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The nobility is a class of people that has special political and social status. Nobility is inherited or is granted by the king as a reward to persons who perform a heroic deed, achieve greatness in some endeavor, or hold a prominent government position.
French nobility has a well-defined order. The highest noblemen are peers [pairs], which include the titles (in descending rank) duke [duc], marquis, earl [comte], viscount [vicomte], and baron. This is followed by the gentry [petite noblesse], whose titles are knight [chevalier], esquire [écuyer], and gentleman [gentilhomme]. Both peers and gentry are entitled to coats of arms.
Most family traditions of a noble ancestor turn out, on investigation, to have little foundation in fact. Very few members of the noble class emigrated to the United States. In addition, contrary to prevailing opinion, it was not customary to disown members of noble families for unacceptable behavior. Thus, traditions of an ancestor's being "erased" or eliminated from "all records" are unfounded.
Illegitimate children, though not entitled to noble status, often were recorded (although the father may not have been named) and can be found in the records.
If your research in the original records of France indicates that your ancestor was of the noble class, additional records, such as those described below, will be helpful in your research.
Grants of nobility were documented. Because of frequent false claims to nobility, families had to legitimize (provide documentary proof of) their nobility. Grants of nobility and nobility legitimizations are kept at the National Archives, the National Library, Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, and departmental archives.
Although some original records (such as the grant of nobility) are still in existence, you can adequately accomplish most nobility research in secondary sources. These include published or manuscript genealogies of noble families. The noble class has been anxious to preserve its identity. This has lead to the publication of many noble lines of France. Hundreds of publications are available to help you trace a French noble family. Some of the most important are:
- Arnaud, Étienne. Répertoire de généalogies françaises imprimées. See the "Genealogy" section for a full citation.
- Saffroy, Gaston. Bibliographie généalogique héraldique et nobiliaire de la France des origines à nos jours, imprimés et manuscrits (Bibliography of genealogy, heraldry and nobility of France). Five Volumes. Paris, France: Saffroy, 1968-1988. (Family History Library book 944 D23s; not on microfilm.)