During July 2002 a Friends of the Library Fellowship allowed me to reside in Princeton and
consult some hard-to-find early modern French legal treatises (coutumes) necessary for
contextualizing my work on the Provençal Procès des Tailles. The Procès was a 250-year long
(1547-1789) legal battle waged by the Third Estate of Provence first to limit and then to abolish
the feudal nobility's tax exemptions. Since tax exemptions in Provence were assigned to
specific parcels of land, known as noble land, rather than to individuals who possessed juridical
noble status, the struggle pivoted on a series of fundamental questions about property. Which
lands were noble (and, hence, tax exempt) and which were taxable? How could land acquire
noble status? How could it lose its noble status and become liable to royal taxation? Could
anyone, regardless of social status, possess a parcel of noble land nobly? On these now-archaic
points of early modern Provençal property and tax law hinged the supremely divisive institution
of noble tax exemption and the outcome of the bitter struggle for political power and social
preeminence between the commoners and nobility.
During research in Provence (mainly Aix-en-Provence and Marseille) and Paris in 1996-97,
1999, and 2001, I had pieced together the legal rationale of noble property's tax fiscal immunity
in Provence and discovered to my surprise that it was unique in France. Unlike the other
provinces where noble tax exemption was contingent on the status of property rather than
persons, in Provence the tax-exempt status of noble property was dependent upon feudal tenure.
In other words, whereas in Languedoc or Dauphiné anyone could possess noble land nobly and
with its exemption intact, in Provence only noble land held by a lord in feudal tenure enjoyed tax
exemption. Noble land there which fell into the hands of a non-lord immediately saw its tax
exemption extinguished. Within this uniquely Provençal system of noble tax exemption, issues
of royal finances, provincial legal and institutional autonomy, feudalism, and property law
intersected in especially revealing and combustible ways.
Convinced that the legal systems of the various French provinces differed from each other so
sharply that it would be impossible to draw global conclusions from my provincial case study, I
determined that it was necessary to survey the legal framework of noble tax exemption in the
other provinces of France. My working hypothesis was that even seemingly minor differences in
points of feudal law, property law, tax law, and administrative structures could produce radical
differences in the configuration of local political and social struggle from province to province.
To replicate the archival research I conducted for Provence in the forty other historical provinces
of early modern France, however, would take a lifetime. Nor would it be possible to rely on
secondary works because no one had ever before examined the juridical definition of noble tax
exemption. Fortunately, the resources of the Firestone Library offered a feasible way of
situating my Provencal findings in a broader, national context. By analyzing the published
coutumes of other French provinces held there, I was able to get a sense of the juridical
framework of taxation that existed in other parts of France.
The results of my survey confirmed my initial hypothesis. Old Regime France was a legal
patchwork quilt: no two provinces of France were exactly alike and, indeed, many were radically
different from one another. Nonetheless, this comparison allowed me to formulate several
general conclusions about taxation, social conflict, and state building in absolutist France.
Specifically, I was able to sketch a new model of the extension of royal power into the peripheral
provinces, a model that reverses the basic causal model that predominates in historical and
sociological works on state formation. Also, I was able to advance a hypothesis about which
broad types of fiscal-legal systems were most likely to foment social conflict in early modern
France. I presented these findings in mid-November 2002 at the National Humanities Center at a
conference on the French nobility in the eighteenth century. They will be published shortly by
the Penn State University Press in the volume that will issue from this meeting of specialists.