registration of the laws
Recent scholarship on the parlements has minimized their differences with royal administrations. According to the current view, any disputes involving the parlements were less than fundamental, involving no vital interest, and artificial, a ritual ballet in which both sides accepted unwritten rules and kept inside invisible boundaries. Thus the basic issue of royal sovereignty could never come into play, by mutual consent.1 This view is only partially correct. It is true that the parlements did not openly challenge sovereignty or the nature of the monarchy. They looked for no Bastille to storm. But it is not true that they posed no fundamental obstacle to royal government, merely that their behaviour was insidious, marked by stealth. They cloaked their intentions in procedural ambiguity and acted under the cover of a trademark rhetorical dissimulation, seeking not to overturn royal power but to infiltrate and weaken it. Sometimes, however, the disputes involved irreconcilable issues that artifice could not elide. This was eventually the case with the way the parlements treated the king’s new laws.
Jean Bodin, the most incisive political thinker of sixteenth-century France, identified the giving of laws to all subjects without their consent as the hallmark of sovereignty, by which he meant supreme, permanent power in the state. In France, sovereignty belonged to the king, so that legislative sovereignty coincided with royal sovereignty, or puissance absolue. Bodin also said that sovereignty could not be divided, shared or delegated. On the surface, magistrates of the Parlement of Paris accepted all of this and periodically, sometimes frequently, affirmed their steadfast belief in the king’s full legislative sovereignty. But as framers of the American constitution would one day discover, things grew more complicated when political theory gave way to the actual making of laws.2
The kings issued laws and sent them to their parlements to be registered, in order to bring the new legislation to public attention and to make it enforceable within the parlements’ jurisdictions. Reduced to its essentials, registration meant that the parlements ‘published’ the laws by reading them aloud in open