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The Beleaguered Nobility of Brittany


Mon Beau Chateau


We have written recently about the determination of Louis XIV to establish just who in his realm was truly of the nobility and who was not. We have also pointed out in a recent post that the nobility did not pay many forms of taxes. It does not require deep thought to comprehend that there was a clear financial incentive for many to become what were known as "false nobles". This problem was particularly severe in Bretagne, which had missed out on the nobility checks for several years and thus had a surfeit of spurious dukes. 

The royal command inaugurating the Great Reformation of 1668 established an office for reformation in each province. That for Bretagne was headed by Monsieur d'Argouges; he was supported by a team of parliamentary advisers. They were to examine and rule on all disputed or "usurped" uses of noble titles. Local notaires had to provide copies of the documentation showing use of titles by their clients, and reveal their addresses. There were two basic ways to prove one's claim to nobility:

  1. Being able to show that one's ancestors were of the old nobility of Bretagne, which required much genealogical documentation, or
  2. Being able to show "noble and advantageous government" of the title for at least one hundred years, which required not only some genealogy but good account books and perhaps testimonials as to one's noble and advantageous governing practices.

Those proven to be false nobles had to pay a stiff fine of four hundred livres. This was reduced to one hundred livres if they confessed and gave up their dishonest use of titles. Even those who may have thought they were legitimately ennobled by Letters patent had to surrender their titles if awarded after 1609, or pay one thousand livres to keep them.

These would have made a most enjoyable read on a rainy night but, sadly, most of the case documentation was destroyed during the Revolution, either by those despising all to do with hereditary tax breaks or by those desperate to eradicate a method by which they could be traced as such. The genealogy proofs which have survived cover about two hundred families and have been collected and transcribed by the Count of Rosmorduc (how quickly the titles returned!) in the four-volume La Noblesse de Bretagne devant le Chambre de la Réformation, which can be read on Gallica. Some original documentation can be found in :

  • the municipal library of Rennes 
  • the municipal library of Saint-Brieuc
  • the Departmental Archives of Côtes d'Armor
  • the Departmental Archives of Loire-Atlantique
  • the Departmental Archives of Ile-et-Vilaine
  • the Bibliothèque nationale

Without doubt, one of the best online sources of information concerning this and other episodes in the history of Bretagne's nobility is Tudchentil. This is a very impressive site, founded by a historian, Norbert Bernard, and written for the most part by academics and post-graduate students, with a few genealogists and history buffs contributing as well.  For those too impatient to read the history and who wish to dash straight to the family list to see if Grandpa may not be there, the Preuves de Noblesses are given in their entirety, carefully copied out from Rosmorduc.

An absolutely dynamite site. Give them money

One of its authors, Amaury de la Pinsonnais,  is putting up on his blog, Au hasard des archives further information from his own research on certain families.

Thus, we now know that not all Bretons were fishermen.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy