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Becoming a French Aristocrat: The Education of the Court Nobility, 1580-1715.

The recent scholarly debate on how education changed the nobility's social role during the seventeenth century is based largely on prescriptive literature and theoretical writings. Little is known about actual educational practices, a gap in our knowledge that Mark Motley seeks to fill by studying the educational experiences of court nobles through their memoirs, letters, and personal accounts. Ellery Schalk has argued that the crisis in the nobility's social role was resolved by a change in its perception of noble rank, a shift from a feudal understanding of virtue and military service to that of birth and hereditary status. This change was reinforced by a new emphasis on education, which played a civilizing role in replacing military attributes with social and cultural skills. As Mack Holt has observed, however, it is not clear that a change in the way ideas of nobility were perceived in the printed titerary sources that Schalk used as evidence reflected a change of noble social function in reality. Motley has sought to understand the role that actual educational practice played in changing the nobility's self-perception and social role. He argues that education was used to socialize noble children for their changing social roles, and that education helped nobles to develop the cultural resources needed to manage the new role that the court and its social code played in their lives. Following obediently down a path blazed by Schalk, Motley accepts his basic conclusions, and his argument contains few surprises.

Motley's evidence is the educational practices of the court nobility, particularly the grands. At most 25 per cent of the nobility went to court, and the great nobles were a fraction of this number. What were the educational practices of the rest? Motley claims that they were modeled on those of the court nobility, but were they? Schalk has argued elsewhere that the court had little or no influence on the French nobility from the 1570s through the 1620s. To what extent did court nobles actually influence the educational practices of the provincial nobility? In fact, to what extent did court nobles actually influence provincial lifestyles? Moreover, to what extent was noble behaviour influenced by chivalric values? Arlette Jouanna believes that chivalry ceased to a significant influence on noble culture after the mid-sixteenth century. Ellery Schalk believes this change occurred in the 1590s, and presumably, Motley agrees because he says nothing about it. But Maurice Keen and Orest Ranum believe that chivalric influence was still strong in the early seventeenth century, and Maurice Magendie and Paul Benichou think that its influence waned only during Louis XIV's reign. What influence did chivalry have on noble culture and education? The last chapter, "Entering the World," deals sketchily with the noble's first days at court, and not at all with the court's operation as experienced by a newcomer or with the tactics needed to succeed at court on which there is ample evidence, for example, the memoirs of Beauvais-Nangis. These omissions are critical to the argument.

I must confess, however, that I read the book in one sitting: it is highly readable and enormously enjoyable. Its approach is fresh and new, and it is fascinating to look at educational practice through the words of individuals who actually experienced it. The book contains a number of original insights on specific topics, for instance, on the role of riding academies and the need to learn correct spoken French, and it goes into the role of the family and household in child-rearing in more detail and to a greater depth than any other study, although Philippe Aries was the trailblazer here. The section on the activities and practices of noble households is excellent. Using the actual words of individuals to understand their emotional, social, and cultural world is intriguing, as long as excessive claims are not made for the general validity and reality of the individual experience. This book should be read by all those who are interested in the noble culture of old-regime France.
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Author:Kettering, Sharon
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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