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Élites et pouvoirs : enjeux politiques

Les conflits des élites locales dans la France moderne : le cas breton

James Collins


French local elites, like those elsewhere in early-modem Europe, had to accommodate themselves to the power of the central state. In Brittany, elites used a representative assembly to share the control of their political society. The French urban elite chose an alliance with the prince, within the royal administration ; the Breton one, like those in most of Europe, preferred to use an assembly to ally with the nobility. As the evolution of the political system of Nantes suggests, the king preferred an alliance with his officers in troubled times, but left control to other elites (in Nantes, the merchants) in quieter ones. At the Estates of Brittany, even though the middling nobility viewed the aristocrats, including the king, as the natural heads of their order, there remained a tension between the gentry and the grands. The Breton nobility thus developed a State that greatly resembled Poland-Lithuania : a sort of noble utopia where the Estates kept the right to vote taxesandlocal courts maintained customary law. In this noble paradise, lords controlled their peasants subjects and a noble militia kept order in the countryside. Brittany provides a fine example of the role played by so-called noble institutions, such as the Estates and Parlement of Brittany, in the creation of a nation of citizens. Nobles always insisted that citizens had the right to participate in the political system. Their definition of a citizen differed from ours, and from that of the men of 1789, but one cannot belittle the survival of the principle itself. The Bretons never forgot this principle : in 1788-89, the Third Estate of Brittany did not demand a new principle, the rights of the citizen, but a change in the definition of the word citizen, an unexpected, and perhaps surprising heritage of the conflicts among 16th — and 17th — century Breton elites.

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Electronic reference

James Collins, « Les conflits des élites locales dans la France moderne : le cas breton », Cahiers d'histoire [Online], 45-4 | 2000, Online since , connection on 22 September 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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James Collins

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