Nobility and Titles in FranceSee also several articles on this topic on Caltrap's Corner.
Nobility was usually a hereditary characteristic, but some forms of nobility could not be transmitted. When it was hereditary, nobility usually came from the father, but sometimes a higher percentage of noble blood might be required (counted in number of "quartiers") or that the family be noble for a certain number of generations. A nobleman marrying a commoner did not lose his nobility, but a noblewoman who married a commoner lost it, as long as she was married to the commoner.
Nobility was an important legal concept, in particular because of the privileges attached to it. Taxes were originally levied to help the sovereign in times of war; and since nobles were expected to provide help in kind, by fighting for their sovereign, they were usually exempted from taxes. This privilege lost its rationale after the end of feudalism and nobility had nothing to do with military activity, but it survived for the older forms of taxation until 1789 (more recent taxes, levied in the 17th and 18th centuries, allowed for weaker or no exemption for nobles).
A number of offices and positions in civil and military administrations were reserved for nobles, notably all commissions as officers in the army. This privilege created a significant obstacle to social mobility and to the emergence of new talents in the French state. It remained very real until 1789.
There were three main ways one could be noble:
A nobleman son and grandson of nobles was called a noble de race
or gentilhomme (although the term of gentilhomme is often used for
any noble by birth). If all 4 of his grandparents were noble he was a gentilhomme
des 4 lignes (nobility of all lines, and not just the paternal line,
was usually of little importance in France, though a prestigious lineage
in female line could be a source of pride; the emphasis on nobility in
all lines may be due to the particular requirements for admission into
the Order of Malta from the 16th century). If his pedigree went further
and no commoners could be found in the male lign, he was deemed a gentilhomme
de nom et d'armes. These definitions vary from author to author, and
are not very important. In general, the status depends primarily on the
length of the pedigree, and everyone agrees that a gentilhomme is a born
noble: not even the king can make a man into a gentilhomme. Adoption did
not transmit nobility.
Number of noble families in France:
The discrepancies are due in part to the difficulty in determining nobility in a number of cases.
The decomposition of today's noble families in terms of origin is as follows (Séréville and Saint-Simon):
1) pre-1789 nobility of knightly origin (14th c.) 365 nobility of ancient origin (15th c.) 434 nobility of origin (16th c.) 801 ennobled by Letters Patent 640 ennobled by office 1010 annexed territories, foreign nobility 244 Total nobility of pre-1789 origin 3494 2) 19th century First Empire (1808-15) 239 Restoration (1815-30) 267 July Monarchy (1830-48) 21 Second Empire (1852-70) 36 Total 19th century 563The first three categories are collectively called "noblesse d'extraction", families for which there is no trace of ennoblement (equivalent to the German Uradel). The three categories are defined depending on how far back a proven line of descent can be traced. The first category also requires that the first traceable ancestor be a knight. Further refinements can of course be made: feudal nobility is made of families whose existence is known in feudal times (12th c. or earlier) and whose line of descent goes back to 1250 at least (there are about 50). About 160 existing families can prove that one of theirs was a Crusader (11th-13th c.). below).
Historically, titles went through three phases.
In the later part of this period (9th-12th c.), the feudal system emerged, which brought a coherent system by establishing contractual relationships between all members of society, from the king down to the peasant. The holders of offices were naturally integrated in these chains of relationships, being vassals of the king or another great lord (who owed them protection and to whom they owed loyalty and support). They, in turn, were able to create their own vassals, by "infeoffing" land in their jurisdiction to others who became their vassals. Hence the origin of baronies and lordships.
The French kings were successful in reuniting the country and asserting their central authority to the detriment of the great dukes and counts. As a result, the governmental powers which had been lost to them over time were brought back again in the hands of the king. It became accepted that such powers as titled nobles did hold came ultimately from the king himself. Over time, by a combination of marriages, purchases and confiscations, the king of France managed to unite with the crown virtually all the ancient titles of duke, marquis and count. This process was pretty much complete by the 16th c., so that, with a handful of exceptions, titles of duke, marquis, count, or viscounts in existence after 1600 are created rather than feudal in origin.
A few feudal titles of viscount, baron and vidame made it down past 1500. Here are a few examples, with the names of the families that owned them:
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:
It should be emphasized that this hierarchy is notional, and implied little in terms of privileges, precedence, etc. The only real differences were between
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.
When Napoleon brought back titles, starting with the great officers of state in 1804 and the grand-fiefs of the Empire in 1806, and then the whole hierarchy of dukes, counts and barons in 1808, he did not restore feudalism. He did try to give titles a landed basis, by laying down as rule that a title, to become hereditary, had to be formally attached to a land endowment called a "majorat", whose contents had to be provided by the title-holder, and whose inheritance followed special rules (to avoid division at each generation). The Restoration regime extended the system to the peerage it created in 1817, and to all other titles in 1824. The requirement of a the majorat, however, was abolished in 1835, so titles were completely divorced from any landed connection. Furthermore, from 1814 to 1824 a large number of hereditary titles were created that were not attached to any land. This was, in a way, completing an evolution that had started with the multiplication of "titres de pur honneur" in the 18th c.
French titles continued to exist, and many were created until 1870, when France permanently became a Republic. The Republic did not abolish titles, however, and, based on existing laws and earlier jurisprudence, the courts have built up a legal system to deal with titles and their transmission. This is discussed in greater detail below.
The untitled nobility was always more numerous than the titled nobility. The difference between titled and untitled may not be so much due to the antiquity of the lineage as to the good fortune of some families on whom the sovereign bestowed titles. Since the mid-19th century, however, usage has become very lax, and little regard is paid to the authenticity of titles which people use; though no one usurps ducal titles which are too rare, there are many more people called marquis and comte than there should be.
Of the 4,000 or so noble families existing today, only about 1,000 have authentic titles (1/3 of pre-1789 origin and 2/3 19th century), the rest consisting of untitled nobility. There are 38 ducal titles still in existence, of which 22 are pre-1789. Only one title of prince created under Napoleon I is still in existence (see the page on peerages for more information on ducal titles).
Usurpation of titles had become quite common in the 18th century already. Even commoners adopted counts' and marquis' coronets in their arms. In many cases, the usurpation was politely tolerated and, over the course of a few generations, became accepted in legal documents, or even at the Court, although such recognition was never equivalent to a formal grant of title. Such titles are known as "titres de courtoisie". In the 19th and 20th centuries, such usurpation became commonplace, and many untitled families call themselves count and marquis today.
During the Restoration period (1814-48), a House of Peers was created on the British model. For peers, a "declension of titles" was introduced as a form of courtesy title: whereas a British peer is created wih an assortment of lower-ranking titles for use by his heirs, in France the eldest son of the duke of X was called marquis of X, his eldest son was called count of X, etc. Later, this practice was informally extended to all titles, so that the children of a marquis call themselves count.
In modern usage, it is common to distinguish between the actual holder of a title: Pierre, comte de Sassafras and other members of the family who will call themselves comte Jean de Sassafras. This usage was unknown before the late 19th century.
In fact, there are about 10,000 names in France that look noble (e.g., with the particle "de"), many more than are really noble. Conversely, there are noble families without the particle in their name: a large number of Napoleonic and 19th c. titled names which have no "de" element; but also families of Old Regime nobility which did not bother to add a particule to their name. There are several examples among the old "noblesse de robe": Séguier, ennobled in 1544, Talon ennobled in 16th c., Molé.
It is possible to change one's name in France, though it is an arduous and costly process. Some families have changed their names and given it a nobiliary appearance. It is also possible to re-use a name which has become extinct (relever un nom): one needs to make sure that there is no one still entitled to bear that name, and obtain a decree of the Conseil d'Etat. This was the procedure followed by a M. Giscard, who legally changed his name to Giscard d'Estaing (the family d'Estaing became extinct with the execution of the admiral d'Estaing in 1794). such a procedure does not make anyone noble, obviously. His grandson, president of the French Republic (1974-81), ridiculed himself by asking for the seat of the admiral in the Society of the Cincinnati (he was admitted on an honorary basis).
The Revolution broke in many ways with the Old Regime. The legal class of nobility, as one of the fundamental remaining elements of feudalism, was abolished along with the feudal regime on August 4, 1789, which established legal equiality of all individuals regardless of birth. Furthermore, titles of nobility were abolished by a decree of the National Assembly of June 19, 1790, signed by king Louis XVI.
On March 1, 1808, Napoleon, Emperor of the French, established a legal system of titles, but the word "nobility" is not used anywhere in legal texts, and no privileges were attached to it. Nevertheless, in common parlance it is often called nobility ("noblesse d'Empire"). Titles were created by Letters Patent of the Emperor, or, for the most part, were automatic and came with certain positions. However, the titles did not become hereditary until certain conditions were met (in particular the constitution by the grantee of an endowment in land to be attached to the title, the majorat), and a newly created Conseil du Sceau des Titres was in charge of verifying compliance (see more on Napoleonic titles).
After the fall of Napoleon's Empire, the Bourbon kings returned to France. On June 6, 1814, Louis XVIII granted a Royal Charter (equivalent of a constitution) whose article 71 specified:
The new nobility keeps its titles and the old nobility regains its titles. The king creates nobles at will, but he grants them only ranks and honors without any exemption from the burdens and duties of society.
La noblesse ancienne reprend ses titres. La nouvelle conserve les siens. Le roi fait des nobles a volonté, mais il ne leur accorde que des rangs et des honneurs sans aucune exemption des charges et des devoirs de la société.
The "charges" really mean taxes: nobility's exemption from a number of taxes in Old Regime France had been one of the major grievances in 1789. Louis XVIII established a House of hereditary Peers on the English model (although peers became life-peers in 1830). The Conseil du Sceau des Titres was replaced by a Commission du Sceau, presided by the minister of Justice (Ordinance, July 15, 1814). It was abolished by an ordinance of Oct. 31, 1830 and all its functions transfered to the Conseil d'administration of the Ministry of Justice.
When the monarchy was overthrown in 1848, nobility was again abolished (Feb. 29, 1848), but the decree was rescinded on Jan. 24, 1852 after Napoleon III restored the Empire. The Conseil du Sceau des Titres was recreated by decree of Jan. 8, 1859. The Second Empire fell on Sep. 4, 1870, and a decree of Jan. 10, 1872 declared that the Conseil had ceased to function since that date and transferred its activities, to the degree that they did not conflict with existing legislation, to the Conseil d'administration of the Ministry of Justice. The President of the Republic made a decision on May 10, 1875 that he would cease to confer or confirm titles, and this decision has never been reversed by any of his successors. The Conseil expressed in 1876 the opinion that the President should not confirm foreign titles either, but this has nevertheless happened twice (for a Papal title of count in 1893 and for a Spanish ducal title in 1961).
Titles of nobility since 1808Titles have been granted from 1808 to 1848 and from 1852 to 1870, when the President of the Republic effectively relinquished the exercise of any prerogative in the matter. The process was well-defined: letters patent had to be issued and certain legal conditions had to be met for the title to be valid and hereditary.
Napoleon's titles are discussed in greater detail elsewhere. The titles granted by Louis XVIII (1814-24) and Charles X (1824-30) were of two kinds:
The Restoration also granted letters of ennoblement.
"Les titres nobiliaires, dépouillés aujourd'hui de tout privilège féodal et même de tout privilège de rang, n'ont plus qu'un caractère personnel et honorofique et ne peuvent même plus être considérés, du point de vue juridique, que comme un complément du nom patronymique permettant de mieux distinguer l'identité des personnes, tout en perpétuant de grands souvenirs; si, en vertu de cette sorte de lien de subordination entre le titre nobiliaire et le nom patronymique, il est dû la même protection au titre qu'au nom, on ne lui doit pas une protection spéciale et privilégiée." Paris, 2 Jan 1896. Dalloz 1896 2.328 Titles are not a full part of the family name, however, for a variety of reasons: they are not inherited by all children equally, but rather follow the rules of inheritance determined by the original grant or act of creation. Also, no one can be forced to use his title. Titles are, however, accessories of the family name, complements which help to distinguish among members of a family. As such, they are entitled to the same legal protection from usurpation as the family name.
"Si le titre de comte comme tout autre titre quelconque ne fait pas partie intégrante du nom patronymique puisque les titulaires ne sont pas tenus de l'ajouter à leur nom en vertu de la maxime "n'est titré qui ne veut", du moins ce titre se rattache au nom comme un complément permettant de mieux distinguer l'identité des personnes. Par suite, ce titre doit bénéficier de la même protection légale que le nom lui-même, ceux qui en sont investis ayant intérêt tout à la fois à en défendre la propriété et à prévenir des confusions préjudiciables"; Tribunal de Paris, 18 juillet 1893; Dalloz 1893, 2.7
"...à la vérité, le titre ne se confond pas avec le nom et ne forme pas avec lui un tout indivisible; des règles particulières président à la transmission du nom qui passe avec le sang à tous les descendants indéfiniment, sans distinction du sexe, tandis que le titre ne se transmet qu'aux descendants mâles, par ordre de primogéniture, suivant la loi de son origine" Paris, 2 Jan 1896. Dalloz 1896 2.328
"Doivent être respectées pour un titre les conditions de transmissibilité qui lui sont imposées par l'acte de création." Trib. Civil Seine, 25 Jan 1928.
"Si les titres nobiliaires n'entraînent plus de privilèges d'aucune sorte, ils n'en doivent pas moins être maintenus dans le caractère qui leur a été donné à l'origine, en tant qu'il est compatible avec l'ordre social, et dans les conditions de transmissibilité qui leur ont été imposées par l'acte de création." Cour de Cassation 25 Oct 1898. Dalloz 1899 1.168
Although some pre-1789 titles could be inherited in female line, the courts have decided that this cannot take place anymore.
"La transmission des titres ne se fait plus, dans le droit moderne, que de mâle à mâle." Trib. Civ. Falaise, 21 Fév 1959. Under the pre-1789 regime, it was not uncommon for a M. X, owner of a lordship called Y, to have himself called "M. X de Y" (whether or not he was noble). It is still possible today for a French family to have such an addition to its family name, but only on the basis of ancient, public and continuous usage prior to the French Revolution (Angers 29 juin 1896, Dalloz 1898, 2.217).
"L'usage établi avant 1789 d'ajouter aux noms de famille des noms de terres nobles ou de fiefs ne peut créer un droit que s'il est estayé d'une possession ancienne publique, acceptée par tous et régulièrement constatée. Il est nécessaire d'ailleurs que le nom de famille précède le nom noble. Une personne ne doit pas être admise, pour établir son droit d'ajouter à son nom patronymique, à se prévaloir d'une possession accidentelle et intermittente de ce nom que ses auteurs n'ont jamais considéré que comme un titre ou une dénomination honorifique qu'ils n'entendaient ni substituer ni incorporer à leur nom d'origine." Angers, 12 août 1901. The only way to acquire a title is to inherit it according to its original rules of transmission. In particular, it cannot be acquired prescriptively by usage.
"si le titre nobiliaire suit, en général, les règles du nom patronymique, il ne s'acquiert pas, comme lui, par le simple usage, même prolongé; il lui faut, à l'origine, une investiture émanant de l'autorité souveraine" Civ. 11 mai 1948, Dalloz 1948 335.
Establishing the right to a title can only be done by a branch of
the executive. The courts cannot establish the right to a title (but
they can protect it).
The agency in charge of this was originally the Conseil du Sceau des Titres, created by Napoleon in 1808. At the time, its purpose was to advise the sovereign on requests to create a majorat, the landed endowment to which Napoleon's hereditary titles were attached, and to supervise their administration. In particular, it delivered all letters patent related to nobiliary titles. (See the article on Napoleonic nobility and on majorats). When the monarchy was restored in 1814, it replaced the conseil du Sceau des titres with a commission du sceau at the ministry of Justice,staffed by high-ranking civil servants and chaired by the Minister of Justice as Keeper of the Seals (ord. 15 July 1814). Later, this commission was abolished, its offices formed the division du sceau in the ministry of justice, and its decision-making powers transferred to the conseil d'administration of the ministry (ord. 31 Oct 1830). The conseil du sceau as a separate entity was recreated by Napoleon III (decree 8 Jan 1859). At that time, however, majorats had been abolished (in 1835), so the functions could not be the same. Instead, the decree of 1859 therefore made changes to its purpose. It gave the conseil two functions:
Since an administrative decision taken in 1875 by the president of the Republic to cease grants, confirmations and recognitions, the first activity set out in the decree of 1859 is not exercised. The second activity, however, remains.
To verify claim to a title, one must therefore contact the Conseil d'administration du ministère de la Justice, and present evidence relating to the creation of the title in full accordance with the laws in force at the time of creation (before 1789: the king, by letters patent; 1808-1815: by Imperial decree; 1815-1848: by Royal letters patent; 1852-1870: by Imperial decree; 1871-77: by presidential decree) and proof that he is the individual designated by the applicable rules of transmission to bear the title at present. The office in charge was until 1947 the "bureau du sceau de France"; since then, the office has changed within the ministry of justice. At present, the "bureau du droit civil général", an office in the sous-direction de la législation civile, de la nationalité et de la procédure carries out the duties (direction des affaires civiles et du sceau - Sceau de France; 13 Place Vendôme 75 042 Paris, France).
It prepares a report to the conseil, which then transmits its opinion to the Minister of Justice, who may then issue an arrêt authorizing the inscription of the individual on the Registre du Sceau (at a cost of 2000F). The individual can then use this document to obtain insertion of his title on any legal document, including birth certificate, identity card, passport, etc. The procedure must be repeated at every generation, because the arrêt is valid ad personam.
This procedure is necessary in order to establish a claim beyond doubt. It does not mean that the right to a title does not exist until such time. Nor does it mean that the legal consequences of a right to a title cannot be sought in ordinary courts or from certain government officials. In fact, there is ample jurisprudence to show that one can obtain the insertion of a title in the registry of the Etat civil or defend a title against usurpation based on a court decision alone, without verification by the conseil (see the cases cited in the note Pr. André Ponsard, Répertoire Dalloz 1958 283). Since an administrative memorandum of the interior ministry of 1966, however, officers of the Etat civil are instructed to refuse insertion of titles in birth, marriage and death registrations without a verification. There is no legal basis for that decision.
All confirmations of titles can be found:
From 1872 to 1992, 407 arrêts were issued (190 since 1908).
From 1958 to 1987 there have been 53, roughly twice a year on average. If one counts about a thousand titles in existence and an average of 35 years between generations, then this means that only about 6% of those who could ask for a confirmation of title do so. This is small, but not negligible.
Two separate jurisdictions exist, civil courts and administrative courts.
The jurisprudence has established that civil courts can only draw the legal
consequences of a title recognized by the Conseil and uncontested.
"Les tribunaux de l'ordre judiciaire sont incompétents
pour connaître de contestations entre particuliers sur l'existence
et la sincérité de titres nobiliaires; ils ne sont compétents
que pour tirer les conséquences juridiques des titres nobiliaires
dûment reconnus par les autorités compétentes ou non
contestés." Cour de Cassation, 17 Nov 1891. Sirey 1893, 1.25.
"Les tribunaux de l'ordre judiciaire sont incompétents pour connaître de contestations entre particuliers sur l'existence et la sincérité de titres nobiliaires; ils ne sont compétents que pour tirer les conséquences juridiques des titres nobiliaires dûment reconnus par les autorités compétentes ou non contestés." Cour de Cassation, 17 Nov 1891. Sirey 1893, 1.25.For example, it can require inclusion of the title on a birth certificate (in 1910, the duc de Rivoli got the courts to allow the inclusion of the title "comte de Rivoli" on the birth certificate of his son). It can protect the title from usurpation (in 1898, a duc de Montebello sued a partnership formed by his uncles for use of his name and arms on wine labels; in 1936, the duc de Noailles sued his nephew to prevent him from using the title of marquis de Noailles). However, if the dispute is over the title itself: the validity, the meaning or the applicability of the acts which created or confirmed the title, then the administrative authority (the Conseil d'administration) has full authority, with appeal to the administrative court of Paris and then to the Conseil d'État, which is the administrative supreme court. Thus, the Conseil d'État has the final word on titles.
Disputes over titles were not uncommon in the late 19th century, but are now rather rare. Recent examples include the complex case of baron d'Huart in 1983 (Conseil d'Etat, Feb. 25, 1983) and the famous case of the title of duc d'Anjou (Paris court of appeals, Nov. 22, 1989).
Usurping a title exposes one to civil suits by the injured parties. But it also is a breach of criminal law, which can result in a suit in criminal courts, either brought by the public prosecutor, or more commonly by an aggrieved private party (partie civile dans une action publique). The case is then usually brought before a criminal court.
The 1810 edition of the Penal Code included article 259 which stated: "Toute personne qui aura publiquement porté un costume, un uniforme ou une décoration qui ne lui appartiendrait pas, ou qui se sera attribué sans droit un titre impérial qui ne lui aurait pas été légalement conféré, sera punie d'un emprisonnement de six mois à deux ans et d'une amende de 500 à 5000F." The article was dropped in 1832. It took a law of 28 May 1858 to revive it and it remained in the Penal Code until 1993, in the following form:
"Art. 259.§3. Sera puni d'une amende de 1800F à 60000F, quiconque, sans droit et en vue de s'attribuer une distinction honorifique, aura publiquement pris un titre, changé, altéré ou modifié le nom que lui assignent les actes de l'état civil."
According to the jurisprudence, this article did not only punish those
who usurp a nobiliary title but also those who, by modifying their family
name, try to give it an honorific appearance. The use of a "particule"
and of a famous name necessarily fall into that category.
"les prévenus avaient pour but, par ostentation,
de s'attribuer, à la faveur d'une équivoque, l'apparence
de la noblesse [...] l'article 259 du code pénal ne punissant pas
seulement ceux qui prennent sans droit un titre proprement dit, mais aussi
ceux qui, par une altération ou une modification de leur nom patronymique,
entendent lui imprimer une apparence honorifique." (Cour de Cassation,
ch. criminelles, 14 janv. 1959; Gazette du Palais 1959 1.220)
"l'adjonction, sans droit, d'une particule et d'un nom
illustre caractérise nécessairement le but d'acquérir
une distinction honorifique" (Cour de Cassation, ch. criminelles, 14 févr.
1957; Gazette du Palais 1957 1.353)
"les prévenus avaient pour but, par ostentation, de s'attribuer, à la faveur d'une équivoque, l'apparence de la noblesse [...] l'article 259 du code pénal ne punissant pas seulement ceux qui prennent sans droit un titre proprement dit, mais aussi ceux qui, par une altération ou une modification de leur nom patronymique, entendent lui imprimer une apparence honorifique." (Cour de Cassation, ch. criminelles, 14 janv. 1959; Gazette du Palais 1959 1.220)
"l'adjonction, sans droit, d'une particule et d'un nom illustre caractérise nécessairement le but d'acquérir une distinction honorifique" (Cour de Cassation, ch. criminelles, 14 févr. 1957; Gazette du Palais 1957 1.353)The usurpation had to be public: this publicity could result from the use of the usurped title in all social and commercial intercourse. The usurpation had to be intentional: the intention could be evidenced by the refusal to desist when warned.
In 1936, a certain Philippe Dissandes de la Villatte claimed to be "duc de Saint-Simon" (a title he claimed to be Montenegrin), wore a number of decorations (including St. George of Burgundy) and went around in public in a uniform of Italian general. He received a suspended sentence of 8 days of jail and a fine of 500F (Trib. correct. de la Seine, 9 déc. 1936; Recueil Sirey 1937, 2.133).
The present form of the law in the Penal Code (since 1993, except for the conversion of francs to euros) is as follows: "Article 433-17. L'usage, sans droit, d'un titre attaché à une profession réglementée par l'autorité publique ou d'un diplôme officiel ou d'une qualité dont les conditions d'attribution sont fixées par l'autorité publique est puni d'un an d'emprisonnement et de 15000 euros d'amende.
Article 433-19. Est puni de six mois d'emprisonnement et de 7500 euros d'amende le fait, dans un acte public ou authentique ou dans un document administratif destiné à l'autorité publique et hors les cas où la réglementation en vigueur autorise à souscrire ces actes ou documents sous un état civil d'emprunt :
more details here.
However, there exists a prestigious private institution that can certify one's descent from noble ancestors by virtue of the original rules of transmission of nobility (ascendance noble). The Association de la Noblesse Française (ANF) is a nonprofit organization founded in 1932 and "reconnue d'utilité publique" in 1967. Its current president is the marquis de Vogüé. It has about 2,000 families on its roster, about two thirds of the eligible number of families. Its committee on proofs applies criteria very strictly. The only eligible members are those who would be noble under the rules of the Old Regime or the regimes that followed and recognized nobility.
A.N.F. 9, rue Richepanse 75008 Paris France Ph: +33 1 42 60 15 06 Fax: +33 1 40 20 07 20
For a good contemporary treatise on nobility, see:
A scanned version is also available online at Gallica.
Furthermore, a large number of regional armories have been published in the 19th and 20th c., of varying quality. See the annotated bibliography.
Dominique Labarre de Raillicourt has published a number of monographs that look at specific questions of contemporary French nobility: the titles of dukes and princes, marquis, counts, viscounts, barons, regular titles and courtesy titles, French members of the papal nobility, families whose members were admitted to military schools before the Revolution, families in which three consecutive members were awarded the Legion of Honor (and thereby gained nobility under Napoleonic law). All his books are published by himself.
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Last modified: Jun 18, 2008