French nobility

French nobility

The nobility ( _fr. la noblesse) in France, in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, had specific legal and financial rights, and prerogatives.

The first official list of these prerogatives was established relatively late, under Louis XI of France after 1440 and includes:
* exemption from paying the taille (except for non-noble lands they might possess in some regions of France),
* the right to hunt,
* the right to wear a sword and have a coat of arms,
* the right (in principle) to possess a fief or seigneurie.

Certain ecclesiastic, civic, and military positions were reserved for nobles. At the same time, certain activities were required of nobles. These included:
* "honneur et fidélité" (honor and faithfulness) such as military service (the "impôt du sang" or "blood tax")
* "concilium et auxilium" (counsel and assistance to the king)

Other activities could cause "dérogeance", or loss of one's nobility. So were most commercial and manual activities strictly prohibited, although nobles could profit from their lands through mines and forges.

Other than in isolated cases, serfdom ceased to exist in France by the 15th century. In Early Modern France, nobles nevertheless maintained a great number of seigneurial privileges over the free peasants that worked lands under their control. These included:
* "cens" (tax): Vassals were required to pay an annual tax on lands they leased or held (the "cens" was often more symbolic than useful),
* "champart" (work): to work the noble's private domain, to give the lord a portion of their harvest,
* "banalités" (small charges): to use the lord's mills, ovens, or wine press at a cost.

Nobles also maintained certain judicial rights over their vassals, although with the rise of the modern state many of these privileges had passed to state control, leaving rural nobility only local police functions and judicial control over violation of their seigneurial rights.

In the 17th century this seigneurial system was established in France's North American possessions.

In the political system of the Estates General, the nobility made up the Second Estate. This three-way division of the Estates should not be construed however as implying a division of Early Modern French society into three rigid "orders" (clergy, nobles, bourgeois and peasants) without the possibility of crossover.

Figures differ on the actual number of nobles in France at the end of the 18th century. For the year 1789, the French historian François Bluche gives a figure of 140,000 nobles (9,000 noble families) and claims that around 5% of nobles claimed descent from feudal nobility before the 15th century. [Bluche, 84.]

With a total population of 28 million, this would represent merely 0.5%. The historian Gordon Wright gives a figure of 300,000 nobles (of which 80,000 were from the traditional "noblesse d'épée"), [Wright, 15.] which agrees with the estimation of the historian Jean de Viguerie, [Viguerie, 1232.] or a little over 1% (proportionally one of smallest noble classes in Europe).

Forms of French Nobility

Despite common perceptions, the nobility in France was never an entirely closed class. Titles of nobility were generally hereditary, but many were awarded by the French monarchy for loyal service and many opportunities, both legal and illegal, were available for wealthy individuals to eventually gain titles of nobility for themselves or their descendants.

From 1275 to 1578, non-nobles could acquire titles of nobility after three generations by buying lands or castles that had noble privileges attached to them, that is to say that these fiefs had formerly belonged to a noble lord or the king and had been given in feudal homage. Non-nobles could not possess noble fiefs without paying a special tax on them (the "franc-fief") to their liege-holder.

In the 16th century, families could acquire nobility by possessing certain important official or military charges, generally after two generations.

Many titles of nobility were usurped by non-nobles in the Renaissance and early 17th century by purchasing fiefs and by "living nobly", i.e. by avoiding commercial and manual activity and by finding some way to be exempted from the official taille lists. In this way, the family would slowly come to be seen as noble.

The king could grant titles of nobility to individuals by lettres patentes and convert their lands into noble fiefs or, for non-nobles possessing noble fiefs, to grant them possession of the noble titles.

The king could also confer on noble fiefs special privileges, such as peerage for certain duchies. In general, these "lettres" needed to be officially registered with the Parlement. In the case of an unwilling Parlement, nobles were termed "à brevet" (as in "duc à brevet" or "duke by certificate").

Classes of French nobility

French nobility is generally divided into the following classes:
* Noblesse d'épée (nobility of the sword) or noblesse de race or noblesse ancienne: the traditional or old nobility.
* Noblesse de chancellerie (nobility of the chancery): person made noble by holding certain high offices for the king.
* Noblesse de lettres: person made noble by "lettres patentes" (letters patent) from the king.
* Noblesse de robe (nobility of the gown): person or family made noble by holding certain official charges, like "maître des requêtes", treasurer or president of a provincial parlement.
* Noblesse de cloche (nobility of the "bell") or Noblesse échevinale: person or family made noble by being a mayor or "échevin" or "prévôt des marchands" (municipal leader) in certain towns (such as Angers, Angoulême, Bourges, Lyon, Toulouse, Paris, Perpignan, and Poitiers).
* Noblesse militaire (military nobility): person or family made noble by holding military offices, generally after two or three generations.

Nobles sometimes made the following distinctions based on the age of their status:
* Noblesse chevaleresque (knightly nobility): nobility from before the year 1400.
* Noblesse d'extraction: nobility for at least four generations.A non-noble is generally called "roturier". Magistrates and men of law are sometimes called "robins".

The acquisition of titles of nobility could be done in one generation or gradually over several generations:
* Noblesse au premier degré (nobility in the first generation): nobility awarded in the first generation, generally after 20 years of service or by death in one's post.
* Noblesse graduelle: nobility awarded in the second generation, generally after 20 years of service by both father and son.

The "noblesse de lettres" became, starting in the reign of Francis I of France, a handy method for the court to raise revenues; non-nobles possessing noble fiefs would pay a year's worth of revenues from their fiefs to gain nobility. In 1598, Henry IV of France undid a number of these "anoblissments", but eventually saw the necessity of the practice.

The "noblesse de cloche" dates from 1372 (for the city of Poitiers) and was found only in certain cities with legal and judicial freedoms; by the Revolution these cities were only a handful.

The "noblesse de chancellerie" first appeared during the reign of Charles VIII of France at the end of the 15th century. As being a royal chancellor demanded (with few exceptions) royal status, non-nobles holding the position were conferred nobility, generally after 20 years of service. Non-nobles paid enormous sums to hold these positions, but this form of nobility was often criticized as being "savonnette à villain" (soap for serfs).

The "noblesse de robe" was a longstanding tradition. In 1600 it gained legal status. High positions in regional parlements, tax boards ("chambres des comptes"), and other important financial and official state offices (usually bought at great price) conferred nobility, generally in two generations, although the Parlements of Paris, Dauphiné, Besançon, Flanders and the tax boards of Paris, Dole, and Grenoble conferred nobility in one generation.

These state offices could be lost by a family at the unexpected death of the office holder. In an attempt to gain more tax revenues, the king's financial advisor Paulet instituted the Paulette in 1604, a yearly tax of 1/60th of the price of the office that insured hereditary transmission. This annual tax solidified the hereditary acquisition of offices in France, and by the middle of the 17th century the majority of office holders were already noble from long possession of these offices.

Henry IV of France began to crack down on the usurpation of titles of nobility, and in 1666-1674, Louis XIV of France mandated a massive program of verification of titles of nobility. Oral testimony that maintained that parents and grandparents had always been nobles and lived nobly were no longer accepted. Nobles needed written proofs (marriage contracts, land documents) that they had been noble since 1560. Many families were put back on the lists of the taille and or forced to pay fines for usurping noble titles.

Titles, Peerage, and Orders

There were two kinds of titles used by French nobles, some were personal ranks, other were titles linked to the fiefs owned, called "fiefs de dignité".
* Titles:
** Duc: possessor of a duchy ("duché") and recognized as duke by the king.
** Marquis: possessor of a marquesate ("marquisat") or merely assumed by ambitious families.
** Comte: possessor of a county ("comté") or merely assumed by ambitious families.
** Vicomte: possessor of a viscounty ("vicomté").
** Baron: possessor of a barony ("baronnie").
** Prince: possessor of a lordship styled principality ("principauté"), a title which was only semi-official and never gave his possessor precedence at the court. Not to be confused with the rank of Prince.
** Seigneur: meaning lord as possessor of a lordship, can be the title of non-nobles. Generally referred to by "sieur" i.e. "sir", followed by the name of the fief, as in "sieur de Crenne".
* Ranks:
** Fils de France: son of a king.
** Petit-fils de France: grandson of a king.
** Prince du Sang ("prince of the blood"): any legitimate male-line descendant of a king of France [In fact, only descendants of the House of Bourbon, as some legitimate descendants of King Louis VI, the Courtenay, were never acknowledged by the Bourbon kings as princes of the blood] .
** Prince étranger ("Foreign Prince"): members of foreign royal or princely families naturalized at the French court, such as the Clèves, Rohan, La Tour d'Auvergne, and Lorraine.
** Chevalier: rank assumed only by the most noble families and the possessors of certain high dignities in the court. Member of the orders of chivalry had a title of chevalier, but not a rank of chevalier, which can be confusing.
** Écuyer: rank of the vast majority of the nobles. Also called "valet" or "noble homme" in certain regions.

The term "gentilhomme" ("gentleman"), was used for any noble, from the king to the last écuyer without any title.

The Pairie was technically a dignity of the Crown, as marshall, but was in fact the highest title used by the French nobility. The peerage was only awarded to princes of the blood, some foreign princes, some bishops and dukes, often from the most ancient and powerful families. The peers could sit in the Parliament of Paris, the most important Court of Justice in the kingdom.

In his full style, a noble shall use his rank, his title, and his dignity, as in "Marie Jean de Caritat, écuyer, marquis de Condorcet" or "Louis de Rouvroy, chevalier, duc de Saint-Simon, pair de France.

In principle, the expression "seigneur" ("lord of the manor") applied to anyone possessing a fief, but the term was often used to imply a "grand seigneur", or a noble of high rank or status.

The use of "de" in noble names (Fr: "la particule") was not officially controlled in France (unlike "von" in the German states), and is not reliable evidence of the bearer's nobility. A simple tailor could be named "Marc de Lyon", as a sign of his birth place. In the 19th century, the "de" was mistakenly adopted by some non-nobles (like Honoré de Balzac) in an attempt to appear noble.

Each rank of nobility — royal prince, prince belonging to collateral lines of the royal family ("prince du sang"), duc, marquis, comte, vicomte, baron, etc. — conferred its own privileges (dukes for example could enter royal residences in a carriage, duchesses could sit on a stool with the queen). Dukes in France — the most important group after the princes — were further divided into those who were also "peers" ("Duc et Pair") and those who were not. Dukes without a peerage fell into one of two groups: those without peerage fiefs, or those for whom the Parlement refused to register the "lettres patentes" conferring a peerage on them.

Noble hierarchies were further complicated by the creation of knightly orders — the "Chevaliers du Saint-Esprit" (Knights of the Holy Spirit) created by Henry III of France in 1578; the "Ordre de Saint-Michel" created by Louis XI of France in 1469; the "Order of Saint Louis" created by Louis XIV of France in 1696 — by official posts, and by positions in the Royal House (the Great Officers of the Crown of France), such as "grand maître de la garde robe" (the grand master of the royal wardrobe, being the royal dresser) or "Grand panetier" (the "royal bread server") which had long ceased to be actual functions and had become nominal and formal positions with their own privileges. The 17th and 18th centuries saw nobles and the "noblesse de robe" battle each other for these positions and any other sign of royal favor.

Attending the ceremony of the king's waking at Versailles (the smaller and intimate "petit lever du roi" and the more formal "grand lever du roi"), being asked to cross the barriers that separated the royal bed from the rest of the room, being invited to talk to the king, or to have a comment said by the king about a noble... all were signs of favor and actively sought after.

Economic status

Economic studies of nobility in France reveal great differences in financial status. At the end of the 18th century, a well-off family could earn 100,000 - 150,000 livres by year, although the most prestigious families could gain twice or three times that much. For provincial nobility, yearly earnings of 10,000 livres permitted a minimum of provincial luxury, but most earned far less. [Viguerie, 1233.] The ethics of noble expenditure, the financial crises of the century and the inability of nobles to participate in most fields without losing their nobility contributed to their poverty.

In the 18th century, the Comte de Boulainvilliers, a rural noble, posited the belief that French nobility had descended from the victorious Franks, while non-nobles descended from the conquered Gauls. The theory had no validity, but offered a myth for an impoverished noble class. [Viguerie, 781-2.]

Aristocratic codes

The idea of what it meant to be noble went through a radical transformation from the 16th to the 17th centuries. Through contact with the Italian Renaissance and their concept of the perfect courtier (Baldassare Castiglione), the rude warrior class was remodeled into what the 17th century would come to call "l'honnête homme" or "the honest or upright man", among whose chief virtues were eloquent speech, skill at dance, refinement of manners, appreciation of the arts, intellectual curiosity, wit, a spiritual or platonic attitude in love, and the ability to write poetry.

Certain values of the early modern noble classes are no longer readily comprehensible to modern observers who may see them in a negative light. Most notable of these values are the aristocratic obsession with "glory" ("la gloire") and majesty ("la grandeur") and the spectacle of power, prestige, and luxury. [See Bénichou.] For example, Pierre Corneille's noble heroes have been criticised by modern readers who have seen their actions as vainglorious, criminal, or hubristic; aristocratic spectators of the period would have seen many of these same actions as representative of their noble stationVerify source|date=December 2007.

The château of Versailles, court ballets, noble portraits, triumphal arches... all of these were representations of glory and prestige. The notion of glory (military, artistic, etc.) was seen in the context of the Roman Imperial model; it was not seen as vain or boastful, but as a moral imperative to the aristocratic classes. Nobles were required to be "generous" and "magnanimous", to perform great deeds disinterestedly (i.e. because their status demanded it —whence the expression "noblesse oblige"— and without expecting financial or political gain), and to master their own emotions (especially fear, jealousy, and the desire for vengeance).

One's status in the world demanded appropriate externalisation (or "conspicuous consumption"). Nobles indebted themselves to build prestigious urban mansions ("hôtels particuliers") and to buy clothes, paintings, silverware, dishes, and other furnishings befitting their rank. They were also required to show liberality by hosting sumptuous parties and by funding the arts. [For more on this, see Elias. This kind of expenditure mandated by social status also many links to the theories of sociologist Marcel Mauss on the "gift".] Conversely, social parvenues who took on the external trappings of the noble classes (such as the wearing of a sword) were severely criticised, sometimes by legal action (laws on sumptuous clothing worn by bourgeois existed since the Middle Ages).

These aristocratic values began to be criticised in the mid 17th century: Blaise Pascal, for example, offered a ferocious analysis of the spectacle of power and François de la Rochefoucauld posited that no human act — however generous it pretended to be — could be considered disinterested.

By relocating the French royal court to Versailles in the 1680s, Louis XIV of France further modified the role of the nobles. Versailles became a gilded cage: to leave spelled disaster for a noble, for all official charges and appointments were made there. A strict etiquette was imposed: a word or glance from the king could make or destroy a career. The king himself followed a strict daily program, and there was little privacy. Louis was also proficient at playing nobles off against each other and against the newer "noblesse de robe".

Provincial nobles who refused to join the Versailles system were locked out of important positions in the military or state offices, and lacking royal subsides (and unable to keep up a noble lifestyle on seigneural taxes), these rural nobles ("hobereaux") often went into debt.

Power and Protest

Before Louis XIV imposed his will on the nobility, the great families of France often maintained as one of their fundamental rights, the right to rebel against unacceptable royal abuse. The Wars of Religion, the Fronde, the civil unrest during the minority of Charles VIII of France and the regencies of Anne of Austria and Marie de Medici are all linked to these perceived loss of rights at the hand of a centralizing royal power.

Much of the power of nobles in these periods of unrest comes from their "clientel system". Like the king, nobles granted the use of fiefs, and gave gifts and other forms of patronage to other nobles to develop a vast system of noble clients. Lesser families would send their children to be squires and members of these noble houses, and to learn in them the arts of court society and arms.

The elaboration of the Ancien Régime state was made possible only by redirecting these clientel systems to a new focal point (the king and the state), by creating contervaling powers (the bourgeoisie, the "noblesse de robe"). [See Major.] By the late 17th century, any act of explicit or implicit protest was treated as a form of "lèse-majesté" and harshly repressed.

The Nobility and the Enlightenment

Many key Enlightenment figures were French nobles, such as Montesquieu, whose full name was Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu.

The Abolition of Privileges during the French Revolution

At the beginning of the French Revolution, on August 4, 1789, feudal rights (such as the "banalités", etc.) and seigneurial dues were abolished by the National Constituent Assembly; noble lands were stripped of their special status as fiefs; the nobility were subjected to the same taxation as their co-nationals, and lost their privileges (the hunt, seigneurial justice, funeral honors), but retained their titles. These feudal privileges are termed "droits de feodalité dominante".

Nevertheless, it was decided that certain annual financial payments which were owed the nobility and which were considered "contractual" (i.e. not stemming from an usurpation of feudal power, but from a contract between a landowner and a tenant) such as annual rents (the "cens" and the "champart") needed to be bought back by the tenant for the tenant to have clear title to his land; these are called "droits de féodalité contractante". The rate set (May 3, 1790) for purchase of these contractual debts was 20 times the annual monetary amount (or 25 times the annual amount if given in crops or goods); peasants were also required to pay back any unpaid dues over the past thirty years. Unfortunately, no system of credit was established for small farmers, and only well-off individuals could take advantage of the ruling. This created a massive land grab by well-off peasants and members of the middle-class who became absentee land owners and had their land worked by share-croppers and poor tenants. [See Soboul, 192-195 for information on the abolition of privileges.]

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen had been voted on by the Assembly on August 26, 1789, but the abolition of nobility did not occur at that time. The Declaration declared in its first article that "Men are born free and equal in rights; social distinctions may be based only upon general usefulness." Presumably nobility was still considered to have social utility. It was not until June 19, 1790, that hereditary titles of nobility were abolished. The notions of equality and fraternity would triumph over some nobles such as the Marquis de Lafayette who supported the abolition of legal recognition of nobility, but other liberal nobles who had happily sacrificed their fiscal privileges saw this as an attack on the culture of honor.

Nobility since the Revolution

Despite the abolition of nobility at the French Revolution and the loss of their privileged juridical status ("all men are equal citizens"), the nobility continued to exist throughout the 19th century.

Napoléon Bonaparte established his own aristocracy and titles during the Empire, and these new nobles maintained the use of their titles even after Napoleon's overthrow. In all, about 2200 titles were created by Napoleon I:

*Princes and Dukes:
*sovereign princes (3)
*duchies grand fiefs (20)
*victory princes (4)
*victory dukedoms (10)
*other dukedoms (3)
*Counts (251)
*Barons (1516)
*Knights (385)

(There were 239 remaining families holding First Empire titles in 1975. Of those, perhaps 130-140 were titled. Only one title of prince and seven titles of duke remain.) Napoleon also established a new knightly order in 1802, the Légion d'honneur, which is still in existence today.

The Restoration of Louis XVIII of France saw the return of the old nobility to power (while ultra-royalists clamored for a return of lost lands) and the electoral laws of 1817 limited suffrage to only the wealthiest or most prestigious members (less than .5%) of the population, which included many of the old nobility. The Second Empire of Napoleon III also saw the granting of noble titles.

If the Third Republic returned once again to the principles of equality espoused by the Revolution (at least among the political Radical party), in practice the upper echelons of French nobility maintained their notion of social distinction well into the 20th century (as witnessed by the presence of nobility and noble class distinctions in the works of Marcel Proust) and the use of their titles was officially sanctioned.

Titles were abolished by the Revolutions of 1789 and 1848, and restored by decree in 1852 (and never officially abolished since) and now can only be lawfully used and given to their bearers in official acts with a decree by the Minister of Justice. Anyone who has a legitimate claim to a title can ask the Minister of Justice to confirm this claim, the bearer can then legally use the title in legal documents such as birth certificates (about 400 such confirmations were made since 1872).

Other administrative or official positions and titles

The following are administrative or official titles used in France in the Medieval and Early Modern periods. Certain positions may imply or confer nobility (see under each).
*vidame: a secular official chosen by a bishop of a diocese to perform functions in the church's earthly interest and in the service of justice.
*avoué: a secular official chosen by an Abbey to perform functions in the church's earthly interest and in the service of justice.
*gouverneur: royal officer, often prince or duke, exercising royal power in the provinces.
*sénéchal or bailli: royal officer in the provinces performing judicial, administrative, and financial services; reduced to judicial functions by the 18th century. The tribunal of the "bailliage" or "sénéchaussée" was the first court for trials involving nobles.
*prévôt: title given to a variety of civil, military, police, and judicial functions
**prévôt: judge in the "prévôtés", the lowest level royal courts, a subdivision of the "bailliage".
**prévôt des marchands: the civic and municipal leaders of certain towns, most notably Paris.
**prévôt des maréchaux: regional officers of justice, often involved in suppressing highway crime and insurrections.
*intendant: royal commissioner who performed services in the provinces; role greatly expanded under Louis XIV of France to counteract the role of provincial governors.
*surintendant des finances: originally the royal finance officer until the disgrace of Nicolas Fouquet; thereafter, called contrôleur général des finances.
*maître des requêtes: parlementarian, magistrate, and administrator serving in the king's counsel; intendants were usually chosen from this body.
*conseiller d'État: Counsellor of State, a member of the King's Council.
*connétable: chief military officer of the realm; position eliminated in 1627.

Other facts

In France, the signet ring (Fr.: "la chevalière") bearing the coat of arms is traditionally worn by French noblemen on the ring finger of their left hand, contrary to usage in most other European countries (where it is worn on the little finger of either the right or left hand, depending on the country); French noble women however wear it on their little finger. The "chevalière" may either be worn facing up ("en baise-main") or facing toward the palm ("en bagarre"). In contemporary usage, the inward position is increasingly common, although for some noble families the inward position is traditionally used to indicate that the wearer is married.

The "Association d'entraide de la Noblesse Française" ("Association for the mutual assistance of French nobility", or "ANF") exists today; it is open exclusively to French nobles.

ee also

* Peerage of France
* List of French peerages
* List of French dukedoms
* List of marquisates in France


*Bénichou, Paul. "Morales du grand siècle". Paris: Gallimard, 1948. ISBN 2-07-032473-7
*Bluche, François. "L'Ancien Régime: Institutions et société". Collection: Livre de poche. Paris: Fallois, 1993. ISBN 2-253-06423-8
*Chaussinand-Nogaret, Guy. "The French Nobility in the Eighteenth Century". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
*Ford, Franklin L. "Robe & Sword: The Regrouping of the French Aristocracy after Louis XIV". Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1953.
*Dioudonnat, Pierre-Marie. "Encyclopedie de la Fauss Noblesse et de la Noblesse d’Apparence". New ed. Paris: Sedopols, 1994.
*La Chesnaye-Desbois et Badier, François de (comp). "Dictionnaire de la Noblesse de la France". 3d ed. 18v. Paris: Bachelin-Deflorenne, 1868-73 (Kraus-Thomson Organization, 1969).
*Major, J. Russell. "From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles & Estates". Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1994. ISBN 0-8018-5631-0
*Elias, Norbert. "The Court Society." (Originally publ., 1969) New York: Pantheon, 1983. ISBN 0-394-71604-3
* Pillorget, René and Suzanne Pillorget. "France Baroque, France Classique 1589-1715". Collection: Bouquins. Paris: Laffont, 1995. ISBN 2-221-08110-2
* Soboul, Albert. "La Révolution française". Paris: Editions Sociales, 1982. ISBN 2-209-05513-X
* Viguerie, Jean de. "Histoire et dictionnaire du temps des Lumières 1715-1789". Collection: Bouquins. Paris: Laffont, 1995. ISBN 2-221-04810-5
*Wright, Gordon. "France in Modern Times". 4th ed. New York: Norton, 1987. ISBN 0-393-95582-6


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