The noblesse de dignité

Just like all other kingdoms France had felt the necessity to employ lawyers and financial experts in the administration. These were drawn from the civilians who had been to university or had some other expertise. These jobs however soon became inheritable. From the end of the sixteenth century this led to the formation of a class of nobility that was not based on feudal rights, but on holding an office. It was called 'noblesse de dignité', or in case it was based on the possession of an office in one of the parliaments; 'noblesse de robe'. Because the possession of most of these offices was itself inheritable there was by 1700 a more or less closed civilian nobility with an exclusive right to the jobs in the administration of the kingdom.

The noblesse de robe in the parliaments

One of the first permanent judicial institutions was an assembly or court where citizens could take their complaints against each other. It was said that the nobility sat in this court with their overcoats (manteau) and swords, while the civilians were clothed in a gown (robe) and were at first only present for consultation. In 1302 king Philip IV established that the court was held in his palace at regular intervals. In 1344 Philip V ordered that it counted 30 judges. It was under his rule that it became permanent, that the first civilian lawyers were admitted as judges and that the clergy left it. When the court started to be in session the whole year under Charles VI (1368-1422) the nobility left it.

Under the rule of Francis I (1515-1547) the appointments to the parliaments could be sold and were inheritable to a certain extent. The condition for this was that the man who it transferred it lived for 40 days after the transfer, otherwise the office reverted to the crown. The rules for this were changed by the Paulette in 1604, which was a tax that the gens de robe and other officers had to pay, but removed the condition of 40 days. Thus these offices could be sold and inherited freely1.

By 1700 the parliaments were thus filled with lawyers who had not chosen their profession out of a passion for the law, but who had simply inherited their positions. For them getting a good revenue out of it was just as important as a good adminstration of the law. The ambition was of course to add other possessions to one's estate. These could be a seigneurie, bonds or military career for the younger sons. Because of this the lines between the noblesse d'epée and the noblesse de robe could not be drawn that clearly at the time.


1) Les Moeurs et coutumes des François by abbé le Gendre, Paris 1734, page 147 for a contemporary view of how the parliaments had come into existence.