Nobility of the SwordThe Nobility of the Sword consisted of the nobles of the court and of the nobles of the provinces. The former were few in number, perhaps a thousand, but they shone with peculiar brilliancy, for they were the ones who lived in Versailles, danced attendance upon the king, vied with each other in an eager competition for appointments in the army and navy and diplomatic service, for pensions and largesses from the royal bounty. These they needed, as they lived in a luxurious splendor that taxed their incomes and overtaxed them. Residing at court, they allowed their estates to be administered by bailiffs or stewards, who exacted all that they could get from the peasantry who cultivated them. Everybody was jealous of the nobles of this class, for they were the favored few, who practically monopolized all the pleasant places in the sun.
The contrast was striking between them and the hundred thousand provincial nobles who for various reasons did not live at court, were not known to the king, received no favors, and who yet were conscious that in purity of blood, in honorableness of descent and tradition, they were the equals or superiors of those who crowded about the monarch's person. Many of them had small incomes, some pitifully small. They could cut no figure in the world of society, they had few chances to increase their prosperity, which, in fact, tended steadily to decrease.
Their sons were trained for the army, the only noble profession, but could never hope to rise very high because all the major appointments went to the assiduous suitors of the clique at court. They resided among the peasants and in some cases were hardly distinguishable from them, except that they insisted upon maintaining the tradition of their class, their badge of superiority, a life of leisure. To work was to lose caste. This obliged many of them to insist rigorously upon the payment of the various feudal dues owed them by the peasantry, some of which were burdensome, most of which were irritating. In some parts of France, however, as in the Vendee and in Brittany, they were sympathetic and helpful in their relations with the peasants and were in turn treated with respect by them.
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