From Valor to Pedigree: Ideas of Nobility in France in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

From Valor to Pedigree: Ideas of Nobility in France in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

by Ellery Schalk


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ISBN-13: 9780691610948
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #87
Pages: 262
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.70(d)

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From Valor to Pedigree

Ideas of Nobility in France in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

By Ellery Schalk


Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05460-5


The Military Profession

As a Social Class in the Sixteenth Century

To talk of nobility as a profession or function is in some ways not new. Max Weber, for instance, also at times considered nobility a sort of profession. Nobility stood for or represented a ruling or dominant class, and with the inherited position of nobles went a whole series of rights of rulership and rights of action and authority. In this sense nobility was more than just inherited privilege and represented a kind of function in society, as it indeed did, in different ways, for Marx. But views like Weber's and Marx's are products of later times, and sixteenth-century people simply did not view nobles that way. Their view of nobility tended to be a more focused and narrow one, and it had to do almost entirely with military matters. For them, nobility was indeed a profession or function — it was something you did — and to be noble you had to fight. Action is involved in the matter, but not as seen by nineteenth- and twentieth-century observers like Marx and Weber. In this chapter I will discuss this sixteenth-century understanding of nobility as a profession through an examination of a number of sources of the time, and try to test its plausibility by relating it to military realities and, briefly, to the situation in other countries.

This view of nobility in sixteenth-century France was in fact very rarely stated clearly or theoretically, but it can nevertheless be found in a wide range of literary and other sources. It is especially clear in writings that discuss nobility only indirectly or in passing, suggesting that the view was accepted and needed no further explanation. Montaigne, for instance, reflects this attitude well, even if he is not usually explicit about it. He often refers throughout the Essais to his "profession" when talking of other matters, without elaborating further, and just assumes the reader will understand he means the military — for example, "A man of my profession has these problems." His direct identification with the military profession may seem strange when one thinks of Montaigne as a noble but not necessarily as a military man. Other sources that are more explicit help clarify what Montaigne means here.

The famous political pamphlet the Dialogue d'entre le Maheustre et le Manant states this view of nobility more clearly. Here the term noblesse is used not to define a social class — at least not in terms of its being a fixed status — but to define a profession, the military one, the way justice is used to define the legal profession. The Manant speaks of noblesse the way one might speak of a number of troops today:

As for the nobility, few of them are following our party for Religion's sake, for it has been more than fifty years as far as I know, that the Nobility has not recognized or understood wherein lay the honor of God and piety toward His people, from which has resulted their freedom and ambition which has led them to become ignorant of their origins; as for the very few who joined our party it has been for money, and when it happened to be lacking, we had no more Nobility [nous n'avons plus eu de Noblesse]; and what is worse, some of them after receiving our payments, acted as traitors toward us, and went over to your party, making a virtue of betraying and cheating us after they received our money. So much so that your Nobility follows heresy and ours money [Tenement que vostre Noblesse suit l'hérésie et la nostre l'argent].

The Maheustre answers that the Manant should not complain about the nobility and the king's party in general, and "especially about the Nobility and the Law or Legal Profession, inasmuch as our Nobility fights gallantly and goes willingly to war, and our Law or Legal profession is rigorous and vigilant toward our enemies."

Thus there are two professions, noblesse and justice — fighting and law. This view may have had little to do with the reality of the situation, but it nevertheless seems to have been a basic part of the mentality of the people of the time. A little later, when the Maheustre says, "Tesmoin la Noblesse du Lyonnois, Dauphiné et d'Auvergne, qui s'estans adonnée aux Princes ...," he does not mean that the nobility had issued a proclamation supporting the princes, the way a political figure might come out in support of a candidate; he means that the princes have gained a fighting force, that those people who do the main or important fighting have decided to fight for them.

Other indications of this attitude are found in the sources of the time. It is especially clear in François de L'Alouëte, for instance. In the preface to his treatise of 1577 on the nobility, after referring to the noblesse as those "faisant profession d'armes," he gives his reasons for writing:

... more precisely I want to lead and form the Child to whom this [book] is dedicated into true Nobility and perfect virtue [vraie Noblesse et parfaite vertu], and with him all other Nobles who might wish to profit from it and to acquire some dexterity for the practice of their vocation [pour l'exercice de leur vacation].

It is clearly understood from the context that their "vocation" is the profession of arms. Later in the work he is even more explicit:

This is the origin of all Nobles and thus of the French gentilshommes [or nobles] also, all of whom have been schooled and formed in virtue [qui tous ont été forméz et rencontréz en la Vertu] ... so that they later devote their lifetime in following faithfully this great and beautiful virtue, which, thanks to the action of the Spirit of God, inspired the Kings when choosing and selecting them over others; and under this duty and condition they were given the title of Nobles, and their vocation (thus limited and consisting in the practice of this virtue) has been called Noblesse [et leur vacation (ainsi limitée et consistant en l'exercice de cette vertu) a été appellée Noblesse].

Here nobility is conceived of as the vocation or profession of virtue, or of the virtuous, suggesting a close relationship between virtue and profession. Indeed, one could, according to L'Alouëte and his contemporaries, make a "profession de noblesse," which was basically the same as making a "profession of virtue." And the profession of nobility was, of course, essentially that of arms, and in particular it implied a special sort of valor and superiority in arms that placed one above the ordinary soldier. The expression "faire profession de noblesse" appears often in the texts of the time. For instance, L'Alouëte writes elsewhere that fiefs should not be alienated since they "have been solely attributed in return for the practice of arms, and very precisely assigned and attached to the persons of Nobles who make their profession Nobility [qui font profession de Noblesse]."

The noble or nobles who wrote the Harangue pour la noblesse in 1574 also understood the society in terms of profession or calling:

Those are the three things that kings should wish for: to have religion, that is to say, sound consciences, the Nobility to fight for their defense, and justice to take care of their subjects, so much so that if together we devote ourselves to this goal according to the vocation we each have been called into by the Lord [selon la vacation, à laquelle Dieu l'a appellé]....

The implication here is that regardless of one's legal designation of belonging to one social group or another, a person is really defined by his profession. In other words, a "noble" who does not fight but instead carries out justice (or enters the Church) would not really be, in this particular framework of thought, a part of the noblesse and belongs instead with those "qui font profession de Justice."

François de La Noue also reflects this view in his writings. For instance, he speaks often of the "gentilshommes et leur profession." More indirectly, when offering exceptions to his attack on the reading by nobles of the Amadis of Gaul books, he writes: "Now, within this discussion I do not include the exercises at arms that are one of the favorite pastimes of our Nobility in times of peace." He means, in other words, these are the pastimes of "our leading fighting men" in times of peace.

Monluc also seems to have thought of himself as carrying out the profession of nobility. In his writings, gentilhomme, or noble, was usually equal to capitaine, and the two terms tended to be used interchangeably. Those capitaines were then generally contrasted or set off against the gens de pied, or the ordinary foot soldiers — those who would not, in his view, be nobles. He makes such a distinction when appealing to his capitaines to treat them as men: "Si nous sommes gentilshommes, ils sont soldats." He also says, in reference to a particular accomplishment of his: "Had I not acted thus, I would have provoked a rising of the whole nobility together with all the soldiers against the king." He could have said that it would have caused all the leading fighters (but not necessarily all the officers) and all the regular soldiers to revolt against the king; he apparently did not need to, because everyone knew what he meant by noblesse.

In his poems of 1574 Jean de La Taille presents a similar idea from a slightly different point of view. With the military part of his métier comes the duty to be a courtier — a duty which he despises and which has led him to write in the first place. He was born of noble blood ("... saches done que/Je suis de sang noble conqeu"), but he would almost have preferred to have been born an artisan or a bûcheron than to have had to be a courtier. Then he continues:

When I was young I was taught the classics along with how to handle horses, and have them obey; I had lessons in fencing, in how to perform on horseback, in singing and playing ball, in running races, and how to talk properly, in doing everything that is proper to any gentilhomme. In short I knew everything about the profession of fighting — so unhappy a profession! — [De faire ce qui est propre à tout gentilhomme. Des armes sachant done tout le mestier en somme — Mestier tant malheureux! — ] and then was sent to the Court, and I curse that day, that month, that year and even the hour it happened.

Thus, being a noble, he must follow his métier, which is that of arms, of being a gentilhomme, but which in this case included the other related activities he cites, such as fencing, racing, and the rest.

The kings also seem to have viewed nobility essentially as a profession. Henry III in his letters, for instance, uses gentilshommes and noblesse when referring to those who are doing the fighting. The Protestants have "managed in various ways and with various means to attract into their party several Catholic gentilshommes," that is to say, several important fighting men have gone over to the other side in the Civil Wars. Or again, in the same letter, which was written to his baillis, sénéchaux, and governors after the escape of the Due d'Alençon, he writes: "They have no better way to have [themselves] known than by surrendering quickly [and I speak of], those of our noblesse [ceux de nostre noblesse], of our companies and other men at arms in the places that we have ordered them to." It is clear from the passages cited earlier, and from the context here, that Henry III is not using the term noblesse the way a king would usually use it when referring to a group of his subjects, but that he means a specific tactical factor in the military balance between the two sides in the Civil War.

As late as the early seventeenth century, nobility was still referred to as a vocation. For example, in 1612 Flurance-Rivault in defending his proposal for an academy for training young noblemen, said: "For even when the young gentilhomme, put on the path of honor right from the cradle, and who has been called to this path by his family and his profession [par le voeu de ses parens et de sa profession], was to acquire ..."; he was naturally assuming what the profession of a gentilhomme will be. It is significant that Flurance-Rivault said his profession, thus implying that there is only one profession of the nobility. In 1608 La Béraudière stated that it is possible for a nonnoble to become a noble because, as he explains,

Nobility which has been acquired by virtue can be exercised by the nonnoble as well as the noble [car la noblesse a esté acquise par la vertu qui peut aussi-tost estre exercée du roturier que du noble], and if the nonnoble is made noble it continues for him and his family, if he has any, because it could happen that he would have poor ancestors who would not have followed this vocation [qui n'auroient suivy ceste vacation].

That is to say, he might have had parents or relatives, who, even if they were born nobles, were too poor to practice — at its higher levels, anyway — the profession of arms, which theoretically defined their nobility. In this case, one is judged noble by what one does — by the profession one follows — rather than by one's heredity.

Montaigne is particularly revealing on the question in a part of his Essais where he goes beyond the ordinary clichés to give a clear and precise statement of the view. In discussing the term vertu, which, he points out, means "valor" for the French as well as for the Romans, he goes on to say, in a passage that has been cited often but can now perhaps be interpreted a little differently: "La forme propre, et seule et essencielle, de noblesse en France, c'est la vacation militaire." Montaigne often writes about how much he loves to ride, to be on horseback, to be on campaign, and one tends to forget that according to him, his profession was not that of a writer, nor of a lawyer, but that of a noble, or a fighter on horseback.

People thus often referred to nobility as a tactical factor in the wars — the way one might, for instance, talk of having so many tanks before a battle — while nobles themselves tended to view their special status as something that had to be fulfilled and justified through action, or through fighting. Modern social scientists have often pointed out, that profession is an indication of status; but with these writers the roles are in a sense reversed: status, or the status of nobility at least, is simply a profession — the profession comes first and determines the status. This is the old, premodern view of nobility. The new, "modern" view, dating from the early to mid-seventeenth century on, is the more familiar one in which nobility reflects a particular status in society that is determined by birth, and the profession — doctor, lawyer, military person, or whatever — is a personal choice that can enhance the prestige of that status and can even, in very recent times, determine it to a high degree.

To state that nobility was viewed essentially as the military profession in the sixteenth century is to suggest the fundamental importance of military realities in understanding the question of nobility. André Corvisier has already raised some of the key questions of the relation between nobility and the military for early modern France. Unfortunately, the rarity of good sources and the lack of a comprehensive study of the sixteenth-century military, such as Philippe Contamine's for the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, leave us with many unanswered questions. Nevertheless, Contamine's work still suggests some basic paths for dealing with this problem in the sixteenth century.


Excerpted from From Valor to Pedigree by Ellery Schalk. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Preface, pg. ix
  • Introduction, pg. xiii
  • 1. The Military Profession As a Social Class in the Sixteenth Century, pg. 3
  • 2. Nobility As Virtue and the Medieval Origins of the "Feudal-Military" View, pg. 21
  • 3. The Ancient and Renaissance Italian Traditions and the Continued Predominance of the Medieval View, pg. 37
  • 4. Troubles of the 1570s and 1580s and the Beginnings of the Prise de Conscience, pg. 65
  • 5. The Crucial Years: The Early 1590s, pg. 94
  • 6. The Separation of Virtue and Nobility and The Absolutist State in the First Half of the Seventeenth Century, pg. 115
  • 7. Old and New Marques de Noblesse and the Diminished Importance of Nobility in the First Half of the Seventeenth Century, pg. 145
  • 8. Education, the Academies, and the Emergence of the New Image of the Cultured Noble-Aristocrat, pg. 174
  • 9. Conclusions and Perspectives, pg. 202
  • Bibliography, pg. 223
  • Index, pg. 233

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