Research

Networks and Sociality at Court

Duration: 2017-2019

This area of research aims to understand the networks that developed at court, studying in particular the nomenclature of offices, their history and how they were passed on, to try to understand both the mechanisms for social advancement and how hierarchies were organised in a royal residence. The systematic and continuous study of the various offices will enable a typology of networks to be drawn up (familial, geographical, etc.) while examining the question of who held the real power at court.

The court was a microcosm of society under the Ancien Régime. The royal family and the great noblemen were not only in each other’s company, but they also rubbed shoulders with a whole crowd of office-holders of greater or lesser importance, who ensured the smooth running of this mechanism.
With the exception of the prince and his family, this heterogeneous group formed the royal domestic staff, and, in order to be accommodated “at the Louvre” (i.e. in the residence where the king slept), each member of staff needed a position in the service of a member of the royal family. Within this microcosm, connections were constantly being made. Through diligent and efficient service to the king and his family, great household dynasties were created, who rose to positions of great power during the 17th and 18th centuries. This applied particularly to the household servants who had direct ties to the king or queen. Once appointed to the rank of officier commensal, one could not legally hold any other office. This remained theoretical, however, as proximity to the throne necessarily brought with it new responsibilities, often more lucrative than the original one. Thus, it was not unusual to combine the post of groom of the bedchamber with that of concierge or even intendant of a royal palace. Office holders gradually came to occupy key positions in the palace administration, enabling them to appoint all their offspring to the various offices they had accumulated.
All these individuals would generally create significant social connections with one another, often through alliances by marriage: a groom of the bedchamber to the king would marry one of the queen’s chambermaids, an apothecary would marry a doctor’s daughter, etc. Marriages were negotiated on the basis of possible future success, and people were prepared to pay a large dowry for a daughter, as they counted on recover it through an important office procured by the husband’s family. It was by these small steps that a dynasty patiently climbed the ladder. There are several families that offer a perfect example of this.
This “world” that surrounded the royal family formed a sort of gens romana, comprising clans of kin folk who occupied all the most important offices, far removed from the specific nature of the posts, which, at the outset, were not to be sold but were accorded on the principle of the monarch’s personal discretion. The venality of the offices (in other words, the ability to sell them privately) came out of the monarch’s pressing need for money. Madame Palatine, Louis XIV’s sister-in-law was quite right when, recalling moments from the reign of Louis XIV, she deplored being waited upon, “when the king used to eat in the company of the ladies or in the course of a visit, (…) by people who were not of noble birth. In the old days, all the king’s officers who served the wine, brought the goblet, the fruit, etc, were gentlemen; but now that the nobility has become impoverished, and that every position costs demands a high price, we have had to accept the good old bourgeois who can afford it.” The permanent post holders nevertheless continued to be subject to scrutiny regarding good conduct, but the monarchs were no longer directly responsible for the appointment of new staff, something that Saint-Simon bitterly criticised at the beginning of Louis XV’s reign, attempting to convince the Regent to take back control of the distribution of offices…

In order to understand the court networks and discover who really exercised power, this area of research will principally consist of:

  • Understanding and defining the nomenclature of noble offices;
  • Researching the history and the continuity of each office relating to the court;
  • Examining how offices were transferred and acquired (legacies, direct acquisitions, via a third party, etc.);
  • Defining the typology of the networks: familial, social, geographical and topographical within the court; financial, religious, by office (professional elite), etc.;
  • Understanding influential networks, cliques, etc.;
  • Studying the mechanisms of social advancement;
  • Defining the hierarchical process within royal and princely households, and seeing whether there existed any demarcation by departments or duties;
  • Identifying the court’s most influential families in the creation of dynasties.

Team

Scientific director: Mathieu da Vinha (Centre de recherche du château de Versailles).

  • Aurélie Chatenet-Calyste, Lecturer in the History of Modern Art at the Université de Lorraine;
  • Daniel Dessert, historian;
  • Anne-Madeleine Goulet, Researcher at the CNRS at the Centre d’études supérieures de la Renaissance in Tours;
  • Sandrine Jauneau, Research Officer at the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles;
  • Nicole Lallement, Archival Research Officer at the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles;
  • Pauline Lemaigre-Gaffier, Lecturer in the History of Modern Art at the université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines;
  • Alexandre Maral, General curator for Heritage, Director of the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles;
  • Pascale Mormiche, Doctor in Modern History and Professeur agrégé at the university, PRAG at the Université de Cergy-Pontoise;
  • Benjamin Ringot, Project manager Research at the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles.

Productions planned

  • Entering information into the CRCV biographical database, using systematic data extraction from the wage rolls of the king’s household, parish registers and notarial acts;
  • Creating a prosopographic database of the people at court;
  • Study days on networks at court;
  • A concluding international symposium comparing royal households across Europe.

Call for papers

Consult our call for papers related to this area of research on the Bulletin du Centre de recherche.

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