- Enlightened Feudalism: Seigneurial Justice and Village Society in Eighteenth- Century Northern Burgundy
One of the issues that once agitated scholars of the French Revolution was whether a “feudal” or “seigneurial” reaction, in the form of increased exactions, had taken place at the end of the Old Regime. Supporters point to the seigneurs’ increased reliance on specialized lawyers to unearth ancient dues—an urgent matter since those unclaimed for thirty years were considered extinct—and their increased use of their judicial prerogatives to enforce the collection of feudal dues and to pressure peasants to give up their rights to communal lands and forests. The additional revenues were sufficiently large to make such proceedings worthwhile, and, consequently, exacerbated conflicts between peasants and lords on the eve of the Revolution, setting the scene for the violent outbreaks of summer 1789. Opposing scholars argue that feudal dues were insignificant and seigneurial authority had been sapped by the absolutist state.
Burgundy has long been the focus for such debates. Although now renowned for its wines, gourmet dishes, and quaint villages, it was famed in the eighteenth century for the survival of feudal authority. The continued oppression of Burgundian peasants received the stamp of authority from Saint-Jacob’s mammoth study (1960), reinforced by Forster’s examination of the financial accounts of the aristocratic Saulx-Tavanes family (1971), whose extravagant lifestyle at court was sustained by squeezing their peasants dry.1 Root’s 1987 study did not so much undermine this view as suggest that the royal administration attempted to protect the peasants against lords, in a self-interested move to secure its own stable tax base.2
The readily accessible Burgundian judicial records invite periodical reassessment of the weight of the seigneurial regime at the eve of the Revolution. Intrigued by peasant support of seigneurial courts in the 1789 rural cahiers de doléances, Hayhoe set himself to re-evaluate the extent, [End Page 453] use, and misuse of seigneurial authority, based on the court records and annual assizes of a sample of seigneuries. This strategy allows him to challenge Alexis de Tocqueville’s claims in Old Regime and the French Revolution (New York, 1856) that seigneurial power in France eroded in favor of the centralizing state during the last century of the Old Regime.
Hayhoe concludes that the seigneurie remained a vibrant political and economic institution in northern Burgundy. What is more, the state recognized the utility of seigneurial courts, which complemented rather than competed against its own district-appeals courts. Hayhoe sees no evidence that provincial intendants intervened (unduly) in local judicial affairs. Seigneurs staffed the provincial Parlement and sat in the Languedoc provincial Estates, hence offering powerful support to seigneurial prerogatives. So much for Tocqueville.
The attempt to prove the continued vibrancy of the seigneurie is problematical, however. Hayhoe fails to offer a satisfactory definition of the institution. Instead, he subsumes all local activities under the seigneurie’s judicial and economic powers. He treats communal administration as an offshoot of seigneurial authority and incorrectly places the communal practices required by open-field farming under lordly authority because of his dependence on judicial records to reconstruct rural relations.3 Moreover, although the careful reader will be able to piece together the judicial structure of the province, the book would have benefited from a section that outlined clearly all of the legal options open to lords, peasants, and communities, besides recourse to the seigneurial court.
Hayhoe argues that seigneurial justice could be beneficial on the basis of the 1789 rural cahiers—his peasants’ “voice”—which regretted the removal of the seigneurial court from the village to the nearest town. Hayhoe provides a good account of the rationale behind this change. In towns, seigneurs could hire lawyers or notaries to act as seigneurial judges, thus cutting costs while ensuring that men properly trained in the law oversaw their seigneuries and judged their civil and criminal suits. But in 1772, the re-establishment of mandatory annual assizes brought seigneurial courts back to the villages each autumn, much...