Category Archive 'Absolutism'

24 Apr 2018

Boulainvilliers and the Theory of Government by the Noblesse d’Épée

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Battle of Poitiers.

Nulle Terre Sans Seigneur brings to our attention an interesting French political theorist who essentially visualized as the alternative to Absolutism the same sort of Noble Republic that once existed in Poland-Lithuania functioning, potentially with elective monarchy and all, on French soil. Fascinating reading.

By the time of early modernity, there were various ideas of which organ of the French constitution played a special role. The peerage had its strongest defender in the Duc de Saint-Simon. The absolutists and their insistence on monarchical supremacy were the orthodox school of thought. The Estates-General (defunct as of 1614 during the time Boulainvilliers was writing) and the parlements also had a few radical defenders of theirs, but they were not as influential — Claude de Seyssel’s Renaissance-era idea of a “balanced monarchy” having fallen out of favor, though the parlementaires did have their brief ascendancy during the Fronde.

[Henri, comte de] Boulainvilliers [1658-1722], in contrast, maintained a feudal theory of aristocratic anti-absolutism that the noblesse d’epee (sword nobility), originating from Frankish leudes, were the rightful representatives of the French nation, and though externally differentiated from commoners, were initially internally equal, as with the Polish szlachta. The pre-existing Gallican magnates, as survivors of the Roman magistracy, were entirely distinct from the French nation and its military character. The purpose of drawing this boundary was not to make an ethnic claim to sovereignty, but to underline the crucial link between war and the state. The “equality in inequality” of the pioneer French nobility and the right to judgment by peers which they had was eventually botched when the king, only a military chieftain at first, unduly extended his influence beyond the boundaries of the royal patrimony, and soiled the solidaristic maennerbund of the nobility by his creation of a peerage, the use of ennoblements to elevate free commoners (never more than emancipated serfs in Boulainvilliers’ view) into a courtier robe nobility, and other extra-constitutional measures. …

Now the more tempered defenders of royal absolutism did not deny that private justice was legitimate, but insisted that in this capacity they were acting only as royal justices and not as free magnates. One problem with this was its reliance on a modern, national conception of the nature of sovereignty. One moderate apologist of the French nobility, G.A. La Roque, in his “Traite de la noblesse” of 1678, pointed out that the tributary nature of a prince does not destroy his sovereignty, since there were many examples of kings themselves being vassals of greater lords or feudatories of some sort, while still exercising royal prerogative and displaying their own royal heraldry. Sicily and Ireland (as the Lordship of Ireland), for instance, were once papal fiefs, and acknowledged as such by the vassals invested with them. This implies that kings themselves are simply great magnates, undermining Filmerite assumptions of monarchical supremacy. This is not to say that reciprocal bonds and dues do not apply. …

The Salic law was simply the tribal law of the Salian Franks, and could not be used to justify hereditary succession as an essential component of the crown. Actually, merits of hereditary monarchy aside, ideas of elective kingship still flourished around the beginning of the Capetian dynasty, as the historian Charles-Petit Dutaillis documented in The Feudal Monarchy in France and England from the Tenth to the Thirteenth Century (1936):

    The Archbishop of Rheims “chose the king” in accordance with the agreement previously arrived at by the great men of the kingdom before anointing and crowning him, and the subjects who thronged the cathedral, greater and lesser nobility alike, gave their consent by acclamation. Theoretically the unanimous choice of the whole kingdom was necessary for the election but, in fact, once the will of those who were of decisive importance was made clear, the approbation of others was merely a matter of form. Nevertheless the conventions of the chancery attached considerable importance to it ; the first year of the reign only began on the day of consecration and this rule, closely related to the theory of election, was to last for two centuries.

    In fact, then, this Capetian kingship whose supernatural character we have been illustrating was, at the same time, elective. To the modern mind that may present a strange contradiction but contemporaries found no cause for surprise. The very fact that the kingship was so closely comparable to the priesthood justified its non-hereditary character. How could churchmen deny the divine nature of an institution because it was elective? Even bishops and popes were appointed by election. The monk Richer attributes to the Archbishop Adalberon a speech to the nobles in 987 which does not exactly represent the ideas of Adalberon but it is quite in accordance with the principles of the Church. “The kingdom,” he says, ”has never made its choice by hereditary right. No one should be advanced to the throne who is not outstanding for intelligence and sobriety as well as for a noble physique strengthened by the true faith and capable of great souled justice.” The best man must reign and, we may add, he must be chosen by the “best” men.

This was the theory of the Church without modification or limitation. Once he had been elected by a universal acclamation, which, in fact, represented the assent of a few individuals, and consecrated, he became king by the Grace of God commanding the implicit obedience of all.

Contemporaries like David Hume actually regarded Boulainvilliers to be a republican. This is an interesting question. Certainly, he envisioned the monarchy in voluntaristic and contractual terms. The Frankish warrior aristocracy was the source of power, and he thought that the noble freemen had the right to bind themselves to lords other than the reigning king if the latter did violence to their property. Royal succession was simply one of many private rights. There’s definitely a nativist element to the whole picture, and one could almost draw a parallel between his noble ideology of resistance to latter-day democratic nationalist conflicts with the ruling authorities of composite dynastic states. But what makes him separate is his insistence on the essential role of class divisions in a society. This is anathema not only to the democrats, but to many of the absolutists who want merely a neat bifurcation between sovereigns and subjects, but care little for the natural inequalities in subjects except insofar as they serve the reasons of state. If he seems progressive in some respects, he outflanks his opponents from the right in other, more crucial ways.


Robert Heinlen’s concept of linking full, voting citizenship to military service (Starship Troopers 1959) is the essence of the same idea.

Boulainvilliers, in 17th century France, arguing for the implementation of the same political practices and philosophy operating immemorially in Poland, I would argue, demonstrates the existence, and subconscious cultural survival of a universal preliterate European political culture based on a hierarchical society with full civic participation and personal freedom based on military service and the skilled use of arms, featuring the fundamental equality of the warrior (noble, knightly) class, along with limited powers of monarchy and its potentially elective character. Compare the Greek warriors in The Iliad.

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