- The Counts of Laval: Culture, Patronage and Religion in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century France
The Lavals were one of the leading noble families of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century western France, with their lands and influence concentrated in eastern Brittany and in Maine. Although their main archives had been carefully assembled at the family seat of Vitré during the sixteenth century, the documentary record was disturbed by the Wars of the League at the end of the century, and many more documents were burnt or plundered during the Revolution. The remainder, however, have been painstakingly reassembled in the Archives départementales de la Mayenne. Taken together with the family papers from the Château des ducs de La Trémoïlle (the inheritors of the Laval patrimony) at Thouars, there is more than enough material for this, the first significant historical study of the family. The work is distinguished first by the thorough assembly and examination of all the surviving and available materials. Secondly, it is unusual in its periodization: by traversing the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Walsby is able to emphasize important continuities in the way that regional magnate power and landed influence was consolidated through marriage and the development of a large noble affinity. The latter is discussed in the shadow of an extensive prosopography of twelve hundred individuals, some details of which are to be found in the original doctoral thesis from which this book is derived. It would have been useful to have had some discussion of the organization of this database and the principles for including people in it, as the important and interesting second chapter, on ‘the network of affinity’, crucially depends on this resource. Thirdly, Walsby brings out the way in which the Lavals played on their connections at both the independent Breton and French courts in order to cement their own influence, act as mediators between centre and periphery, and create a ‘golden age’ for the Lavals under Guy XVI at the beginning of the [End Page 339] sixteenth century. That game changed, however, with the death of Anne de Bretagne in 1513 and the absorption of the duchy into the French kingdom. The change was not immediate, since the Lavals were still important mediators. But the family was progressively less able to meet the ‘new challenges’ that the sixteenth century posed. Walsby demonstrates how, faced with a threat to the demographic stability of the lineage, its leading figures became divided among themselves and were wrong-footed by the divisions of the Reformation. Particularly welcome is his discussion of the dedication that Guyonne and Guy XIX de Laval showed towards the Reformed religion and of the impact Protestantism had on the family’s influence and fortune, and his chapter on the Lavals’ long-running feud with the Rohan family. Historians of the Reformation often discuss questions of loyalty in somewhat abstract terms, whereas in this well-researched study such questions are placed in the long-term context of the family and its regional significance.