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  • Warrior Pursuits: Noble Culture and Civil Conflict in Early Modern France
  • Robert A. Nye
Warrior Pursuits: Noble Culture and Civil Conflict in Early Modern France. By Brian Sandberg (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010) 424 pp. $60.00

Sandberg explores the French civil wars between 1598 and 1635 from the perspective of the "warrior pursuits" of the nobility in Languedoc [End Page 456] and Guyenne. According to Sandberg, the honor culture shared by hereditary nobles—despite differences in wealth, status, royal favor, and religious confession—was the foundation for the manner in which the rebellions and civil wars of this era were mobilized, funded, and fought. Sandberg hopes to chronicle how warfare and religious strife in Languedoc and Guyenne had less to do with the plans and resources of the monarchy than the activities of local noble elites, whose private and public goals determined much of the fundamental strategic and military activity in the region throughout the first third of the seventeenth century. Though the armies led by noble commanders ostensibly served in the king's name, the troops that they led were raised, armed, and provisioned from their personal fortunes. The commanders assessed taxes and plundered, obtained loans from co-religionists, and were employed as much in private conflicts as they were in rebellions against royal authority.

Standing armies were not yet a feature of European warfare; armies were raised in response to particular crises and provocations, to be disbanded once the issue was resolved. Although the tense co-existence of Catholic and Huguenot populations in the south of France served as a constant motive for armed conflict, the presence of a noble warrior elite that was schooled in arms, eager to achieve notoriety in combat, and zealous about defending the true faith sparked most of the military activity in this era. The warrior nobles in Louis XIII's commissions and offices during this era were at the apogee of their power and independence—in principle subject to royal authority, though in practice available to justify private or confessional vengeance or despoil the seigneuries of rivals.

Sandberg thoroughly analyzes the relatively insecure situation of the noble elite in the early seventeenth century. The period in which formal, documented claims determined noble lineage lay in the future; in 1600, a man was obliged to demonstrate his nobility through narratives and testimonials of valorous ancestors; seigneurial holdings, perhaps enhanced by marriage; the patrimony of kin and noble friends; and, crucially, courage in arms and military leadership.

In Sandberg's account, a nobleman's status could be insured only by a permanent performance of nobility. He had to be well-trained in arms, naturally eager for war but disciplined in command, and versed in the elaborate rhetoric of friendship and affection that bound his kin and other warriors to him and tied him to the "grands" of his region. Nobles accumulated "credit" by obtaining offices and titles, amassing wealth, and demonstrating sectarian piety through participation in sacred rituals and generous endowments of religious organizations. This "credit" was then redeemed in the form of military and financial support for arming and raising troops for battle, a more or less permanent feature of life in the region at this time. However, a shortage of ready specie seems to have required nobles to sustain their armies more by violent and fortuitous means than by redeeming their "credit." Hence, it is difficult to [End Page 457] know when the religious motives ended and the self-preserving performances of noble commanders began.

Sandberg has gathered a prodigious quantity of information and documentation that shifts attention from the oft-told story of a relentlessly centralizing monarchy to the fluid, insecure, and bellicose behavior of a regional nobility that was more concerned with preserving status and vanquishing seigneurial and confessional rivals than in suppressing rebellions against the monarch. There is merit in this cultural analysis of the role of noble honor in the religious turmoil of southern France following the imperfect truce of the Edict of Nantes. Yet there is also a danger in extending the performative aspects of "warrior pursuits" to encompass passionate sectarian belief or an emotional fealty to divine-right monarchy, thereby ignoring the...


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