From the Chancellor of France to an unknown clerk in the Parlement of Paris: an exploration in the judicial world of modern France

Cet article est la publication d’une conférence donnée au séminaire “European History. XVIth-XVIIIth century” du Birkbeck College de l’Université de Londres, le 26 octobre dernier, à l’invitation du Professeur Julian Swann.

“From the chancellor of France to an unknown clerk in the Parlement of Paris”: today, I shall talk about the topic for which I dedicated all my professional life. It means about the Parlement of Paris as an exploration in the judicial world of modern France. I know that some of you are very aware about the Parlements of France, so I shall quickly say one or two things about it by way of introduction.

In royal France, Parlement is not parliament. This institution is plural, not singular: there were parlements, in Paris and in several cities of provincial countries. You certainly identify the Parlement de Paris as the main court of law of the French kingdom. Among all other royal institutions, this is the longest serving one, from saint Louis, about 1250, to the Revolution in 1790. Consequently, it let us the largest archives in France, and possibly in the world.

Court of law indeed, but its role, in fact, is really complex, not only judicial, but also administrative and political role. Its primary function was to provide civil and criminal justice in appeal, but also it was a court of first instance for the peers and for all those who had got this privilege. Parlement had also an administrative role, keeping order in the markets, being watchful of prisons, books, public health and morality… Finally, it retains the political role of advising the king, especially when he suffered from difficulties, by way of the “remontrances“, bargaining the registration of ordinances, edicts and royal letters.

I approached Parlement and became more interested in it first through a man, a person itself. It means I belong to the present generation of French historians who approach this institution not first through its formal structures, but by preference through its officers, staff and workers1, archives2 and proceedings, mind and ideas3. We attempt to understand Parlement not only through its collective speech, but also through its private political culture. I am a pupil of late Roland Mousnier, preferably by the intermediary of my PhD supervisor (Jean de Viguerie) and, above all, my husband (Jean-Pierre Brancourt) who has kept on the papers of Mousnier’s seminar during the 1960’s. I think I am amongst the eldest of this new generation who was interested in a biographical approach of the Parlement4.

Given that it is such a wide topic and as most of you are really erudite about the Parlement, I will only focus on my own experience in its amazing archives, pointing three stages of my research work:

  1. fist: I met Henri François d’Aguesseau, Chancellor of France under Louis XV.
  2. secondly, coming to Jean Le Boindre, a rare and talkative witness of the parliamentary Fronde, I accessed, at the same time, the papers of the public prosecutor’s department of the Parlement in modern archives.
  3. Finally, I came to the transfers of the Parlement called, in French, “translations“, where the clerk Jean-Gilbert Delisle drove me.

It will be the three parts of my lecture. After that, I would be more than glad to answer questions. 

I – Let’s start with the First point: D’Aguesseau

I worked on this topic from 1980 to 1992 preparing my “Doctorat” (Ph D). Henri-François d’Aguesseau was born in 1668, in Limoges where his father was an “intendant“. He died on 9th February 1751, retired from November 1750. So we can say that he is one of the best examples of the transition from the reign of Louis XIV to the reign of Louis XV, from Colbert to the Enlyghtment (J.-L. Chartier). My purpose was a biographical study of d’Aguesseau. As I was obviously inexperienced, I focused on the printed writings of d’Aguesseau to shed new light on his political ideas, supplemented with analyzing his manuscript papers at the Bibliothèque nationale de France and his patrimonial archives at the Minutier central of the Archives nationales de France. Actually, there is neither a private collection of the d’Aguesseau’s family archives (as d’Argenson’s or Malesherbes’s families have); nor a public collection of the work of the Chancellery of France. The difficult part of my topic was to find original manuscript papers (not second-hand papers), because they are scattered in many collections of letters and correspondences. For example, some are with the general controller of Finances, others with the Chancellor, others with public prosecutors, others with magistrates of the Parlements, and so on). Finally I tried to digest the previous historiography and to think again d’Aguesseau’s career and thought compared, on the one hand, with the witnesses of that period and, on the other hand, with new interpretations about the French Monarchy.

Nevertheless, as Professor Rogister told me, it was before “the English historical revolution” of 1995 (!); that means before knowing the “revisionism” broadcasted in many important English and American research work (I suppose you know many of them, as Doyle, Baker, Mettam, Hamsher…). Important revision indeed of the main historical conclusions of the classic bibliography about Ancient regime monarchy, about the collapse of 1789 and about the French Revolution.

Yet, my book, printed out in 1996, displays some information which was fortunately approved of. I indeed argue that:

  1. first, Henri François d’Aguesseau is an example of the Parliament’s society;
  2. secondly, he has a symbolic and exemplary career;
  3. thirdly, he is a prototype of the thought of the Parliament’s members, of the growth and triumph of a parliamentary « ideology ».

This last point now begs many questions. Is there or not one parliamentary “ideology”? Does its problematic existence explain the conflict between the Crown and the Parlement? It remains in debate. At all events, in the d’Aguesseau’s political thought, main components of what we call parliamentary « forma mentis » (Di Donato) might be found: I mean

  1. the absolute priority of this eminent institution in the French kingdom: Parlement first!
  2. then, the very strong collective consciousness which binds the magistrates;
  3. next, a liberal conception of the political foundations associated with a heavy conservatism for the institutional forms. “Monarchiste et libéral” : Monarchist and liberal, the best servant of the king, but convinced by liberty, equality and fraternity, searching “the spirit of the law” to reform the kingdom. All these expressions are in his writings.
  4. at last, I saw the heavy weight of Jansenism in politics, in the conception of the law, in connecting political and State reason with morality and ethics. I claim D’Aguesseau, in many aspects, is one of the precursors of Christian Democracy, but a very timid, paradoxical and uncertain pioneer.

Above all, as I studied d’Aguesseau, I realized that, as Peter Campbell wrote, “the French parlements were not simply a potential source of opposition”. D’Aguesseau indeed was, by his complete career, on both sides, first on the side of Parlement and officers, then on the side of the ministry and the king. Therefore, the conflict between the first one and the government could not be a result of a simple and dualistic war of opposed “ideologies”. The parliamentary thought is a legal system, founded on the modern concepts of sovereignty and State. I even argue it is one of the most important components of the growth of what is called “Monarchie absolue”: the royal ministry, populated with magistrates and lawyers much more before Louis XIV yet, could seize this line of argument, this reasoning, founded on the principle of sovereignty, much more efficiently than the Parlement. In the eighteenth century, the Monarchy rose itself as a proto-constitutional system in which King and State were mixed up, were confused. Not the king in person, of course, but a powerful abstract person who could be epitomized in the Parlement as well as in the king’s council. Then, the dialogue between the Crown and the Parlement became a “dialogue de sourds“, a voiceless exchange. It is the reason why I think that d’Aguesseau’s thought leaves, at the moment, the royal government defenseless. That is, also, the reason why D’Aguesseau was the political hero of the Restoration times which are a period of legal composition (“compromis“).

I remember Professor Orest Ranum asked me, in 1998, why I had not used English and American historiography in my “D’Aguesseau“, if it was a “parti-pris franco-français“! Of course I answered it was not, I just could not read well enough in English! At all events, he entrusted me to continue editing The debates of the Parlement de Paris under the Minority of Louis XIV, a document that his wife, himself and Robert Descimon had just finished editing the first book. I was highly surprised, but, of course, I foolishly accepted! Shortly afterwards, I started reading in English (Lloyd Moote, Albert Hamsher…)!

II – Let‘s move on to the second point, Jean Le Boindre and my immersion in the world of Archives

From 1998 to 2002, I faced two major tasks abreast: Jean Le Boindre and, as I joined the CNRS as a researcher, the public collection of the papers of the public prosecutor’s department we used to call “le Parquet“.

The first one, Jean Le Boindre, in 1648, was a young counselor of one of the chambers of Enquêtes. Despite the fact that breaking the secret of the deliberations was purely forbidden, he noted down all he could from speeches and acts of the magistracy. He turned himself as a “penholder magistrate” of the court (R. Descimon), as the “embodied verb of the Parlement” (O. Ranum). For the first time, he gave us a vivid picture of the court. The first part, by Ranum et Descimon, had been a strange experience of identifying an anonymous copy conserved at the French national Archives, quoted U 336, when compared to it with the manuscript Egerton 1681 and 1682 at the British Library. This manuscript U 336 stops in April 1649. The copy of the British Library gives the opportunity to complete Le Boindre’s diary from 2nd December 1650 to 13th November 1652, and up to the end of the Fronde. My transcription and comment of this last manuscript led me to identify another copy, that’s one of the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, quoted 3883. Finally, Le Boindre’s memoirs is not an ordinary diary, it is what we call “sténotypie“, or “procès verbal” of the debates of the Parlement.

So, The Debates of the Parlement under the Minority obviously brought to the fore:

  1. first, the weight of rhetoric in the magistrates’ mind and working. In Le Boindre, a “nice action”, not at all is action, neither “lawsuit”, but only a nice speech! Only words…
  2. secondly, the vast number of dividing factors inside the Parlement.
  3. finally, the major role of strong leading personalities, linked with outside political influences or factions: for example, Fouquet with Mazarin, Presidents Le Coigneux or Novion, or other one, with Duke Gaston d’Orléans or the Princes. Actually, for lack of a strong ideological opposing system, the Parlement was the victim of an illusion: being the spinal column of the State, of a royal legal State. Basically, in 1652, the magistracy’s enemy was Mazarin, as a foreigner, ignorant and unaware of the French political customs.

I cannot list the entire richness of this document. But I propound it is an exceptional and great source. I was introduced in the real way of working, proceeding, and thinking in the court of law.

At the same time, I discovered the papers of the public prosecutor. What does it mean? I talk about two collections of archives. The first one is composed of a one-hundred-and-eighty-four-register set for the prosecutor’s conclusions in trials; the second one is made of five boxes of drafts of civil and criminal conclusions and ten boxes with minutes of requests. Analyzing these papers allowed me to work on this central judicial department. Most of the time, requests and conclusions were drafted by unknown magistrates, or not so well known of, to say the least: I point at the “substituts du Procureur général“, the deputy public prosecutors. They were about 19 officers in the “Parquet” of the Parlement de Paris. So I participated in the Histoire du parquet directed by Professor Carbasse. This experience is, I think, the first investigation in this field. It gave me the opportunity of my first immersion into the astounding public archives of the Parlement: you certainly know we have a big problem with them, a problem of methodology and a problem of localization of documents. It is very difficult to deal with that, just to read because of the problem of ancient handwritings (paleography). You probably know that the entire collection includes more than 25,600 “articles” (registers and boxes of minutes in the X series), covering mostly the three modern centuries. In order to join the CNRS by competing, in 2000, I offered to “domesticate” this huge collection, to tame this giant, getting into by the shortest but consistent set of the public prosecutor to explore the real proceedings of the court. The aim is to give a method to examine, to interrogate the modern public archives of the Parlement, a way to find information in such a bulk of records. I have proposed to build a data base. Easier said than done! Hence, in 2000, I won the job!

Pacing up and down and running in and out from Le Boindre to the public prosecutor’s department, I realized I could also use a small collection, quoted U, to enter the X series of the French national Archives. Only a bit more than 3,000 “articles“! And not only copies but two main documents: Jean Le Nain’s collection and, less-known, Delisle’s collection.

III – At last, I just come now to the transportations of the Parlement, which is the topic of my main and last work

Jean-Gilbert Delisle drove me to it. Who is he? He is an unknown secretary, a “commis“, of the chief civil clerk of the court. I discovered him such as a real ghost of the past of the Clerk Office, never visible, but always present and actively involved in the daily life of the court of law, serving his master and lord. His master was Nicolas Dongois, chief civil registrar of the Parlement, then his grandson Roger-François Gilbert de Voisins; Delisle served them from about 1688 to the 1740’s.

Nobody mentions him, nobody knows him. But he was the king-bolt, the mainspring, of the Clerk Office for about 50 years, and now, for us, the keyword of the parliamentary judicial work. The main document he made up is a collection of sixty-seven books gathering different manuscript papers with printed papers: rough drafts of minutes and copies of judgments, lists of the court, printed decisions, but also, many folios inserted where he drafted on his diary, with all news he could catch and hear.

So, Delisle provided me with the following:

  1. first, he brought me a topic;
  2. secondly, he taught me a method;
  3. thirdly, he gave me plenty of information;
  4. finally, he taught me a political lesson.

A topic:

Amongst Delisle’s papers, one of the books, quoted Arch. nat. U 747, was entirely dedicated to the:

[f° 1]

Journal du Parlement séant à Pontoise depuis le 21 Juillet 1720 jusqu’au

11e novembre qu’il a esté tranféré à Blois

Par moy Jean Gilbert Delisle, commis de Monsieur Gilbert, greffier en

chef du Parlement, et l’un des commis au greffe…

[signed] Delisle

Then, I could make a connection with another manuscript U 746, entitled:

Registre contenant tout ce qui s’est fait et passé au Parlement tenu à Pontoise commançant le sixiesme aoust mil six cens cinquante deux et finissant le dix neufvisesme Octobre audit an.

It reminded me of Le Boindre’s memoirs. Yet, I got involved in a very exciting research work about the transportations of the Parlement while I realized the field was purely untouched.

A method:

Comparing to Delisle’s Journal du Parlement with the contents of the registers and minutes in the X series, Delisle emphasizes the work of the judges: places and scenes, schedule, words, proceedings, deliberations, votes… He becomes, for the historians, eyes and ears of the Parlement, an opened window into the Palais de Justice, a key to its public archives.

A profuse source of information:

Delisle, as Le Boindre, is peculiarly talkative; he turned himself into an exceptional witness of his time: news in brief, weather, weddings and births of princes, royal wealth, music, liturgy, ceremonial, and so on. Everything holds his attention and deserves his quill pen. His diary is, for example, a wonderful weather report.

A political and historical lesson:

I have been working for four years to write a book along with colleagues, Sylvie Daubresse and Monique Bonnet.

Nine episodes of transportation of the Parlement have been highlighted: the transfers to Poitiers, in 1418-1436, to Vendôme in 1458, to Noyon (1477), to Tours in 1589-1594, to Montargis (1649), to Pontoise (1652), then to Pontoise again in 1720 and 1753, and eventually to Troyes in 17875.

First I analyzed the nature and typology of these transportations, studying the terms of the royal letters, and using some volumes of the Table of Le Nain. Then I selected two judicial transfers, to Vendôme and Noyon : the reason was the trials of Dukes and peers d’Alençon and Nemours. At last, two CNRS engineers of my lab were in charge of the tranfers to Poitiers and to Tours as they were analyzing the registers of the Parlement for that period of time. I focused my personal work on the transportations under the Fronde and in the eighteenth-century France. Five episodes prove that it could be detected as a political evolution of the means of the transportations, from “solution” to “punition“, “solution” to “punishment”. It appears that transportation was first a great way of building up modern royal State, initiated by magistrates and lawyers, in context with the civil war, the king summoning the Parlement to him while he was prevented to be in Paris. It was the way to safeguard the essential link between king and justice, precisely the link that was founding the royal power. But during the Fronde, the transfer turned itself into punishment when the government of the Regent Mother sent the Parlement to Montargis, in January 1649, while the young king could really not be there. The Parlement did not obey. Of course, in 1652, Louis XIV was in Pontoise when he called the Parlement toward him, producing a schism among the magistracy. But, in the depths, the thirty-one officers who dispensed justice in Pontoise during summer 1652, would not believe in that fiction any more. At all events, in 1720, 1753 and 1787, in true civil peacetime, the transfer was only decided to put pressure onto the Parlement. But, then, the king sent off the court far away from him. Henceforth it was an exile. The Parlement reacts, answers back, first by a formal submission in 1720, then by insubordination and strike, after 1753. Politically, it means that the union between the king and the State was now a problem or, to say the least, it did not use Justice and the Parlement as a necessary link any more.

This topic brought me back to the question of parliamentary ideology. From one episode to another, I realized that the variances within the magistracy could not be the result of different thoughts. On the contrary, they all shared the same idea. On the other hand, an increasing number of presidents and counselors were involved in factions which divided the king circle court. This phenomenon reached its peak in 1770-1771, as Julian Swann notes about the Brittany Affair, especially about Chancellor de Maupeou. The climate of the court, at Versailles, highly affected the issue and the outcome of the conflicts between the Crown and the Parlement. In the depths, in using argument for the “Ancienne constitution du royaume“, the royal government prevailed the Parlement in 1766-1771. From now on, I am afraid the dialogue between the king and the Parlement could only come to nonsense. The transfer of 1787 reveals this complete lack of understanding.

1 Cf., especially, for modern Times only, Robert Descimon.

2 Cf. Françoise Hildesheimer, « Exemplaire Parlement », dans la revue Synthèse, 2004.

3 Cf. Alain-J. Lemaître, Frédéric Bidouze, Caroline Le Mao, Marie Houllemare, Sylvie Daubresse, Lauriane Kadlec…

4 Cf., for example, Olivier Chaline, Olivier Poncet, Gauthier Aubert.

5 I also analysed the transportations to Versailles in 1770 after editing the book. Cf. Parlement de Paris. XVIe-XVIIIe siècles, in this “Carnet de recherche”, 13th March 2009.

Isabelle Brancourt

Agrégée d'Histoire (1986), docteur de l'Université de Lille (1992), HDR (2005). Professeur dans l'enseignement secondaire de 1982 à 1991; PRAG puis maître de conférences à l'Université d'Artois de 1992 à 2000 ; chargée de recherche au CNRS depuis 2000, aujourd'hui à IHD-Jean Gaudemet (Université Paris 2-Panthéon-Assas - CNRS), en partenariat avec l'IHRIM (ENS Lyon - CNRS) pour le séminaire "Parlement(s), lui-même soutenu par le LabEx COMOD depuis 2012.

More Posts