Cover image for Status, Power, and Identity in Early Modern France: The Rohan Family, 1550–1715 By Jonathan Dewald

Status, Power, and Identity in Early Modern France

The Rohan Family, 1550–1715

Jonathan Dewald


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ISBN: 978-0-271-06616-5

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264 pages
6" × 9"
13 b&w illustrations/2 maps

Status, Power, and Identity in Early Modern France

The Rohan Family, 1550–1715

Jonathan Dewald

“Jonathan Dewald’s new monograph throws a multifaceted light on one of the leading grandee families of early modern France. . . . Dewald’s important study establishes with clarity and erudition how the egos of high-ranking nobles helped to shape early modern France and Europe, and shows how their grandiose actions would prompt their overthrow in the wake of the revolution.”


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In Status, Power, and Identity in Early Modern France, Jonathan Dewald explores European aristocratic society by looking closely at one of its most prominent families. The Rohan were rich, powerful, and respected, but Dewald shows that there were also weaknesses in their apparently secure position near the top of French society. Family finances were unstable, and competing interests among family members generated conflicts and scandals; political ambitions led to other troubles, partly because aristocrats like the Rohan intensely valued individual achievement, even if it came at the expense of the family’s needs. Dewald argues that aristocratic power in the Old Regime reflected ongoing processes of negotiation and refashioning, in which both men and women played important roles. So did figures from outside the family—government officials, middle-class intellectuals and businesspeople, and many others. Dewald describes how the Old Regime’s ruling class maintained its power and the obstacles it encountered in doing so.
“Jonathan Dewald’s new monograph throws a multifaceted light on one of the leading grandee families of early modern France. . . . Dewald’s important study establishes with clarity and erudition how the egos of high-ranking nobles helped to shape early modern France and Europe, and shows how their grandiose actions would prompt their overthrow in the wake of the revolution.”
“Dewald’s descriptive explications of the Rohan nobles’ characters and lives capture the atmosphere of the time, colorfully conveying the dynamics of court life, political maneuverings, violence, and honor. This work is a welcomed addition to the field of early modern French history.”
“Powerfully argued and written with his customary elegance and precision, as well as with an eye for the telling example, Status, Power, and Identity in Early Modern France: The Rohan Family, 1550–1715 confirms Dewald’s status as one of the leading scholars of early modern elites.”
“Jonathan Dewald’s Status, Power, and Identity in Early Modern France demolishes the myth of comfortable stability for the Ancien Régime elite, providing a template for future studies of elites in any society. Using careful analysis of all forms of social capital, his innovative methodology reveals the intricate exchanges among king and aristocrats undergirding the French monarchical state. His emphasis on the Rohan women, in particular, should open up new research perspectives on gender and continuities of aristocratic power. This new classic of social and political analysis freshens a debate launched a generation ago by Sharon Kettering and will open the twenty-first-century conversation on how to analyze clientage, status, and power.”
“Jonathan Dewald has established himself as the premier historian of the early modern European nobility. With this book, he delivers a microhistory of one of its leading and most interesting families. He uncovers not only how the Rohan managed to maintain their prominence in the face of the vicissitudes of fortune and multiple challenges that confronted them across several crucial generations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but also, perhaps most intriguingly, how reinvention, self-fashioning, and historical awareness were part and parcel of their continued success as one of France’s preeminent clans. Dewald wears his learning lightly, making this book both indispensable for scholars and eminently accessible to students.”
“In this lively historical account of how the distinguished and powerful Rohan family was established in early modern France, Jonathan Dewald tracks the amazing array of cultural moves and social strategies that were deployed over generations by family members—both the men and the women—equally charged with attaining the crucial social capital for building the dynastic base from which they worked to preserve their social status amid ups and downs, including political blows from the outside and intrafamilial rivalries, scandals, and litigation on the inside. These riveting stories are historical gems that easily rival fictional competitors.”
“No historian has more authority than Jonathan Dewald to write about an early modern French ducal family. Here is his chef d’oeuvre. By exploring the importance of family myths of origin, and the lives of dedicated servants, Dewald had done what he has never done before: the history of a family as a micro-state society. The firmness and clarity of the social and economic aspects of the Rohan dynasty reach deeper than the Rohan and their managers knew.”
“An epic account of one of France's most notable—and notorious—families. Writing with flair and an eye for detail, Jonathan Dewald shows how the Rohan amassed power in the sixteenth century and pulled themselves back from the brink of dynastic disaster in the seventeenth century, which saw the great commander Henri de Rohan and his brother, the duc de Soubise, in exile without male heirs. In a perfect blend of political and cultural history, this startling new account of the house of Rohan weaves together public and private histories to elucidate the fragility of social standing, the fortunes spent to acquire or maintain it, and the provincial estates, esteemed bloodlines, military exploits, and family myth-making that produced both hard cash and social capital. A must-read for anyone interested in French aristocratic society.”

Jonathan Dewald is UB Distinguished Professor of History at the University at Buffalo. He is the author of Lost Worlds: The Emergence of French Social History, 1815–1970 (Penn State, 2006).


List of Illustrations


Note on the Text


1. Constructing Status: Family Narratives, Family Myths

2. Constructing Identity: Henri de Rohan, 1579–1638

3. Women, Gender, and the Management of Dynastic Capital

4. Material Contexts: Wealth, Income, Strategies

5. Followers and Servants: Aristocracy as Collective Practice






At the Reformation, the citizens of Geneva cleansed their cathedral of its graven images, and they kept it clean in the centuries that followed. Visitors today find no images there of John Calvin, Theodore Beza, or other leaders of the Swiss Reformation; even the site of Calvin’s grave, located somewhere in the city, is unknown. The cathedral contains only one statue, in a chapel near where the main altar once stood: a life-size monument to a seventeenth-century French duke who resided only briefly in the city, Henri de Rohan. The monument expresses Genevans’ sense of Rohan’s iconic status within international Protestantism. For a dozen years, he had led French Protestants in rebellions against an increasingly hostile monarchy; soon after signing a final peace treaty and leaving France, he took on a new role, leading a French-sponsored Swiss army against the Catholic Habsburgs. A statue in Rohan’s honor was first erected in the cathedral soon after his burial there in 1638. In 1794, revolutionaries smashed it and exhumed the body, but a restored version was installed in the 1820s; the current statue dates from 1890.

This book examines Henri de Rohan and the people around him, his family, friends, servants, and enemies. The story starts around 1550, with the generation of Rohan’s parents; it extends forward into the early eighteenth century, to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. My intent is not to offer a biography or family history, although what follows includes elements of both. This is instead a cultural and social history, an exploration of values, sentiments, practices, and relationships.

Rohan’s Europe-wide celebrity in itself justifies such an investigation, for it was not only Geneva that honored him and his family. Upon his exile from France, Venice appointed him to lead its armies, and after his death (in battle, in Germany), the city placed his armor on display in St. Mark’s Cathedral. His younger brother Benjamin, the first duc de Soubise, received the honor of a state funeral in Westminster Abbey; their mother and sisters corresponded with a selection of European eminences. Seventy years after the duke’s death he was still remembered in France as a great man, partly for his military exploits, partly for his writings on politics and war. Understanding seventeenth-century Europe requires understanding figures like him and his family; they helped shape the histories of several European countries.

But the main justification for studying the Rohan has less to do with their extraordinary achievements than with what they tell us about the ordinary functioning of European society in the seventeenth century. That society was dominated by aristocrats like the Rohan, small groups whose rule rested on the idea that social inequality was hereditary, natural, and valuable, a precondition both for societal order and for great achievements. Only a few could rule society, and those best suited to do so had inherited the role from distinguished ancestors, because personal qualities followed bloodlines; aptitude for rule (like other personal traits) derived ultimately from biology, from the characteristics that members of a particular family shared. Inequality did not mean tyranny; aristocratic rule was to be just, resembling that of a father over his household, at once loving and stern. But like paternal authority, aristocratic authority rested on natural differences, and therefore it was not open to questioning by social inferiors. As members of the high aristocracy, holding wealth, military commands, and the esteem of their contemporaries, the Rohan allow us to see how this aristocratic social order actually worked, as daily practice rather than social theory; their example brings to light some of the mechanisms of social domination, its complicated impact on both rulers and ruled, and some of the limitations that it encountered.

Of course, the example is hardly a typical one. The Rohan were too wealthy and too well-connected to be remotely representative of even the ruling class of their times. In the 1620s, Henri de Rohan had an income of about 100,000 l.; a few years earlier, many French country gentlemen lived on less than 200 l. yearly, and an income of 10,000 l. placed a family among the leading provincial nobility, the handful of families who dominated the political life of their regions. Even other members of the high French nobility, those whose incomes matched Rohan’s, found the family’s pretensions excessive. Rohan and his family believed (falsely but sincerely) that their lineage could be traced back to the age of Constantine the Great, in the late Roman Empire; they claimed as well connections with ruling dynasties across Europe. In the early eighteenth century, the duc de Saint-Simon in his memoirs ridiculed Rohan familial vanity; a few years later, a lawsuit by other peers sought to curtail their claims to being princes, rather than mere aristocrats.

Yet if the Rohan were exceptional, they also exemplified for many of their contemporaries a certain norm of societal superiority. Catholics as well as Protestants admired the duke Henri himself. The maréchal François de Bassompierre (a Catholic, who had led troops against the Rohan brothers and had a lawsuit against the duke) spoke in his memoirs of Henri de Rohan as “a very great man” around the same time a lawyer, arguing before the very Catholic Parlement of Paris, described the duke as someone “whom all Europe admired for his wisdom and honored for his virtue, . . . whom honor and glory accompanied everywhere.” Disliking the family and doubting its genealogical claims, Saint-Simon in the following century nonetheless felt obliged to devote an entire chapter of his memoirs to “stories concerning the house of Rohan”; and he, too, praised the duke himself as a “great man.” The Rohan offer normative rather than statistical typicality; for contemporaries, they exemplified how aristocratic society ought to work.

In their case, the historian can follow these workings at the microscopic level, the level at which (as historians have increasingly come to realize) social power is so often created. Precisely the qualities that made them unusual—their wealth, prominence, ambitions, and vanities—ensured that they generated a wide range of documents, offering unusual access to their intimate thoughts and doings. Henri de Rohan, his sister Anne, and their mother, Catherine de Parthenay, were all writers, who wanted their works to circulate widely; and because of their frequent travels and their role in the international Protestant movement, they also generated a large number of private letters. Their private archives were dispersed during the French Revolution, but some materials from them survive; so also do thousands of business contracts that the family arranged before the notaries of Paris. This multidimensional documentation permits a multidimensional inquiry, one that brings together politics, psychology, gender and sexual relations, intellectual life, economic life, and material culture. Here is the particular strength of the case-study approach: it permits access to human realities and causal sequences that more general approaches mask.

Mid-nineteenth-century European intellectuals disagreed about many issues, but they shared a set of fundamental ideas about aristocrats like the Rohan. The radical Karl Marx, the humanitarian reformer Charles Dickens, the centrist liberal Alexis de Tocqueville, and the nostalgic conservative William Cobbett—all agreed that aristocrats were a backward-looking group, who defined themselves with reference to long-dead ancestors and centuries-old traditions. For Marx and the others, this self-understanding limited aristocrats’ ability to cope with social change, and European society changed fast after 1450, with the emergence of new trade networks, new knowledge and technologies, more centralized governments, higher standards of education and of elegant behavior. These changes enriched new men and made old skills obsolete. Wealth now flowed to merchants, bankers, lawyers, and bureaucrats, rather than to estate owners or mounted warriors. Warfare continued, to be sure, but it followed new rules: the adoption of gunpowder on European battlefields meant that armies needed masses of obedient, well-trained foot soldiers, not an elite of independent mounted knights. New ideas and religious beliefs posed other challenges, undermining the idea of aristocracy itself and creating alternative models of social excellence, founded on personal merit and achievement rather than high birth. A ruling class fixated on the past could not sustain itself in this era of rapid societal change.

Contemporary historical scholarship has dismantled much of this nineteenth-century received wisdom. Like dominant groups in other times and places, scholars have shown, the aristocrats of Old Regime France were neither prisoners of tradition nor helpless victims of social change. On the contrary: they proved quite capable of reinventing themselves in response to external challenges, and as a result they profited from many of the transformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Aristocrats continued throughout these years to dominate France’s army, Church, and government; although few of them participated directly in commerce or banking, they happily invested in others’ commercial enterprises. Meanwhile, rising population, improved transportation, and new commercial techniques added to the value of those resources that the group had long controlled, so that the aristocracy’s estates and forests generated rising revenues. To the very end of the Old Regime, the aristocracy remained France’s wealthiest and most powerful group. They played an equally important role in French culture, less as producers of art and literature than by determining the frameworks in which such production would take place.

This understanding of aristocratic continuity provides the interpretive framework for the analysis that follows. Already a notable family in the early sixteenth century, the Rohan steadily reinforced their position over the following two hundred years. By 1700, they counted among the dozen or so greatest French families; even today they remain prominent in French politics, and continue to own one of their ancestral Breton châteaux. The Rohan thus offer a case study in ongoing social domination, illuminating how a ruling group maintained its hold even as conditions around it changed. As such, I argue here, the family shows the particular inadequacy of “tradition” as an explanation of aristocratic belief and action. Like other aristocrats, of course, the Rohan spoke often and warmly of the past, and, as the honors that Geneva bestowed on them attest, they were famous as well for their Christian piety. But they were always ready to disregard the lessons of both past and piety, and in their writings they explicitly urged others to do so.

Instead, both their theory and their practice emphasized rational calculation and worldly self-interest; Henri de Rohan was in fact the first European writer to develop a theory of self-interest as a dominant force in human affairs. In keeping with this attitude, the family showed a great capacity for change, in some instances, for radical change. Hence the centrality in my analysis of the theme of self-reinvention, both collective (the central issue in chapter 1, which considers the family’s self-presentation) and individual (the focus of chapter 2, which traces the multiple identities of Henri de Rohan himself). Readiness to change was the precondition of the Rohan’s continued success, as it was for other members of the French aristocracy, and that readiness went deep. It affected how the Rohan understood themselves, as well as their strategies and tactics of social interaction.

Yet if the Rohan illustrate the continuity of aristocratic domination and the flexible mind-set that made it possible, they also show the limits of aristocratic power, and understanding those is another concern of this study. Limits derived partly from basic realities in the Rohan’s society, over which they could have little control. Wars and the fallout from French foreign policy disrupted the income from their estates, both directly and indirectly. The monarchy compensated for some of these losses by naming members of the family to high military, ecclesiastical, and court offices and providing outright gifts, but these benefits came with high costs attached. Military commands and other offices had to be purchased, and other expenditures were necessary to maintain the family’s public profile. As a result, the Rohan were permanently in debt, despite the immense income that they enjoyed. (These and related economic issues are addressed in chapter 4.)

Alongside these external pressures, contradictory forces within the family itself posed other limits to its success. Each individual within the family had distinct interests, and these never entirely overlapped with those of the others. Siblings competed for the limited stock of family resources; wives and mothers had obligations to their parents’ families as well as to their Rohan husbands and children; cousins shared dynastic pride but otherwise usually had little to do with one another. Nor were there strong collective constraints limiting the effects of these divergences. Rohan fathers usually died long before their wives, and in any case they spent long stretches of time away from their families, at court or in the army, leaving their wives and mothers to manage the family. In these circumstances, patriarchal authority was rarely even an abstract ideal among the Rohan, let alone a practical reality, and both women and men enjoyed considerable freedom in pursuing their interests and wants. As a result, internal conflicts were frequent and dramatic. In the early 1620s, there was a shooting war between Henri de Rohan and his cousin-by-marriage the duc de Luynes; in the 1640s, a lawsuit between Henri’s widow and the couple’s only daughter; in the 1690s, lawsuits between Henri’s grandson and granddaughter, overlapping with a lawsuit between the duc de Rohan and his Rohan-Guémené cousin. Conflict within the family was the norm, not the exception. (These issues are the central concern of chapter 3.)

Even their interests as individuals drew the Rohan in contradictory directions, so that family successes produced trade-offs and losses as well as gains. Thus the family prided itself on its Breton territorial base, which for centuries had provided the foundation for its economic and political eminence. But family members also sought eminence in national and international affairs, and inevitably that pursuit came at the expense of provincial influence. Henri de Rohan himself never visited Brittany during the last nineteen years of his life, and none of his intimate advisers came from there; he may have contemplated selling his ancestral estates in order to acquire for himself a Mediterranean principality. His daughter and grandchildren had even less to do with provincial affairs. By their times, the Rohan were a Parisian family, for whom Brittany was foreign territory, to be visited on only rare occasions and following extensive preparations. (These issues recur throughout the text, but are the central concern of chapter 5.)

A final source of trouble lay deeper still, in the Rohan’s definitions of what constituted a good life. In his writings, Henri de Rohan presented a strikingly modern view of self-interest, as a legitimate and fundamental motive in human affairs, which properly overrode traditional obligations. Yet he defined his own interests in ways that had little to do with the social forms that would come to dominate nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe. He gave little thought to managing and improving his properties, and viewed merely serving the state as only a second-best form of activity; although he dealt often with the middle classes of his time, he viewed their economic vision as fundamentally misguided. Rather than management, investment, or state service, his hopes centered on military and political grandeur, and the possibility of becoming an independent prince formed an important component of his political imagination. Modern in so many ways, Rohan remained in other respects committed to a world in the process of disappearing.

These dimensions of the Rohan’s story help explain a central fact about their story: despite wealth, power, and prestige, the family could never count itself an autonomous force in French society. After about 1600, it did not even seek such autonomy. Its finances remained crisis-prone throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it depended on the crown for its material survival. There was cultural dependence as well, in that the Rohan’s self-image was bound up with their connections to monarchy. In one sense, their situation thus exemplified what William Beik has called the “social collaboration” that underlay France’s monarchical government, the process by which the state and the high aristocracy mutually supported each other. But the terminology of collaboration also overstates the power that the Rohan brought to this relationship, either to support or to contest the monarchy’s projects. Continually inventing and reinventing themselves, drawn toward multiple, often contradictory objectives, the seventeenth-century Rohan constituted less an independent power negotiating with the monarchy than an outpost of monarchy. Their experiences showed both the benefits and the travails that came with such a position.

A further interpretive commitment runs through this study, mainly unstated but important to my purposes. Cases like that of the Rohan, I believe, have more than purely historical significance; they also raise questions about how power functions in all times and places, including our own. This is not to suggest that differences between societies are insignificant, or that lessons can be transposed from one to another. On the contrary, a principal concern of this book is to map a specific social and cultural world, and to measure differences between the seventeenth century and the industrial and postindustrial world we inhabit. But case studies like this one can suggest some of the mechanisms that govern social power, something of its inner life, its possible strengths and weaknesses.

These are kinds of knowledge that prove difficult to get at for contemporary societies, because so many forces—both practical and ideological—obscure the inner lives of contemporary ruling groups. In theory, modern societies rest on impersonal institutions and standards, which allow only a small place for family connections, patronage, and class loyalties—and almost none for inherited privileges. These forms of social organization derive partly from our ethical beliefs—that power should be democratically distributed and that all should enjoy roughly equal life chances—and partly from the practical realities that surround us. The modern economic order requires that all individuals reason carefully about their aims, and it rewards only those who do so effectively. Modern technologies and organizational systems likewise require complex, specialized skills rather than personal connections. Together, these demands mean that modern societies tend toward social pluralism, generating multiple social hierarchies with different groups atop each, the products of specific processes of meritocratic, competitive selection. In these circumstances, exploring the inner mechanisms of social power may seem at best an irrelevancy, a gratuitous intrusion on the personal lives of social actors, an enterprise best left to journalists and novelists.

But other realities continue to matter in defining how power functions in the modern world, and some social scientists have accorded central importance to them. Focusing on the American example, the sociologists C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff have sought to map the connections and overlaps among leading groups in different domains; and both conclude that such connections are important enough to justify speaking of a single “power elite” dominating American life. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has noted the importance of inherited “social capital” hidden within the supposedly individualistic, meritocratic systems of modern education and elite recruitment. Ruling groups, on this view, sustain their positions partly by means of the concrete resources they control, their economic capital, but also partly through their command of immaterial resources: forms of taste, knowledge, and behavior that their societies prize, connections and friendships, the esteem and acknowledgment of others. Unlike economic capital, social capital of these kinds cannot be quickly acquired, through an open market. It needs to be built up through long training and the mobilization of familial and social ties, making it accessible only to those already atop society and to those few outsiders who can internalize their superiors’ manners and outlook. Their near-monopoly on social capital, Bourdieu argues, ensures that existing elites continue to dominate even the open institutions of modern societies.

The American anthropologists Edward Hansen and Timothy Parrish take these ideas a step further, arguing that elite stability, interconnectedness, and reliance on social capital are in fact especially characteristic of modernity, and not (as might be thought) relics of outmoded social forms. Contemporary capitalism is fast-changing and prone to crises, and it demands quick and effective action from its dominant groups. They cannot afford always to follow cumbersome administrative routines or respect the formal divisions among different kinds of power; they need to deploy every weapon available to them, every conduit of knowledge and influence. Hence (Hansen and Parrish argue) contemporary ruling groups are especially reliant on informal personal relationships, patronage networks, dynasties, and clans. However individualistic or meritocratic the rest of modern society may be, they conclude, its ruling groups remain “familistic entities defending accumulated capital over time through the mobilization of kin and connections.”

The Rohan cannot provide the grounds for evaluating claims like these, but their example can supply something equally important: insight into how “familistic entities” function, how they defend their positions over time, what obstacles they encounter, how their different forms of power interact, both reinforcing and interfering with one another. The Rohan example matters especially for what it shows of the complexity of these mechanisms, for—so runs a central argument of this book—even the simplest components of their power were unstable constructions, the products of choices, trade-offs, and relationships with outsiders. In the Rohan’s case, these complexities meant that sustaining power from one generation to the next was always an uncertain business, marked by crises, internal conflicts, and occasional outright failures. Certainly fragility of this order has not characterized all ruling groups. Yet the Rohan example is relevant to ruling-class success stories as well as to failures, for it draws attention to the problems ruling groups need to solve in preserving their position, and to the real possibility that they may not manage to do so. Exercising and sustaining social power, the Rohan example suggests, are not natural phenomena, the outcomes of iron laws of oligarchy or of Darwinian competition propelling the fittest to the top. Social stasis is no more natural than social change, and like change it requires explanation in terms of the specific political, social, and cultural circumstances that make it possible.

Geneva’s monument to Henri de Rohan offers an interpretive statement about the man himself and his place in history. The statue presents him as a military sage, at once man of action and intellectual, a man of his own times who also participates in the larger sweep of history. Rohan wears the elaborate armor of a seventeenth-century commander, and his ducal coronet is set before him. But he also holds in his left hand a book, presumably the Bible, and his costume imitates that of a Roman emperor, both in the style of his armor and in the cloak draped around it. Gaze and posture likewise recall the Romans. Rohan looks calmly toward the future, his brow slightly furrowed, his eyes focused on events invisible to the bystander, energetic yet calm and self-controlled. The architecture of the surrounding chapel completes these messages. It places Rohan within a context of classical order, simplicity, and symmetry. If he was a man of the seventeenth century, so the statue and chapel suggest, he was also something more, an exemplar of ideals shared by Romans and moderns alike, a man for all seasons.

But Rohan cannot be so easily detached from his historical context. He was indeed both a man of action and an intellectual, but he was also many other things that the statue conceals. No less than his contemporaries, he was attached to his surroundings by intense bonds of self-interest, affection, and expectation. Contemporaries noted his ferocious ambition, his family vanity, and a certain cruelty in his political dealings. Some also noted his psychological complexities: a tendency to fall into lethargic illness at moments of crisis, an intense dependence on the advice of intimates, apparent indifference to physical relations with his wife. A few suggested that he actually feared battle, and some questioned his religious sincerity. At no point in his life was he an isolated individual. His doings always reflected his immediate connections with family members and followers, and his larger awareness of himself as representing a certain social order.

These qualities and attachments do not make Rohan any less exemplary of his times, and they certainly do not make him less interesting for historical study. On the contrary, they enhance his significance. He and his family were a complicated group, who lived out contradictions—both social and personal—that ran through their world. Those complicated human realities form the subject matter of this book.