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Henri Boulainvilliers

French historian (1658-1722)

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Boulainvilliers, HENRI, COUNT OF, b. at Saint-Saire (Seine-Inferieure) France, October 11, 1658; d. at Paris, January 23, 1722. He was one of the first French historians to write the history of the institutions or fundamental laws of the nation and, although systematic and decidedly partial, was none the less a pioneer in this particular line of work. Until the death of his father in 1697, he followed a military career, but some complications concerning an estate obliged him to make a close investigation of his family titles and this it was that led to his becoming an historian. Like Saint-Simon, Boulainvilliers was saturated with ultra-aristocratic notions and was also an ardent adherent of the old feudal system, his books being a long, violent tirade against the French monarchy which, according to him, was responsible for the gradual ruin of the privileges of the nobility and the annihilation of feudalism.

The Franks, according to his doctrine, established themselves in Gaul by right of conquest; they divided its land among themselves and they exercise public authority. They constitute the French nation; they are Frenchmen. Every Frenchman is free and independent, is supreme in his domain, in his fee, where he administers justice to his subjects. The king is merely a civil magistrate chosen to settle the disputes of private individuals; he has no special power over the life, property, or liberty of other Frenchmen who are in no wise his subordinates. Frenchmen who belong to the nobility are all on an equality: they are the peers of the king and of his relatives. Relationship with kings confers no rank even upon descendants in the male line. Such is the feudal system as claimed by Boulainvilliers to be the only one that is just, legitimate, and conformable to the reality of history.

Now, what caused Frenchmen or nobles to be dispossessed of their rights? First, the Crusades. To defray the expenses of these expeditions many noblemen either mortgaged or sold their fees and wealthy plebeians, who were not noble, but, according to Boulainvilliers, “ignoble”, thus became the owners of fees and, by introducing themselves into the nobility, corrupted it. Next came the ignorance of the lords or owners. The ignorance and negligence of the lords rendering them generally incompetent to discharge the functions that rightfully belonged to them, the principal of which was to dispense justice in their fees, they soon transferred all their judicial authority to clerks or jurists. Thanks to the dignity of their role, these clerks or jurists soon became as important as the lords and thus originated the noblesse de la robe (nobility of the long robe) which Boulainvilliers considers a monstrosity.

Finally came the policy of the Capetian Kings which Boulainvilliers regards as chiefly instrumental in ruining feudalism and therefore the French nation. This policy consisted in adding the great fees to the royal domain by reason of conquest, purchase, or marriage, with the result that the Kings of France assumed an importance theretofore unknown to them, and which soon became entirely disproportionate; while the lords, fascinated by the brilliancy of the royal courts, instead of remaining the peers of these kings, became their servants. The kings diminished the power of the French nobles still more by favoring the emancipation of the communes and raising to the ranks of the nobility plebeians whom they entrusted with high offices to which they had no right. Moreover, they admitted to seats in the States General, which should have been composed exclusively of representatives of the French, delegates from among the lower clergy and liberated serfs, and of course this arbitrary measure completed the overthrow of the nobility. Such then, is the teaching set forth in Boulainvilliers’s three most important works: “Histoire de l’ancien gouvernement de France“, “Lettres sur les Parlements ou Etats-Generaux”, and “Essais sur la noblesse” which, taken as a whole, constitute an earnest plea for feudalism against monarchism. These works, written by Boulainvilliers for his grandchildren, did not appear until after his death. The “Histoire de l’ancien gouvernement de la France” with four-teen historical “Lettres sur les Parlements ou Etats-Generaux” were published in Amsterdam and the Hague in 1727, the “Essais sur la noblesse” (containing a dissertation by the late Count of Boulainvilliers on the origin and decline of the nobility) coming out in Amsterdam, 1732. It is only within the last twenty-five years that Boulainvilliers’ works have been duly appreciated and their conclusions taken up by the historic school of which Fustel de Coulanges was the chief representative.


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