- Warrior Pursuits: Noble Culture and Civil Conflict in Early Modern France by Brian Sandberg
Brian Sandberg’s book, Warrior Pursuits: Noble Culture and Civil Conflict in Early Modern France, is an important addition to the literature on the nobility of early modern France. Based on the lives of nobles in Languedoc and Guyenne, Sandberg argues that the traditional occupation of the nobility, warfare, continued to define the vitality of many nobles in the early seventeenth century. In a context of frequent civil and religious conflict, the culture of this nobility remained fundamentally shaped by violence. While much recent literature on nobility has emphasized its metamorphosis and evolution into an elite whose identity and culture was based on pedigree, education, and connoisseurship (my own work included)—all to the dimunition of the traditional military way of life—this book makes clear that for Languedoc and Guyenne nobles were still warriors. Their culture and concepts of honor were shaped in large part by the violence in which they regularly participated.
The book has several strengths. First, Sandberg weaves his own rich and fruitful archival work on the military nobles of Languedoc and Guyenne together with a large literature on the French nobility to construct an elaborate and remarkably lucid description of how nobles functioned as officeholders and warriors in the provinces. He explains the nuts and bolts of the provincial noble’s world in a nearly scientific manner. For this reason alone, Warrior Pursuits will become standard reading in my graduate seminar. Second, his detailed discussion of the military culture of nobility is important and needed. Sandberg dissects and classifies the essential components of this culture based on archival evidence from the southwest, and he draws on the works of Arlette Joaunna and Kristen Neuschel.
Three analytic concepts are central to the book: the profession of arms, the bonds of nobility, and the culture of revolt. Sandberg argues that warfare for these families was a profession that defined them as a large subset of the provincial nobility and that their households were organized around the sword. Warfare in turn determined the bonds of nobility by generating the networks of clients and offices that connected nobles. Finally, the violent culture of revolt was sustained by a warrior noble culture, the natural sphere of noble activity.
A particularly interesting and important chapter addresses the honor culture of warrior nobles with the basic assumption that religious and civil conflict undermined traditional notions of honor. Certainly, critics in the late sixteenth century wrote extensively about the loss of virtue apparent in the conduct of traditional nobility. In this context the honor culture of warrior nobles unfolded [End Page 808] and took different forms. Sandberg maintains that warrior honor culture rested on four concepts: sanctity, quality, reputation, and precedence. Sanctity, or personal piety, was revealed in various ways, public displays of piety being noteworthy. Quality referred to moral worth, upholding the idea that nobility existed as an inherently better and distinct social group. Reputation was established by military deeds and was rooted in ideas of masculine courage. And precedence was based on the privileges of rank and office; its mainsprings were “feelings of superiority to other nobles and commoners” (169). He argues the evolution of warrior honor culture from civil and religious conflict and contends that nobles demonstrated honor through performances, command, courage and admiration. Ultimately, he argues that warrior society was bound by honor relationships, complex and sometimes conflicting, rather than ties of fidelity.
Sandberg focuses on the period 1598 to 1635, a time when religious and civil conflicts persisted in southwestern France and warrior nobles routinely practiced their profession and its attendant rituals. Surely warrior culture was a culture of revolt in this crucial period for the development of the French state. And, according to Sandberg, warrior nobles were more than antagonists and thorns in the side of the emerging absolutist state; by their willingness to revolt (or their decision to collaborate) military nobles affected and limited the power of a central government deprived of a...