duties in the lucrative royal financial sub-culture.
As elite citizens of the capital, the Spifame bore the title "bourgeois"; but not until the reign of Francis I did they attain high office in the bureau de la Ville. The financial crisis and "reform" that were taking place under this king, undermined the principal sources of the family fortune, but quite typically the Spifame managed to become owners of seigneuries, largely through marriage alliances. These alliances would become the subject of divisions and litigation in the sixteenth century. The 1532 "purge" of the financiers not only distanced the Spifame from the royal fiscal troughs, it also humiliated the family, which ended up in a court trial, a condemnation, and an execution. Thus the head of a family that was trying to turn itself into a noble patrilineal dynasty was buried in a commoners' trench in the Innocents!
Responses to this disaster varied, the most extreme being that of a younger son who believed himself to have been badly treated in the distribution of wealth and who therefore took up his pen and wrote a treatise against the particular laws that seemed to sustain his enemy relatives. What a superb example of how a private grievance or interest can become a public issue!
No single strategy regarding marriages and inheritances came to prevail among the Spifame across the sixteenth century. Some bought offices; some seem to have sought and gained favor with a ministerial family, the Ruzé. The conversion to Protestantism of one of the leading lights of the family, followed by immigration to Geneva, and the active participation in the League during the civil war by other Spifames, caused the dynastic tree to splinter.
Thanks to the survival of some key wills, it becomes evident that the social prestige and power of the Spifame would be manifest in building chapels and tombs, albeit not all in the same location. Some chose to be buried with the Ruzé in Notre Dame; others selected Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie; and the senior branch, which had become Robe, restored a chapel that had been built at the Augustins in the fourteenth century. These tombs enhanced and perpetuated the Spifame dynasty, as did a residence near the Augustins that came to be known as the "Hôtel de Spifame."
I like the phrase "capital immatériel" that is used to characterize
these aspects of social power.
A lack of heirs in one branch brought the Spifame closer together. Children were less intense about litigating against their relatives than were their parents; if an enemy Spifame attended a wedding, it signified the inevitable move toward union as early as 1571. Another link became manifest through god-parenting, and still another through the choice of testamentary executor. Families that had married into one or another branch of the Spifame, were generally disadvantaged by reason of dynastic-Robe strategies that cancelled one another out from generation to generation. And "God had not pleased to give Samuel Spifame children," a dubious consolation.
Before taking up Patrice Alex's chapters on the Hurault de l'Hospital, readers should consult Robert Descimon's Introduction to Michel de l'Hospital: L'Hospital, Discours sur la Majorité de Charles IX (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1995). The "célèbre inconnu" whose name is remembered because he was chancellor of France and was attached to a party of moderation in a religious civil war, married his only child, a daughter, to a Hurault de l'Hospital, a less prestigious Robe family but one with a considerable past of royal service, and also a family with a future. The name "l'Hospital" causes our synapses to baulk as they fire. If there is hesitation, it is provoked by wondering if it is a Hurault, or a not-Hurault. The Hurault would become more rich, famous, and powerful, and would add other seigneuries to their name: Cheverny and Meisse; but the branch that married into Michel de l'Hospital's family because it lacked a male heir, would continue to live off the properties and offices accumulated with the chancellor's support. Put more accurately, the de l'Hospital would live largely from sales of property and from attempts to increase income by shifting inherited debts in almost any way they could! The Hurault de Cheverny are quite another story!
Alex's very interesting point in studying the Hurault thus becomes a study in slow disjoncture, a dynastic relation through hopes of inheritances, including debts and loans that could not be easily, if ever, turned into ready cash. Paul Hurault's relatives would owe him as much as 200,000 livres! As archibishop of Aix, Paul Hurault participated in numerous financial operations in which his brothers and sisters came off better than he did. Debts may have been incurred by someone who never intended to pay them. When a niece's father asked him to contribute to a dowry, the prelate may well have proposed the cancellation of a debt. Clearly the "droit du sang, à la filiation," was less important than a kind of anti-patrimony where vague hopes could be mixed with despair. There is something almost Darwinian in the fate of a family that is unable to oblige other families to pay what is owed. As Richelieu put it, "quand on n'a pas de l'argent, on n'est pas considéré."
Claire Chatelain's study of the Pommereau turns on family breakdown, violence, and the divulgence of all the private lives of a nuclear family through the publication of legal briefs or factums. Some work on the Pommereu family has already been done, but what interests Chatelain has not been done, namely, the comparison of the historical record as preserved by notaries with the way the family is "represented" in the factums. Just as in her book on the Miron, Chatelain is a particularly acute and astute analyst of the terms being used by social scientists (in this way, she is not unlike Yves Castan). She makes her reader aware that she is aware of linguistic terms and gender and women's studies, and she asserts that her work on the Pommereu does not belong to these studies. In her study of factums, Sara Maza pretty much stayed away from the question of whether or not the intensely personal life-histories in the factums were "true." Her aim was to discern how the private can become public, and to investigate the role of lawyers as writers in the legal process, and the creation of a public that would read factums along with reformist and later-revolutionary texts. Chatelain, of course, is not duped; she is not at all certain that what one reads in an archival document is entirely true — an important point made so effectively by Natalie Zemon Davis. Thus Chatelain's work is very carefully framed, to prove both general significance and to tell a lurid story as found in the sort of faits divers that attract readers from every social class!
For three generations, the male heads of the Pommereu family practiced a patriarchal marriage strategy that brutally robbed spouses of virtually all the capital available to them, arranged marriages for younger sons that advantaged their older brothers, and supplied daughters to convents. In the second generation, the wife of the head of the house became Coadjutor Gondi's mistress, gave birth to a daughter by him, and made little attempt to keep the affair secret. In the third generation, the wife of the newest dynasty-builder went to court, divulged all the family arrangements in factums, and generally did her best to humiliate an abusive spouse who had fallen out of political favor. She effectively ruined the family reputation. Chatelain characterizes the household as being in a "Fronde permanente en quelque sorte" (p. 150). All the while, a son or a daughter would show an outburst of loyalty; but in the end, a son made his mother his "universal heir." Having died in 1747, with 117,286 livres as her portion of an estate worth 703,719 livres, she was buried in the family chapel, presumably beside her husband.
There is some indication that the Pommereu deliberately avoided having many children in order to advantage the older sons — just what the Venetian nobles were doing (see James Davis). If Roman law favored primogeniture, the decapitalized wives and children could appeal in court to the customary law of equal distribution of property among children du même lit.
Chatelain may return to the Pommereu for further study. For now, that family is exemplary of the steep climb to disaster, from Robe to the top layers of the nobility of service. The accusations in the factums have to be nuancées, and thus far, research suggests that the victimized wife may be characterized as "ni tout fait solidaire, ni tout à fait assez bonne mère, elle s'affirmait d'abord fille de" (p. 152). What might, just might have been true.
Martine Bennini's study of the myths and realities about the nobility of the Bragelongne family, clarifies with remarkable precision the declining respect for historical fact among members of the Long Robe, in this instance a president in the Parlement of Brittany. With Colbertian "recherches" already influencing attitudes and claims to nobility, and with enhanced royal administrative techniques and the powers to deny nobility that were granted to the d'Hoziers and Clairambaults, genealogists, Pierre de Bragelongne (1640-1717) published a family genealogy titled Discours in 1689. It contained not only mythical elements, but also distortions and errors about things that might, just might have been true.
Bennini reconstructs the Bragelongne genealogy and finds quite strong ontological ties between members of the various branches of the family, in part because an early upward-mobile ancestor established a chapel where all his direct descendants had the right to be buried! Members of the different branches turn out to have witnessed one or another marriage contract. Because it was printed, the Discours no doubt served to maintain these relations; it probably was given to the different members of the family. At least ten copies have survived, some with marginal notes. Did anyone challenge the myth of origins?
Social historians are now just simply working out the histories of groups, professions, and families; they are doing close-readings of texts in order to discern the construction of identities that are only partly historical. Ellery Schalk's work is confirmed at several points in this model study of a text and the construction of a family myth.
In the end, the noble parlementaire reflects as the Elect and, of course, on the election of the Bragelongne family, legitimated by their piety, prosperity, and longtime survival. The Franco-Gallic mists surrounding family origins that he mentions brought scoffs from royal genealogists. While his aims are somewhat different, Boullainvilliers's claims to similar origins of the nobility come to mind. Charles d'Hozier, juge d'armes, crossed out the word maison on the pretentious president's pamphlet. The Bragelongne were merely a family, not a maison!
Camille Le Fauconnier and Élie Haddad explore the mind-sets of some eighteenth-century researchers whose outlook brings the feudistes to mind, though in this instance the search involves a treasure amounting to 800,000 livres! Did Sublet de Noyers actually leave 800,000 livres "on deposit" with the Paris Jesuits?
In my Creatures of Richelieu (Paris: Pédone, 1966), I devoted a chapter to the major role played by François Sublet de Noyers in creating the administrative apparatus that, later in the seventeenth century, would become the ministry of war. The thousands of letters that survive as minutes in the Archives de la Guerre, under the reference A1, contain an enormous amount of material about the army in the 1630s, but very little about Sublet's life, his role as surintendant des bâtiments, and his patronage toward the Jesuits, Poussin, François Mansart, and so forth. My point here is that the personal and the royal-administrative were really pretty well delineated, and this was Sublet's doing. I did my best to find his private papers, but without success.
Le Fauconnier and Haddad study the methods of historical research that were employed by treasure hunters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that served as the underpinnings of a mémoire by a certain Regnault, preserved in the Cabinet des titres of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Regnault's methods included on-site inspections, visits to churches in search of epitaphs, allusions to notarial acts, efforts to confirm oral tradition, and requests to consult parish records. The research may actually have been carried out; or it may be fiction. A learned work by Reinhardt Koselleck is cited that suggests that the methods used, largely in the eighteenth century, differed from what might be done today. I should stop and read Koselleck, but I am not sure I would be convinced, because I find that these early-modern researchers pursued every research lead, and the logic of their research seems impeccable. At one point even documents that conceivably could have survived in another branch of the family, were pursued; Le Fauconnier and Haddad characterize this as "étrange" (p. 199). Why strange? Sometimes, but only sometimes, an inheritance or, more often, a debt is mentioned in an inventory after death, a constitution de rente, or a bail; and if so, the notaries are named. As one reads passages of this early-modern research report, the possibility emerges that its author had been commissioned and paid to do the research, just as a feudiste might be. And through the prose can be sensed a barely-veiled hostility towards the Jesuits with whom the 800,000 livres purportedly had been deposited. This suggests that Regnault, the mysterious author of the mémoire, belonged to the world of the legal semiprofessional, a world that was increasingly hostile to the regular orders, and to the Jesuits in particular.
Did the entire search derive from a misinterpretation of the context in which the word "trésor" was used? At the time of his death, Sublet's son was said to have referred to "spiritual treasures," not material ones.
What is so curiously coincidental is that there were also rumors and searches involving a purported treasure hidden by Louvois!
Taken together, Bennini on the Bragelongne and Le Fauconnier and Haddad on the Sublet and Louvois, suggest just how complex and varied approaches to historical thinking could be in the early-modern centuries. For my part, the low-ranking researchers who are hunting for treasure use approaches and methods of historical research that are worthy of a Pasquier or a Pithou, whereas the attitude of Long-Robe president Bragelongne toward historicity is not worthy of the culture of the jurist.
In "Le prix de la robe," Mathieu Marraud and Nicolas Lyon-Caen begin with a number of very judicious (sic) generalizations about the nobility that is the Robe, its relations to the state, its property, and its corporate exclusiveness. Statistics on admission to the Parlement of Paris and to the Chambre des Comptes, 1695-1700, do not reveal a trend toward greater ease of access by non-Robe, or barely Robe families. Only a very few extremely rich merchants who profited from selling army supplies could actually buy their way in. Transfers usually took time, but these families with ready cash did not have to work out the slow and complicated strategies for dowries and office-purchase so characteristic of families lacking capital.
In order to marry a second daughter, 152,000 livres owed by the customers of the bride's father are cited in a marriage contract with a president in the Chambre des Comptes. Robert Forster's study of the Depont family of La Rochelle, Merchants, Landlords, Magistrates (Baltimore, 1980), is referred to here, re such similarities as créances in contracts and opportunities resulting from the Law Bubble.
Case studies of the Coustard and Deberny families reveal that the shifts to Robe office did not involve a complete break with a family's commercial needs for capital. The daughters in these families could marry up to husbands of a more dignified rank, but it was more difficult for their brothers to find a wife of a higher rank than theirs.
Not surprisingly, the Deberny spent a lot of money constituting a library at the time of their entrée into the Chambre des Comptes. But there were few books about the law. This confirms H.-J. Martin's findings, about the decline of writing and publishing law books, and about the concentration on works of piety and history in Robe libraries of the later seventeenth century, and beyond. Further social consumerism centered on carriages, horses, and family portraits. Enough cash remained to buy seigneuries during the favorable period that followed the Law Bubble. Not surprisingly, the new Robe branches of the Deberny advantaged the oldest sons and kept the other sons from marrying; but in all sons could wed in the branches of the family that were still merchants. By mid-century, however, all was not going well. Income from offices in the Chambre des Comptes was higher than in the Parlement; but neither was a major source of income for a high-consuming family.
I admire the flair with which the authors bring together their findings, and how these findings extend our understanding of the Ancien Régime. For the rapid profiteers that were part of the merchant élite, social mobility was still done through purchasing offices. There would seem to be very little by way of a distinct Robe cultural identity left as a survival from the consumerist nobility, tout court, that increasingly may have been ignoring social conventions, if not living outside the law. However, alliances with older noble families could, in subtle and devastating ways, make vulnerable the former merchant family, with its office and a few token seigneuries, but with diminished mercantile ties and with minor aristocratic ones that might well not be forthcoming when a debt had to be paid or the money for a dowry accumulated. The huge profits from arms sales made it possible to buy an office in a sovereign court, but the office returned little on the capital expended. It would seem that rather than invest in rentes, the Deberny joined in the consumerist confirmation of higher status. This study is a pleasure to read and to ponder about. Franklin Ford's Robe and Sword (Cambridge, 1953) comes to mind, as does Daniel Roche's awesome Culture des apparences (Paris, 1989).
In "La noblesse de robe, le Marais et la Modernité," Laurence Croq
joins the precise location of parlementaire residences in the capital
with anecdotal evidence drawn from mémoires and other more
literary sources, to establish a strong congruence between them. The
Marais became something of a professional-cultural backwater peopled by
parlementaires and other legal families. Antoine Lilti has found that
men of the robe were rarely if ever invited to salons, and that there
was a decline in their general participation in vestries and
confraternities across the capital.
In the Deberny-Coustard's rapid rise to offices in the Parlement and the Chambre des Comptes, Nicolas Lyon and Matthieu Marraud found mobility toward what might be called generic nobility before difficulties set in. Croq finds that robe particularization centered upon life in the Marais, either because its most prestigious and wealthiest members did not wish to associate with the more courtly residents of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, or because the Long Robe was excluded! Did the venerable taboo against the culture des apparences continue to inhibit expenditures on finery? The decline in the value of the offices they exercised might also have had a dampening effect.
At this point, it is tempting to pull down Le Diable boiteux to see whether it confirms Croqu's findings. I suspect that it does, as a wide variety of anecdotal sources has already pointed to the Marais as parlementaire in social tone, from the Regency on. Lesage articulates the negative discourse about "financiers," an ever-extending "corruption" through the theater and the Persian Letters that went beyond robin culture.
Masterful, authoritative, and clear, the lofty synthesis that Robert Descimon provides as a conclusion is the most impressive writing I have ever read on the social history of the Ancien Régime. Like discoveries in physics, Descimon's findings seem so clear and almost obvious, once he has stated them. These few pages merit reading and rereading; I lack the talent to present an already fairly abstract historical synthesis, but I must try.
With their emphasis on lineage, their possession of seigneuries, and their pratique du quotidien, nobles in the Middle Ages held sway or dominated society. None of these three defining characteristics derived from royalty; none was enjoyed by any other group in society. Fiefdoms, and with them, homage, were a construct of hierarchical relations that would come and go. Emphasis on the sword would develop fairly late, to characterize military activity that was by no means the preserve of seigneurial nobles.
The nobility of legal practice had neither lineage nor seigneuries as foundations for their identity. Offices, particularly royal offices, empowered individuals to act in the king's name. Their families intermarried in such ways as to favor the articulation of corporate rules for professional conduct and the transmission of offices from generation to generation. The revival of Antiquity, Humanist moral philosophy, and historical attitudes toward the law and institutions, enabled a Robe order to codify the seemingly chaotic features of custom and seigneurialism. Reason, history, and law would together codify state and noble powers. Nobility as a virtue, and delegated royal powers, transmitted over the generations as offices, became the Robe, an order (it swore fidelity to the king in its own right) that created and enforced the legal frames of the noble, still seigneurial order that they themselves could never enter.
A judge might buy a seigneurie, something that actually was quite difficult because the laws of outright ownership were weak, and years might pass before all the possible heirs in a lineage were bought out or abandoned their claims; but the robins' possession of an office and wealth would rarely enable a daughter to ally with a seigneurial noble. A judge's son might marry the daughter of a noble seigneur, but this too occurred less frequently than might be expected, and mainly in large Robe families.
The legal framing of what would come to be known as Sword and Robe occurred during decades of tremendous turmoil in the late sixteenth century and the reign of Henry IV. Sales of newly-created offices would continually challenge the moral values and economic conditions of Robe families; Sword families witnessed the virtual collapse of companies of gens d'armes and a literal déchirement owing to contradictions and conflicts among higher-ranking provincial dynasties and the magnates to whom middle-ranking families "belonged."
Descimon perceives the Colbertian recherches as an extension
of the legalization of nobilities beyond what had been accomplished
circa 1600. The world of the financiers had threatened the Robe
identities more than those of the Sword, as decades upon decades of war
demanded immense fiscal resources that would be pocketed by individuals
and family. This provided conditions for the rise of a kind of generic
nobility that chiseled away continuously at the edges of the second
order, and that scarcely gave the time of day to the older non-Robe
leaders of the third.
Boullainvilliers and Saint-Simon would take sarcastic pleasure in reminding courtiers and readers that despite all the humpty-dumpty legislation drafted by Robe judges to prove royal origins, noble seigneuries seemed antecedent to the monarchy. Read Abbé Dubos, and then Le Paige.
Chancellor Daguesseau sought to restate and to strengthen the ethos of merit, virtue, and royalism that underlay the Robe identity. The Polysynodie and chambre de justice on occasion never really were successful at creating a legal frame for financier activities. Whether the Robe, through its corps, actually lost prestige and power would not, in the long run, be as important as the fact that they believed they had. Descimon reminds his readers of Lucien Goldman's Le dieu caché, and rightly so. Again, irrespective of whether a loss of power and prestige took place, the parlementaires believed that it had, and the interiorization of that sense of lost power in Jansenism would have enormous consequences.
I have not remained absolutely faithful to Descimon's precise and convincing arguments. Did I want to have the last word? Let that word come from the very thoughtful title of this book. Épreuves captures so much of this book in its multiplicity of meanings whenever nobility is the subject.