ÉcoNoble – The nobility living with the king: economy of curial cohabitation (1682-1789)

Duration: 2023-...

This research programme proposes to use sources to test the theories of Norbert Elias on the noble condition as experienced at court, and in particular at Versailles. The challenge would be to follow on from the studies of Jeroen Duindam and Leonhard Horowski by assessing them in the light of unpublished documentation and a renewed perspective, by mobilising social history, historical anthropology, gender history and material history. The aim is to refine the understanding of the court nobility not only from a social but also an economic point of view, by questioning the idea of an inevitable ruin (mainly financial), hitherto little explored.

Following Norbert Elias, it is generally considered that the installation of the court at Versailles sounded the death knell for any autonomy for the nobility: locked in the “golden cage” of the royal palace, it would have become dependent on the sovereign, both in economic and honorific terms. This would have resulted in a change in behaviour, an increase in spending and therefore chronic debt, leading in the 18th century to a gradual disintegration of lineages. This vision was already that of Ernest Lavisse (1911), before being relayed by traditional historiography.

Research since the 1980s has, however, brought significant nuances to this. William Beik, in the evocative title of one of his articles (2005), presents the absolutism of Louis XlV as a potential source of “social collaboration”. First developed in Anglo-Saxon historiography, this idea is defended by Andrew Lossky (1984) and Roger Mettam (1988). Often supported by drawing on provincial examples, it is demonstrated by Katia Béguin (2000) for the court aristocracy. Similarly, work on clientelism and case studies on an individual, a lineage and a group of dignitaries, has revealed room for manoeuvre leading to compromises, and may have, in some cases, proved to be coercive for the monarch.

But most often, it is to the “system” itself, that of the court (to use the term employed by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie), more than to its actors, that research has recently been directed. Its institutional functioning is thus known thanks to studies conducted in recent years on royal houses and their staff. More specifically on the functioning of the Court at Versailles, Jeroen Duindam provided an enlightening study in 2003: by introducing a parallel with the Viennese court, he refutes a number of premises espoused by Elias, and shows how integration into the Court could have been an opportunity to gain power, honours and material resources. The book by Leonhard Horowski, published in German in 2012 and translated into French in 2019, defends the same idea, this time adopting a quantitative perspective. By positioning himself “against the thesis of a dispossession of its powers imposed on the nobility of the court by absolutism” (p. 46), the author thus brings about, like Duindam, a reversal of the commonly accepted view.

Although the court is better known as a society and as a place of power, it is also known as an “economic institution”, to use the expression formulated by Maurice Aymard and Marzio A. Romani in the proceedings of a symposium held in August 1998 on the subject. Since this scientific meeting, the French case, and more particularly that of Versailles, have been the subject of studies focusing on the practical aspects and expenses generated by the communal life of the king and his courtiers. Other studies have taken the opposite view showing the impact on the market, particularly in Paris, of court consumption.

This work has thus made it possible to understand the organisation as well as the functioning of the court as a whole, whether in terms of its composition, its scope, its cost, its economic repercussions, or its power dynamics. But they rarely place themselves at the level of the actors and their agency (capacity for action), especially those whom Elias saw as the “losers” in the move to Versailles: the noble houses, whether or not their members were holders of office.

Areas of research and questions

  • Living at court: a supposedly ostentatious lifestyle, what was the reality? Did it inevitably lead to chronic indebtedness and, if it existed, could it be due to other factors?
  • The king coming to the aid of the nobility, the nobility coming to the aid of the king: a relationship of interdependence or a one-way dependence?
  • The court as a point of contact between certain fringes of the nobility: what socio-economic exchanges?

In short, it will be necessary to determine whether the way of life at court as it was imposed from 1682 in Versailles, involving cohabitation with the king, was profitable or, on the contrary, harmful to the nobility.

Two intersecting approaches will be applied to provide answers to these questions: a first will start from individuals staying at the palace, identified after cross-checking documents, a second, complementary approach, will rely on the available sources relating to them. Thus, the research can be deployed according to different modalities: on the one hand, a quantitative study based on people identified as living at the Palace, and, on the other, a narrower analysis of a few representative lineages.

The typology of documents can also guide research and analysis between matrimonial and inheritance matters, state matters, and finally ordinary matters, namely the cost of daily life (food, stabling, housekeeping, heating, clothing, buildings, etc.) – three areas of income and expenditure that stand out in the papers preserved today and that make it possible to identify the economic functioning of noble households in relation to their lifestyle at court.


Program Management: Flavie Leroux, chargée de recherche au Centre de recherche du château de Versailles.
Steering committee and Scientific Committee in the process of being set up.

First actions envisaged

>  Preparation of a file to apply for the 2025 session of the generic call for projects of the Agence nationale de la recherche, via the instrument Jeunes chercheuses et jeunes chercheurs.
>  Documentary retrieval: examination of inventories kept at the Archives nationales. Work undertaken for the AP (Private Archives), R (Sequestered State Papers of the Princes of the Blood), T (private papers now in the public domain) and Minutier Central of Parisian notaries. This first comparative analysis will be completed by a second, which will target collections kept in departmental and municipal archives.
>  Composition of a first study samples : sociology of the housing at Versailles, carried out for the years 1732, 1743 and 1787.
>  Historiographical monitoring.
>  Organisation in 2024 of a steering committee and a scientific advisory committee.

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Château de Versailles
Conseil général des Yvelines