In France, nobility was a quality of the individual, a legal characteristic that could be held or acquired, and conferred some rights and privileges; such as levied taxes in times of war (since the nobility was supposed to fight for the sovereign), or since the 17th century, only weaker taxing exceptions. Also, a number of military and civic positions were reserved for nobility.
How is it inherited?
Nobility was usually hereditary only through the male line; a nobleman could marry a commoner and keep his nobility, but a noblewoman could not. When the nobility was hereditary, even though it was transmitted through the father, a higher percentage of noble blood or a higher number of noble generations in the family could be important as well.
How is nobility acquired?
By Birth. Usually from the father since 1370 (only exceptions are nobility in Champagne until the 16th century and Bar until the French Revolution). Bastards of nobles became nobles when legitimated by letters of the sovereign until 1600, after that a separate act of ennoblement was required (except royal bastards, they were always nobles even with no legitimation).
By Office. Depending on the office, the holder became noble either after a number of years in office or immediately. This kind of nobility could be personal or hereditary for 2, 3 or more generations. Here we have nobles for fiscal offices (tax courts and state auditors), “noblesse de robe” (for judicial offices, members of the parliament or courts that have been in office for 20 years), “noblesse de cloche” (municipal offices, the mayors of towns), administrative offices (the places on the household of the king and the secrétaires du Roi) and military commissions (since 1750 officers reaching the rank of general would receive hereditary nobility).
By Letters. Meaning, by royal grant, meaning that the king could always ennoble whoever he wished.
Could nobility be lost?
Yes it could. You lose it by failing to your failing duties (this was called “déchéance”, kind of like Athos in The Musketeers BBC series); by practising forbidden occupations (called “dérogeance”), like commerce or manual crafts or farming someone else’s land (farming your own or the King’s land was ok). Funny that medicine, glass-blowing, exploitation of mines, maritime commerce and wholesale commerce was acceptable. Also, if you were a woman and marry a commoner, your nobility is lost.
What about the titles?
To bear a title you had to be noble. And a title is a rank attached to a certain piece of land. So, there could be nobles with no titles.
Duc. A duke (from the Latin dux, “leader”) was originally the governor of a province and a military leader. He was the possessor of a “duché” (a duchy).
Comte. A count (from the Latin comes, “companion”), originally an appointee of the king governing a city and its immediate surroundings. He was the possessor of a comté (county) or a high-ranking official in the king’s immediate entourage called Counts Palatine (palace counts).
Marquis. Originally the governor of a “march”, a region at the boundaries of the kingdom in need of particular protection. He was the possessor of a marquisat (marquessate).
Vicomte. A viscount was originally the lieutenant of a count, either when the count was not at home or then the county was held by the King himself. He was the possessor of a vicomté (viscounty).
Baron. Originally a direct vassal of the king or another major feudal lord (a duke or count or so). The possessor of a baronnie (barony).
Châtelain. A castellan was the commander in charge of a castle. Few chastellanies survived with the title or “Sire” (sir).
Prince. Possessor of a principauté (principality). This title was not the same as the rank of Prince and did not give his possessor precedence at the court.
Seigneur. A lord, possessor of a lordship.
Chevalier. The equivalent of a “knighted” or a member of certain chivalric orders or the head of the King’s guardsmen. Not the same as the rank of Chevalier.
Wait. Titles and Ranks are not the same?
No, they were not. Because French people are crazy and this could not be easy at all. Let’s say that there were two kinds of “titles”: the ones linked to the fifes (the feudal real estates, meaning the duchies and counties, etc) and the personal ranks.
Fils de France/Filles de France. The sons and daughters of the King.
Petit-fils de France. The grandchildren of the King through the male line.
Prince du Sang/Princesse du Sang. A Prince/Princess of the Blood was a legitimate descendant of the King but was not part of the immediate family. Meaning that they were not Fils neither Petit-Fils de France.
Prince/Princess Légitimé. The legitimized children of the King or other males of his dynasty.
Prince Étranger. A foreign prince naturalized and recognized by the French court.
Chevalier. A rank assumed ONLY by the most noble families and the possessors of very high dignities in the court. Note that the ones with the title of Chevalier and the ones with the rank of Chevalier are addressed differently.
Écuyer. This rank (squire) was the one of the majority of nobles. It was a member of the nobility with no title.
How are they addressed?
For this section I’ll use an example name, so each way of addressing will be very clear. Let’s use the Marquis de Castelnau: Philippe-François d'Albignac.
The simpler way to address a noble is using Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle: here, we would address Philippe-Françoise simply as Monsieur.
But of course it cannot be that simple, you could not be sure about who and which Monsieur, Madame or Mademoiselle you’re talking about. So, there is a simple formula: Monsieur/Madame + de + last name or house = Monsieur de Albignac.
But you can also refer to someone by their title and not their last name: Monsieur/Madame + le/la + title = Monsieur le Marquis.
And you can be even more specific, since we wanna know, are we talking about the same Marquis? You’d use: Monsieur/Madame + le/la + title in full style = Monsieur le Marquis de Castelnau.
Those are the general ways, but it can be very tricky or specific according the rank and title. Here is another helping guide:
The King. Majesté, Your/His Most Christian Majesty, Your/His Majesty, Monsieur Le Roi.
The Queen. Majesté, Your/Her Most Christian Majesty, Your/Her Majesty, Madame La Reine.
The Dauphin (the eldest son of the King). Monsieur le Dauphin, His/Your Royal Highness, Monseigneur le Dauphin, His/Your Royal Highness Monseigneur le Dauphin.
The Dauphine (the Dauphin’s wife). Madame la Dauphine, Her/Your Royal Highness, Her Royal Highness Madame la Dauphine.
The Fils de France. Referred by their main title, except the Dauphin. I.e. Monsieur le Duc d’Anjou.
The Filles de France. Referred as Madame+their given name. Except the eldest daughter that was called Madame Royale until she married, and then that style is used by the next Fille de France. I.e. Madame Victoire.
The Petit-Fils/Petit-Filles de France. Addressed using their full style titles.
Prince du Sang/Princesse du Sang. Usually styled by their main ducal title, but other more precise titles were also used. It could be used: Monsieur le Prince, Madame la Princesse, Monsieur le Duc, Madame la Duchesse, and so on. In writing only the style Serene Highness was used.
Prince Légitimé/Princesse Légitimé. They took last names according to the branch of the House their father belonged and after the legitimization they were given a title. Males were given titles from their father’s lands, and therefore addressed as Monsieur and the title or last name; females were given the style of Mademoiselle de “X”.
Prince étranger. Basically addresses as Haut et puissant Prince or Your/His Highness. They are tricky to address, since they could have ANY other kind of title (literally any, from Prince to Chevalier, everything in between), then they could be called according to their first title and/or as Highness. Let’s take the example of Hercule Mériadec de Rohan, Duke of Rohan-Rohan; he could be addressed as: Monsieur le Duc de Rohan-Rohan, His Highness Hercule Mériadec de Rohan, His Highness Monsieur le Duc de Rohan-Rohan, His Highness Monsieur de Rohan, Monsieur de Rohan.
Other words to keep in mind to address nobility:
Monseigneur. Used for those of very high office and noble blood, like the Dauphin, cardinals, etc. Usually used only for adults.
Excellence. Ambassadors, foreign dignitaries.
Eminence. Mostly for cardinals, along with Monseigneur.
Monsieur le Chevalier. ONLY used when Chevalier is the rank.
Chevalier+last name. To address those who are knighted members of chivalric orders.
Sieur. Like Sir in English. Usually used for property holders that are not noble. It is used as Sieur + de + name of the land.
Gentilhomme. Used for ANY noble, from the King to the last écuyer.
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