Early Modern French Noble Identity and the Equestrian “Airs above the Ground”

  • Treva J. Tucker
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)


In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the traditional French nobility—that is, the long-established hereditary nobility, often referred to as the sword or warrior nobility—experienced a variety of military, political, social, and cultural changes in its circumstances.1 During this period, many of the elements that previously had defined noblesse were being disputed, displaced, or simply rendered obsolete. In order to survive, the nobility was forced—slowly but no less inevitably—to adjust its own belief system regarding the components of noble identity. One of the few commonalties between the old definition of nobility and the new one was the nobility’s longstanding relationship with horses.


Seventeenth Century Military Service Sixteenth Century Late Sixteenth Military Function 
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  1. 1.
    The arguments in this chapter pertain specifically to the traditional French nobles and not to those who had achieved their noble status through service in royal office—the civil, bureaucratic, or robe nobility. The secondary literature that discusses the various challenges faced by the traditional French nobility during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (including those posed by the robe nobility) is vast. Some of the more important recent monographs include Jonathan Dewald, The Formation of a Provincial Nobility: The Magistrates of the Parlement of Rouen, 1499–1610 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  5. J. Russell Major, From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles, and Estates (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994)Google Scholar
  6. Donna Bohanan, Old and New Nobility in Aix-en-Provence, 1600–1695: Portrait of an Urban Elite (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992)Google Scholar
  7. Donna Bohanan, Crown and Nobility in Early Modern France (New York: Palgrave, 2001). Many of these books also discuss how nobility was defined and how that definition changed over time (cf. sources in n. 2) and/or how the nobility’s ability to adapt to its changing circumstances ultimately allowed it to overcome the challenges it faced during this period (cf. sources in n. 4).Google Scholar
  8. 2.
    In addition to the more general literature on the nobility listed in the previous note, monographs that deal specifically with how the nobles themselves defined nobility in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries include André Devyver, Le Sang épuré: Les Préjugés de race chez les gentilshommes français de l’Ancien Régime (1560–1720) (Brussels: Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1973)Google Scholar
  9. Arlette Jouanna, Ordre social: Mythes et hiérarchies dans la France du XVIe siècle (Paris: Hachette, 1977)Google Scholar
  10. Ellery Schalk, From Valor to Pedigree: Ideas of Nobility in France in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Jean-Marie Constant, La Noblesse française aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles(Paris: Hachette, 1994).Google Scholar
  12. 3.
    The old view of the early modern French nobility as refusing to abandon its outdated belief system and sliding into a state of hopeless decline as a result has been debunked by recent scholarship such as that listed in n. 1; the last major monograph to make that argument was Davis Bitton, The French Nobility in Crisis, 1560–1640 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969). The other side of that coin—a nobility that was willing not only to abandon its belief system but to do so with stunning alacrity—has been argued by Ellery Schalk in From Valor to Pedigree. Schalk maintains that the French nobility responded to the accumulating pressures of the late sixteenth century by jettisoning traditional noble vertu as a defining characteristic and rather abruptly adopting in its place an identity based almost entirely on birth.Google Scholar
  13. 4.
    In addition to the literature on the definition of nobility listed in n. 2, the following are particularly useful on ways in which the nobility adapted to change while simultaneously maintaining its traditions: Roger Mettam, Power and Faction in Louis XIV’s France (New York: Blackwell, 1988)Google Scholar
  14. Kristen Neuschel, Word of Honor: Interpreting Noble Culture in Sixteenth-Century France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989)Google Scholar
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  16. Jay M. Smith, The Culture of Merit: Nobility, Royal Service, and the Making of the Absolute Monarchy in France, 1600–1789 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996). The gradual shift in noble identity was a large part of this adaptive process, which ultimately allowed the nobility to retain its position and importance in French society, politics, and culture, rather than collapsing under the combined weight of the various challenges it faced during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.Google Scholar
  17. 6.
    How and why military service originally came to be a central attribute of nobility in France, and how and why military service specifically came to mean armored and mounted service, fall outside the parameters of this chapter. For a good overview of those developments, see Constance Brittain Bouchard, “Strong of Body, Brave and Noble”: Chivalry and Society in Medieval France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), especially chs. 1 and 2.Google Scholar
  18. 7.
    By the sixteenth century, French nobles enjoyed a wide range of both legally mandated privileges and purely customary perks; for details, see Schalk, Valor to Pedigree 146–48; Arlette Jouanna, “Des ‘gros et gras’ aux ‘gens d’honneur,’ “ in Histoire des élites en France du XVIe au XXe siècle: L’Honneur, le mérite, l’argent ed. Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret (Paris: Tallandier, 1991), 43–44; John David Nordhaus, Arma et Litterae: The Education of the Noblesse de Race in Sixteenth-Century France (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1974), 19–20, 28–30; Jean-Pierre Labatut, Les Noblesses européennes de la fin du XVe siècle à la fin du XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1978), 10Google Scholar
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  21. 8.
    Regarding the reemphasis of the links between noble status and military service, especially after the establishment of the royal ordinance companies in 1445 and then again with the advent of the Hapsburg-Valois Wars in 1494, see Schalk, Valor to Pedigree 12; Labatut, Noblesses européennes 85; Contamine, Noblesse au royaume de France 329; Philippe Contamine, Guerre, état et société à la fin du Moyen Age: Etudes sur les armées des rois de France, 1337–1494 (Paris: Mouton, 1972), 470–72, 475–76, 479–80, 550; Jouanna, Devoir de révolte 42–43; Jouanna, Ordre social 61, 140; André Corvisier, “La Noblesse militaire: Aspects militaires de la noblesse française du XVe au XVIIIe siècles; état des questions,” Histoire Sociale/Social History 11 (1978): 339–42.Google Scholar
  22. 9.
    James Supple, Arms versus Letters: The Military and Literary Ideals in the “Essais” of Montaigne (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 12. Supple defines the Latin virtus not just as manliness but more specifically as strength or courage, which merely underlines the relationship between vertu and the nobility’s military function. Obviously, vertu so defined was an ideal that applied specifically to male members of the warrior nobility; see below for alternative views of virtue as seen by (also male) members of the civil-bureaucratic nobility. How these ideas played into the construction of male identity more generally is a topic that (again) falls outside the parameters of this chapter. A number of studies on the construction of masculinity have been carried out for the medieval period and for early modern England, but very little has appeared for early modern France. One recent exception isGoogle Scholar
  23. Kathleen P. Long (ed.), High Anxiety: Masculinity in Crisis in Early Modern France (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2002). Unfortunately, none of the essays in this collection deals with masculinity specifically in the context of noble identity.Google Scholar
  24. 10.
    Numerous contemporary sources discuss the meaning of this type of vertu the overwhelming centrality of valor therein, and the belief that warfare was its optimal showcase. The work of Arlette Jouanna is particularly useful in this area; see her “Gros et gras,” 32–33, 35, 67; Devoir de révolte 41, 44; Ordre social 43–44, 82, 116, 139–41, 146, 203; “Perception et appréciation de l’anoblissement dans la France du XVIe siècle et du début du XVIIe siècle,” in L’Anoblissement en France, XVe-XVIIIe siècles: Théories et réalités comp. Centre de Recherches sur les Origines de l’Europe Moderne de l’Université de Bordeaux III (Bordeaux: Maison des Sciences de l’Homme d’Aquitaine, 1985), 8, 18; “La Noblesse française et les valeurs guerrières au XVIe siècle,” in L’Homme de guerre au XVIe siècle ed. Gabriel-André Pérouse, André Thierry, and André Tournon (Saint-Etienne, France: Publications de l’Université de Saint-Etienne, 1989), 207–9; “Les Gentilshommes français et leur rôle politique dans la seconde moitié du XVIe siècle et au début du XVIIe,” Il Pensiero Politico 10 (1977): 24; “Recherches sur la notion d’honneur au XVIe siècle,” Revue d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine 15 (1968): 605–6. Other sources include Supple, Arms versus Letters 12, 172, 193; Labatut, Noblesses européennes 87–88; Nordhaus, Arma et Litterae, 10–11, 35; Schalk, Valor to Pedigree 21, 29–30; Ellery Schalk, “The Appearance and Reality of Nobility in France during the Wars of Religion: An Example of How Collective Attitudes Can Change,” Journal of Modern History 48 (1976): 22CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Madeleine Lazard, Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme (Paris: Fayard, 1995), 9Google Scholar
  26. Pierre d’Origny, Le Hérault de la noblesse de France (Reims, France: Jean de Foigny, 1578; reprint, Paris: J. B. Dumoulin, 1875), 7, 19Google Scholar
  27. François de la Noue, Discours politiques et militaires (Basle, Switzerland: François Forest, 1587; reprint, ed. F. E. Sutcliffe, Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 1967), 231.Google Scholar
  28. 11.
    Throughout the first half of the sixteenth century, texts written about nobility abound with examples that reveal these assumptions. On the roles played in the definition of nobility both by vertu and by valor in combat (i.e., by military service, often referred to in contemporary texts as the nobility’s “vocation” or “métier”), see Jouanna, “Gros et gras,” 17, 21–22, 30; Jouanna, Devoir de révolte 40, 44; Jouanna, Ordre social 22, 60–61, 116, 139–40, 191–92; Jouanna, “Valeurs guerrières,” 207; Jouanna, “Notion d’honneur,” 603; Schalk, Valor to Pedigree xiv–xv, 3–11, 21, 26–30, 53–55, 202; Schalk, “Appearance and Reality,” 20–23; Labatut, Noblesses européennes 85–86; Lazard, Brantôme 9; Supple, Arms versus Letters 186; Origny, Hérault 19, 23, 37; Roger Chartier, “La Noblesse française et les états généraux de 1614: Une Réaction aristocratique?” in Représentation et vouloir politiques: Autour des Etats généraux de 1614 ed. Roger Chartier and Denis Richet (Paris: Editions de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 1982), 120–21.Google Scholar
  29. 12.
    La Noue, Discours 363, 370, 375; Treva J. Tucker, “Eminence over Efficacy: Social Status and Cavalry Service in Sixteenth-Century France,” Sixteenth Century Journal 23 (2001): 1063, 1065Google Scholar
  30. Claude Gaier, “L’Opinion des chefs de guerre français du XVIe siècle sur les progrès de l’art militaire,” Revue Internationale d’Histoire Militaire 29 (1970): 743Google Scholar
  31. David Eltis, The Military Revolution in Sixteenth-Century Europe (London: Tauris, 1995), 23, 46–47, 50Google Scholar
  32. Charles Oman, A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Dutton, 1937; reprint, New York: AMS, 1979), 33, 44, 224Google Scholar
  33. John Ellis, Cavalry: The History of Mounted Warfare (New York: Putnam, 1978), 78–79.Google Scholar
  34. 13.
    Tucker, “Eminence over Efficacy,” 1065; Gaier, “Chefs de guerre,” 743; Eltis, Military Revolution 23, 44, 49–51; Oman, War in the Sixteenth Century 35; Bert S. Hall, Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe: Gunpowder, Technology, and Tactics (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 186–87Google Scholar
  35. Archer Jones, The Art of War in the Western World (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 191.Google Scholar
  36. 14.
    On the development of artillery-resistant fortresses and their effect on military strategy in general and on heavy cavalry in particular, see Baumgartner, France 156; Hall, Weapons and Warfare 164–65, 210–11; David Potter, War and Government in the French Provinces: Picardy 1470–1560 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 157CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Geoffrey Parker, “The Military Revolution, 1560–1660—A Myth?” in The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe ed. Clifford J. Rogers (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995), 41–42Google Scholar
  38. Geoffrey Parker, “In Defense of The Military Revolution” (referencing his The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500–1800 Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), in Military Revolution Debate 337–38, 345–50. Eltis, Military Revolution 29–30, makes the excellent additional point that siege warfare increased during this period not only in response to the development of new types of fortifications but also because any fortress—new or old—could be defended more effectively due to improvements in artillery. This helps to explain why sieges overshadowed battles even in those areas where the new fortresses were uncommon or even entirely absent, a circumstance that admittedly held true for certain parts of France.Google Scholar
  39. 16.
    Ellis, Cavalry 61, 65; Parker, “Myth,” 44; Parker, “In Defense,” 351; James B. Wood, The King’s Army: Warfare, Soldiers, and Society during the Wars of Religion in France, 1562–1576 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 135–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Frank Tallett, War and Society in Early-Modern Europe, 1495–1715 (New York: Routledge, 1992), 29–30.Google Scholar
  41. 17.
    David Parrott, “Richelieu, the Grands and the French Army,” in Richelieu and His Age ed. Joseph Bergin and Laurence Brockliss (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 143.Google Scholar
  42. 18.
    Jouanna, “Gros et gras,” 36–37; Jouanna, Devoir de révolte 42; Jouanna, Ordre social 22, 139, 180; Jouanna, “Valeurs guerrières,” 214; Jouanna, “Rôle politique,” 34; Jouanna, “Notion d’honneur,” 605; Supple, Arms versus Letters 77–78; Chartier, “Etats généraux,” 121–22; Devyver, Sang épuré 76–77; Dewald, Aristocratic Experience 22; Eugene F. Rice, Jr., “Humanism in France,” in Humanism beyond Italy, vol. 2 of Renaissance Humanism: Foundations, Forms, and Legacy ed. Albert Rabil, Jr. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), 119–20Google Scholar
  43. Roger Mettam, “The French Nobility, 1610–1715,” in Western Europe, vol. 1 of The European Nobilities in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries ed. H. M. Scott (New York: Longman, 1995), 115, 118.Google Scholar
  44. 21.
    The material that follows was drawn from a modern English translation of Il cortegiano Baldessare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier trans. Leonard Eckstein Opdycke, rev. ed. (New York: Horace Liveright, 1929). Other influential examples of early modern courtly literature include Eustache du Refuge, Traité de la cour, ou instruction des courtisans 1616; Nicolas Faret, L’Honnête Homme, ou l’art de plaire à la cour 1630; Baltasar Gracián, Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia 1647. This courtly literature should not be confused with another, preexisting literary tradition, frequently referred to as courtesy books—that is, manuals of civility, manners, and etiquette. These books, many of which were essentially instructional texts, were intended for a wide range of readers (including, but certainly not limited to, the nobility) who aspired to function more smoothly and effectively in the upper echelons of society and in public office in general, and not specifically for that tiny minority who hoped to make a career at court, the vast majority of whom were nobly born. Although this type of literature already had a long history before the sixteenth century, as “civility” became more important in society in general, courtesy books proliferated and enjoyed wide popularity. Some outstanding titles of the period include Desiderius Erasmus, De civilitate morum puerilium 1530; Giovanni della Casa, Il Galateo 1558; Stefano Guazzo, La civil conversazione 1574.Google Scholar
  45. 23.
    The académies were intended exclusively for the education of the hereditary nobility. Although they offered instruction in subjects other than horsemanship, the amount of time devoted to mounted activities outweighed that devoted to all the other topics combined. Sources on these establishments are scarce; a fairly comprehensive selection of the available secondary material in French and English includes Schalk, “Education, the Academies, and the Emergence of the New Image of the Cultured Noble-Aristocrat,” ch. 8 in Valor to Pedigree; Mark Motley, “The Academy,” ch. 3 in Becoming a French Aristocrat: The Education of the Court Nobility, 1580–1715 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); Commandant de la Roche [no first name given], “Les Académies militaires sous l’Ancien Régime, d’après des documents inédits,” Revue des Etudes Historiques (1929): 409–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Maurice Dumolin, “Les Académies parisiennes d’équitation,” Bulletin de la Société Archéologique, Historique et Artistique le Vieux Papier 111 (1925): 417–28, 112 (1925): 485–94, and 113 (1926): 556–72 (issues 111 and 112 are the most relevant)Google Scholar
  47. Lucien Hoche, “Pluvinel et les académies,” app. 23 in Contribution à l’histoire de Paris: Paris occidental, XIIe siècle–XIXe siècle (Paris: Henri Leclerc, 1912); Albert Folly, “Les Académies d’armes (XVIe et XVIIe siècles),” Bulletin de la Société du VIe Arrondissement de Paris 2 (1899): 162–71Google Scholar
  48. Albert Babeau, “Les Académies,” ch. 4 in Les Officiers, vol. 2 of La Vie militaire sous l’Ancien Régime 2nd edn. (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1890); see also Nordhaus, Arma et Litterae, 118–21, 220–26Google Scholar
  49. Hubert de Terrebasse, Antoine de Pluvinel, dauphinois, 1552–1620 (Lyon: L. Brun, 1911), 5–6, 13–15, 19, 24. These noble académies are not to be confused with the literary, artistic, or scientific académies such as the Académie Française, that also were founded in France from the late sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries but for entirely different purposes.Google Scholar
  50. 24.
    To give some idea of the numbers involved, a thorough but by no means all-inclusive search of the bibliographic sources yielded 42 texts dealing with the art of riding and training horses and written in Italian, English, French, and Spanish between 1550 (the date of the first extant early modern treatise on riding) and 1661 (the beginning of the personal reign of Louis XIV, during which the shift from the medieval to the early modern definition of nobility in France was completed); the vast majority of the 42 treatises were written by noblemen. If the cutoff date were extended to 1800, if all European languages and Latin were included, and/or if texts dealing with equestrian matters other than horsemanship (e.g., veterinary care, shoeing, breeding, horse management, or cavalry) were counted, the number would be much higher. Of the available hippobibliographies, the most exhaustive are Frederick H. Huth, Works on Horses and Equitation: A Bibliographical Record of Hippology (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1887)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Gabriel René Mennessier de la Lance, Essai de bibliographie hippique 2 vols. (Paris: Lucien Dorbon, 1915–17; supplement, 1921)Google Scholar
  52. Ellen B. Wells, Horsemanship: A Bibliography of Printed Materials from the Sixteenth Century through 1974 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1985).Google Scholar
  53. 25.
    In some cases first editions were not available and a later, somewhat revised edition had to be used. The editions actually consulted are as follows: Salomon de la Broue, Le Cavalerice françois, contenant les preceptes principaux qu’il faut observer exactement pour bien dresser les chevaux…, 2nd rev. exp. edn. (Paris: Abel l’Angelier, 1602 (bk. 1) and 1608 (bk. 2))Google Scholar
  54. René de Menou de Charnizay, La Pratique du cavalier, ou l’exercice de monter à cheval …, rev. exp. edn. (Paris: Guillaume and Jean Baptiste Loyson, 1650)Google Scholar
  55. Pierre de la Noue, La Cavalerie françoise et italienne, ou l’art de bien dresser les chevaux, selon les preceptes des bonnes écoles des deux nations … (Strasbourg: Jac. de Heyden, 1620)Google Scholar
  56. Antoine de Pluvinel, L’Instruction du roy en l’exercice de monter à cheval (Paris: Michel Nivelle, 1625); Delcampe [no first name given], L’Art de monter à cheval: qui monstre la belle & facille methode de se rendre bon homme de cheval 2nd rev. exp. edn. (Paris: Jacques le Gras, 1664)Google Scholar
  57. Georges Guillet de St. George, Les Arts de l’homme d’epée, ou le dictionnaire du gentilhomme (The Hague: Adrian Moetjens, 1680). The first edition of La Broue’s treatise appeared under a slightly variant title, Preceptes principaux que les bons cavalerices doivent exactement observer … pour bien dresser les chevaux Google Scholar
  58. 34.
    Part of the reason these horsemen stressed the intellectual qualities needed by the rider was because of the way in which they viewed the nature of the horse. Contemporary science and philosophy portrayed animals as unreasoning forces of nature that had to be forcefully dominated and subdued by rational human intelligence or will. In contrast, the authors of these treatises granted the horse a considerable capacity to think and to feel, even if they did not put equine “reasoning” on a par with human. Horses nonetheless were seen as having at least some capacity to participate in the training process, at least to the extent that riders had to take into consideration their mounts’ thoughts and feelings—as well as their innate talents and limitations— if the training process were to succeed. This view of the horse is revealed by the anthropomorphized language used by the authors to describe the training process: the rider clearly retains intellectual superiority, but the equine “mind” with which he is grappling is described as responding and functioning in very human ways. For additional details, see the chapters by Pia Cuneo (5) and (especially) Elisabeth LeGuin (6) in this collection, as well as Karen Raber, “Reasonable Creatures: William Cavendish and the Art of Dressage,” in Renaissance Culture and the Everyday ed. Patricia Fumerton and Simon Hunt (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).Google Scholar

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© Karen Raber and Treva J. Tucker 2005

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