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“In the Absence of Males”: Gender, Feudal Succession, and Nobiliary Ideology in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century France

  • Sylvie Steinberg (a1)

Abstract

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, aristocratic daughters inherited fiefs in the absence of a male heir. Over the course of the seventeenth century, however, royal decisions and jurisprudence increasingly limited this possibility, imposing masculinity as the primary—though not exclusive—criteria for inheritance. This article explores the legal debates that accompanied this evolution, highlighting a number of changes within the French nobility of this period that reveal a new conception of gender relations. The growing importance of the notion of service, changes to the procedure for proving one’s nobility, and the desire for greater exclusivity within the nobility all reveal how gender was no longer defined in relation to the place and role each individual occupied within the ancestral line or family. Instead, gender assumed an unchanging identity, which, much like nobility itself, was considered inherent to the individual.

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1. Auguste, and Galland, Thomas, Nouveau recueil de divers plaidoyers de feu Mes Auguste et Thomas Galland et autres fameux advocats de la cour de Parlement (Paris: Henry Le Gras, 1656), 368 .

69. Ibid., 19-20.

70. Ibid., 28.

71. On this point, see Grinberg, Écrire les coutumes, particularly pages 130-33 on Jean-Baptiste Domat’s 1689 work Les loix civiles dans leur ordre naturel.

72. Traité de la représentation des filles en la succession des fiefs, 37.

73. Ibid., 49.

74. Ibid., 51.

75. This expression is used in anthropology to translate terms of kinship that, in certain languages, indicate sex only as it relates to an individual’s place in the kinship structure, giving the parent’s sex but not the child’s. It is used here to emphasize the fact that, although the vocabulary of Western kinship relations has no term for expressing relative sex, the orders of preference used in feudal successions required that individuals be designated sometimes in an indifferent manner (children successors), sometimes in an absolute manner (male/female), and sometimes in a relative manner (brother/sister or nephew/niece). See Alès, Catherine and Barraud, Cécile, eds., Sexe relatif ou sexe absolu ? De la distinction des sexes dans les sociétés (Paris: Éd. de la MSH, 2001), especially 43-48 and 8286 .

76. Advis d’aucuns conseillers du Chastelet de Paris, 29. It was also argued that it would have been unfair to uphold this falsehood for a brother’s daughter while excluding a sister’s son, who could not represent his mother in order to defend rights that she did not have.

77. Ibid., 55-56.

78. Ibid., 101-2.

79. Descimon, Robert, “Conflits familiaux dans la robe parisienne aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles : les paradoxes de la transmission du statut,” Cahiers d’histoire 45-4 (2000): 67797 .

80. Advis d’aucuns conseillers du Chastelet de Paris, 134. In fact, Numbers XXVII states the exact opposite. When the daughters of Zelophehad approach Moses to complain of being excluded from their father’s succession, he brings their case before the Lord, who says: “If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter. And if he have no daughter, then ye shall give his inheritance to his brethren.” But the defenders of Salic law interpreted this passage as proof that it only applied to ordinary successions, or else, as is the case here, in total contradiction of the text’s meaning, as proof that God approved of the fact that women could not succeed. See Giesey, , Le rôle méconnu de la loi salique, especially 69-72, 155, and 162 .

81. Ferrière, Traité des fiefs, 549-51.

82. Pensey, Traité des fiefs de Du Moulin, 676.

83. Anaïs Dufour has calculated that, according to census information gathered by the Chambre des Comptes as well as partition deeds examined by the lawyers of Rouen between 1580 and 1620, forty-one of the eighty-seven female inheritors of seigneuries in Normandy had obtained their fiefs by collateral succession. What this proportion was a century later remains to be determined. See Dufour, , “Le Pouvoir des ‘dames,’39 .

84. There is a wealth of legal literature on renunciation, the conditions under which it could be obtained, its actual effects, its termination in the event of a brother’s or sister’s death, etc. See, for example, Barthélémy Bretonnier, Joseph, Recueil par ordre alphabétique des principales questions de droit qui se jugent diversement dans les différens tribunaux du royaume, 3rd edition (Paris: Prault, 1756), 2:13965 .

85. They could sometimes be (and perhaps still are) employed in the opposite way, allowing certain women to group land together into larger properties. Claire Chatelain describes the example of Miron, Gabrielle in her Chronique d’une ascension sociale. Exercice de la parenté chez de grands officiers (XVIe-XVIIe siècles) (Paris: Éd. de l’EHESS, 2008), 24041 .

86. It would thus seem that in Languedoc during the eighteenth-century, the clauses providing for exclusively male substitutions multiplied among the owners of titled fiefs, some of whom even referred to the Castilian practice of mayorazgo. See Augustin, , Les substitutions fidéicommissaires, 1002 .

87. For an analysis of these developments in a broader European context, see Delille, , “Réflexions sur le ‘système’ européen de la parenté et de l’alliance.

88. On this point, see Régine Le Jan, who, referring to the period during which the custom of female succession within the direct line in the absence of a male gained currency, speaks of the “promotion of the unity of filiation as an irreducible, foundational structure, a privilege given to sons over daughters,” which is not the same as speaking of “the growing patrilineality of the aristocratic filiation system.” Le Jan, Famille et pouvoir dans le monde franc, 261. See also the distinction introduced by Agnès Fine and Claudine Leduc, in response to Bernard Derouet’s analysis of “noble houses” in peasant societies, between asymmetrical transmission and unilateral transmission: Fine, Agnès and Leduc, Claudine, “La dot, anthropologie et histoire. Cité des Athéniens, VIe-IVe siècles/Pays de Sault (Pyrénées audoises), fin XVIIIe siècle-1940,” Clio. Histoire, femmes et sociétés 7 (1998): 1950 ; Derouet, Bernard, “Dot et héritage : les enjeux de la chronologie de la transmission,” in André Burguière et al., eds., L’histoire grande ouverte. Hommages à Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (Paris: Fayard, 1997), 28492 .

89. See Nassiet, , Parenté, noblesse et États dynastiques, 20611 .

90. Mousnier, Roland, La vénalité des offices sous Henri IV et Louis XIII, 2nd edition (Paris: PUF, 1971), 5028 .

91. The jurisprudence was currently in effect when the author was described by Loyseau, Charles in Du Droit des offices (1613), in Les Œuvres de Maistre Charles Loyseau avocat en Parlement, contenant les cinq livres des Offices, les Traitez des Seigneuries, des Ordres et es simples dignitez, du déguerpissement et délaissement par hypothèque, de la garantie des rentes, et des abus des justices de village, new edition (Paris: Edme Couterot, 1678), 199207 . See: Descimon, Robert and Geoffroy-Poisson, Simone, “Droit et pratiques de la transmission des charges publiques à Paris (mi-XVIe-mi-XVIIe siècles),” in Mobilité et transmission dans les sociétés de l’Europe moderne, eds. Anna Bellavitis et al. (Rennes: PUR, 2009), 21934 , and Descimon, Robert and Geoffroy-Poisson, Simone, “La construction juridique d’un système patrimonial de l’office. Une affaire de patrilignage et de genre,” in Épreuves de noblesse. Les expériences nobiliaires de la haute robe parisienne (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles), eds. Robert Descimon and Élie Haddad (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2010), 4759 .

92. During the Central Middle Ages, enfeoffed women do not appear to have been excluded from the personal duties attached to the fief (swearing of oaths, fealty, and homage), at least until the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Languedoc and Catalonia. On this point, see Debax, Hélène, “Le lien d’homme à homme au féminin. Femmes et féodalité en Languedoc et Catalogne (XIe-XIIe siècles)” (2009 ), http://hal-univ-tlse2archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00498793/ . See also Verdon, Laure, “La place des femmes dans les actes de la pratique féodale du XIe au XIIIe siècle,” in Regards croisés sur l’œuvre de Georges Duby. Femmes et féodalité, eds. Anne Bleton-Ruget et al. (Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 2000), 17993 .

93. Soefve, Lucien, Nouveau recueil de plusieurs questions notables tant de droit que de coutumes jugées par arrests d’audiances du Parlement de Paris depuis 1640 jusques à présent (Paris: Charles de Sercy, 1682), 192 . The matter remained unsettled and brought the Bishop of Chartres as sovereign into conflict with the Dame of Damville in 1648.

94. Ferrière, , Traité des fiefs, 118 .

95. For example, Automne, Bernard, Commentaire sur les coutumes générales de la ville de Bordeaux et pays bourdelais (Bordeaux: J. Mongiron Millanges, 1621; repr. 1656), 474 .

96. See, for example, the controversy between Ermengarde de Narbonne and Bérenger de Puisserguier in 1164, decided in favor of the lady by Louis VII, during which experts in Roman law examined the ability of women to exercise such powers. See Debax, , “Le lien d’homme à homme au féminin,” 1718 .

97. “Women are dismissed from all civic and public duties, and for this reason they may not be appointed judges, nor exercise any judicial functions, nor bring proceedings against anyone, nor represent another in court, nor act as administrators of estates.” Digest, L.17.2 cited by Giesey, , Le rôle méconnu de la loi salique, 57 . In the first decades of the twelfth century, the jurist Bologne Irnerius, searching for analogies between feudal law and Roman law, suggested that the fief was a public office, and as such, by analogy with the parish, would exclude women from claiming its succession.

98. See: Basdevant-Gaudemet, Brigitte, Aux origines de l’État moderne. Charles Loyseau (1564-1627), théoricien de la puissance publique (Paris: Economica, 1977), 206 ff.; Descimon, Robert, “Les paradoxes d’un juge seigneurial,” Les Cahiers du Centre de Recherches Historiques 27 (2001 ): http://ccrh.revues.org/index1333.html .

99. On the reasons for which the ruling of 1566 (concerning the reversion of titled fiefs to the Crown) was applied neither for older fiefs nor for those subsequently erected, see Loyseau, Charles, Traité des seigneuries (1608), in Les Œuvres de Maistre Charles Loyseau avocat en Parlement, contenant les cinq livres des Offices, les Traitez des Seigneuries, des Ordres et des simples dignitez, du déguerpissement et délaissement par hypothèque, de la garantie des rentes, et des abus des justices de village, new edition (Paris: Edme Couterot, 1678), 33 .

100. Labatut, , Les ducs et pairs de France, 67 . While duchesses and peers no longer sat in Parlement, neither were they received into the Peerage of France when their fief was erected, except perhaps for the Duchess of Aiguillon in 1638. See Levantal, , Ducs et pairs, 39394 .

101. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, lords sometimes administered their own justice, and sometimes these lords were women. For examples, see Haddad, , Fonda-tion et ruine d’une « maison », 285 . For examples in the Franche-Comté, at the far border-regions of the kingdom, see Delsalle, Paul, Les Franc-Comtoises à la Renaissance (Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire: A. Sutton, 2005), 15556 .

102. Moyne, Pierre Le, La gallerie des femmes fortes (Paris: A. de Sommaville, 1647), 291 .

103. This, however, was subject to debate. A precise inventory would be worth drafting since, in certain eighteenth-century milieus, the contrary was frequently claimed, the argument being that matrilineal transmission would enable a greater expansion of the nobility. In Burgundy, a decree from the provincial states in 1605 attempted to extend the definition of nobility to include maternal nobility to the third degree. See Arbaumont, Jules d’, “Question de la noblesse maternelle,” Le Cabinet historique (June 1861): 129132 . In Brittany, revolting peasants made a similar demand in 1675. See Nassiet, Noblesse et pauvreté, 293.

104. The uterine nobility of Champagne had been preserved when the new customs were written (in Troyes, Chaumont, Vitry, Sens, and Meaux), but the privileges it conferred were reduced to purely customary aspects after 1566. See Roque, Gilles de la, Le Traité de noblesse et de ses différentes espèces (Paris: Mémoires et documents, 1701; repr. 1994), 22334 . The uterine nobility of Champagne provoked a fierce debate among late nineteenth-century scholars. Some of them denied that there had ever existed anything other than a sort of nobility of the second order, halfway between commoners and the genuine nobility. This was the position held by Anatole de Barthélémy, for whom the maxim “la verge anoblit, le ventre affranchit” (the penis enobles, the womb emancipates) caused confusion between the status of freed slaves and nobles. See: Anatole de Barthélémy, Recherches sur la noblesse maternelle (Paris: A. Aubry, 1861); Anatole de Barthélémy, Nouvelles observations contre la noblesse maternelle (Paris: Librairie héraldique de J.-B. Dumoulin, 1865). Conversely, Paul Guilhiermoz suggested that, during the Middle Ages, nobility had been transmitted exclusively by the mother, following the saying “le fruit suit le ventre” (the fruit succeeds the womb). See Guilhiermoz, Paul, “Un nouveau texte relatif à la noblesse maternelle en Champagne,” Bibliothèque de l’École de Chartres (1889): 50936 . Of the same opinion is Verriest, Léo, Questions d’histoire des institutions médiévales. Noblesse. Chevalerie. Lignages. Conditions des biens et des personnes, seigneurie, ministérialité, bourgeoisie, échevinages (Brussels: self-published, 1960), 7798 .

105. Hubert, Robert, Traité de la noblesse où sont ajoutez deux discours, l’un de l’origine des fiefs, et l’autre de la foy et de l’hommage (Orléans: Jean Boyer, 1682), 159 . On the widows who sought to have their dispensation lifted after their husband’s death, see the analysis of 191 letters brought before the Cour des Aides in Rouen between 1579 and 1664 in Brunelle, Gayle K., “Dangerous Liaisons: Mesalliance and Early Modern French Noblewomen,” French Historical Studies 19-1 (1995): 75103 .

106. The notion of retrospection, intrinsic to any kind of genealogical research, is important here in that it reveals the varying conceptions underlying the same term, “blood,” during different historical periods. In another context, see Zuñiga, Jean-Paul, “La voix du sang. Du métis à l’idée de métissage en Amérique espagnole,” Annales HSS 54-2 (1999): 45051 .

107. Lugt, Maaike van der and Miramon, Charles de, “Penser l’hérédité au Moyen Âge : une introduction,” in L’hérédité entre Moyen Âge et époque moderne. Perspectives historiques, eds. Maaike van der Lugt and Charles de Miramon (Florence: SISMEL-Ed. Del Galuzzo, 2008), 37 .

108. Brantôme, , Des Dames, in Œuvres complètes publiées par Ludovic Lalanne pour la société de l’Histoire de France (Paris: 1873), 9:430 . The same scene is again depicted in 10:72.

109. In Castile, the inclusion of the maternal line in calculations designed to prove nobility of blood was considered evidence of the line’s purity. See Fayard, Janine and Gerbet, Marie-Claude, “Fermeture de la noblesse et pureté de sang en Castille à travers les procès de hidalguía au XVIe siècle,” Histoire, économie et société 1-1 (1982): 5175 .

110. See: Meyer, Jean, La Noblesse bretonne au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Éd. de l’EHESS, 1966; repr. 1985), 1:2961 ; Constant, Jean-Marie, “L’enquête de noblesse de 1667 et les seigneurs de la Beauce,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 21-4 (1974): 54866 ; Blanc, François-Paul, “Vivre noblement en Provence. Essai de définition juridique sous le règne de Louis XIV,” Provence historique 230 (2007): 33148 ; V Pietri, alérie, “Vraie et fausse noblesse : l’identité nobiliaire provençale à l’épreuve des réformations (1656-1718),” Cahiers de la Méditerranée 66 (2003): 7991 .

111. This was the case with the families of Blacas-Carros, Blacas d’Aups, and Brun de Castellane in Provence, which was examined by Pietri, in Les Enjeux de la généalogie, 25052 . In Brittany, the Chambre de la Réformation was also fooled by a commoner married to a noblewoman from a house of which the male line was extinct. See Meyer, , La noblesse bretonne au XVIIIe siècle 1:45 .

112. See Caumartin, Louis-François de, Procez verbal de la recherche de la noblesse de Champagne suivi des Notes secrètes sur ladite recherche (Paris: Sedopols, 1673; repr. 1982 ).

113. The adjective “personal” seems to have had at least two meanings when attached to nobility. On the one hand, it qualified nobility acquired at birth, which did not require proof: this is the meaning intended by Robert Hubert when he referred to a woman’s nobility becoming dormant as a result of her marriage to a commoner. On the other hand, it applied to nobility acquired on a personal basis through the exercise of an office: this is, for example, what the Count d’Estaing meant when he lambasted the noblesse de robe. See d’Estaing, Joachim, Dissertation sur l’origine des fiefs (Paris: G. Martin, 1690), 27 .

114. An expression used, for example, by Alouëte, François de L’, Traité des nobles et des vertus dont ils sont formés : leur charge, vocation, rang et degré ... (Paris: R. Le Manier, 1577), fol. 31 v. Cited by Jouanna, L’idée de race 1:152.

115. La Roque, Le Traité de noblesse, 82. On the theoretical knowledge invented by La Roque and based on the legal knowledge and methods of the investigators, see Ribard, Dinah, “Livres, pouvoir et théorie. Comptabilité et noblesse en France à la fin du XVIIe siècle,” Revue de synthèse, 6th series, 1-2 (2007): 11113 .

116. Sully attributed this very opinion to Henri IV. He himself boasted about his female ancestors: he emphasized that his paternal grandmother Anne de Melun was descended several times over from the first Capetians and that the House of Béthune had, through the women of the family, wed itself to many eminent families, counts of Flanders, dukes of Burgundy, as well as emperors and kings of Bohemia and Hungary. See Aristide, La fortune de Sully, 56 and 59.

117. Maynier de Saint-Marcel-Franfort, Histoire de la principale noblesse de Provence, 28.

118. Ibid., 53. This opinion arose in the middle of a discussion on the integration of Jewish families into the Order of Malta. While the Order indeed required “four quarters” of nobility, the acceptance of testimonial evidence meant that induction was in fact slightly less discriminating.

119. See Godelier’s, Maurice observations on the distinction between filiation and descent introduced by Anglophone anthopologists in Métamorphoses de la parenté (Paris: Fayard, 2004), 10137 .

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“In the Absence of Males”: Gender, Feudal Succession, and Nobiliary Ideology in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century France

  • Sylvie Steinberg (a1)

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