Historians have long debated the idea that an aristocratic crisis occurred in France during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The traditional view of the period has been that the established nobility, the noblesse d'epee, found itself dispossessed by the most successful members of the middle class, who were slowly emerging as a separate and powerful bureaucratic nobility, the noblesse de robe. Confident that a broad functional division separated these two groups, advocates of this view have maintained that differing patterns of wealth, marriage, and education further widened the gap between the old nobility and the new. According to these historians, the alleged decline of the old aristocracy permitted the expansion of royal authority with little effective opposition.
Donna Bohanan is one of an increasing number of scholars who challenge this theory. She maintains that the traditional interpretation, in concentrating on the nobility of northern France, has failed to take regional differences into account. In her convincing and clearly argued study of the nobility of seventeenth-century Aix-en-Provence, Bohanan shows that the established nobility was not displaced by the new aristocracy but rather was rejuvenated by the influx of new blood, new talents, and new money. This occurred chiefly, she claims, because the noble families of southern France, both old and new, lived mainly in urban settings, from which they were able and accustomed to exert influence in a number of areas: provincial politics, royal government, municipal life, and the local economy. Bohanan argues that the continued use of Roman law, the survival of large tracts of allodial property, and the imperfect development of vassalage further helped to set the Midi and its elites apart from the remainder of the kingdom. She asserts that such regional diversity was intrinsic to France in the early modern period and inevitably affected the strength of provincial nobilities. For the purposes of her study, Bohanan analyzes in extensive detail the lives of five noble Aixois families--two representing the old aristocracy and three representing the new. She finds that in many ways--the acquisition of wealth, marriage and inheritance patterns, educational achievement, and civic responsibility--the old and new nobility acted in concordance with each other. In the final analysis it was the ability to adapt to changing circumstances that underlay the assimilation of both old and new families and permitted the resulting elite to maintain power in both a local and a regional context. Bohanan's work, which draws heavily on quantitative analysis, makes a significant contribution to the ongoing scholarly debate on the early modern French nobility.