A resilient elite. Survival and decadence

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The French nobility offers the peculiar case of a category that in a very short period of time went from the envied position of unquestioned natural elite of the kingdom to complete political irrelevance, passing through outright detestation during the Revolution. The Revolution destroyed the political power of the nobility but it can hardly be argued that it destroyed the nobility itself. In fact, the French nobility managed to survive as a separate and significant category in French society. Even in the absence of actual political control, elements specific to the nobility remained strongly associated with the notion of elite in every regime that followed the Revolution. This paper reviews the status of the nobility before, during, and after the Revolution. It argues that, paradoxically, the nobility owes its survival in large part to a reconstructed mystique which grew more attractive as the aristocracy was losing its actual political power. Finally, images of profligacy and decadence, very popular in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, preserved the exceptionality of the French nobility which thus presents to the historian the case of a remarkably resilient elite.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)286-297
Number of pages12
JournalScandinavian Journal of History
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Sep 1 2005


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