Life at Versailles

Nobility and Etiquette

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  Nobility in France was generally hereditary and was passed down through the male line. It had certain privileges attached to it, such as being exempt from taxes, sole access to certain offices and positions within the civil and military administrations of France, and all commissions in the army.  There was a sense that as a noble, one was possessed of greater intelligence, more refined sentiments and in general more deserving of the best life had to offer.


  In general, there were three ways to become a noble:


1)      By birth- the father must be of noble blood. Illegitimate children could be ennobled by letters patent from the sovereign. The king’s llegitimate offspring were automatically noble, and therefore needed no ennobling. (However they were still illegitimate, and needed to be legitimated. This was accomplished finally by naming only the father, and not the mother.).

2)      By holding certain offices, either by purchase or appointment, such as in the king’s household, or in the Parliament.

3)      By royal decree.


  These are the titles of nobility, and the order of their importance:


      1)  Duc

      2)  Comte

      3)  Marquis

      4)  Vicomte

      5)  Baron


  These titles as well as the names of the family were derived from the properties they were attached to, and only one person at a time could carry each of these titles.  However, the presence or absence of a title was not in itself a test of nobility, because there were generally more family members than there were titles to go around.


  One you have reached the threshold of nobility, there are still more degrees of nobility:  How long has your family been noble? How many of your paternal and maternal grandparents’ lineages were noble?  The oldest nobility was traced to the “Mists of Time,” back in the early recorded history of France. 


  Of those already blessed enough to claim the ties of nobility, some could also claim peerages.  These peers originated from the twelve dukes who were raised in the 12th century above the other dukes by the King as his direct vassals.  


  There were ecclesiastical peers, which ranked ahead of lay peers.  For lay peers, the order of precedence was determined by date of peerage’s creation- except as it applied to Princes of the Blood, they gained precedence over the other peers, regardless of peerage creation date, because of their claim to royal blood. 


  By the time of Louis XIV, the main role of the peers was to participate in the coronation ceremony.  This was important, because it created precedence in day-to-day life for the title-holder over others without this distinction. 


  Even more important than title was rank.  Rank in regards to the Court of France can be understood as a degree of eminence within the class of nobility.  It was measured from the king on down, so the highest ranks were filled by the individuals most closely related to the king, and the higher the rank, the greater the precedence.


  Within the royal family, the rank and precedence of said persons was:


1)      King and Queen

2)      Dauphin and Dauphine (as first in line for the throne)

3)      Sons of the current king

4)      Daughters of the current king

5)      Sons of the former king

6)      Daughters of the former king


    After the immediate relatives, there were the Princes du Sang, or “of the blood,” who were related to the royal blood in a lesser concentration than the immediate family.


  The framework of rank and precedence were pretty firmly fixed.  There might be wiggle room in certain situations, but being that everyone was fiercely protective of their rights of precedence, any concession a person finagled for their self would usually be nullified at the next occasion, and they would be put back in their place.


  The prestige attached to a name was a valuable commodity for those trying to advance themselves or their connections at court.  In everyone's eyes, the most important factors in determining a family's prestige were:

  • how long had a given family been noble (l'ancienneté),
  • into what other families did it marry (les alliances),
  • what positions its members achieved and what offices they held (les dignités),
  • what actions they performed (les illustrations).(1)



  This hierarchy was played out through etiquette.  Life at Versailles was centered on conversational skill and interpersonal interactions, just as much of which was non-verbal in its expression.  The way courtiers moved through the day at court could be summed up with the housekeeping maxim: “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” 


  While these distinctions seem unimportant today, in the 17th century knowledge and use of proper etiquette was vital because it was the foundation of the social order and political system of the ancien regime (2).


  Using one of the most often cited subjects of this code of etiquette are the rules of seating arrangements.  The king and queen always had a fauteuil, an armchair to sit upon.  Within their presence, no one else was allowed an armchair, excepting another monarch.  A chair with a back but no arms was allowed for those closest in rank to the king, such as his brother or children.  The tabouret, a padded, drum-shaped stool was awarded to those holding the rank of duchess.  Lesser ranking nobility would be expected to stand.


 At some point Louis XIV’s brother Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, lobbied for an armchair in the king’s presence instead of the armless chair he was allowed already. In the Memoires of Madame de Montespan, she records Louis’ explanation to his brother for denying to him this elevation of rank.  In Louis’ reasoning we understand better the power of etiquette as the expression of rank and privilege:
It is in your interest, brother, that the majesty of the throne should not be weakened or altered; and if, from Duc d'Orleans, you one day become King of France, I know you well enough to believe that you would never be lax in this matter.  Before God, you and I are exactly the same as other creatures that live and breathe; before men we are seemingly extraordinary beings, greater, more refined, more perfect.  The day that people, abandoning this respect and veneration which is the support and mainstay of monarchies,--the day that they regard us as their equals,--all the prestige of our position will be destroyed.  Bereft of beings superior to the mass, who act as their leaders and supports, the laws will only be as so many black lines on white paper, and your armless chair and my fauteuil will be two pieces of furniture of the selfsame importance. 

    In other words, the importance of your position at Court was dependant on how well you recognized and defended etiquette.  Personal feelings were irrelevant because the symbolic place held by a person mattered more.  Your place and the attention you received devolved from the treatment of others around you.


     Rank and precedence was the visible glue holding the structure of the ancien regime system together. To ignore and disparage this meant that the whole system would come into question, as it did in the reign of Louis XVI. 


   Obviously there were more factors involved in contributing to the great social upheaval that was the French Revolution than etiquette being marginalized, but it is a way to compare and contrast why society changed; why it happened in 1789 and not before (as there had been governmental insolvency  and peasant uprising during the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV).


  Madame de Campan, a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette, wrote of etiquette:


These servile rules were drawn up into a kind of code; they offered to a Richelieu, a La Rouchefoucauld and a Duras, in the exercise of their domestic functions, opportunities of intimacy useful to their interests; and

 their vanity was flattered by the customs which converted the right to give a glass of water, to put on a dress, and to remove a basin, into honorable prerogatives.


  So, while she was a victim in many ways, Marie Antoinette played a role in this marginalization of etiquette:  She did not want to dispatch the role of queen in the prescribed manner and chose instead to retreat from the endless rules into an environment of informality, thus depriving the Court of opportunities for acting out their duties (which were considered not to be a chore but an honor to hold), and therefore made her position seem unnecessary at worst and meaningless at best.     

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