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

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

by Mark Edward Motley


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Focusing on the highest-ranking segment of the nobility, Mark Motley examines why a social group whose very essence was based on hereditary status would need or seek instruction and training for its young. As the "warrior nobility" adopted the courtly life epitomized by Versailles—with its code of etiquette and sensitivity to language and demeanor—education became more than a vehicle for professional training. Education, Motley argues, played both the conservative role of promoting assertions of "natural" superiority appropriate to a hereditary aristocracy, and the more dynamic role of fostering cultural changes that helped it maintain its power in a changing world.

Based on such sources as family papers and correspondence, memoirs, and pedagogical treatises, this book explores education as it took place in the household, in secondary schools and riding academies, and at court and in the army. It shows how such education combined deference and solidarity, language and knowledge, and ceremonial behavior and festive disorder. In so doing, this work contends that education was an integral part of the aristocracy's response to absolutism in the French monarchy.

Originally published in 1990.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691602905
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1102
Pages: 252
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x (d)

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Becoming a French Aristocrat

The Education of the Court Nobility 1580â?"1715

By Mark Motley


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05547-3


Family and Household Education

The first and perhaps most important context for the education of aristocratic children was the great household, which usually contained not only parents and children but kin, servants, and clients as well. It was an essential source of power and prestige for the aristocracy until the last decades of the Old Regime, and therefore remained a natural means of educating children, for it was through the household that the dense network of relationships of kinship, clientele, and service was transmitted from generation to generation. This chapter will argue that it is a mistake to see the great household simply as a "traditional" means of education, gradually losing influence to the nuclear family and to the more efficient school system, for several cultural dynamics were at work that increased its importance to the aristocracy as a means of socializing children and as a vehicle of the social codes that emerged as it was drawn into the court system and its values. The first was the spread of the belief that infancy and childhood needed special care in order to preserve not only the child's life and soul but also his "nature" and character. These ideas gained in importance due to the belief that nobility was a natural attribute passed from parents to children, and as "natural" physical grace became more important as a symbol of social status. The second was the codification of relations of authority and deference that took place as social hierarchy was reinforced and as civility and etiquette were increasingly used to regulate the nobility's traditional emphasis on honor. Finally, the great household was also influenced by the movement to place more weight on the role of the family as a means of religious and moral socialization consequent to the Protestant and Catholic reformations. Each of these movements forced adaptations in the traditional structures of household life and augmented the tension between the familiarity of life in the company of servants, clients, and kin and the growing formality demanded in public, hierarchical, and religious behavior.

This conflict between familiarity and formality was at the root of primary socialization in the great household. Socialization was not based on the internalization of values and constraints through an intense affective relationship between parents and children but rather through a series of transitions the child made in his public conduct, in which childhood behavior was eliminated from relationships and situations that called for formality or public deference. Children before the age of three to four were relatively isolated from adult activities. They were protected by religious ritual and by care for their body, and more importantly they were allowed to engage in spontaneous play and expression of their emotions. As they grew, they were subject to both physical and moral constraint to mold their behavior on the activities of adult society, reflecting its divisions in status, gender, and age. Aristocratic boys began to participate in the formal behavior of adult meals, began to control fear and anger through the adult male values of courage and honor, began to dance for exercise and to play parlor games for amusement, and began to take responsibility for religious ritual through prayer. Yet, we shall also see that each of these transitions was incomplete, for alongside the codified behavior of public relationships with superiors, the "natural" behavior of childhood continued to shape familiar relations with inferiors and peers, and to find expression in the festive occasions of household life. Boys learned that approaching women in private could resolve public disputes with elder males, that giving reign to their appetite was a sign of special familiarity with equals at table, and that the relatively free play of childhood continued in the form of family festivals and theater. The dialogue between childhood "nature" and adult "culture" was in fact an essential way in which relationships of both hierarchy and solidarity could be constructed and expressed, and in which household socialization connected with the principal contexts of adult life.

The great household remained essential to aristocratic power throughout most of the seventeenth century, largely because it concentrated several networks of personal relations. It was a sizable institution of fifty to one hundred people, responsible for tasks ranging from feeding and clothing its members to finance, administration, political espionage, and, of course, education. For the most part it was composed of servants, often chosen from lands in the possession of the family, who were bound to their masters by the ethical claims of service, loyalty, and family honor, as well as through material interest. The personal, particularistic nature of this moral patrimony of service and loyalty had a considerable effect on the socializing of aristocratic children, for one of the major goals of raising a child in the household was to introduce him to its relations, loyalties, and rivalries, and to provide him with a reliable base of servants for the future. This was explained with unusual clarity in 1691 to the young St. Simon, aged eight and a half, by his governor: "Treat (your servants) with kindness, not simply because they have been placed with you by persons to whom you owe all manner of respect, but also because it is advantageous to you to be loved by those who serve you. People will judge your temperament by their affection for you, ... [and] someone who becomes ill in the army or while traveling learns very quickly how important it is that his people serve him with affection."

This was nowhere more the case than among the aristocracy, for whom the cultivation of relations of service and loyalty constituted the heart of their powerful systems of patronage and clientele. This involved in the first place kin, who were often raised with cousins or relatives of a similar age, as was the case in the households of the Montmorency, Bouillon, and La Force. But above all the great households were characterized by the presence of pages, young nobles whose parents had placed them in the service of a lord in order to provide them with education and advancement. As the jurist Charles Loyseau noted in 1610, since a gentleman "cannot work to maintain his family, the only way to maintain his quality is to make a military career through the favor of the grandees, and consequently giving children to Princes and Lords is an honest way to provide for them. This is how the nobility, who has always wanted to remain separate from the people, has maintained itself." Loyseau was wrong to lament the decline of this institution, however, since it remained important for most of the seventeenth century. The higher a noble's rank, and the greater the position or functions he held, the more pages he needed to maintain. In the early seventeenth century, magnates or princes had between ten and thirty pages in their households, dukes from five to ten, and nobles who played any role at all at court or in the army at least two or three.

Pages were a valuable sign of prestige and position, and grandees spent considerable amounts of money to clothe them in their livery, with coats, capes, and pants in the house's colors richly embroidered with bands of velvet, taffeta, and lace. Most importantly, though, pages were essential to the powerful relations of patronage and clientele between greater and lesser nobles. The Duke de Montmorency often educated the sons of military clients among his pages as a means of rewarding them for their loyal service, and educating the sons of influential provincial nobles was also a means of creating new ties of obligation and service. Taking on a child in this way had a multiplier effect, indebting relatives and descendants as well as the boy himself. This was the case of a young boy who was considered as a prospective page by the La Tremoille family in 1608, as we see in a letter to the duchess from one of her staff: "There are ten boys who can be gained as servants for your house by the education of only one of them, without mentioning several relatives who are already very well disposed ... and whose affection would be maintained by this favor." In fact, service as a page created an obligation between master and servant so powerful that it was still perceived as hereditary in the early seventeenth century. For François de Sales it was natural to deliver the funeral oration for the Duke de Mercoeur for, as he explained, his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all been educated as pages by the family, and he was "considered as a hereditary servant of the house" in consequence.

The number and importance of these different personal ties was one reason that noble parents played a relatively small direct role in the education of children, lesser nobles placing their sons in the service of more illustrious families, and greater nobles entrusting their own children's education to servants placed with them. Each major stage of a noble's socialization was marked by the kind of servants he was given, setting in motion a household cycle that began long before marriage. As he left the care of women for that of more prestigious male servants, as his household was increased with footmen or lackeys on entering the academy, and, finally, as gentlemen-in-waiting replaced teachers when he began a military career, servants prepared young nobles to assume new social roles and were an important symbol of their social identity.

Lack of primary responsiblity for infant care and child rearing did not mean parental indifference about the physical health and moral development of small children, however. It is a mistake to argue that most seventeenth-century parents were indifferent toward infants or that they lacked a conception of the nature of childhood and human development, but it is important to emphasize that both emotion and understanding were shaped by the social and cultural contexts of aristocratic life. As we shall see, parents were attentive to their children's development of "natural" advantages such as physical health, appearance, and inherited character, yet also highly concerned that this development be shaped and perfected through proper care and education, and that it be reconciled with the complex social world of personal relationships that constituted life in the aristocratic household. Expert advice on how to care for children's physical needs was available in Renaissance medical writings and from physicians who were often members of the household staff. But children also needed to develop relationships with a broad range of domestic servants, relatives, and family friends, and to understand how the conventions that governed such relationships in household life could be reconciled with their basic needs to eat, sleep, and play. This not only meant that within the great household many different people played a role in helping with child rearing, it also imposed certain constraints on parents' expression of affection and emotion with children, who were thereby oriented from their earliest years to develop a wider network of personal relationships, embracing parents and relatives, other children raised with them in the household, and domestic servants and clients.

The first six to seven years of noble children's lives were spent in the care of women. In aristocratic families they were usually supervised by a governess, who was in charge of their nourishment, hygiene, and initial moral instruction. During the first two years of this period, though, feeding and care was the direct responsibility of a wet nurse, in spite of widespread recommendations by doctors and moralists that mothers breast-feed their children themselves. The demands of administering a large household, the social obligation to preserve their beauty, and the desire of husbands to avoid the prohibition on sex with nursing women, were all reasons cited by medical authorities to explain the aristocratic practice of employing wet nurses during the seventeenth century. Beyond feeding, doctors advised that the nurse was responsible for cleaning the child and for wrapping it in swaddling bandages. Aside from keeping the child warm and immobile, swaddling was motivated by a desire to mold the infant's body to an "upright figure, which is the most fitting and decent for man, and to accustom him to stand on his two feet; for without this, he would perhaps walk on all fours, like most other animals." Medical authorities also urged nurses to take precautions not to place a child in direct sunlight for fear he become cross-eyed, nor to rotate him in his cradle, for fear his body would become twisted.

In many aristocratic households during the seventeenth century the use of a wet nurse followed the traditional lines of domestic service, rather than the commercial system linking peasant wet nurses in the countryside with the urban middle classes, which has been documented in such detail for Renaissance Florence and which would enjoy increasing popularity among the French urban population in the second half of the eighteenth century. Doctors and moralists advised that great care needed to be taken to choose a nurse who was both morally and physically suitable, and grandees were especially warned against ceding to the crowds of people who solicited as a favor the placement of a relative or friend as nurse. Instead, nurses were frequently chosen from families with existing ties to the family or their friends, and they were generally lodged in or near the household, where feeding and care of the child could be supervised and where parents could stay in contact with the infant. Account books and testamentary bequests show that wet nurses often established long-term relationships with aristocratic families, being compensated partly through future employment or lifetime pensions rather than salary alone. In the household of the Duke de Lorraine in 1627 one finds the nurse of a deceased child received 100 livres pension, while her sister nursed another child for a similar amount. Nurses were also partially compensated by bequests, as when the Princess de Monaco left a life annuity of 150 livres to a former nurse in 1678, while in her will the Duchess de Guise rewarded her former nurse with 800 livres of pen sion for life and left a 1,000 livres gift to the nurse of her great-nephew, of whom she had custody.

Much anxiety surrounded the choice of a nurse, because medical opinion held that character followed the "humor" of the body and that "a child might come to resemble the nurse through the nourishment he takes from her, for in feeding at her breast he will suck the vices of her body and mind along with her milk." Given the strong belief that nobles were physically different from commoners, it is not surprising that infants' feeding was carefully observed. The Duchess Elizabeth de Bouillon changed one nurse when her milk became dark and anxiously observed another when her child began to reject her nurse's milk, writing long letters to her doctor for advice. Her daughter Marie de La Tour behaved much the same way, soliciting advice from the family physician about solid food, and putting off weaning her son because he seemed weak for his age and because his nurse still had plenty of milk of good quality. Moreover, beliefs that the good humor and sexual continence of a nurse were important to the quality of her milk sometimes led to a measure of self-interested solicitude for the nurse's family and personal life. Marie de La Tour asked for a letter from her nurse's husband to counter rumors his wife had heard that he was starving to death, and on another occasion asked if it "would be possible that the nurse's husband leave for eight or ten days when we arrive ... and that no one tell the nurse anything about her son," in order to give her own child time to rest up from the trip before weaning. Later in the century, Madam de Sevigné closely supervised her granddaughter's nurse in a similar manner, having a physician visit regularly, quickly changing nurses when her milk appeared in adequate, and moving the nurse back to Paris from the countryside out of fear she might become bored.

Parental concern continued as children struggled with later developmental problems and the ever-present threat of illness. Though it is difficult to generalize about an issue for which consistent evidence is not available, examples such as the Bouillon and La Trémoille families do suggest that aristocratic parents were deeply concerned about infant children and treated them with both affection and care. In a series of letters to her sister between 1600 and 1620, Elizabeth de Bouillon described herself as a mother "fit only to cradle my children and sing to them, as I did to my little boy yesterday," and she anxiously followed her children's with feeding, teething, and childhood illness, while constantly suffering "the maddening passion of a mother who is always afraid, too weak to believe in God's promise to turn all to the good."


Excerpted from Becoming a French Aristocrat by Mark Motley. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Acknowledgments, pg. ix
  • Principal Abbreviations, pg. x
  • Introduction, pg. 1
  • Chapter One: Family and Household Education, pg. 18
  • Chapter Two: Language and Letters, pg. 68
  • Chapter Three: The Academy, pg. 123
  • Chapter Four: Entering the World, pg. 169
  • Conclusion, pg. 209
  • Bibliography, pg. 213
  • Index, pg. 233

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