Victims, Authority, and Terror: The Parallel Deaths of d'orlaeans, Custine, Bailly, and Malesherbes

By George Armstrong Kelly | Go to book overview

14. The Peaceful Profession of Justice

By heredity Malesherbes succeeded to the Première Présidence of the Cour des Aides in 1750, at the age of twenty-nine, when his father gained the chancellorship. The Cour des Aides was one of the cours souveraines of France, which included the twelve parlements ( Paris, Toulouse, Grenoble, Bordeaux, Dijon, Rouen, Aix, Rennes, Pau, Metz, Douai, and Besançon), two conseils souverains of lesser dignity (Colmar and Perpignan), and a variety of Chambres des Comptes and Cours des Aides in different locations.1 These courts were of unequal size, importance, and jurisdiction. The Parlement of Paris was by far the most influential, having jurisdiction over about one-third of French territory; consequently, it cultivated interests and attitudes on a more national scale. In the pays d'élection, where local Estates had ceased to exist, the courts were the functional spokesmen against royal power as well as agents of royal power in society: besides Paris, Rouen (Normandy) was typically the most aggressive of them in the eighteenth century. Some provincial parlements incorporated the functions of Cours des Aides or Chambres des Comptes, or both. Elsewhere, these two other courts were often combined. The total "parlementary world," including these courts, scarcely exceeded two thousand individuals.2

Well into the seventeenth century, these legal bodies had served as a means by which enterprising commoners could accede to the nobility, though this was not the route traced by the Lamoignons, who were of old noble stock. The magistracy was hereditary, venal (purchasable), and irremovable. The requirements for the anoblissement of commoner magistrates varied among the jurisdictions. By the eighteenth century, the access of the roturiers to the parlements had become constricted, although the Cours des Aides and Chambres des Comptes were more open. Of entrants to the Parlement of Paris between 1715 and 1771 only about ten percent were commoners.3 At Rennes, Aix, and Grenoble the proportions of nobles and anoblis were even higher, though in Colmar roturier participation rose to seventy percent.4

Traditionally, the sovereign courts had three major functions. First, they were responsible for hearing and settling litigation within their jurisdictions and for dispensing public justice. Second, they had the responsibility of registering new laws within their jurisdictions; the

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