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The Comte de Montlosier's Swansong for the Debased Nobleman

For a long time [the seigniors] are very feeble against the intendant, utterly powerless to protect their parish. Twenty gentlemen cannot assemble and deliberate without the king’s special permission. If those of Franche-Comté happen to dine together and hear a mass once a year, it is through tolerance, and even then this harmless coterie may assemble only in the presence of the intendant: Separated from his equals, the seignior again is separated from his inferiors. The administration of a village is of no concern to him; he has not even its superintendence. The apportionment of taxes, the militia contingent, the repairs of the church, the summoning and presiding over a parish assembly, the making of roads, the establishment of charity workshops, all this is the intendant’s business or that of the communal officers which the intendant appoints or directs. Except through his justiciary rights, so much curtailed, the seignior is an idler in public matters. If, by chance, he should desire to act in an official capacity, to make some reclamation for the community, the bureaux of administration would soon close his mouth. Since Louis XIV., the clerks have things their own way; all legislation and the entire administrative system operate against the local seignior to deprive him of his functional efficacy and to confine him to his naked title. Through this separation of functions and title his pride increases as he becomes less useful. His self-love, deprived of its broad pasture-ground falls back on a small one; henceforth he seeks distinctions and not influence; he thinks only of precedence and not of government.

-- Hippolyte Taine, The Origins of Contemporary France: The Ancien Regime (1876)

François Dominique de Reynaud, comte de Montlosier, as an emigre in 1796, writes to Pierre Victor, baron Malouet, presenting himself as a partisan of moderation: "The revolution was a horrible thing. A counter-revolution, abandoned to exaggeration and violence, would become its counterpart. A new order of things, led by moderation and wisdom, will give us all the blessings of peace. It will bring us a healthy government, in keeping with our customs and our climate. Let us leave to the Orient the institutions which suit it; neither republic nor despotism are made for France. Its genius is remote from these two extremes, as its climate is from the torrid zone and the northern glaciers... I am a royalist; but I can not proclaim despotism. I abhor popular despotism, nor do I like the despotism of one."

And yet, surface impressions aside, he wasn't simply a member of the moderate constitutional-monarchist crowd of Mounier and Clermont-Tonnerre, as his stark defense of class stratification, and of seigneurial prerogative to exercise justice over one's vassals, made him a member of the counterrevolutionary camp. All the same, he fused it with a commitment to the principles of representative government.

Montlosier was driven by one overarching principle: that the superior cannot be judged by the inferior. However, he did accept much of the Revolution up to about early 1790. This was not an unusual opinion among the Second Estate, as their cahiers de doleances of 1789 do show a lot of internalized "enlightened" principles. "From the right of personal liberty arises the right to write, to think, to print and to publish," declare the nobility of Blois at the time. Not much else left for them to do except babble, anyway. They couldn't even heed the advice of "enrichissez-vous" because engaging in commerce was an offense strictly worthy of dérogeance (loss of nobility).

Shortly after the Tennis Court Oath, on June 23, 1789, Louis XVI vainly tried to court the rising intransigence of the Third Estate with the affirmation of the principle of hereditary order and right to property that also includes income from seigniorial dues, while nonetheless conceding that all three estates collectively are the nation:

The King wishes that the ancient distinction of the three orders of the state be preserved in its entirety, as essentially linked to the constitution of his Kingdom; that the deputies, freely elected by each of the three orders, forming three chambers, deliberating by order, and being able, with the approval of the sovereign, to agree to deliberate in common, can alone be considered as forming the body of the representatives of the nation. As a result, the King has declared null the resolutions passed by the deputies of the order of the Third Estate, the 17th of this month, as well as those which have followed them as illegal and unconstitutional.


All property rights, without exception, shall be constantly respected, and His Majesty expressly understands under the name of property rights, tithes, rents, annuities, feudal and seigniorial rights and duties, and, in general, all the rights and prerogatives useful or honorary, attached to lands and fiefs or pertaining to persons.

And so Montlosier picked up from there, but drove it to a more hardline position.

When things got more heated, his 1791 letter on De la nécessité d'une Contre-révolution en France reiterated the measures he supported as those necessary to "abolish the letters-de-cachet, to give a just measure to the liberty of the press, to put an end to all the privileges and all the onerous taxes, to make jobs and honors accessible to merit in all classes of citizens; it is this revolution which, by preserving the clergy around the altars, like the nobility around the throne, would have taught the people to respect all the legitimate inequalities of honors, wealth, and consideration." (p.1)

But dammit, a line had to be drawn. Crushing the estates, proclaiming the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, printing the demon paper money, arming the sansculotte militias -- there it is. His words: "I am not a friend of this revolution, and although I sincerely desire the liberty of my country, I am attached to the distinction of ranks, as well as to the just prerogatives of the priesthood and the throne; and, as for the present principles of the revolution, we have arrived at a complete dissolution of the public order." (p.4)

Once more, it would be incorrect to consider Montlosier as just being a constitutional-liberal monarchist. Actually, it appears that his primary legacy today is his opposition to the Jesuits and to the ultramontanists. That he did, but it was from a fundamentally conservative impulse: the preservation of Gallicanism, similar to Jean-Baptiste Duvoisin and his own counterrevolutionism. In fact, one of his most striking justifications for his hostility to clerical ambitions was the fact that he faulted the Church's efforts to install the Peace and Truce of God as being an affront to the intrinsic noble prerogative of engaging in blood feuds!

One of the most famous French classical liberals, Benjamin Constant, a perpetual enemy of all hereditary privilege, nonetheless had to concede: "Where rights have disappeared, privileges can be a defense. For all their drawbacks, they are better than the absence of any intermediary power. To do without privileges, a constitution has to be excellent. Under despotism equality becomes a scourge."

Montlosier would have nodded, but then his interpretation of French history in De la Monarchie française is one of the most unapologetically pro-feudal works there is. Despised by economic and political liberals like Augustin Thierry (who was also an early proponent of studying history through economic class relations, and an influence on Marx and Engels), it is in retrospect regarded as an early contribution to medievalist historiography, important for the contemporary responses it provoked.

It is in part a reply to at least three prior historians: Boulainvilliers, Montesquieu and Henault. He departs from Boulainvilliers' more rigid Frank-Gaul distinction for the origins of nobility, choosing instead an analysis based on "ages" marked by different compositions of Roman, Gaul and Frankish customs, and different functions of the aristocracy. He departs from Montesquieu's strict focus on the court nobility, and from Henault's claim that the nobility was initially just the arms-bearing freemen, and that titled nobility was a Capetian innovation.

"The manners of three great nations [Romans, Gauls, Franks], this is where I have principally to turn my attention; I have to show how these peoples, having come to draw nearer to each other, have also come closer to their manners," is how he opens. He discounts interpretations of French institutions as being based purely on invasion, conquest or weak authority.

The distinction between allodial and tributary lands is held to be present in Gallic times, and thus the original status distinctions amount to liberus and servus in terms of land tenure: "The possessor of a free land is classed among ingenuous men [les hommes ingénus]: it is a sort of order of nobility. On the other hand, the possessor of a land subject to tribute is classed among the tributary men: they are the commoners of that time."

Franks and Gauls initially inhabited two separate legal spheres, in the Salic and Gallo-Roman laws, respectively. The leudes (warrior aristocracy) of the Franks are attached to the king, whereas the Gauls inhabit most of the boroughs. Eventually, marital and legal barriers are broken down, a process complete by the reign of Charles the Bald, and "Frank" comes to designate a freeman. (This is evident particularly in a 1315 edict by Louis X formally abolishing the status of slavery.)

Feudal government is dismissed as having any particular ethnic origin. Patron-client relationships are Roman, unfree labor (coloni) and serfs of the soil are seen all across sedentary agricultural civilization, the military benefice too finds a late Roman antecedent in the form of the precarium, nor are hereditary offices in any way a feudal form. Thus, he concludes feudal government to arise from the mixture of ethnic temperaments: "This government, which ends by showing the world an appearance of a new people, as well as of new customs and institutions, has, as we see, happened simply from the rapprochement of two peoples, one of whom has land, the other of arms, one the severe manners of the Germans, the other the enfeebled manners of Rome; one accustomed to a wandering life and to forming bonds more military than civil ones, the other accustomed to a sedentary life and to forming civil rather than military bonds, having mixed themselves little by little, and having taken something reciprocally from one to the other."

More novel than the relationship of vassalage, however, is the commendation ceremony: "Tassilo, Duke of Bavaria, thus came, with the principal personages of his country, to place his hand in the hand of King Pepin. It was thus, under the first race, that the great officers of the state came to place their hands in the king's hand, by taking an oath for their office. This kind of recommendation, the most illustrious of all, is constantly recalled in the chartres, as of Frankish origin."

This all served to create a tempered style of rule, he claims. Matters of faith are primarily left to bishops convened in synods, and war is declared in the presence of leudes. The Edict of Paris passed in 615 by Chlothar II is cited to this effect.

The impoverishment of the fisc as new benefices were created, the increasing dominance of the mayor of the palace in the Frankish court, in conjunction with the fragmentation "when, by the progress of time, all the Gauls had become Frankish; when the Frankish manners had made everything bend under them, and that the whole of France was covered with seigniories, vassals, and castles, the royal authority being no longer, as formerly, the only center of protection, was to be weakened as these movements were consolidated" -- led to the decline of the Merovingians, and with Saracen invasions on the horizon, paved the way for Charles Martel and the Carolingians.

A major constitutional change was to impose the oath of fealty not just on the leudes, but on all freemen. Montlosier was skeptical of its efficacy: "the royal authority was too remote; it found itself with private vassals without a usual and direct connection. That of the lords, on the contrary, was incessantly present."

The structure of ranks and status is summarized: "In the last days of our ancient monarchy, we were able to count four orders of persons, (1) the peers and the great officers of the crown; (2) an order of nobility; (3) a body of commoners and bourgeoisie; (4) the servants for wages."

These four classes in turn correspond, in modern times to, respectively, the peerage, the Second Estate, the commoners and the villeins/serfs.

Slaves have no property or civil existence. Tributaries do not own nor can they alienate their lands, but do remain in possession if they pay the tribute. For the nobles of the Second Estate, Montlosier writes: "The class of frank or ingenuous men, which corresponds to our order of nobility, has for its first character, to pay no tribute. To have full liberty, either of his person or of his possession, composes the principal attribute of "frankness." However, men of this class can enter, whenever they want, into homage and military service. They then become vassals. They are found more commonly under this title at a later period. They possess that kind of frank property called alleu [allod], at other times fiefs. They enjoy great privileges in the judiciary. They form, together with the grandees of the State, the assemblies of the Champs de Mars."

A high peerage-lower noble distinction is quickly drawn by Montlosier. The former is said to originate "from the favor of the prince and the occupation of the great offices," whereas the latter "of independence, resulting from the full liberty of his person, his family and his land." The peerage has disadvantages, even if it is more dignified in a way: "The first of these nobles, although the most brilliant, may be regarded as precarious in some respects, since it is due to honors revocable at will, or given only for life; the other, on the contrary, is independent of the prince."

Noble prerogatives in waging private war and feuds are not the product of weak central authority, but intentional: "It is false that this right was torn from the weakness of the princes. One has only to read the Capitularies. They are full of dispositions which place on the same line the duties which the vassals have to render to their lords, and those which they have to render to the king." Even centuries later, these rights are reiterated in customary law codes such as the Coutumes de Beauvaisis and the Etablissements de Saint Louis.

The stigma attached to the term 'feudalism' is undeserved: "The word feudalism has been, for the men of letters, what the word aristocracy has been for the men of the revolution... Even today, if one comes to find unfree laborers somewhere, or serfs of the soil, as in Poland, Russia, or some other country, he does not fail to say that they are the remains of feudalism."

This is misleading, however, since the domestic and military service offered by unfree laborers served to progressively emancipate them, first to tributaries and ultimately into freemen: "It was also a favor of a high baron to allow the children of his relatives and friends to come and join the children of the house, to fill in their place, or jointly with them, the functions they were responsible for. At the same time that the vassal was fighting beside his lord on the field of battle, the son of this vassal, or vasseletus (vasseletus), together with the young son of the lord, or damoiseau (domicellus), began serving in the house. The lords thus sent their children to each other, to care for the horses, to serve at the table, to fill the offices of page and valet."

This practice, initially confined to high nobility, Montlosier says spread out throughout all domains, and so "abolished true slavery."

In the meantime, the increasing dichotomy between the court nobility and the free landed nobility hardens and acts as a harbinger of things to come:

As it was open to every one to go and offer his services, his property, his liberty, his affairs, under various conditions, to powerful persons, it was natural to choose the counts in preference to the important office of which they were clothed. However, it is not difficult to notice that two qualities were cumulated in them: that of count, which they held of the king, and that of lord, which they held of themselves. The former being only precarious, the latter being hereditary and belonging to them, it is probable that one will have expanded at the expense of the other. These two titles having thus intertwined with each other, it was no longer possible to separate them.

Montlosier emphasizes that nobles must be autarkic, self-sufficient, and dramatically laments their disconnect from governance at the hands of intendants and venal office-holders:

An order of nobility must exist, in a state, other than by alms; his honors ought to be anything but concessions of charity, or regulations of distress. If I open the book of the states of Tours in 1483, I find there respect for the proclaimed nobility and its consecrated privileges. "For the state of the nobility is necessary to the tuition and guard of the common weal; for it is the nerve and force of the kingdom." The ordinance of Blois, article 28, has the same expression: "That the principal force of our crown lies and consists in our noblesse."

Now, under Louis XIV and Louis XV, could I be told in what way was the nobility was necessary to the tuition, to guard and defend the common weal? Everything went without it; they were then obliged to grant it advantages no longer as before, because they were useful, but in order that they might be useful; no longer as before, because it was the nerve and force of the State, but only so that it could continue to serve as a decoration.

The "ancient people" -- the higher warrior nobility and the seignors, were to be replaced by those he dubs the "new people" or "modern people." His words are very stark, for to him, this is not merely the succession of a new culture, but the eradication of a race: "He must bend under laws which his fathers have not known, and adopt the manners which his fathers have rejected. It is established as law of state that his persecutors are his judges, his inferiors his sovereigns. In this general reversal, the laws of France are deemed foreign, foreign laws have become the laws of France. The liberties of the ancient people are now called privileges, their ancient independence is called "barbarism," and their former government anarchy."

The passing of the great race, would occur in the following stages: "The nobility had in its lands men who were under its government; they were taken from it. It had the right of war; it was taken from it. It had the right of taxation; it was abolished. It had the custom of assembling itself in warlike festivals; they were suppressed. It had the right to coin money; it was taken. It had the right to be judged by its peers: it was instead sent to committees of commoners. It was of great importance not to pay tributes, but they were imposed regardless." (Some 150 different types of coinage ostensibly prevailed, until the right to mint gold and silver was usurped as a royal prerogative.)

How Montlosier cries out: the great seigniories deprived of vassalage, the great ords of their importance. No vassals but the king's, no barons but those of the state, all nobles reduced to royal immediacy. All fiefs in principle elevated back into allods again. Lockean freeholderism for all! And, of course, feudal duties exacted by idle and disempowered do-nothing paper nobility are unsurprisingly considered a cruel iniquity.

The final quotation from Montlosier I will sample is by far the most brutal. By this we know we're dealing with a hardboiled counterrevolutionary, even if a highly eccentric one:

In ancient times, when a gentleman was put on trial, it was by his peers, presided over by the lord suzerain, the dominant lord, or the count. The bailiffs having been instituted, as these bailiffs were ordinarily lords, the order of ranks was at least preserved. But when the men of the tributary class had seized the whole tribunal, a man of the noble class could not be brought before such judges without a violation of his laws and propriety.

There are men who regard as puerile and vain the suggestion that sufferings arose from the interchange of ranks in the judicial order. I do not think there is anything more important in a state. To disfigure the ancient order of justice was only unjust; altering the order of the ranks was scandalous.

Men of the lowest extraction were raised to the first offices and first dignities of the state. When the commoners arrived in the bailiwicks, formerly assigned to the counts or bailiffs, did they take the rank? When the commoners had made their invasion in the parlements of peers and barons, did they become henceforth peers and barons? All of them remained commoners.

It is a right which the common sense of nations has consecrated, that the superior can not be judged by the inferior. Major to minore non potest judicari. There is another one that is equally consecrated, namely that each one must be judged according to his law.

Unlike more modern racialists who emphasize the hereditary germplasm and regard custom as rather incidental, for Montlosier, the debasement of his own noble lineage was an act with repercussions as dire as an ethnic cleansing of a host population. In some sense, it must be regarded as right.

If, then, his vision was an aristocratic commonwealth where the high-blooded ruled over the commons and occupy the high offices, with the king standing by as the sacred right to feud and private war was exercised, and the bishops exercising their jurisdiction over oaths, wills, testaments and marriage (but otherwise doing no more) -- the adoption of constitutionalism on his part should probably be regarded as an attempt to tie the hands of le roi. Between ministerial despotism and commercial-liberal propertarianism, the latter must have been more redeemable. Insisting on the division of powers and at the same time on the creation of a higher house where a hereditary peerage would sit -- such was his initial reform proposal in 1789-90.

Montlosier's De la Monarchie française, interestingly enough, was commissioned in 1804 by the Corsican mountebank Napoleon Buonaparte. It wasn't finished until 1807. After the censors read it, its publication was delayed until the Restoration in 1814. It's pretty obvious why -- the sheer elitism of it is poison to any national-egalitarian unity. As it ought to be!

Republished from Carlsbad 1819.

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