French nobility  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The nobility (Template:Lang-fr) in France, in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, had specific legal and financial rights, and prerogatives.

The first official list of these prerogatives was established relatively late, under Louis XI after 1440 and included the right to hunt, the right to wear a sword and have a coat of arms, and, in principle, the right to possess a fief or seigneurie. Nobles were also granted an exemption from paying the taille, except for non-noble lands they might possess in some regions of France. Furthermore, certain ecclesiastic, civic, and military positions were reserved for nobles. These feudal privileges are often termed droits de feodalité dominante.

However, the nobles also had responsibilities. Nobles were required to honor, serve, and counsel their king. They were often required to render military service (for example, the impôt du sang or "blood tax").

The title of "noble" was not indelible: certain activities could cause dérogeance, or loss of nobility. Most commercial and manual activities were strictly prohibited, although nobles could profit from their lands by operating mines and forges.

With the exception of a few isolated cases, serfdom had ceased to exist in France by the 15th century. In Early Modern France, nobles nevertheless maintained a great number of seigneurial privileges over the free peasants that worked lands under their control. They could, for example, levy the "cens" tax, in which vassals were required to pay an annual tax on lands they leased or held. Nobles could also charge banalités for the right to use the lord's mills, ovens, or wine presses. Alternatively, nobles could demand a portion of vassals' harvests in return for permission to farm land he owned. Nobles also maintained certain judicial rights over their vassals, although with the rise of the modern state many of these privileges had passed to state control, leaving rural nobility only local police functions and judicial control over violation of their seigneurial rights.

In the 17th century this seigneurial system was established in France's North American possessions.

In the political system of the Estates General, the nobility made up the Second Estate. This three-way division of the Estates should not be construed however as implying a division of Early Modern French society into three rigid orders (clergy, nobles, bourgeois and peasants) without the possibility of crossover.

Figures differ on the actual number of nobles in France at the end of the 18th century. For the year 1789, the French historian François Bluche gives a figure of 140,000 nobles (9,000 noble families) and claims that around 5% of nobles claimed descent from feudal nobility before the 15th century. With a total population of 28 million, this would represent merely 0.5%. The historian Gordon Wright gives a figure of 300,000 nobles (of which 80,000 were from the traditional noblesse d'épée), which agrees with the estimation of the historian Jean de Viguerie, or a little over 1% (proportionally one of smallest noble classes in Europe).


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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "French nobility" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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