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The French Nobility in the Eighteenth Century

Reassessments and New Approaches

Edited by Jay M. Smith

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$93.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02898-9

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ISBN: 978-0-271-05867-2

328 pages
6" × 9"
2006

The French Nobility in the Eighteenth Century

Reassessments and New Approaches

Edited by Jay M. Smith

“Smith, well known for his studies of the French nobility, presents a stimulating collection of essays originally presented at a 2002 North Carolina Humanities Center symposium.

Grouped under three themes—economy, political culture, and ‘aristocratic reaction’—the essays, an exceptional blend of broad overview and detailed specialization, highlight the interrelationship of political, social, and intellectual change.”

 

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Historians have long been fascinated by the nobility in pre-Revolutionary France. What difference did nobles make in French society? What role did they play in the coming of the Revolution? In this book, a group of prominent French historians shows why the nobility remains a vital topic for understanding France’s past.

The French Nobility in the Eighteenth Century appears some thirty years after the publication of the most sweeping and influential “revisionist” assessment of the French nobility, Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret’s La noblesse au dix-huitième siècle. The contributors to this volume incorporate the important lessons of Chaussinand-Nogaret’s revisionism but also reexamine the assumptions on which that revisionism was based. At the same time, they consider what has been gained or lost through the adoption of new methods of inquiry in the intervening years. Where, in other words, should the nobility fit into the twenty-first century’s narrative about eighteenth-century France?

The French Nobility in the Eighteenth Century will interest not only specialists of the eighteenth century, the French Revolution, and modern European history but also those concerned with the differences in, and the developing tensions between, the methods of social and cultural history.

In addition to the editor, the contributors are Rafe Blaufarb, Gail Bossenga, Mita Choudhury, Jonathan Dewald, Doina Pasca Harsanyi, Thomas E. Kaiser, Michael Kwass, Robert M. Schwartz, John Shovlin, and Johnson Kent Wright.

“Smith, well known for his studies of the French nobility, presents a stimulating collection of essays originally presented at a 2002 North Carolina Humanities Center symposium.

Grouped under three themes—economy, political culture, and ‘aristocratic reaction’—the essays, an exceptional blend of broad overview and detailed specialization, highlight the interrelationship of political, social, and intellectual change.”
“It is a book of great value for our understanding not only of the nobility, but of the politics and culture of eighteenth-century France. To what extent one may draw general conclusions from the case studies that make up many of the essays is open to debate; it is certain that this book will stimulate further research.”
“This well-edited and well-written anthology combines the latest research with a range of subjects on a variety of levels and has something for the professional historian and for the general reader.”

Jay M. Smith is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent book is Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast (2011).

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: Nobility After Revisionism

Part I: Nobility and Economy

1. Economies of Consumption: Political Economy and Noble Display in Eighteenth-Century France

Michael Kwass

2. A Divided Nobility: Status, Markets, and the Patrimonial State in the Old Regime

Gail Bossenga

3. The Noble Profession of Seigneur in Eighteenth-Century Burgundy

Robert M. Schwartz

4. Political Economy and the French Nobility, 1750–1789

John Shovlin

Part II: Nobility and Political Culture

5. Noble Tax Exemption and the Long-Term Origins of the French Revolution: The Example of Provence, 1530s to 1789

Rafe Blaufarb

6. Women, Gender, and the Image of the Eighteenth-Century Aristocracy

Mita Choudhury

7. Nobles into Aristocrats, or How an Order Became a Conspiracy

Thomas E. Kaiser

Part III: Nobility and “Aristocratic Reaction”

8. A Rhetoric of Aristocratic Reaction? Nobility in De l’Esprit des Lois

Johnson Kent Wright

9. The Making of an Aristocratic “Reactionary”: The Comte d’Escherny, Noble Honor, and the Abolition of Nobility

Jay M. Smith

10. The Memoirs of Lameth and the Reconciliation of Nobility and Revolution

Doina Pasca Harsanyi

Part IV: Nobility and Modernity

11. Nobles as Signifiers: French Nobles and the Historians, 1820–1960

Jonathan Dewald

For Further Reading

List of Contributors

Index

Introduction

Nobility After Revisionism

The purpose of this volume is neither to reassess the French eighteenth century nor to survey the full range of experiences and attitudes characteristic of the French nobility over the course of that century. No single book could do justice to such large subjects in any case, and the title of this volume is actually meant to evoke a more defined problem of historical interpretation. The contributors to this volume were asked to respond to a particular challenge: to reexamine the relationship between the dependent variable of “nobility” and the larger equation of historical change in eighteenth-century France. What difference did the nobility make? How did the nobility influence, and how was it influenced by, processes of historical change in the eighteenth century? In what ways does the history of the nobility illuminate the relationship between the Old Regime and the French Revolution? Where, in other words, should the nobility fit into the twenty-first century’s narrative about eighteenth-century France?

In all likelihood, members of the educated reading public would be puzzled by historians’ desire to reexamine the nobility’s place in the unfolding drama of the eighteenth century, since for them, as for the historians who crafted the standard interpretation of eighteenth-century French history generations ago, the nobility’s function in eighteenth-century life was thrown into stark relief by the events that closed the century. According to still-current conventional wisdom and by the light of most scholarly accounts before the 1970s, the nobility exemplified the traditional order in the eighteenth century because of its arrogance, decadence, and parasitic habits, and its increasingly irritating presence in French politics and society had helped to trigger the French Revolution. In films, novels, and popular accounts of the period—and in many a classroom—the nobility’s loss of power in 1789, and its eventual destruction in the course of the Revolution, continues to be represented as an inevitability. Common sense has it that the nobility’s demise reflected the ascendance of the liberal values characteristic of the middle class, which mobilized the righteous anger of a population eager to be free of aristocratic tyranny.

For specialists of the period, however, these and other venerable assumptions about the nobility’s role in eighteenth-century history were brought down by the seismic upheaval of “revisionism” in the 1970s and 1980s. Revisionists, who especially took aim at crude versions of Marxist explanation built on rigid social categories and a teleological vision of class conflict, showed that nobles of the eighteenth century had been as modern and progressive as anyone, that they too were dissatisfied with the existing political order, and that the most forward-thinking among them had helped to spearhead the assault on the old order in 1788–89. Moreover, they showed that avenues of upward mobility remained open for commoners in the decades before the Revolution and that the economic and social resources of French society were not manipulated specifically, or self-consciously, for the benefit of an aristocracy—or at least no more so than in previous generations. As drawn by the leading revisionist historians, then, the picture of the nobility (and of its former sparring partner in the pages of history books, the bourgeoisie) came to be dominated by shades of gray. Except for the accident of legal title, little distinguished the nobility from other citizens who rose above a certain minimum threshold of income and social capital. The members of France’s heterogeneous elite owned similar forms of property, read the same books, belonged to some of the same organizations, frequented the same social venues, and assumed the same respectful but increasingly critical posture toward the government. The animosity toward nobility that the abbé Sieyes and other publicists articulated in 1788–89 grew directly from the immediate circumstance of political debate and not from deeply rooted and increasingly stark social differences.

As one specialist of the period recently noted, the revisionists’ dismantling of the “social interpretation” of the Revolution in the 1970s left “an indelible mark” on the image of the nobility, and it completely altered the research agenda for specialists of the Old Regime. Heeding George Taylor’s famous dictum that the Revolution had been a “political” event with “social” consequences rather than the other way around, historians of the eighteenth century sought new sources for the revolutionary rupture that occurred in 1789, and they naturally began to focus on aspects of eighteenth-century political life—parlementary constitutionalism, Jansenism, political sociability, publishing, language and ideology, reading habits, the shape of the emerging public sphere—that were not easily transposed to the experience of discrete social classes. In France, where revisionism never entirely swept the field and where a long tradition of regional history encouraged work on local nobilities, the nobility continued to attract scholarly attention even after the assault on social interpretations of the Revolution. On the American side of the Atlantic, however, where the key findings of the revisionists coalesced into a new conventional wisdom embraced by most of the leaders of the field, the decline of “the social interpretation” meant that the eighteenth-century nobility increasingly faded from view, just as social history ceded pride of place to cultural history within the discipline as a whole. One of the seminal works of revisionism, Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret’s The French Nobility in the Eighteenth-Century: From Feudalism to Enlightenment (1976), eventually obtained a kind of scriptural status, as specialists of the eighteenth century simply invoked its authority or quickly rehearsed its central conclusions whenever the subject of the nobility became unavoidable in their own analyses.

The essays in this volume thus reflect, at least in part, a desire to compensate for the field’s recent record of benign neglect with respect to the eighteenth-century nobility, especially in America. The contributors, all of whom are American, share the assumption that the category of nobility must remain a central, rather than a marginal, character (or characters) in any retelling of French history. Each in his or her own way, the authors bring the nobility back toward center stage in the French drama of eighteenth-century transformation.

What makes this effort to reassess the nobility especially timely, however, is the methodological ferment that has taken place within the larger field of French history and, indeed, within the historical discipline as a whole over the last decade. A generation after the halcyon days of revisionism, the ascendancy of cultural history has produced two distinct and conflicting, if not incompatible, imperatives within the discipline. On the one hand, the expositors of a mature “postsocial” history continue to search for the logic of historical change through ever more sensitive analyses of representations, discourses, and necessarily “constructed” realities. On the other hand, historians determined to see some combination of institutions, social groups, and economic change as the engines of history have aggressively contested the primacy of cultural analysis and have inspired a pendulum-like “return” of social history. The appearance of a new professional organization for historians in the late 1990s reflected a growing determination to promote rigorously empirical research on traditional subjects and, just as clearly, a desire to counter the surging influence of cultural analysis, which many had come to regard as excessively theoretical and abstract.

The essays in the present collection inevitably reflect the influence of this ongoing debate, because the historian who sets out to reassess the eighteenth-century French nobility in the wake of the revisionist earthquake and its successive aftershocks necessarily traverses methodologically conflicted terrain. To revisit the category of nobility, some thirty years after Chaussinand-Nogaret formulated the most comprehensive and influential revisionist statement on the subject, means also to revisit the analytical approaches favored by earlier generations of historians, to reassess their validity, and to consider what has been gained or lost through the adoption of new methods of inquiry in the intervening years. In other words, the essays do not merely suggest that the nobility needs to be recovered as an object of focused inquiry, but each also suggests, either explicitly or implicitly, how that recovery operation should proceed. How can the insights provided by Marxist analysis be retained and reenergized? Which of the revisionists’ conclusions have deservedly and permanently altered the interpretive landscape, and which reveal the methodological limitations under which the revisionists labored? Did their obliteration of the nobility-cum-class foreclose the development of more fruitful variations of social interpretation? If the empirical findings of the revisionists have made it impossible to define the nobility as a socially and economically constituted group, have the techniques and assumptions of cultural history made it possible to reconceive the nobility’s role and identity? In short, what kind of nobility should be reinserted into the narrative framework of eighteenth-century history, and what are the historian’s most reliable routes of access to the nobility and its pertinent contexts?

In seeking their own answers to these questions, the authors have incorporated a mixture of methods and forms of evidence, and the volume actually projects a number of distinct agendas for future research. Some essays emphasize the need to reexamine traditional topics, such as status, property owning, and taxes. Others stress the shaping influence of contemporary language and cultural categories in the experiences of the nobility. Nevertheless, common themes do emerge, and the volume’s reassuring message is that the “revival of the social” and the exploration of new frontiers in cultural analysis need not be mutually exclusive. All of the authors both reflect the important lessons of revisionism and show an eagerness to reexamine the assumptions on which revisionism was based. But in their reexamination of those assumptions, the authors collectively advocate a methodological eclecticism that makes it possible both to assess changing social realities and to highlight the creative and determining capacities inherent in cultural forms.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of this healthy eclecticism comes in the contributions by Michael Kwass, Gail Bossenga, Robert Schwartz, and John Shovlin. All four insist on the need to implant the eighteenth-century nobility within a context of overarching economic change, but they approach economic change in very different ways, and together their essays show not only the value but also the complementarity of conclusions reached within loosely defined “social” and “postsocial” analytical frameworks. By reconnecting the Old Regime and the Revolution, by joining the traditional concerns of materialist historians to those of cultural historians, and by reconceptualizing the nobility’s impact on the consciousness of the later eighteenth century, Michael Kwass’s essay perfectly conveys the spirit of respectful reassessment and reformulation that animates the entire book. Kwass analyzes an important aspect of contemporary debates over luxury, and in doing so he reveals fascinating interconnections between political, social, and intellectual change. Beginning with discussion of the controversy over the sartorial guidelines that determined the dress of deputies to the Estates-General at the convocation ceremony in May 1789, Kwass proceeds to demonstrate how, over the course of the second half of the eighteenth century, the fermentation of French economic thought propelled a transformation in basic social attitudes. He argues that the very idea of conspicuous display, which the convocation ceremony brought to the fore by correlating mode of dress with official status, had been thoroughly discredited in previous years by a range of economic and moral theorists who had redefined the meanings of luxury, consumption, and utility. In particular, the works of Rousseau, Mirabeau, and Forbonnais in the 1750s had presented three powerful and influential models for the reinterpretation of luxury and consumption, and although deep disagreements separated the texts, all three authors ultimately renounced as wasteful and counterproductive the traditional linkage between high social status and conspicuous displays of power and wealth. By decisively breaking this link, Kwass suggests, these three models contributed to “a crisis in social representation” that visibly played itself out at Versailles in the spring of 1789.

Gail Bossenga focuses not on the force of representations but on some of the underlying mechanisms shaping social and cultural change in the eighteenth century. In an essay that draws deftly from the insights of Marx, Weber, and Tocqueville, she highlights the evolving relation between nobility and markets under the Old Regime. She describes the elaboration of two kinds of markets in the eighteenth century—emerging capitalist markets based on the free exchange of goods and services, on the one hand, and the more pervasive markets constructed and regulated by the “patrimonial state,” on the other hand. These markets were not mutually exclusive, and the units of value on which they were theoretically based—money in the case of capitalist markets, status and honor in the case of patrimonial markets—actually overlapped in practice. By sensitively detailing the contradictions created and promoted by the state’s involvement in market exchange, Bossenga shows how the advanced patrimonialism of the Bourbon monarchy helped to create the grounds for the “delegimitation” of nobility. The Revolution did not facilitate “the rise of the market,” as was once believed. Rather, the Revolution’s achievement was to change the rules governing the operation of markets, so that those entering contracts could do so from a position of legal equality, “in which status could not make pre-emptive claims.”

Whereas Bossenga focuses on the contradictory moral and material pressures brought to bear on the nobility in the markets of the Old Regime, Robert Schwartz uses case studies of noble seigneurialism in Burgundy to show how individual nobles could creatively combine the calculuses of profit and status so well described by Bossenga. Through analysis of the techniques of estate management developed by the Mairetet and Berbis families after about 1750, Schwartz demonstrates that they were motivated to expand and improve their estates through a mixture of motives that reflected a distinctive phenomenon aptly termed “noble entrepreneurship.” They continued traditional efforts to protect the rights and incomes attached to their seigneuries, thereby following in the footsteps of ancestors from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but they also applied rational techniques of accounting and negotiation, promoted agrarian capitalism, and saw the defense of their seigneurial prerogatives as “good business.” Influenced both by the Enlightened celebration of professional commitment and by their enduring pride in family and position, they cultivated new roles for themselves. By the second half of the eighteenth century, Schwartz suggests, “the attentive seigneur came to see the development of his lordships as a noble profession—work that sustained and legitimized his wealth, power, and status.”

Although both Bossenga and Schwartz address key aspects of the cultural environment of the eighteenth century—the changing meaning of status for Bossenga, the new professionalism for Schwartz—they focus especially on structural characteristics of economic life, and they situate the nobility in relation to those characteristics. In contrast, John Shovlin places great interpretive weight on the terms through which contemporaries made sense of changing economic structures and practices. As Shovlin puts it, after about 1750 “the language of political economy became a critical site for debate” about the nobility, and his stimulating essay ties the fate of the nobility in 1789 to the outcome of a competition between different ways of discussing and thinking about French economic life and the nobility’s place within it. Echoing and amplifying a point made by Kwass, Shovlin surveys the undeniable evidence attesting the growing importance of economic discussion in the publishing world of the later eighteenth century, and he argues persuasively that the language of political economy evolved through three distinct phases between 1750 and 1789: the first phase hostile to the nobility, the second phase particularly sympathetic to the landowning nobility, and the third phase directed against forms of luxury with which the nobility fairly or unfairly came to be identified. In his insightful discussion of prerevolutionary debates, Shovlin shows that the nobility came under attack not necessarily, or only, because of its own behavior and ideas but because its critics had learned to interpret the nobility through damning categories provided by the language of political economy.

By drawing attention to the political debates of 1789, and thus highlighting the ideological stakes implicit in economic discussion, Shovlin’s essay also points to the rich and complicated historiographical legacy of François Furet. Because of the wide and powerful impact of his Penser la Révolution Française (1978) and later writings, Furet was responsible, more than any other individual, for revisionism’s drift away from traditional subjects of social history and the field’s increasing attention to discourse and representation. Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s, Furet and his many admirers and collaborators—Mona Ozouf, Keith Michael Baker, and Lynn Hunt most prominent among them—focused on the cauldron of political contestation and highlighted the determining power of the languages, ideologies, and representations that framed and defined such contestation. New and revealing attention was given to the powerful Rousseauian discourse of the general will, the idea of national sovereignty, and the language of ecclesiastical reform, as well as to other distinctly political phenomena. Scholarship treating a discursively defined “political culture” took precedence over the study of social relations, economic structures, and material conditions.

The essays by Rafe Blaufarb, Mita Choudhury, and Thomas Kaiser suggest that one of the answers to the provocative question posed recently by Suzanne Desan—“What’s after political culture?”—is “more political culture but of a different kind.” For in contrast to the interpretive tradition founded by Furet, the essays by Blaufarb, Choudhury, and Kaiser connect political action and attitudes at the end of the Old Regime to contemporaries’ culturally inflected reading of their own social and institutional experiences. The essays thus provide a new model for the analysis of political culture, one in which culture is represented simultaneously as a cause of political behavior and as the discernible consequence of social and institutional constraints and realities. As represented in this volume, the new political culture incorporates an endlessly expansive definition of the “political” and a “culture” that is always rooted in the negotiation and articulation of relationships.

Blaufarb takes the long view in order to explain the nature of the stakes involved in political contestation in Provence on the eve of the Revolution. In a careful and illuminating analysis of the intractable but little-studied procès des tailles (dispute over noble tax exemption) that occupied Provençal elites for more than two centuries, Blaufarb shows that tensions between different categories of landowners and different kinds of nobles in the eighteenth century reflected both competing material interests and rival understandings of the French legal and social hierarchy. A long and complicated struggle to define and circumscribe the rights and exemptions enjoyed by fief-holding nobles—a struggle that had begun in the middle of the sixteenth century and left property-owning nobles with an increasingly limited range of motion by the 1770s—pitted an imperfectly representative corps of noblesse against other landowning elites of the Provençal communautés, with the state positioned between the warring parties. Blaufarb argues convincingly that the constitutional wrangling that attended the revival of Provence’s provincial Estates-General in 1787, a bickering over representation that historians have generally seen as an early expression of a novel and prerevolutionary politics, was firmly rooted in prior conflicts over noble tax exemption. A political rhetoric that incorporated such newly resonant terms as nation, liberty, representation, and constitution actually channeled passions that stemmed from a centuries-old struggle over fiscal privilege, one that both parties hoped to turn to their own advantage in an increasingly unsettled political context.

Using different sources and examining different contemporary problems, Mita Choudhury likewise reveals the deep roots that underlay the critique of monarchical authority and the traditional social order in 1789. In an essay that focuses especially on the image of a particular type of elite woman—the convent abbess, who almost always came from an aristocratic family—Choudhury exposes the ways in which gendered assumptions about power, rationality, and public space informed the construction, and the criticism, of the category of the “aristocrat” in the eighteenth century. By probing the issues and rhetoric surrounding several court cases in which abbesses came under assault by virtue of their status as powerful elite women, Choudhury suggests that the eighteenth century’s critique of arbitrary and despotic authority was fueled in part by the fusion of mounting suspicions toward both women and nobles. Carefully situating the legal and literary discussions about abbesses within the context of the abbesses’ actual and perceived living conditions, Choudhury persuasively links the disapproving rhetoric directed toward “arbitrary” abbesses—who were accused of abandoning their natural nurturing role in order to exercise power in unseemly ways—to society’s growing disenchantment with corrupt kings and nobles, whose own “illegitimate authority” was increasingly described as effeminized. In both the legal discourses involving the abbesses and wider debates about the social order, Choudhury argues, images of “feminine capriciousness” ran parallel to an “aristocratic sense of entitlement” and “aristocratic appetites” in the contemptuous eyes of the political critics of the ancien régime.

The cultural and political history of the term aristocrat also forms the focus of Thomas Kaiser’s essay, although in this case it is the Revolution itself that proves to be the critical turning point in French understanding of the term. Choudhury’s essay on the image of the aristocracy actually serves as a fitting introduction to Kaiser’s piece because her concluding argument—that an image of “bad” nobles had emerged to complicate the political lives of “good” nobles on the eve of the Revolution—is actually elaborated in rich detail through Kaiser’s intricate analysis of the interplay between perceptions and political events after 1787. As Kaiser puts it, by the end of the Old Regime, “sufficient ideological scaffolding was in place to build a powerful indictment against the noble order given the appropriate circumstances,” and the power of his essay lies in his explanation of the process whereby “circumstances” ultimately turned the “scaffolding” into an “indictment.” In the years preceding the Revolution, he shows, a great many nobles had joined members of the Third Estate in stigmatizing the court and courtiers as the perverse symbols of aristocratic excess. Nobles’ complicity in this critique of the court-based segment of the aristocracy proved costly, however, after bitter constitutional disagreements erupted at the Estates-General in spring 1789. The reluctance of Louis XVI to accept the formation of the National Assembly, the well-known machinations of the king’s conservative advisors, and, perhaps most damning, evidence (and rumors of evidence) of collaboration between noble deputies in the Assembly and royal agents at court all converged to create the appearance of a vast “aristo-ministerial” conspiracy aimed at reversing the gains of the Third Estate. To simplify a complex argument, one could say that because of their real and imagined links to a discredited court in 1789, nobles in general came fatefully to be assimilated to an image of aristocracy—that of the nefarious conspirator—that had circulated for decades, if not for centuries.

One of the tensions that Kaiser’s essay so skillfully brings to light—that between ascribed and self-articulated identity—also permeates the essays of Johnson Kent Wright, Jay Smith, and Doina Harsanyi. The divided, surprising, and sometimes conflicting self-perceptions and affiliations of the French nobility first emerged as an important theme of interpretation for the revisionist historians of the 1970s, who were interested above all to break down the misleading image of the nobility as a relatively homogeneous and self-consciously feudal social class. Wright, Smith, and Harsanyi all acknowledge and build on their predecessors’ “revised” image of a socially diverse and ideologically variegated nobility, but they also seek to recover traces of a distinctive aristocratic consciousness that spanned the long eighteenth century, and each of their essays threatens to give new meaning to the long-discredited concept of the “aristocratic reaction.” The differing faces of “reaction” shown by the three individuals treated in these essays nevertheless underscore the adaptable and multivalent nature of the “aristocratic” identity defended, asserted, and remembered by nobles over the course of the eighteenth century and beyond.

Wright contributes an elegant and refreshing reassessment of the surprisingly understudied Montesquieu. Until the 1960s, the président was most often represented in historical literature as a subtle but determined defender of aristocratic interests, and Wright’s essay begins with an appreciative review of the historiographical and theoretical landmarks—works by Mathiez, Ford, Althusser, and Palmer—that marked the parameters of the “social interpretation” of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws in the prerevisionist age. With the decline of the paradigmatic social interpretation of Old Regime and Revolution from the late 1960s, Wright explains, Montesquieu came to be represented—when he received any attention at all—especially as a liberal political theorist and critic of despotism. Through a close and erudite rereading of Montesquieu’s chapters on nobility and monarchical government, Wright impressively manages to reconcile the “social” and “liberal” readings of The Spirit of the Laws, thus restoring the “feudal” dimensions to Montesquieu’s understanding of French society while simultaneously highlighting the président’s resolute commitment to the institutions of modern monarchy. Having willingly accepted the nobility’s historic “surrender of political autonomy to absolutism,” Montesquieu posed not as a backward-looking reactionary but as an energetic promoter of a status quo that he found favorable both to the interests of the nobility and to the vital cause of political moderation.

The comte d’Escherny, who is the subject of the essay by Jay Smith, also reconciled himself to modernity, so much so that he denounced the hereditary privileges of the nobility, consorted with philosophes, and welcomed the Revolution when it came. Embedded within Escherny’s liberal and progressive worldview, however, lay a particular understanding of nobility, equality, and social order, an understanding that shaped his reading of the unfolding Revolution in unmistakably “aristocratic” ways. Inspired by Montesquieu’s celebration of noble honor, but fiercely critical of the institutions of modern monarchy and sharing the hatred for courtiers that—as Kaiser shows—united many people across the social and political spectrum in the 1780s, Escherny imagined that a regenerated society and a regenerated nobility would emerge together in the wake of 1789’s dramatic rupture with the past. The reformed and open-ended nobility he envisioned would have scarcely resembled the aristocratic class that had largely dominated French politics under the Old Regime—Escherny dismissed that fraudulent aristocracy as “monstrous”—but it would have preserved the principles of rank, inequality, and hierarchy that he believed necessary to the preservation of civic attachments in an increasingly egoistic world. The value of Smith’s essay lies in its uncovering of the intersection between progressive and potentially reactionary political agendas. At least until the Revolution, ideas favorable to the nobility, and to the maintenance of certain social inequalities, remained compatible with, and could easily be veiled by, ideas associated with liberalism, constitutionalism, and natural rights.

Doina Harsanyi takes this general point even further in an essay suggesting that the revolutionary vision of Alexandre de Lameth—one of the noble patriots who steered the “liberal” Revolution from 1789 to 1791—was actually rooted, at least in part, in his own distinctly aristocratic sense of duty, civic obligation, and honor. Harsanyi focuses on the retrospective analysis of the Revolution supplied by Lameth in his History of the Constituent Assembly, a combination memoir/history written during the period of the Restoration. Like most postrevolutionary memoirs, the work offered convenient rationalizations of past behavior, and, as Harsanyi points out, Lameth used the memoirs to settle scores with many of his old foes. Nevertheless, Harsanyi persuasively argues that in his History, Lameth set out to reconcile his commitment to revolution with his identity as a noble, which, he insisted, he had never abandoned. Indeed, Lameth’s nineteenth-century recollections of the early political conflicts of the Revolution seem to confirm two eighteenth-century cultural realities stressed by half the essays in this volume: the almost universal repudiation of a decayed “aristocracy” by the last years of the Old Regime and the simultaneous affirmation of “authentic” noble identity. In Lameth’s case, nobility implied superiority of talent, character, enlightenment, and, perhaps especially, selflessness. For him, the true nobles of 1789 were marked precisely by their willingness to endorse revolutionary change and by their magnanimous efforts to lead the nation toward the construction of a better world. Although Lameth would never fit anyone’s definition of a reactionary, there seems to be little doubt that the process of making sense of his own political engagement in the years following the Revolution made him acutely aware, and belatedly proud, of his identity as a noble. In the History of the Constituent Assembly, his expositions of political principle are tinged with cultural nostalgia.

The nineteenth century’s memory of the prerevolutionary nobility and, more important, its understanding of the nobility’s relationship to the coming of modernity, is the central theme in the overarching essay that concludes this book, Jonathan Dewald’s thoughtful meditation on the history of the French nobility before revisionism. Dewald opens the essay by pointing out two peculiar features of twentieth-century French historiography. First, he notes, French historians before about 1960 devoted surprisingly little attention to the early-modern nobility, in spite of the nobility’s continuing hold on the literary and political imagination of the twentieth century. Second, the impulse to reexamine the social realities of the early-modern French nobility came especially from Anglo-American scholarship, and in particular the field-changing study of Robert Forster on the nobility of Toulouse.

Dewald explains the mystery of French historians’ blind spot for the nobility by revisiting the nineteenth century and the narrative of modernization that emerged in the decades after the Revolution. In confronting and making sense of the features of the modern world that enveloped them, historians, novelists, and social scientists assigned to the nobility a necessarily marginal role in the history of French national development. The centralizing monarchy and the bourgeois creators of capitalist markets and values became the bearers of modernity in the nineteenth-century imagination. Nobles thus necessarily figured as “ghostly outsiders to the processes that mattered for French identity,” either fruitlessly resisting the advance of modernization, as in the work of the historians Guizot and Renan, or marching cavalierly to their own drummer, as in the novels of Dumas or the literary histories of the Goncourt brothers. Because its values and interests seemed incompatible with the central story line of French history, in other words, the nobility could not be suitably integrated into the historiographical canvass depicting premodern life. Dewald provocatively suggests that this situation changed only after World War II as the French embraced distinctively American assumptions about the relationship between shaping social structures and the elaboration of personal identities and histories. Only the widespread acceptance of the belief that individuals cannot stand outside their own social and historical contexts—and perhaps, one is tempted to add, an emerging postmodern aversion to master narratives of any kind—made it possible for historians to see nobles and the institution of nobility as integral components in the unfolding of the French national past. This changed understanding of the relationship between individuals and society, as much as the developing critique of Marxist thought after 1956, gave birth to the revisionism of the 1960s and to the debates about nobility and eighteenth-century society that have raged ever since.

The contributors to this volume would not presume to announce a similarly momentous shift of interpretive paradigm in the early twenty-first century. The intersection between the revived interest in nobility and the intensifying discussion in historical circles about the very nature of “society” nevertheless suggests that the nobility is in the process of becoming a central site for the reconceptualization of historical change and for the testing of new methods of social, cultural, and political analysis. The essays collected here represent one sign of the vitality of that process and, we sincerely hope, a stimulant (and friendly invitation) to renewed debate.

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