Apart from the works of Louis Bergeron, writings on the social history of the First Empire have been hampered by gross short-sightedness, and this has concealed the true extent of the influence of the years of reconstruction in post-revolutionary France. Since the Empire saw itself as the stabilising factor of a Revolution which had put an end to the hierarchical society of the Ancien Regime and the founder of a society which fulfilled the desires expressed at the end of the 18th century, study of this period should take the long view and so stimulate reflection and to help clarify the problems of social development. By ignoring the traditional historical boundaries, the historian can take a fundamental step towards comprehending the transition between the society of rank and the society of the 19th century. And this is all the more important given that the crisis of the Ancien Regime is closely related to, amongst other things, that of the elite groups. However, in the historiography of this subject, the polar opposition of nobility and bourgeoisie is central feature in the problem of the fusion of the different elite groups, that is, those elite by birth, those elite by wealth and those elite by talent. We must therefore attempt to understand to what extent the Revolution and the Empire fulfilled the desires of a bourgeoisie, said to have been antagonistic towards the nobility during the 18th century and apparently triumphant in the 19th century. Furthermore, this description is in itself simplistic and does not take account of the realities of the social change which marked the entry into the modern era. The energy expended by the bourgeoisie in attempting to rise socially would seem more to be part of a desire for identification with the aristocracy. The bourgeoisie did not seek the destruction of the nobility but often sought to become a part of it and to see it become the social sphere in which all of the elite groups came together.
Set in this longer-term view, the social history of the Empire takes on a new interest and breadth. Never did a government carry out such a vast policy of social restructuring, never did a leader work so vigorously to shape the social body in accordance with his views. The Empire can be seen as in effect a laboratory of social creation, the most sophisticated production of which being the nobility created in 1808, the jewel in the crown of all of the previous institutions. Indeed, those ennobled during the First Empire have been the subejct of several works of reference. Jean Tulard, with his Napoléon et la noblesse d’Empire,(1) has produced the definitive work on the legal history of this aristocracy and the rise of the greatest names, whilst Jacques Jourquin, with his Dictionnaire des maréchaux du Premier Empire,(2) has provided a collection of social biographies, to which no addition need be made. However, the entire group of those upon whom nobility was conferred has yet to be studied. Furthermore, this group, which represented the fusion of the old and the new elite groups, also needs to be looked at in the context of both before 1808 and also after the Napoleonic period, thus allowing for consideration of the birth of this aristocracy and an analysis of its integration into the upper spheres of the social hierarchy of both the Empire and the Restoration.
I. The melting pot of the post-Revolutionary elite
As of 1800, Napoleon sought to reorganise society in France using both the principles of the Ancien Regime and the new ideas of the Revolutionary period. His intention to base French society on ‘blocks of granite’ led him to create, in 1808, a new nobility. Designed to be the killer blow to, and replacement of, the old nobility, this new order was conceived as a response to the desire for honour and the thirst for distinction, both powerful forces driving the French people at the time. As an elite group emerging from the Revolution, the Imperial nobility was therefore an aristocracy without privilege but protected from financial decline by its endowments and its “majorats”, that is to say property which accompanied the title and which passed on to the heirs. Nevertheless, the nobility of the Empire made a conscious return to the origins of nobility in that Napoleon restored the supposed original concepts of a nobility based on merit and virtue. And although systematically open to the holders of the highest offices of State (dignitaries, ministers, senators, senior members of the Conseil d’Etat, presidents of the legislative body, archbishops and the most eminent members of the courts of justice), nobility was also open to those whom the Emperor wished to reward with a position at the peak of the social hierarchy.
A chivalry reinvented
And so, allegiance to the political regime, devotion to the sovereign, courage shown on the battlefield (67.9% of the new nobility – here I also include those restored to nobility – were military men),(3) and zeal shown in the service of the administration were the keys to ennoblement during the Empire. Indeed, at first sight this social group looks like an attempt at a return to Medieval chivalry, particularly since the nobiliary titles of the Middle Ages were the corollary of a position. Post-Revolutionary social rise was not therefore necessarily dependent upon completely new mechanisms of social mobility. The Napoleonic nobiliary project was thus a mix of the ancient and the modern as it created a nobility made up of civil servants and persons of note but who were not landed. In this respect, it was not a restoration of the feudal system, especially since the egalitarian principles of the Revolution had to be respected. The new elite was in fact open, in particular, to all of the members of the Légion d’honneur, at least in theory. In the end, however, Empire nobility was only conferred upon a limited group of about 3,000 individuals. Although technically open to members of the lower classes, at least when they had sufficient education, this being an essential key to social betterment, Empire nobility was the prize for the successful bourgeoisie (60% of ennobled persons strictly speaking), who by their education and background embodied the France of the Enlightenment.
The desire to merge the elite groups
Although initially keen, Napoleon in the end abandoned his intention to exclude the members of the Ancien Régime nobility from his aristocracy. Cambacérès, in particular, had argued for their inclusion, as had Pasquier, who said that “it was quite a bold idea to attempt to give France a new nobility in the face of the one which, although abolished by the law, was still alive in everyone’s memory”.(4) Napoleon, of course, hoped to destroy the legacy of monarchical France, but he also saw that it would be a mistake to deprive his throne of the glory attached to the great names of the former France, particularly at a time when he was preparing to marry the grand-niece of Louis XVI. 1810 was therefore the year of an important volteface in his nobiliary policy. In that year, Napoleon made important recommendations to Cambacérès, telling him that “it is necessary, by means of prudent indirect measures, to allow the whole of France to participate in the advantages procured by the institution of hereditary titles. If this is not done, this institution will never be a national one and it will never cause those who formerly enjoyed the prerogatives of the nobility to be forgotten. One of the most appropriate means of strengthening this institution would be to associate the former nobles with it, nevertheless stipulating the reserves and amendments which caution requires”.(5) The reserves concerned those among the former nobles who were too poor and would thus harm the prestige of the new nobility. As he remarked, “concerning those among the former nobles whom I intend to associate with the new institution, they must above all have preserved their wealth”.(6) The amendments meant giving titles to the members of the second order of the Ancien Regime, in accordance with the desires of the new sovereign, that is to say former counts became barons, and former dukes lost their titles. Asserting the principle of equality whereby all citizens could be accepted into the new nobility, and reaffirming his intention to be the sole architect of the new social organisation, Napoleon however renounced his initial condemnation of the old nobility and gradually adapted his legislation to make of his aristocracy “a spectrum of all of the families who are the subject of general esteem”.(7) He understood that it was utopian to wish to create from nothing a prestigious aristocracy. He knew that it was dangerous to ignore the prestige of the great ancient names, and Cambacérès reminded him of the fact, telling him that “it would be useless to try to ignore the fact that what remains of the nobility abolished by the Revolution still counts many famous names and among these names there are some whose memory cannot be extinguished without tearing from our history some of its most beautiful pages”.(8) To incorporate a part of the old nobility in the new one would, moreover, add to the prestige of the latter in the eyes of foreign nobility. “No-one”, he said, “would dare laugh any more at a court where a Montmorency, a La Rochefoucauld and a Mortemart accepted ‘duty and service’ alongside the new nobles”.(9) However, the issue was not to accept the entire former second order into the ranks of the titled subjects of the Empire. The new nobility would only profit from the situation by incorporating nobles who proved their attachment to the political regime by serving it at court or in the army, in the various administrative bodies or in the courts, in the electoral colleges or in the general councils. As for the old families who no longer had any wealth but bore distinguished names, contrary to the initial project, the Emperor raised them up by means of endowments:(10)”These names belong to French history.” he said. “I am the guardian of their glory and I shall not let them perish”.(11)
However, the upper ranks of the imperial nobility remained for the most part set aside from this move towards fusion. “I want no Dukes other than those which I have created or may create (…). If I make some exceptions with respect to the former nobility, these exceptions shall be extremely limited and shall only apply to historic names”.(12) Napoleon wished to remain the sole source of the highest prestige and that the summit of the social pyramid should bear his seal alone. Whilst he respected the glorious past of France, he highlighted examples from the Empire while setting alongside them a few great names of the former nobility in order to make of his important dignitaries the quintessence of French society and to place them at the summit of the new nobiliary society.
II. Swift integration into the nobiliary way of life
The identity of the new nobility took shape very early on since the group was held together by ties of friendship and family and since through its remunerations and endowments it enjoyed wealth which allowed it to hold its rank. However, wealth alone was not sufficient to ensure membership of the nobility. The aptitude of those upon whom nobility was conferred for their position in post-Revolutionary high society and their contribution to the redefinition of good taste also needs to be examined.
The influence of court moeurs
The imperial court has been described in detail by Mémoire writers and historians. Jean Tulard has pointed out that “Even at its high point, [the court] was the subject of sarcasm and mockery”, although at the same time he also raised the question “whether the criticism was a caricature” – he furthermore later notes that the tasks of a social and economic nature assigned to this court were to ab large extent fulfilled.(13) The new nobility was the main protagonist in this court life, in the midst of which it had a duty to display its rank – indeed the court was to a certain extent a forum of self-justification.(14) To the ostentatious luxury and bad manners it is often accused of, corresponds the reality of a successful performance. The women were the principal actresses, and among them the first empress played a vital role. Madame de Chastenay, who had no great liking for the government of Napoleon, did not hesitate to emphasise “this pleasantness, this style which Josephine had created”.(15) The evenings in her circle were spent “with no stiffness and no false airs and graces”.(16) As for the concerts she organised, they set the tone for this court life. Indeed, the refined music of Dussek and Naderman,(17) of which Josephine was particularly fond, helped to bring culture and refinement to this military aristocracy, thus bringing about the “‘courtification’ of warriors” traditionally held to be main effect of princely courts.(18) Discovering the court after three years spent abroad, Marie-Antoine Reiset was “stupefied by so much refinement and finesse of all kinds”.(19)
Furthermore, a large number of the ladies of the imperial nobility present at court were educated at the school of Madame Campan (20) where the good manners of the nobility of the Ancien Regime to which they sometimes belonged themselves, were inculcated in them. The most famous example is that of the Duchess of Rovigo, who was ‘related to the entire Faubourg Saint-Germain’.(21) The early start to the fusion of the two nobilities was decisive. The integration of the imperial nobility into the customs and manners of the old second order occurred mostly amongst the women. Indeed, it was they, through the fashion inherited from the Directoire – those shimmering cashmeres and ‘cunningly simple’ white dresses – who imposed upon the Tuileries a refinement which was copied throughout the whole Empire(22) and perhaps never equalled. And flattering descriptions are not lacking. In the eyes of the Marshal de Castellane, the women of the court were all splendid, with the freshness and beauty brought by the new blood.(23) According to Madame de Chastenay, “the important ladies in the new order were almost all young and almost all pretty and talented. Their clothes were meticulous and carefully chosen, and their tone somewhat straight-laced and stiff, rather than too relaxed and common”.(24) The final remarks certainly reflect the imperfections of an aristocratic education still somewhat recent. However, it was nevertheless true that “at this court, extreme politeness was the distinguishing hallmark of the manners of all those with a place there”.(25) Baron Ernouf also noticed it, saying “it is true that the nobiliary titles and the embroidered clothes of certain civil servants hardly corresponded to their backgrounds. Fouché and Marlin (…) must have appeared odd even to themselves. Some, self-made men, could barely disguise their lack of elementary education, but there were others who combined more serious merits with the distinction of manners and urbanity”.(26) Unreservedly mocked by the extremist parties, the imperial court was unfairly treated. Good taste and distinction were not certainly not absent and were often passed on by wives whose original social status had been higher. Such qualities were also present in even the most military of men.
With his excellent education received at the hands of his second wife Eugénie de Coucy, Oudinot appears as a fine example of the chivalrous courtier. The description of his discussion with the King of Prussia in March 1812, by his aide de camp, the Count of Thermes, certainly gives this impression. “The Duke of Reggio approached Frederick William, hat in hand, with his chivalrous courtesy, his bearing expressing both the noble liberty of a republican leader, the loyalty of the ancient knights, and he possessed such ease, elegance and grace that Marshal de Richelieu could not have surpassed him. We were proud to see the army so nobly represented”.(27) The heroes of epic literature inspired in the contemporaries of the imperial nobility the feeling that a chivalry had been reborn and that the ideology of chivalry had simply been enriched by the principles of revolutionary equality. This notion was reflected in the court’s fondness for knightly romance. “Everything was to do with the old castles of our forefathers, valiant knights and paladins(…)”. Madame de Noailles said, “At the moment everyone is talking about chivalry in the same say that during the Revolution they talked about liberty”.(28) The new discovery of mediaeval culture encouraged contemporaries themselves to perceive the imperial nobility as a chivalry recreated, while the poetry of the troubadours inculcated the precepts of courteousness by which the courts of the XIIth century had been transformed.(29) The newly titled subjects seemed finally worthy of appearing on the stage of the European monarchies.
With its prestige, the court was source of fascination and attraction. The old nobility in the end flocked to it and completed the initiation of the new courtiers in the rules of etiquette of the Ancien Regime under the auspices of two great chamberlains whose names redounded with glory of the Tuileries of the France of kings, namely, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord and Pierre de Montesquiou-Fezensac.(30) However, the arrival of Marie-Louise and the influx of famous names to the court coincided, according to Madame de Chastenay, with the appearance of a greater rigidity in courtly customs and the loss of all that had been preserved of “the customs of society”.(31) Perhaps therefore Josephine had not needed to win over the old nobility in order to make of the imperial court a place where the ‘douceur de vivre’ of the Ancien Regime could be born again? In any case, in the eyes of the new sovereign, who came from the most etiquette-ridden of European courts, the fusion seemed perfect. And even though she had been brought up in the midst of a prestigious aristocracy, for all that Marie-Louise did not make any distinction between the old names and the new ones.(32) Thus, the process of ‘courtification’ had been successful, and those upon whom nobility had been conferred had become men of the court after a “remodelling of (their) sensibility (… ) (with) a strait-jacket of automatic self-control, which bridled any form of spontaneous impulse and any uncontrolled movements”.(33) These men had succeeded in making of the imperial court a place of great influence, whose pomp and splendour did not exclude good taste. Thus, in the end the new nobility bowed to an etiquette partly inspired by that of the Bourbons. Moreover, they found the court a source of prestige, in particular for marriages. During such events, a ceremony took place in the Tuileries gardens at which the contract solemnly received the imperial signatures. This was the case for Claude Pierre Pajol, Louis Tirlet and the Duke of Reggio for his second marriage.(34) The children of nobles married during the Empire enjoyed the same honour.(35) Indeed, the court of Napoleon was less of an instrument of government than that of Louis XIV,(36) and more of a place of celebration of the nobility and education for the new nobles. The salons and private celebrations of the new nobility therefore became the stage upon which imperial civilisation shone.
The paramount role of the Paris region
A place of courtly ostentation, Paris was also one of fusion.(37) The social life of the salons was the principal occasion when the old and new nobilities would meet. Although the official salons of Cambacérès or Talleyrand for example were extensions of the court, sometimes with an even more rigid etiquette,(38) the private salons were more significant because they were free from all constraints. As of the end of Brumaire, the future Count Beugnot, who was an inimitable conversationalist of the most sparkling wit, was a frequent guest in the salons of Faubourg Saint-Germain and Saint Honoré. He charmed all of his hosts with his airy repartee, to such an extent that even Talleyrand sought his company.(39) In the Faubourg Saint-Germain (where else?), the salon of Constance de Salm, mother-in-law of Baron Louis-Bernard Francq, was one of the most reputed.(40) The frequentation of salons was an opportunity for military nobles (such as Louis-François Lejeune, friend of Alfred de Noailles, Edmond de Périgord and many others) to mingle with the ‘gilded youth’. However, imitating the luxury of wealthy society which one frequented often led to empty coffers, as Baron Lejeune discovered.(41) Nevertheless, as worthy members of the nobility, the imperial nobles accepted to abide by the rule in accordance with which the aristocracy set its expenditure according to its rank and not according to its income.(42)
The circle of friends and relations of the Haussonville family was the setting for an early fusion. Their salon on the Rue de la Ville-l’Evêque street was the “habitual meeting place for two societies from quite different backgrounds, somewhat astonished to find themselves together, whose political creeds were very different but for whom certain affinities in savoir-faire, manners and elegant taste made mixing easy, helped on as it was by the natural moderation and elegant graciousness of the masters of the household”.(43) The count’s former companions in emigration met Marshals and dignitaries of the Empire there, and the lady friends of the Countess, some previously ladies-in-waiting of the princesses of France, received the companions of the Empresses Josephine and Marie-Louise. The son of the Count remembered the harmonious atmosphere of this salon, saying “There was some, I know not what, indefinable element common to them (yet unbeknownst to them) which allowed these two opposing camps to come closer to each other in a much more relaxed manner than could be believed today”.(44) An identical atmosphere reigned in the salons in the rest of France, in Toulouse for example.(45) and Nancy.(46) The areas of social frequentation of the various nobilities at the dawn of the XIXth century were not places of competition, but rather places where common values manifested themselves, a fact which elquently testifies to the aptitude of the nobility of the Empire to make the nobiliary culture their own.
Empire nobles whose roots were in Paris enjoyed , moreover, an elegant lifestyle and setting, with many of them settled in the most stylish neighbourhoods of the capital, their favourite being the aristocratic Faubourg Saint-Germain – Marshal Oudinot and Count Rampon bought mansions there. Soult owned a property on Rue de l’Université,(47) Davout and Kellermann set up on Rue Saint-Dominique, and Ney, Masséna, Jourdan, Mortier, Fontanes, Nansouty and others set up home on the Rue de Lille.(48) As for those empire nobles who continued to live in the provinces, many of had their own manor house.(49) In this way, the Empire nobility displayed their membership of the nobiliary class, and by the choice of their residence, each member of the elite in fact reflected his or her social position by reinvesting his or her personality in a symbolic space,(50) a space in which the fusion of the elite groups was greatly facilitated.
III. Fusion of the competing elite groups of the XIXth century after 1815
Despite the fact that after the fall of Napoleon two-fifths of the imperial nobility was to lose its social position both being sent to the country and demoted, nevertheless three-fifths was to becme part of the world of the elite groups, mainly due to excellent marriages. Successful marriages created new men, and made founders or continuers of a dynasty of their descendants. Because of the fact that it was turned both towards the past, through its semi chivalric identity, and turned towards the future through its recent origins linked to the political regime which had, moreover, brought France into the modern era, the imperial nobility was by tradition open to all types of important people. It quickly entered into relations with the new post1815 elite groups, of which in part it was the source and to which it had contributed to embodying . The melting pot during the Empire became after 1815 a real social cross-roads where the imperial nobility met not only the nobles of the Ancien Regime but also the bourgeoisies and other notables of the XIXth century.
Alliances with the old nobility
While 7.6% of the nobles of the first generation had been integrated with the nobility of the Ancien Régime through marriage, 17.3% succeeded in doing so during the second generation and 27% during the third. It must be pointed out in this respect that marriages in the second order took place largely in the most prestigious categories. During the second generation, 67% of them married into in the traditional nobility and, during the third generation, this proportion was 70.7%. This reflected the gratitude of a prestigious nobility toward an imperial aristocracy which marked a return to the original characteristics of the quality of noble. Moreover, wishing to consolidate their legitimacy, the nobles of the Restoration were just as numerous as the members of the traditional nobility to marry into the imperial nobility. The nobles of Louis XVIIIth and Charles X thus deemed those of Napoleon capable of increasing their prestige, and, furthermore, the “noblesse d’apparence” sought alliances with those upon whom titles had been conferred by Napoleon as a means of demonstrating, or of finally accomplishing, its de facto but not de jure incorporation into the nobility. They found a sure source of fusion in marriages with the families of the Empire, all the more so as the imperial nobility itself had become fused with the oldest aristocracy. In the list of the family names of the wives of the imperial nobility, 436 of them come from the “noblesse d’apparence”:(51) they represent 8.8% of the wives of the second generation, and 10% of those of the third. This slight increase echoes that observed in marriages of the old second order, and it no doubt also reflects the growing prestige of the imperial nobility.
The fusion with the new elite groups
In the bourgeoisie, marriages largely directed towards officers, often reflecting a narrow professional endogamy. For example, when Marie-Louise-Zoé-Charlotte Pajol married René-Paul-Emmanuel Bocher, whe continued her family’s attachment to the army. This also applied to marriages among the prefectoral corps and in the magistrature. Thus, Adélaïde-Rosalie Mourre, daughter of a baron and public prosecutor in the appeal court, married a judge on the bench of the appeal court in Rouen. When, as a part of the bourgeoisie, the imperial nobility married outside categories which, like them, came from distinction in the service of the State, they sought the prestige of rich landowners. A good example would be Napoleon Pajol, who entered the Deschamps family with its great land possessions in the Paris region and in Normandy. Moreover, although businessmen were most often kept out of the imperial nobility, empire nobles for their part did not eschew the world of business. Not only did they enter it of their own free will, but they also married into it. The Laffitte(52) and Talabot(53) the Fould and the Heine(54) families married into the Ney, Clary, Masséna and Murat families. As for the second Duchess of Reggio, born Célina Minguet, her father came from the world of banking, and one of the daughters-in-law of Marshal Maison came from a family of rich Protestant bankers from Leipzig, the Lütteroth. Finally, cosmopolitanism was a feature of many marriages of the imperial nobility, since that nobility was quickly accepted by the foreign nobilities.
This fusion of the elite groups, which took place from the top down, fulfilled Napoleon’s desires to make of his nobility the melting pot where the old France would be reconciled with the new. Systematic endogamy only concerned a hard core, for the most part characterised by its fidelity to the Bonapartes. These empire nobles, by marrying into the old high nobility or into the distinguished rich bourgeoisie, preserved the identity of a nobility at the very top of the social hierarchy. The aristocracy thus created bears eloquent witness to the ability of the elite to renew itself and survive.