To get on in ancien régime France, it helped to be a noble. The king’s courtiers were noble, as were his ministers, the intendants who governed the provinces in his name and the magistrates who staffed the parlements where laws were registered and justice was dispensed. So too were the top ranks of the army, clergy and the government bureaucracy. But the door was not closed to those who had sufficient funds. Ennobling offices could be bought which, if they stayed in the family for a couple of generations, endowed a hereditary title.
Over the course of the eighteenth century, however, the main ideological defences of nobility increasingly failed to convince. Nobles supposedly deserved their standing (and tax exemptions) because of their military service, but the majority of them never fought in battle. The pre-eminent political theorist of the age, Montesquieu,