Social Mobility among the French Noblesse in the Later Middle Ages

A few figures are here necessary. Out of the 215 lignages that appear in records at one time or another in the thirteenth century, no less than 66, or 30.7% of the total, had disappeared before 1300, the male line having become extinct. During the next century, from 1300 to 1400, the rate of disappearance seems to have remained the same, in spite of the fact that it was a time of wars and pestilences: 80 of the 149 remaining families, or 53.6% of them, became extinct in their turn. Another 38, or 55% of the remaining 69, disappeared between 1400 and 1500. The process went on with the flow of time. By the time of the French Revolution no more than five of these 215 lines were still alive. Two of them remain to this day, if we rule out a third one which descends from a bastard branch but which managed to be maintained in its noble status by a decision of Louis XIV.15 From these figures it might be said that, roughly speaking, the nobility loses half its members within any given century. The average duration of a noble line is hardly more than three or four generations; let us say, to be on the safe side and to take account of the hazards of the records, between three and six generations, stretching from one to two centuries. This tallies with the findings of Mr. Sanders, who, analysing the descent of some 210 baronies from the Conquest to 1327, has shown (or rather I have worked out the figure from his catalogue) that only 36 of them remained more than two centuries in the hands of the same male line.16 English baronies, however, were partible between heiresses even when junior branches still possessed male members, so that the figures are not entirely comparable.

It must be pointed out here that this high rate of family-mortality bore no relation to the economic status of these lignages. Death strikes equally rich and poor, baron and squire, the eminent and the insignificant. Causes general to the times were at work: high mortality in spite of a high birth-rate; the hazards of war; those of political upheavals, with their train of attainders and confiscations - which, at least up to the fourteenth century, were less important in France than in England. Other causes are particular to such social groups as attain some sort of eminence. Thus, the necessity, in order to avoid splitting estates through partition between children, of sending younger sons into the Church, would sooner or later bring the line to an untimely end. [. . .]

New families were thus constantly replacing the dying ones. Some of the newcomers came from junior branches of the local nobility itself, who, through marriage with heiresses, replaced in their lordships the old lines now extinct.'9 Others belonged to the gentry of neighbouring provinces and settled in Forez in the same way.20 None of these was really bringing new blood into an otherwise dwindling social class. More important for our purpose are the new men, those who suddenly appeared as knights or squires with no known ancestry in the nobility and who, given the chance, founded new noble lignages. To know where they came from, we must work mostly by inference and generalise from a few well-documented cases. We can be sure, however, that these newcomers were not recruited from a well-defined social group, but came from widely different strata [. . .]

In a country and at a time when society was almost entirely rural, the largest group of new noblemen came, so it seems, from peasant- stock. In Forez, there was no sharp dividing line between peasants and poor squires, except their different birth. By the thirteenth century, serfdom was as unknown there as in Normandy; all peasants were freemen, even those who owed tallage and a few labour service restricted to one or two days a year.

[Edouard Perroy. Social Mobility among the French Noblesse in the Later Middle Ages]

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