Office and officers under the Ancien Régime

The question ofoffice and officers is central in modern times. It is linked to the progress of the monarchical state, but engenders deep upheavals in French society from the 17th century by promoting the emergence of a very diverse group: that of officers, which can be found at all levels of society, from the nobility to the lower echelons.

The characteristics of the office

The office is a "dignity with public function" according to the definition made by Charles Loyseau in 1610. It is a part of the public service delegated by the king, who creates and distributes the offices. The owner of an office is only the usufructuary. An officer, in modern times, is therefore the holder of an office, that is to say a public office defined by an edict (which creates the office) and a letter of provision issued by the king. to perform the function.

Offices cover a wide spectrum of various functions in order to best administer the kingdom. There are thus offices of judicature, finance, linked to the Royal House, to Parliaments, in short: a diverse group which, moreover, does not necessarily confer the same dignity. Judicature offices have a greater prestige than those of finance. When they correspond to very high functions, offices can give access to the nobility.

The role of the office is to be seen in parallel with the development and modernization of the state, in which the king seeks to strengthen his hold over the territory. The monarchy then constitutes in office more and more public functions in a complex web, which gradually covers the whole kingdom, at all administrative levels. The officers were therefore the civil servants of the day, and with the progress of the state their number increased dramatically. From 4000 in 1515 to the advent of Francis 1er, they are more than 50,000 in 1771 under Louis XV.

This growth in the number of officers is also linked to another characteristic: the venality and inheritance of offices, an important dimension that gradually took hold in the 16th century. Thus in the 17th and 18th centuries, offices were made up of marketable and transferable charges. In effect, the officer who is appointed takes an oath and pays the fee for the gold mark. He then exercises a permanent function. Thus, even if it is the king who creates the office and distributes it, once he has granted it, the office becomes vacant only if its holder dies or if he resigns it, thus falling back into the 'royal purse. Thus the officer owns his office but the office he represents remains in the hands of the monarch. But gradually, the officers become irremovable. From the 17th century, at the beginning of each reign, all the officers are confirmed in their office, to which are attached fixed income (wages) or variable (spices).

In theory, the king grants offices free of charge. However, it was customary, from the early Middle Ages, for the beneficiary of an office to lend a certain sum to the sovereign, as a sign of recognition, the collateral received constituting the interest of the loan, which gradually led to the venality of the payments. offices. One becomes the owner of an office by paying the sum that corresponds to the finances of the office, considered as a perpetual loan to the monarchy. Thus, more and more the king sells offices to individuals, and a specific trade is set up between individuals. To collect subsidies on this market, the monarchy established in 1522 the Bureau des Parties Casuelles.

Thus, the venality of offices transforms the office into a patrimonial asset, which leads to the problem of the transmission of the office to its descendants. The transmission of the office to a person is possible and accepted by the monarchy. Generally, this resignation is made for the benefit of the son or a person of the officer's family in order to keep the office in the fold of the family patrimony. Theoretically free, the resignation is subject to the 40-day clause, that is to say that a 40-day survival period of the resigning one is necessary for the transmission to be valid. Otherwise the office returns to the hands of the king, without the family recovering the sum paid when purchasing the office. The king therefore has every interest, for financial reasons, in the 40-day clause not coming to an end, which leads to numerous disputes, some families sometimes concealing deaths ...

Under Henri IV in 1604, by the edict of La Paulette (by Charles Paulet), the offices became hereditary. By paying an annual fee of 1/60 of the value of the office, its holder can transfer his office without the 40 days clause intervening. From now on, the offices are venal and hereditary, and the consequences are multiple.

Developments in the 17th and 18th century

La Paulette is a great success. Offices are multiplying to meet the administrative needs of the kingdom, but also because they represent a significant fiscal windfall, allowing significant funds to be channeled into the kingdom's coffers: approximately 45% of tax revenue between 1600 and 1633. This policy is a good expedient during times of crisis or war. Thus the king multiplies and duplicates the offices: the holders of already existing offices buy back those created in order to avoid sharing their office and maintain their position. The king takes advantage of the annual renewal to impose an increase in wages, forcing the officer to pay an additional sum to collect these wages. The creation of offices is progressing well and the authorities are showing their imagination: for example, offices are created for binder-baler of hay, inspector-visitor of butters, cheeses and beers entering Paris. The financial dimension of the offices is all the more important as they often come with privileges. Thus the establishment of the Paulette involves a significant increase in the prices of offices, generally they are multiplied by 5 between the end of the XVIth century and 1635. A strong speculation is set up, and the State lets do because it finds its account there. . It was not until 1665 that Colbert put an end to it and set ceiling prices.

The diversity of offices and their value leads to an attachment of officers to their offices, who are keen to preserve their capital, income, privileges, prestige and the prerogatives associated with them, readily assimilating them to the defense of the general interest. . This allows the king to play on the will for social advancement of officers who want to distinguish themselves, a sign of an effective social dynamic. But the king wishes to have servants under his direct control: he surrounds himself with commissioners, whom he appoints and can dismiss when he sees fit, in order to counterbalance the independence of the officers. There he benefits from zealous servants because in a precarious situation: their maintenance depends only on the royal will. Hence numerous conflicts of precedence and permanent tensions between commissioners and officers.

In the 18th century, the number of offices continued to increase, while a significant drop in prices began. Local strategies are being put in place to limit the arrival of new officers. Some provinces buy new boards to avoid depreciation of existing ones. In reality, the office is less and less attractive because of the low wages and spices that accompany it. The sums invested are hardly amortized, especially as the Paulette is heavy and is calculated on the official price and not on the real price. There are therefore charges that remain vacant, not finding a taker. The group of officers tends to close in order to avoid the arrival of new people to take advantage of the drop in the prices of offices, which are now within their reach.

Nevertheless, the office market remains abundant and corresponds to the needs of the kingdom. Prices range from a few thousand pounds for a modest charge, to a million for prestigious charges. Offices always enjoy great prestige, all the more so as certain offices allow rapid access to the nobility, such as the office of Advisor secretary to the king, nicknamed "the soap bar" because it allows you to get rid of his common age in a generation.


At the base, we find the mass of small subordinate officers, carrying out duties corresponding to the multitude of small trades of France of the Ancien Régime, which constitute the administrative framework of the kingdom and founds the preponderance of the small local notability. These offices, despite the low income they provide, often remain for several generations in the same family. They allow the holder to be removed from anonymity and sometimes serve as a starting point for another career.

At the top, we find the small world of the high robe of those who hold the higher offices of judicature, ennobling in one or two generations, enjoying great prestige. Finance charges are less well considered and ennoble more slowly. About ten cities ennobled their aldermen (more or less equivalent to our current municipal council) as in Paris, Toulouse, Tours, Angers… This led to the emergence of a parliamentary nobility who carried out his career according to an “honorum curriculum” at well organized setting but which may vary from one city to another. In addition to the rights to be paid, there are age limits on certain functions. Theoretically, foreigners are not admitted, but some cities like Rouen accept 50%. You have to have a good life and good morals, but there are many exemptions.

In the middle, there are the "average" officers, very numerous, who occupy median positions in the offices of finance, the salt granaries, the bailiwick and seneschals, in the cities without parliament. They are not noble and their offices do not ennoble. They are found in the urban and provincial elite, who are taking advantage of the drop in charge prices to enter the world of offices. It is therefore a relatively new group, relying on its skills to forge an identity of its own by enhancing their provincial roots, often building up small fortunes throughout a working life.


- Dictionary of the Ancien Régime by Lucien Belly. Puf, 2009.

- The France of the Renaissance by Arlette Jouanna. Tempus, 2009.

- Absolutism and Enlightenment by Joël Cornette. Superior hatchet, 2008.

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