The Nobility (I)

A few things explained

A horse-drawn carriage passes under a huge archway decorated with blue curtains

Entry of Charles X into Paris at the Gate of la Villette, Louis-François Lejeune, 1825

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Royalists, Nobles, Aristocrats

A royalist supports monarchical forms of government. Kings and queens.

This is Part 1. Part 2 is here.

The terms noble and aristocrat refer to social class.

You will see the two used interchangeably, even though noble specifically refers to birth and aristocrat refers to ruling elites. Historically, though, un noble or la noblesse was more common than un aristocrate or l'aristocratie.

A "royalist" supports monarchical forms of government. The terms "noble" and "aristocrat" refer to social class.

Today in France, you might also hear the expression les aristos (lay zah-ree-sto) as a reference to nobles or aristocrats. Usually it's pejorative.

Not all royalists were nobles. Many peasants in Brittany and southern France were royalists. They worked the fields for 14 hours a day, didn't own a single piece of silk or jewelry, could not name anyone at Court, and were illiterate. And yet they wanted a king, not a national assembly.

Not all nobles were royalists. Some nobles renounced their privileges after the Revolution and voted for the execution of Louis XVI at his trial in January 1793. The king's cousin, the Duke of Orléans, renounced some of his privileges and changed his named to Philippe Égalité ("Philip Equality").

A mark of nobility?

You can often identify a member of the aristocracy by the presence of a "de," which is called la particule: Henri II de Montmorency, Alphonse de Lamartine, the Marquis de Sade.

A man in purple bowing before the king, who accepts him with open hands

Reception of the Doge of Genoa at Versailles on the 15 May 1685, Claude-Guy Hallé, 1715

The presence of "de" is not a reliable indicator, however. The names of many French families are preceded by "de" and they are not noble. For example: Honoré de Balzac. Not a noble.

Sometimes you don't see an aristocrat's "de." Either it doesn't exist - some noble families do not have la particule - or it's dropped in certain contexts. Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu is known in French as le cardinal de Richelieu, but he is even more commonly referred to as just "Richelieu." (To confuse everything, in English he is known as "Cardinal Richelieu"!)

It is often said that French nobles paid no taxes. This is incorrect.

The big take-away on "de": Its presence or absence tells you nothing definitively, but if it's in a historical figure's name, the person is probably an aristocrat. Probably, not definitely.

Privileges

You may have heard that French nobles paid no taxes. This is incorrect.

Nobles paid taxes. The amount depended on where they lived, because taxes varied greatly by region, but it was always significantly less than what peasants or those in the middle classes paid.

Aristocrats were expected to serve in the military - often called "the blood tax" - and they were forbidden from doing certain kinds of work, mostly manual labor. They could own and manage an enterprise, provided it was linked to their lands or possessions.

A nobleman accused of crimes was tried in a court of his peers, which was often a quite forgiving judicial system.

Nobles having a party outside while cherubs float around. A boat waits in the background.

Embarkation for Cythera, Antoine Watteau, 1717

Nobles were allowed to carry a sword, hunt, and levy taxes on the peasants or vassals who leased land from them. Certain positions in government, the military, and the church were open only to them.

The French nobility almost universally considered its social and economic privileges as an essential check against royal power. Without a vibrant aristocracy to serve as social and political ballast, the thinking went, a king could - and most likely would - abuse his power at will. (See Louis XIV and Versailles in Part 2.)

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