Lords and lordship in Languedoc (1400-1541)

  • Gert-Jan Van De Voorde

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


In recent years the debate on state formation has shifted to focus more on lordship. This new attention to lordship emerged as the discussion moved away from the hypothesis that the crown could only acquire power at the detriment of competing forces in France. In its stead, historians have proposed that France was a realm wherein power was polycentric, i.e., shared between the crown and other political actors, and based on extensive cooperation, even though conflict remained possible and common. To gain a better understanding of this polycentricity, historians such as Bisson, suggested the use of lordship. In this new scholarly tradition, lordship comes in two forms, the first is – in Bisson’s words – the “the exercise and sufferance of power”, and the second is the institutional container of lordship, which can be defined as the privately held claims to the management of public order, which in this dissertation I refer to as seigneurie. Despite these suggested definitions, lordship and seigneurie are protean terms that are difficult to define. Furthermore, recent research has shown that the crown and the royal administration often cooperated with the holders of lordship in extreme circumstances, such as seigneurial wars and noble feuds, to broker peace between parties. Nevertheless, the royal administration retained the ability to act forcefully.

In this dissertation I analyse these two key lines of inquiry for lay seigneuries in the seneschalsy of Toulouse in the fifteenth- and early-sixteenth century, which up to the present had not been subject to a survey analysis. First, it is necessary to analyse the local contemporary definitions of seigneurie. A survey of dénombrements (a document that outlined the rights, duties, and possessions a person held as a fief from the king) shows that lords and ladies stressed the strong association between seigneurie and the exercise of justice. Other terms, such as the directe (rights related to the possession of land), but also a small number of rents, were described as seigneurial rights and were associated with seigneurie to a considerably lesser extent. Nevertheless, both the possession of rights of justice and of a directe allowed a person to style themselves a lord or a lady.

This brings me to the second key line of inquiry. The understanding that France was a polycentric realm, begged the question of whether collaboration or conflict dominated the interactions between groups. Lords and ladies were powerful actors within their seigneurie. They could appoint and dismiss seigneurial officers, raise seigneurial dues, and as other scholars pointed out, use their courts to their own advantage. Their power was not, however, unchecked. Seigneuries were polycentric arenas in which other political actors, such as the seigneurial subjects had a powerful voice and could curb seigneurial whims. In the fifteenth- and early-sixteenth century a division of power within the seigneurie had taken form. Lords and ladies had to organise the court and the defence of the seigneurie, while the representatives of the seigneurial subjects (consuls) had to allocate the seigneurial resources to the benefit of the community. Lords and ladies and their consuls had to cooperate to ensure the proper functioning of the seigneurie.

When conflicts emerged between different actors within a seigneurie, the royal administration acted to broker peace between parties in a conflict. Research done by Firnhaber-Baker has shown that the royal administration did so in cases of seigneurial wars, and this dissertation shows that the royal administration, and specifically the Parlement of Toulouse (i.e., the supreme court of Languedoc), used a similar approach in more mundane or non-violent conflicts. Cooperation was deeply engrained in the functioning of the Parlement since its procedures often placed much of the initiative with the litigants. This allowed lords and ladies to benefit from sometimes intrusive royal procedures that allowed them to safeguard their positions in critical moments of seigneurial weakness. In turn, the cooperative interactions between the crown, on one side, and lords and ladies, on the other, show that they recognised each other as institutions and political actors that were legitimate.
Date of Award29 Nov 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorJustine Marie Firnhaber-Baker (Supervisor) & Frederik Buylaert (Supervisor)


  • Lordship
  • Mediaeval France
  • Fifteenth century
  • Sixteenth century
  • State formation
  • Dénombrements
  • Parlement of Toulouse
  • Sénéchaussée of Toulouse

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