In the days of Louis XV the society of France might be roughly divided between those who were privileged and those who were not. The difference between the two classes was marked in various vexatious and unjust ways. The vexatious ways irritated the rich bourgeois and the unjust ways embittered the poor. It was vexatious to a rich Parisian that his man-servant might not wear livery, and it was embittering to a struggling peasant that he must pay heavy taxes while the lord of the castle paid almost none. Now this inequality of the laws was made harder to bear because the number of nobles in France was so great.
It is difficult to give a just conception of the French noblesse in the eighteenth century. Even the number of the nobles has been very variously estimated. Taine thought that there were about 140,000, or rather more than five nobles to every thousand inhabitants of France. The French noblesse corresponded at once to the English nobility and to the English gentry. It has often been termed a caste - correctly in so far as every child of gentle birth was noble - but incorrectly in so far as entrance to the class was easy; for, apart from the special favor of the Crown, any person might be ennobled by purchasing one of about four thousand offices.
The French nobility as a whole was not rich. A few families possessing vast estates and attracting the lavish bounty of the sovereign were indeed as rich as the wealthiest English nobles. But the majority of French nobles neither owned wide domains nor could afford a splendid and luxurious life at Versailles. Some possessed very little land and drew nearly all their income from their seigniorial rights - rights analogous to those which an English lord of the manor enjoys against the copyholders. Such rights, often ill-defined and burdensome, were most unpopular, and bred infinite litigation which absorbed much of the revenue they produced.
The share of the nobles in the wealth of France was diminishing for many years previous to the Revolution. The French noble was usually poorer than a petty English esquire. The poor noble was condemned by the prejudices of his order to remain poor, for he might not engage in a lucrative calling and was almost compelled to enter the army or navy. Pay was small, promotion was tedious, and the great prizes in these as in other fields were too often intercepted by favor and intrigue. A prejudice hardly less powerful, though sometimes defied, forbade the noble to marry any woman not of noble blood and thus recruit his fortunes with wealth gained in commerce or industry. The virtues and the vices of the nobility were alike adverse to minute thrift and petty gains.
The French nobility before the Revolution was based on an entirely different principle from that of England. Nobility in England was a political institution composed of a limited number of persons, each of whom on his death handed on to his heir in line of primogeniture the legislative and other powers he had exercised, together with his titles. In France it was a numerous privileged caste enjoying no political power, but transmitting its fiscal and other privileges to all its male progeny, though its titles were usually settled to descend from eldest son to eldest son.
In France, before the Revolution, all titled persons were noble, but only a portion of the nobility were titled. In some provinces few of the privileged nobles had titles; and all over the land the marquisates, baronies, and other similar distinctions were usually settled strictly according to primogeniture, the younger sons transmitting the noble name and the fiscal privileges to their progeny, but usually without any nobiliary affix, excepting the preposition de known as the particule. There were exceptions to this rule, and there were even then instances of persons who unduly assumed titles, amid the crowd of noble families ever increased by nomination to various offices in the realm, and also by purchase.
When, about the beginning of the reign of Louis XVI, an ordinance appeared, that no individual should be presented at Versailles, unless he could prove four hundred years of gentility, or that his ancestors were already noble before the year 1400, a multiplicity of comtes and marquis were rejected; though many an untitled gentleman, ancient as English squires in their halls in Lancashire and Northumberland, left their towers and chateaux in Britany and Languedoc, and posted up to Paris to show their pre-eminence. Every gentleman, his pedigree being certified, was, on the first hunting-day, invited to mount with the king into his carriage, and accompany his majesty to the spot where the hounds were turned out. This privilege was termed le droit de monter dans le carosse du roi. The plain squire, to whom this right was allowed, was considered as superior to the count or marquis, whose claims were rejected.
Corruption prevailed to a great extent, and bribes were given to those in positions, where now such practices are rare or unknown. The corrupt use of official position was almost universal. Money was used to buy the support of cardinals and bishops of the church ; it was distributed among the judges of the Parliament; it was given to the representatives of the provinces in their local States ; even the favor of the Pope was purchased by abbeys for his nephew and money for his sister-in-law. One hundred thousand livres were used in corruption among the deputies at the Protestant Assembly at Saumur. Richelieu made out a list of the prominent Swiss who should receive "gratifications" from the French agents. Mazarin's representatives reported to him the money they were obliged to spend in obtaining the election of a satisfactory archbishop of Mayence. Prime-ministers, secretaries of state, superintendents of finance, all grew rich by practices that would now destroy the reputation of any public man, and which, even if they are occasionally discovered, are no longer common.
Some English politicians, it has been discovered, were in the pay of Louis XIV. There was nothing extraordinary in such a thing at that era. In every country there were men of prominence who received money from other governments. While such dealings were, to some extent, kept secret, their discovery was not fatal to the reputation of those who had them. The fear of being placed in a compromising situation was little felt. An ambassador or a minister rendered friendly services to a foreign power, and it was only just that he should be paid for his good offices. Richelieu wrote the French ambassadors at London to employ money with the English who could be of service. The ministers had advised the cardinal that such a course would be judicious, and they were authorized to advance or promise whatever amounts they thought best. There were some who were poor when they retired from public office, but they were a small minority; there may have been those who did not seek fraudulent or unconscionable gains when they contracted with the state, but their names have not been preserved.
The whole body of the ancient noblesse, it is true, were distinguished by the particle de before their names ; but without these brevets there would be no title for unmarried women, however exalted their rank or quality. The daughter of a duke and peer, as well as the daughter of a plain gentleman, is only Mademoiselle; as Mademoiselle de la Rochefoucault, Mademoiselle de Montmorency. The canons of the cathedral at Lyons were styled counts: and the chanoinesses of several noble chapters are likewise comtesses; and frequently, when a demoiselle de qualite has no desire or prospect of marriage, the king confers on her also the title of comtesse. She henceforward is styled Madame instead of Mademoiselle, and in company can serve as chaperon to other unmarried ladies. The aristocratic element which pervaded all customs and institutions - for instance, the wife of an untitled man was called mademoiselle instead of marfame, and none but titled women were allowed to rouge.
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