- Aristocratic Families in Republican France, 1870–1940 by Elizabeth Macknight
Scholarship on the decline of European aristocracies has focused almost entirely on matters of power: the sudden or gradual loss of aristocrats’ ability to protect monarchy and church; their search for profitable economic alternatives to the fall in land values and rents in the nineteenth century; or the atavistic appeal of their class’s military and warrior heritage in the modern nation state. Elizabeth Macknight touches briefly on these themes, but her focus is on the private lives of the five thousand or so aristocratic families still in existence in Third Republic [End Page 480] France during the Third Republic. She has dug into the seldom used private archives deposed in the National Archives and in seventeen departmental archives scattered across France to explore the legal and family documents and personal correspondence of a representative group of ancient noble families and the heirs of those ennobled by Bonaparte. Her aim has been to identify the ways these families preserved their aristocratic way of life and thus kept alive the ability of their class to have social influence and political authority out of all proportion to their wealth and numbers.
Macknight takes Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of social reproduction as her guide to understanding the strategies these families used to pass along the forms of cultural, social, and educational capital they had accumulated, in some cases, over centuries. From the historic beginnings of their class, aristocrats had always been their own best historians, adept in grasping the techniques they and their kin were obliged to employ to preserve, and, if possible, strengthen their noble race. As historians of early modern France have established, nobles imagined themselves to be “socio-natural” types into which political authority, the military virtues, and personal distinctions had been bred over the generations. The purity of noble blood lines was of paramount importance, but so were the personal qualities of noble men and women that families regarded as signs of a successful alliance. The modern aristocracy in France continued these practices in their marriages, inheritance practices, child-rearing, and in living nobly in a democratizing world.
Macknight is careful to outline the legal constraints imposed by the laic Republic on the institutions and practices of the modern aristocracy. Primogeniture and entail disappeared in the Revolution, but the majorat, a form of property entail attached to a heritable title, endured through much of the century and served as a strategy for settling the bulk of an estate’s property on a single heir, thus avoiding the worst fragmenting effects of partible inheritance. Untitled aristocrats were obliged to find other ways to honor primogeniture, though this often involved painful decisions about apportionment and tumultuous legal battles between siblings, about which Macknight has found much evidence in the archives. Changes in the tax structure and declining land values also affected decisions about the relative advantages of real estate and other investments, though selling the family chateau was always a last resort. The increasing restrictions on Catholic education, the separation of church and state, and new limitations on paternal authority also affected the aristocracy more as a class than any other.
In a world of shrinking options, a good marriage was still the best hedge against derogation, and families mobilized all their resources to engineer them. The ideal arrangement was a union of blue bloods which would bring in new wealth. Though lineage was important, modestly-endowed heirs might court rich foreign girls, even Jews, if an estate’s future depended on an injection of “new” money. In any case, the point was to produce male heirs; the relative youth of brides in these unions, and their far higher fertility rates illustrates the success of this strategy. Macknight finds evidence of loving marriages that bloomed on this arid soil, but also stories of adultery and domestic strife in alliances designed to perpetuate a breeding line rather than fulfill the modern standard of romantic love. Unhappy marriages in this ultra-Catholic world did not often end up in...