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The Nobility Under Louis XV

In considering the condition of France at the beginning of Louis XV's reign it is proper to give special attention to the position of the nobility, for politically as well as socially its influence was far greater than that of either the church or the third estate. The French nobility was a large body; new members were constantly added, and its limits were vaguely defined; it is difficult, therefore, to say with accuracy in what measure the administration of the country remained in its hands. It was the policy of Louis XIV to restrict the influence of the great nobles, whose families traced their origin far back in French history, and whose ancestors had once ruled provinces almost as independent sovereigns.

Secretaries of state were more often chosen from officials connected with the parliament, or from superintendents who had shown ability, than from nobles who bore names like those of Conde, or Rohan, or Bouillon. In this, as in every tradition of government, Louis XV. sought to follow in the footsteps of his ancestor. There were no families in France during the eighteenth century exercising a political influence to be compared with that of the Bedfords, or the Pelhams, or the Newcastles in England. But illustrious houses like the Condes or the Bouillons formed a small part of the French aristocracy. The parliamentary families should not be regarded as part of the third estate ; they were not improperly called the nobility of the robe, inferior indeed to that of the sword, but still identified in interest with the aristocracy, rather than with the commonalty of France. Men who had sprung from modest origins, but had obtained the prizes of the state, became founders of new families, equal in wealth and in rank to those of more ancient lineage ; the descendants of Colbert and Fouquet and Louvois mingled on no very unequal terms with the descendants of nobles who had conquered at Bouvines, or been defeated at Agincourt.

Centuries are not required to instill into the blood a lively conception of the difference between nobleman and commoner. Admitted into a privileged body, enjoying the rank, the titles, the immunities of an aristocracy, naturally they espoused its interests and shared its prejudices. The father of the famous Duke of St. Simon was a poor country gentleman elevated to the peerage by the caprice of his master, but his son could have been no more deeply imbued with aristocratic prejudices if he had traced his rank to Hugh Capet instead of to Louis XIII.

The administration of France under Louis XV was largely in the hands of the aristocracy, and certainly the traditions of that body had a controlling influence on the policy of the country. Even though a secretary of state might belong to a parliamentary family, or came from still humbler stock, the courtiers, the officers of the army, those attached to the person of the king, belonged with few exceptions to the order of the nobility.

At this period nearly two hundred thousand persons formed the second estate, as the nobility was officially called ; they were but one per cent. of the population of France, but they received a larger amount of consideration from the government and from the world than the other ninety-nine parts. To most readers of French history its interest still centres in the vision of a magnificent monarch, attended by dukes and marquises, resplendent in powdered hair, embroidered coats, and jeweled swords, and by ladies who were always charming, often beautiful, and sometimes virtuous. It is not a complete and a philosophical conception of the history of a great people, but it would be idle to disregard the importance of the court life under the old regime.

There was, however, a large class of the nobility who were not found among the gorgeous butterflies that adorned Versailles; gentlemen who could show the quarterings necessary for entrance to any noble order, but who knew as little of Paris as many an English squire knew of London. These country gentry for the most part were reduced in fortune, and exercised a small influence in their districts. The want of money, the lack of some powerful friend who could procure for them a position at court, were generally the causes which kept them at home. Trade was forbidden, the practical qualities by which estates are made more valuable were not common among them, and the fortunes of many gentle families steadily decreased. Each son inherited the privileges and the traditions of his order, but his material inheritance was often sadly inadequate for the support of a gentleman, who could find no way of bettering his fortunes without derogating from his rank. He became " the high and mighty seigneur of a dovecot, a frog-pond, and a warren." A superintendent tells us that in his district, out of thousands of gentle birth, there were not thirteen who had incomes of twenty thousand francs. Scorning any occupation but the chase, they blushed to work and died of hunger.

Thus reduced in fortune, they led a cramped and useless existence. The French gentlemen as a class took little part in the affairs of the community; few of them bore any resemblance to the country gentry who exerted so great and so beneficial an influence in England. They were indeed less apt to get fuddled drinking with the farmers at the tavern, but neither had they any taste for the useful work of the Quarter Sessions, nor that active and hearty cooperation in matters of local interest which make the squire the chief figure, and usually a popular figure, in every English hamlet.

The gentlemen who were debarred from the brilliant existence of the court cherished in no less degree the pride of their order. The duke who stood by the king 'at his dinner and was admitted into his bedchamber was no more tenacious of the deference due his rank than the country gentleman who lived in a dilapidated chateau on poorer fare than many a skilled mechanic, and who wandered over his scanty acres with a hungry dog at his heels and a rusty sword at his side. Those who were outraged that an office should be bestowed on one who could not show his sixteen quarterings were often as ignorant as they were proud. Even in 1789, in the cahiers prepared for the States General, there ware numerous requests from country gentlemen for some mark - a cross or a ribbon - which should proclaim to the world that its wearers were of noble birth.

Undoubtedly there were exceptions ; there were nobles, like the father of the great Mirabeau, who were in no way connected with the court, and whose careers were active and useful. At the beginning of the Revolution the peasants of the Vendee remained constant to the principles espoused by the upper classes, and their devotion proves that in this district the gentlemen still retained their position as leaders of the community. Such cases were exceptional; as a rule, the provincial nobility were encased in a stupid pride, which kept them aloof from their neighbors of less degree; they showed no capacity for useful work or for any work; they possessed no hold over a community which they neither guided nor aided.

If the life of some gentleman whom scanty fortune condemned to vegetate in the provinces was barren and dull, it was far otherwise with the great nobles. To an uncommon degree they had within their reach the objects of human desire; they possessed rank and wealth; they were free from the cares and necessities which cramp the existence of most; they received great benefits from the state, and were exempt from most of its burdens. Few lots would seem more enviable than that of the head of a great French family during the eighteenth century, living in a country which attracted the attention and excited the admiration of all Europe, forming part of a magnificent court, where the splendor of the king and the greatness of the country furnished innumerable opportunities for the acquisition of dignity and power and wealth.

Such an aristocracy naturally dazzled and delighted all beholders. The training of its members from childhood fitted them for intercourse with their fellows; they had tact and polish and good breeding. A lad of twelve could turn a neat compliment to a guest; a girl was drilled each hour of the day in the minuti* of etiquette. " Be careful not to disturb your rouge, and not to tear your robe, and not to disarrange your headdress, and then amuse yourself," said a mother to a young girl going to a children's party.1 They were drilled for a life of social display; the marquis of ten, in powdered hair and with a sword at his side, walked with as muoh dignity as the duke his father; his sister of twelve was versed in the use of the rouge-pot, and submitted herself to the arts of the hairdresser with as resigned a grace as the duchess her mother. If a nobleman often grew up knowing very little else, at least he was taught good manners, and for the career before him this was by far the most useful accomplishment which he could acquire.

As a political element in the body politic, one is first impressed by the amount which they cost the state. Alike the feudal dues which remained as a relic of the feudal power vested in the nobility of a former age, and the heavy burden which their successors imposed upon the national treasury, increased the weight of taxation, and were a serious check upon the prosperity of the larger portion of the community.

Life at Versailles was costly, even though the king defrayed many of the expenses of those whom he regarded as his guests. The establishments of the great nobles were on a colossal scale, the servants were numerous, the cost of entertainment was large, and necessary expenses were swollen by shiftlessness. As a result, the nobility as a body were involved in debt; even though the revenues from their estates were swollen by pensions and emoluments received from the king, a large proportion were in a chronic state of insolvency. The Duke of St. Simon had an income of almost eighteen hundred thousand livres, yet his creditors had to be content with fifty cents on a dollar of their claims ; Marshal Estrees left two million livres of debts; at twenty-six the Duke of Lauzun was already two millions in debt; M. de Chenonceaux lost seven hundred thousand francs at play in a single night. The Duke of Bourbon had an income of two million livres, and owed six millions when he died. The country gentlemen were embarrassed because their receipts were so small, and the great nobles were bankrupt because their expenditures were so large.

Rarely did a nobleman give any attention to improving the value of his property, and to engage in business enterprises was unknown. Arthur Young said he could generally distinguish the estates of great nobles by their bad condition. The dilapidation of fortunes was sometimes repaired by marriages with the daughters of bankers or government contractors, but such alliances were not as common as they are now, and the tendency of an extravagant class was to become an embarrassed class. Yet whatever was the condition of the hereditary estates, though rents were falling and mortgages were growing, a man of the world, as has been truly said, expected that there should be money in his pocket, a fine coat in his dressing-room, powdered valets in his antechamber, a gilded carriage standing at his door, and a choice dinner served upon his table. In certain directions he was willing to disquiet himself in order to obtain the means for such an outlay, but the only source of supply to which he could resort was the liberality of the king and the treasury of the nation.

The demands of the nobility for pecuniary aid were regarded as well founded; alike privileges and pensions and exemptions from taxation were based upon a claim of right, upon services rendered in the past for the support and defense of the monarchy, and which were supposed still to be rendered in the present. In the service of the king the members of the second estate, it was said, were ready to shed their blood; in times of peace they were his counselors, and in the advice of noblemen possessing the advantage of leisure, and raised above need, a wisdom and disinterestedness could be found not to be expected from those born to a humbler lot. It was just, therefore, that offices of profit and responsibility should be intrusted to those who were entitled to their gains and fitted for their duties. Such was the theory of the advantages of an aristocracy as a governing class, and it is necessary to study the history of France in the eighteenth century to see how far this conception was justified.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:58:19 ZULU