Friday, 10 October 2014

The Nobility

The nobility in France had been quite powerful before the Ancien Regime but Louis XIV quickly but that threat to his power out of the way when he introduced a simple but effective manoeuvre: etiquette. To the outsider (or current) viewer the rigid etiquette seems silly at best but in reality it was far more than just an extraordinarily complicated way of living; it was control. By keeping the nobility occupied with privileges, favours, ranks and rights the King kept the ambitious nobles at bay. Instead they became the stars circling around the Sun King.

There were not only different titles but different classes within the nobility - and of course it mattered to which you belonged.

18th century French nobles

Noblesse d'épée or Nobility of the Sword
As the name indicates the nobility belonging to this category had made their name through military services to the Crown and were usually quite old families; most could trace their militant allegiance back to the 13th century. These nobles had hereditary titles and were traditionally against the Noblesse de Robe since this latter category was considered up-starts. Notably, the Ducs were from the Nobility of the Sword.

Noblesse de Robe
These courtiers were either descendants of or themselves holding a high office. One thing that definitely set the Noblesse de Robe apart from the Nobility of the Sword was that it was possible to buy your way into the Noblesse de Robe. This became such a problem that the Sword Nobility had the matter brought before Parliament. 

Noblesse de Lettres or Nobility of Letters Patent
Some courtiers were given their status through letters patent issued by the King. If the King was in need of money he could sell a post.

Noblesse de Robe

These were the three main categories but it would also be of consequence when the title was awarded a family. A family could have a title bestowed on them "au premier degré" or "in the first generation" which obviously means that a person can either be given a title after 20 years of service or if he dies performing his office. Then, a title could be awarded "graduelle" or "gradually" which means that a title would be given if both father and son has spent 20 years in a certain post. 

By 1789 there were between 17.000-25.000 noble families in France but these include all families that has at some point possessed a noble title. When you look closer into the families it becomes more difficult to determine exactly how many people were of the first class; estimates ranges from 80.000 to 350.000. Over the years the more accepted number lies 110.000-120.000 people - of these 1/4 had received their nobility status as late as the 18th century. At this point in time France's population was about 28.000.000 which means that the nobility counted for 0,4 % of the entire population.

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