The Nobility of France:
17th and 18th Century Impressions
The nobility of the Kingdom of France has been evaluated by various scholars of history. There is something to be said, however, for those who chronicled their impressions while living them in the 17th and 18th centuries. The excerpts of Charles Loyseau’s A Treatise on Orders, written in 1610, and Isabelle de Charriere’s The Nobleman, written in 1763 provide two very different glimpses on the French nobility from differing time periods. From these two accounts, it is clear that there was a marked shift in the way some viewed the nobility and their role in the operation of the French state. While Loyseau praises the nobility nearly wholeheartedly, Charriere’s perspective raises questions on the true nature of the nobility later on in French history. All in all, these writings demonstrate a contrast worthy of evaluation.
Charles Loyseau was born in 1564 and was a jurist by trade. Additionally, he was purported to be a legal scholar. His writing reflects this and as such do seem to fit the characterization as a “social anatomy of France.” (Mason and Rizzo 1999: 16) On the nobility, Loyseau seems for the most part uncritical of their role in French society. Despite a brief mention of the “tyranny of the gentlemen” faced by the Third Estate he is largely understanding of the nobility’s role (Mason and Rizzo 1999: 23). Loyseau’s understanding of the nobility seems to reflect his own beliefs about the nature of the universe. That is to say, he feels the nobility represents more than just a social order but rather a reflection of the celestial order. In reference to the Estates General or the three orders he feels as though they are “following the example of the celestial hierarchy…”
Isabelle De Charriere, on the other hand, was born over one hundred years after the death of Loyseau and into a family of noble birth. In her autobiographical work, she begins to expound some criticisms of the nobility. Not the nobility on the whole but rather the older bloodlines to which she herself was a member. The activities of the protagonist’s brother and father, the Baron d’Aronville and son, make her question the true merits of her own and like families. In contrast to this, a man by the name of Valaincourt and a member of a recently ennobled family seems to exude several noble traits. “…Who was, nevertheless, both amiable and well brought up… She had found him in sweetness, intelligence, and generosity… (Mason and Rizzo 1999: 38) This was in contrast to her father who seemingly did not have these traits and yet still “…counselled her never to forget her rank…” (Mason and Rizzo 1999: 38)
Despite criticisms or lack thereof, both authors in some fashion address the question of whether the privileged social status enjoyed by the nobility was actually deserved. Loyseau writings in this respect are much more comprehensive with an examination of various privileges enjoyed and their historic or traditional roots. Some of the major luxuries addressed by Loyseau seem to come directly as benefits from the order’s duties to the crown. “…The nobility, which risks its life for the defense of the state, be honored by the people as its protector” (Mason and Rizzo 1999: 20). In other words, the primary duty of the nobility is to fight for the Kingdom of France and in doing so they are entitled to certain privileges which Loyseau it would seem believes to be valid. One such honor is the exemption of nobles from the taille and other such taxes that are raised for the “purposes of war.” This is also complemented by the right of hunting; “The hunt has also for good reason been limited to the nobility, so that nobles can maintain in peacetime an exercise resembling war…” (Mason and Rizzo 1999: 20) So it seems that Loyseau, at least in these instances, understands and supports the rights of the nobility.
When Charriere writes her work things seem to have changed in the...