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Old and New Nobility in Aix-En-Provence, 1600-1695: Portrait of an Urban Elite.

In this clearly presented and well-written book, Donna Bohanan has made an important contribution to our understanding of the realities concerning nobility in early modern, and particularly seventeenth-century France. She has done this first of all by presenting a very interesting and illuminating portrait (to use the term in her title) of the nobles of Aix in the period, a portrait based mostly upon useful and hitherto unused archival material. But the study goes beyond this local interest, because she connects her analysis to two main larger themes relating to the study of nobility in France as a whole. The first of these is the famous "robe-sword" controversy to which she adds another nail--and a very convincing one--to the coffin of the old view that assumed there to be major differences between robe and sword, differences that many scholars used to feel offered a key to understanding relations between elites in early modern France. The second of these is the question of the possible disparity between the North and South of France in terms of noble realities in the period, and here she adds important suggestions to a question that needs to be raised and studied much more than it has been.

The work is organized topically rather than chronologically, which of course makes sense if Bohanan is going to offer a portrait of a social group. After an introduction, which effectively places her study within the context of recent works on the noblity--and in particular these works' acceptance, or non-acceptance, of the robe-sword dichotomy--she offers a very interesting opening chapter on the larger question of urbanism and nobility in the South of France. In this chapter she argues for the existence of fundamental differences between the nobilities of the North and of the Midi, differences which developed in the Middle Ages as the North became feudalized and its nobles essentially rural dwellers, while the Midi remained much more tied to its Roman traditions and much less feudal with its nobles remaining much more urban dwellers. These medieval developments, then, laid the basis for the nobles of Aix in the seventeenth century, who were urban dwellers much more on the model of Italy than rural dwellers on the model of the North of France. This useful introductory material is followed by three very solid chapters (my favorites in terms of what they offer that is new), based upon extensive use of notarial records and other archival sources. In these chapters Bohanan defines her group (all the nobles residing in Aix on the one hand and, as representatives of differing tendencies, five families in particular) and then examines their wealth and incomes and ways of making money, their marriage strategies and relations, and their inheritance policies and actions. This is rich material that tells us a good deal about how these families actually functioned; and throughout the common theme emerges that there were simply no major differences between the way "old" and "new," or "sword" (although that term does not even apply in Aix she argues) and "robe," handled their affairs, lived their lives, and made and kept their fortunes. Together they formed an aristocratic elite that (as pointed out in the next two chapters) dominated the city politically, socially and financially and that (as shown in the last chapter) read the same books and went to and supported the same schools and universities. Ancientness of family did play a role in a few relatively insignificant cases, but on the whole robe and sword, or old and new, as fundamental distinctions simply did not exist.

This is a good book, then, well-researched and well-argued. In showing how these aristocratic and legally noble families functioned in their Southern-urban environment--and in the relatively circumscribed and thus manageable time period she has chosen--Bohanan has helped point us toward a number of larger questions concerning nobilities and elites in France that now even more need to be addressed. First of all, now that we have essentially buried "robe and sword" (and, I would argue, not only for the Midi, but also for the North), what do we do to replace it? To separate elites--within themselves and from non-elites--in economic terms alone is obviously not enough, although it certainly offers a start. In any case, what is important is that, freed now from the robe-sword and bourgeois vs. noble constructs, we can at least approach the question in a fresh way. Secondly, are there indeed fundamental differences between North and South in terms of their nobilities? I am, for instance, not convinced that they are always as great as the case of Aix seems to suggest, but whatever they are, the question always needs to be asked when one is trying to teach conclusions for France as a whole. Thirdly, now that we have seen a really "aristocratic" (and noble) urban elite at work, what does this bring to our study of urban elites in other cities and other contexts, both North and South, during the period? Here again, the differences between "aristocratic" and "non-aristocratic" cities may not turn out to be that great, because the difference between noble and nonnoble and between old and new noble has turned out not to be that great. As an example, Bohanan suggests at one point that "charity" in its larger sense could be considered a new "marque de noblesse" for the seventeenth century, along with others such as birth and culture. But I wonder--considering this general mixing of elites we now know to be true--whether we should consider this sense of charity and obligation toward the poor to be in fact a new "marque de noblesse" or whether it might not more accurately be called a new "marque des elites." But this last, of course, is just a speculation at this point, a speculation that has been suggested--along with the three major questions raised above--by this excellent study that needs to be read by all those interested in the early modern French nobility.

Ellery Schalk The University of Texas at El Paso
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Schalk, Ellery
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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