Venality: The Sale of Offices in Eighteenth-Century France

Venality: The Sale of Offices in Eighteenth-Century France

Venality: The Sale of Offices in Eighteenth-Century France

Venality: The Sale of Offices in Eighteenth-Century France

Synopsis

In early modern France almost all posts of public responsibility could only be acquired by purchase or inheritance. By the eighteenth century there were 70,000 venal offices comprising the entire judiciary, most of the legal profession, officers in the army, and a wide range of other professions. William Doyle, one of the foremost historians of early modern Europe, traces the evolution and dissolution of a system which was one of the central institutions of French life for over three centuries.

Excerpt

Although the first learned article I ever wrote was about the price of offices, I did not then expect that so much of my working life would be taken up with venality. The idea of a general review of eighteenth-century office prices began to form in my mind only several years later, in the early 1970s. The debate over Alfred Cobban's attack on the prevailing social interpretation of the French Revolution was then at its height. Cobban had suggested that, far from being the work of a rising, capitalist bourgeoisie, the Revolution was largely precipitated by the resentments of a declining, non-capitalist one. He had pinpointed the core of this group as non-noble office-holders, and the main evidence for their decline as the falling value of their offices. The idea was provocative, especially since Cobban offered almost no relevant evidence to support it. My initial idea, having already done some work on the price of other offices, was to see whether such evidence could be found.

Over subsequent years I think I was able to show, first in a specific local context, and then kingdom-wide, that the movement of office prices did little to support Cobban's claims. But the work proceeded slowly, and was much postponed and interrupted by other projects and preoccupations. By the time mature conclusions had been reached, scholarly interest in the range of problems posed by Cobban was beginning to fade. The pursuit of office prices, however, had by now taught me how little was known about venality in general during the eighteenth century. Ennobling offices had been extensively studied -- although subsequent work, including some in the pages that follow, was to show that there were still important things left to say. The rest of the venal system, comprising the vast majority of offices, had never attracted similar attention. And, whereas the social and institutional importance of venality had been well established for the seventeenth century, there had been no scholarly interest in how it developed, if at all, between the last years of Louis XIV and the Revolution. Venality in the eighteenth century was assumed to be in decline or decay, no longer serving any of its original purposes, and therefore easily consigned to oblivion in one of the Revolution's less momentous rationalizations. Impressed by how much of this picture seemed to be implicitly challenged by the evidence on prices, I decided that it would be worthwhile to widen my investigations to look at the whole structure and development of venal office-holding over . . .

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