From the 14th c. onwards, French kings began to create titles, initially dukes and counts (at first mostly for members of the royal family), and starting in 1505, marquis as well. Whereas the old titles had arisen by custom centuries before and originally corresponded to an administrative function, the new titles were a status attached to certain fiefs, which (except in the case of apanages) conferred only a small fraction of the powers and privileges that went with the old offices.
The new titles were created by a written act of the king, letters patent, which specified the rights and duties of the new titled person, and the mode of transmission of the title to his heirs. The letters patent of creation might place particular restrictions on inheritance or create specific remainders (see the examples of peerages). The letters patent had to be registered by the court (parlement) of the region where the fief was located, as well as by the Chambre des Comptes, a fiscal auditing body, before they could be valid.
It is important to understand that a created title is nothing but a fief (that is, a particular type of real estate in the feudal system), to which the king has given a special status. The rules of transmission remain that of a fief, except to the degree that the special status modifies them. (In principle, fiefs that had been raised to be fiefs of dignity were to return to the crown upon extinction of the heirs of the grantee; but this was not enforced in practice). Fiefs to which the king had added a rank were called royal fiefs (because the king became the overlord of such fief, no matter who the previous overlord was) or fiefs of dignity, because the attachment of a dignité was their distinguishing characteristic. (The word dignité in general designated other ranks or positions that had some official definition, like clerical or judicial ranks).
An important difference with simple fiefs is that “fiefs of dignity” were indivisible, because originally only one person could hold the office (ordinary fiefs, on the other hand, could be shared). French titles are thus born by one person at a time, because only one person can own the property. The equivalent of Northern European and German titles born by all members of a family or unattached to a land does not exist (with rare exceptions in provinces annexed in the East). However, a family might possess several titles, and the head of the family might distribute them among his heirs, as he would share his inheritance between his children. Indeed, titles were a form of property, and could be bought and sold freely before the abolition of the feudal regime in 1789.
All titles, whether feudal or created, were attached to a specific piece of real estate, governed by the rules of the feudal system. The legal maxim was “pas de seigneur sans terre, pas de terre sans seigneur”: no lord without land, no land without lord. And a title-holder was nothing but a particular type of lord. The owner of the land to which the title was attached, if noble, had the exclusive right to bear the title. If he lost or sold the land, he lost the title. The land, and with it the title, followed special rules of inheritance of noble fiefs (usually by male primogeniture with succession by females in default of males), but the remainders could be modified, sometimes in very complicated ways, by will of the owner. The inheritor or purchaser of a land could use the title after payment of a tax and the (usually) automatic authorisation of the sovereign, if he was noble. There was also a custom that, for commoners, the 4th generation of possessors of a titled land could use the title. But the ordonnance of Blois of 1578 made it impossible for a commoner who purchased a titled fief (fief de dignité) to acquire the title; however, it implicitly allowed that a noble purchaser could acquire the title, although some jurists thought that the purchaser required the assent of the king. A commoner owning a county could call himself “lord of the county of X”, and collect feudal dues and domanial rights, but he was not “count of X”.
As always, there are exceptions. Louis XIV was the first to create “titres de pur honneur”, that is, titles without fiefs: marquis d’Auray in 1700, marquis Le Camus, marquis de Pillot les Chantrons in 1780 (see other examples cited by Alain Texier, Qu’est-ce que la noblesse?, p. 63). . There are also the “ducs à brevet”, which were life-time grants of the precedence of dukes to particular individuals, oftentimes eldest sons of dukes. An edict of 1770 made it possible to obtain a brevet of duc, marquis, comte or baron upon payment of a tax.
It might still be worthwhile for a commoner to buy a titled fief, as an investment. The return came not only from the agricultural activities on the land, but also from collecting various rents and dues, as well as fees and fines. In 18th century newspapers, it was common to see fiefs advertised for sale, as in the example below.
Lordships for sale from the bi-weekly Affiches, Annonces et Avis Divers, 29 May 1752. Notice that the third item for sale, Ermenonville, is a viscountcy, and is the place where the philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau was buried in 1778. The advert describes the buildings (nice castle, recently built, with moat; stables, farm building, etc); lists the areas of land (field, pasture, woods, etc; 1 arpent = 1.25 acre). It carries with it the right to dispense justice, and several judicial officers are listed (they would be employees of the lord). It mentions by name one fief whose owner is a vassal of Ermenonville.
Advert from 12 June 1752. This is a is a marquisate, apparently auctioned in order to divide an inheritance. It says the title of barony dates from “time out of memory”, and the title of marquis was created 1657. The lordship spreads over 9 parishes. Revenue is given as 8 to 9000 F (about £300 at contemporary exchange rates), the initial bid is 148500. Revenue comes not only from the lands comprising the domain, but also the fees and rents collected (cens & rentes), and a right to levy a toll on the nearby river. Of course, the purchaser would have to receive the king’s permission in order to bear the title of marquis, but, if noble, he could call himself baron d’Anglure. otherwise, he would just be “seigneur d’Anglure”.
Created titles could not be transferred with the sale of the land, unless allowed by the sovereign, so created titles usually become extinct with the last descendant of the grantee. The letters patent of creation, to be valid, had to be registered by the appropriate courts, and the appropriate taxes paid. Oftentimes a land on which a pre-existing title existed (say, count) was elevated to a higher title, such as duke; upon extinction of the ducal title, the land reverted to being a county.
There existed a notional hierarchy of titles. An edict of 1575, rarely enforced, established a minimum size and income for the land to which the created title was attached, thus establishing a hierarchy which was purely notional:
- duc (duke)
- marquis (marquis)
- comte (earl)
- vicomte (viscount)
- baron (baron)
Another rare title, usually considered below baron, was vidame. There were no creations of the title of vidame.
It should be emphasized that this hierarchy is notional, and implied little in terms of privileges, precedence, etc. The only real differences were between
- dukes-peers (peerages had special privileges attached to them),
- other dukes,
- all other titled noblemen,
- untitled noblemen..
In everyone’s eyes, the most important factors in determining a family’s prestige were:
- how long had a given family been noble (l’ancienneté),
- into what other families did it marry (les alliances),
- what positions its members achieved and what offices they held (les dignités),
- what actions they performed (les illustrations).
Among nobles, one also distinguished between chevalier and écuyer.. These were not titles, but ranks within the nobility (with some exceptions; see further details). Any nobleman, no matter how recent, was an écuyer, and only noblemen could be styled as such. Chevaliers (knights) were a subset of the nobility, which included all titled nobility, members of the orders of knighthood of the king, but also members of families of ancient nobility, even untitled. The legal definition of a chevalier was very unclear, whether it was a matter of ancestry or a matter of eminence. In legal documents, those whose nobility traced to 1410 or earlier were called haut et puissant seigneur, while those whose families were connected by marriage to the royal house were très haut et très puissant seigneur. Foreign princes and princes of the blood were entitled to similar variations on the rank of prince.
It should be noted that “chevalier” was also used to refer to a member of an order such as the Knights of Saint John (a.k.a. Order of Malta) as well as members of royal orders: the use of the term makes it similar to a title (the chevalier d’Ancenis) but it was not; it simply indicated membership in such an order, a very common occupation for younger sons of the nobility.
Lord (seigneur) was not a title. The owner of a lordship, even a commoner, was its lord. The term “lord” only meant “the possessor of a certain kind of property” in the feudal system, a mixture of actual real estate and rights over people (rents and fees could be collected from them, certain obligations could be imposed on them, etc). Someone who was only a seigneur was not titled. All lordships disappeared when feudalism was abolished in 1789.