Postdoc project

Power Strategies in Marriage and Concubinage in French Court Society, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Pascal Firges

My present research project engages with “Power Strategies in Marriage and Concubinage in French Court Society (Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries)”. In this project I am analysing the specific role marriage and concubinage played in practices of power at the French court. How did these types of interpersonal relationships function at times when aristocrats were building their careers at court, or when they tried to gain wealth or influence? How did they impact on aristocratic families’ bids to improve their status and their political clout?

In early modern nobility, marriages were in the first place family alliances, concluded for the mutual benefit of two families or family branches. Therefore, marriage left little space for individual agency in choosing a spouse. This was quite different in extra-marital relationships, where it can be safely assumed that at least one of the persons involved had deliberately chosen to engage in the liaison. Thus, while marriage was a strategic alliance, concluded with the view of producing heirs, the raison d’être for concubinage lies mainly in the emotional inclinations of those involved.

However, only because the emotional aspects may have played a more important role in concubinage than in marriage, does this exclude strategic considerations and family politics? Concubinage in early modern court societies is hard to imagine without aristocratic families at least tolerating such adultery. But why would they tolerate what even the enlightened authors of the Encyclopédie considered “after homicide the most punishable of all crimes”?

The answers to such questions will contribute to a better understanding of the internal mechanisms of power in dynastic societies, as well as the interplay of politics and gender relations. There are few pre-modern social contexts in which the interactions of female and male agency become more evident than in the court societies of the ancien regime.