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France: Traditional provinces

Last modified: 2004-12-22 by ivan sache
Keywords: france | province | apanage |
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The formation of the French provinces


The administrative divisions of France are based on the system set up by the Romans after the colonization of Gaul. The system was maintained by the ecclesiastic authorities after the adoption of Christian religion, the dioceses matching more or less the Roman divisions.
When the power of the Carolingian kings started to decrease, the challengers of the royal power set up de facto independent feudal states, also based on the former administrative divisions.
Progressively, those feudal states were merged into larger ones, which were eventually incorporated to the kingdom of France as gouvernements, or military provinces.

The administrative system of the Ancient Regime was abolished during the Revolution, but strongly influenced the new administrative system based on the departments.

Ivan Sache, 19 July 2003

The Roman administrative system

Pagus was the Latin name for a small territorial subdivision, more or less equivalent to a modern canton. This word gave in French pays (country), paysan (farmer, through paganus), paysage (landscape) and païen (pagan, also through paganus). The word pays is ambiguous in modern French, because it is used to designate a whole country (France), a regional area (Pays de Retz), and even, especially in the countryside, a city or a village! Colloquially, two people from the same village may say: nous sommes pays (we are [from the same] pays).

The Roman civitas (administrative division centered around a city) was divided in pagi, which included vici (rural centers), and villae (estates). This system was progressively applied to the whole of Gaul and is the orgin of the modern pays, cités, villes and villages.

Ivan Sache, 19 July 2003

The Frankish administrative system: Counties and duchies

In the Merovingian times, a comté (county) matched a former Roman civitas. The county was divided in pagi, and the name of pagus was often used to designate the county (example: Aunis, pagus Alienensis). There were about 120 counties in the Merovingian times, which divided under the Carolingians and reached the number of 800.
Originally, a count was appointed by the king and his position was not hereditary. The feudal system transformed the count position into an hereditary title. Following several creations and usurpations of titles, the feudal counties did not match anymore the Roman civitates. In the north, the largest counties were divided into bailliages and prévôtés; in the south they were divided into sénéchaussées and vigueries.

Under the Ancient Regime, the counties progressively lose their administrative role and remained domains associated to the title of comte. In the Roman times, the title of comes (fellow) progressively increased in importance, and Constantine established a hierarchy of comites primi, secundi and tertii ordinis (counts of first, second and third order).
In the lower Middle-Ages, the counts were members of the royal court ruling cities, whose territory became counties. The count was the king's personal representative and had full powers (military, political, financial and legal). The Carolingians strengthened the role of the counts. In the feudal system, the counts became vassals and no longer civil servants and the charge was hereditary. The restoration of the royal power under the first great Capetian kings was made against the counts, who lost most of their privileges (right of justice, mint, war).

In the Vth century, a dux (chief) was the military commander of Roman troops stationed in a province. According to the Notitia dignitatum, there were 13 duces in the Eastern Empire and 12 in the Western Empire. Justinian reestablished duces in Italy and Africa, and added civil powers to their duty.
The Germans kept the title of duc, similar to the Herzog (military chief). Until the XIIth century, the difference between a duke and a count was not clear. In the XVIth century, duke was the highest title in the feudal hierarchy. By decreees (1562, 1566), Charles IX prohibited the creation of new titles of duke. Under the absolute monarchy, the title of duke (duc à brevet) was purely honorific, a duke being called cousin by the king.

In the Xth century, France had three big duchies: France, Bourgogne and Aquitaine. When Hugues Capet was crowned, the title of Duke of France disappeared, but the count of Normandy and the count of Rennes took the title of Duke of Normandy and Duke of Brittany, respectively. In the XIVth century was created the duchy of Bourbon and the system of the apanage was set up.

Ivan Sache, 25 May 2003

The provinces in the Ancient Regime

In 1789, there were indeed three kinds of administrative divisions in the Kingdom of France:

  • The dioceses were ecclesiastic divisions, which dated back to the Roman times. Roman Catholicism was the official religion of France, which was known as "The Church's Elder Daughter" (La Fille Aînée de l'Eglise), following king Louis XIII's vow.
  • The provinces were military governments (gouvernements), mostly established in the XIVth century. There were 32 greater governments (grands grouvernements) and 7 lesser ones (petits grouvernements) enclaved into the greater ones. Earlier (XIIIth century) and smaller feudal divisions remained as subdivisions of the governments. They were called bailliages (bailiwicks) in the north of France, sénéchaussées in the south-west, and vigueries in Provence. The number and borders of the provinces varied with time. For instance, Saumurois was a lesser government under Henri IV and Louis XIII, but was later incorporated to the greater government of Anjou.
  • The généralités and the intendances were financial divisions, mostly established in the XVI-XVIIth centuries. An intendance was the territory administrated by an intendant, who was the direct representative of the king. In 1555, the first maîtres de requêtes, later renamed intendants, were appointed. The intendants were the most powerful people of the kingdom after the king himself, and their position was often dynastic.

The borders of the different divisions did not match each other. This lack of unity was caused by the heterogeneous historical formation of France. The kings progressively incorporated to their own domain (domaine royal) large feudal and princely states, whose institutions and privileges they promised to respect. Some provinces (Brittany, Provence, Béarn) recognized the king only as their lord, count or duke. Several of these states kept their political institutions (Etats, States) and administrated taxes. As an example, Provence, incorporated to France in 1481, kept its States in Aix-en-Provence and a specific 'Provencal Constitution'. Provence was divided into vigueries, but its two main cities, Arles and Marseilles, had a specific status of "adjacent areas with specific regime" (terres adjacentes à régime spécial).

As explained by Alexis de Tocqueville in L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856), "the administrative centralisation was an institution of the Ancient Regime and not a realization of the Revolution and the Empire, as often wrongly assumed." As the direct representatives of the kings, the intendants gained more and more power, whereas the military governor's function became purely honorific as early as in the XVIIth century. At that time, Richelieu, one of the great reformers of the French state, believed that powerful military governors were more a threat than a protection for the royal power, and ordered the demolition of most fortresses located quite far from the borders. In parallel, Richelieu consolidated the power of the intendants, which was a convenient means to collect taxes from reluctant local lords and therefore consolidate the royal power.

The tax status of the provinces was also complex, at least nominally:

  • in the pays d'élections (most provinces), the taxes were administrated in each circonscription, called élection, by local representatives, called élus.
  • in the pays d'Etats (Bretagne, Bourgogne, Béarn, County of Foix, Languedoc, Provence and Dauphiné), the taxes were globally administrated by a provincial assembly, called Etats (States). Some former feudal states, although no longer governments, kept their States, e.g. Gévaudan, Velay and Vivarais. Of course, the king did not enjoy those States, who often opposed to his decisions, and progressively suppressed them or diminished their power.
  • in the pays d'imposition (Flandre, Artois, Lorraine, Alsace, Franche-Comté and Roussillon), which had been incorporated in the XVII-XVIIIth centuries, there were neither élections nor états, and the taxes were percieved directly by the intendants.

Ivan Sache, 25 May 2003

The apanage system

The system of apanage strongly influenced the territorial building of France and explains the banner of arms of several French provinces.

The word apanage comes from low Latin apanare, "to feed", "to give bread" (panem). An apanage was a fief concession by the king to his youngest sons. Since the elder son became king when his father died, the apanages were considered as the share of the inheritance granted to the youngest sons. Of course, women were excluded of the system: a spurious interpretation of the Salic law (loi salique), which dated back to the Franks and indeed prevented women to inherit land, prevented them to access the throne.

The apanage system was set up to avoid dividing the kingdom between the crown princes, as it had occurred in 843 (treaty of Verdun) when Robert the Pious' Empire was divided between his sons Lothaire and Louis the Germanic. That division is sometimes considered as the source of the antagonism between France and Germany, at least in France, since the treaty was imposed by Louis to Lothaire.

King Charles V attempted to suppress the apanage system, to no avail. States conceded in apanage rapidly became de facto independent and hardly recognized the king's authority. Theoretically, the apanages could be reincorporated into the royal domain only if the last lord had no male heir. The kings tried every possible means to get rid of the most powerful apanage states: for instance, François I confiscated in 1531 Bourbonnais, the last apanage state of importance, following the betrayal of the constable of Bourbon.

The apanages were suppressed in 1792, short before the proclamation of the Republic. The youngest princes should have been given an allowance but no territory. The apanages were reestablished by Napoléon I and confirmed by king Louis XVIII. The last of the apanages, Orléanais, was reincorporated to the crown of France when Duke of Orléans became king of the French, as Louis-Philippe, in 1830.

The word apanage is still used in French in a non-historical sense. Avoir l'apanage de, "to have the apanage of something", means, often ironically and in the negative form, to claim the exclusive possession of something.

Ivan Sache, 8 October 2002

The provinces today

The modern legacy of the complicated administrative system of the Ancient Regime is rather small. The French Revolution suppressed the ancient divisions, and the intendances and généralités were completely forgotten, since they were the symbols of the financial oppression exerted by the king.

Conversely, the provinces, whose map explain the historical formation of France, were never forgotten. Their flags were most probably not used before the French Revolution, even as banners of arms, according to Hervé Pinoteau, heraldist and specialist of the Ancient Regime. The status of these flags is therefore weird: inhabitants of the provinces have promoted flags derived from ancient arms, which had been suppressed during the French Revolution, and have completely changed their meaning. It is therefore necessary to make a difference between the original meaning of those flags (indeed arms of uncertain use) and their modern use (flags showing a strong regional identity, used in cultural events, for tourism promotion etc.). An exception is Brittany, where the ancient banner of arms (plain ermine) is rarely used and was superseded by the modern Gwen-ha-Du, designed in the 1920s. Other exceptions are Corsica, Savoy and County of Nice, which were not parts of France in 1789. I prefer to use "traditional provinces" than "historical province"', since Corsica, Savoy and Nice were never military governments of the French kingdom.

Most provincial flags are currently widely used, with some regional differences. The decentralization laws and the new interest for local identity probably boosted their use.

Ivan Sache, 8 October 2002

Historical and modern status of the provincial banners of arms

The French provincial arms are an heraldist's headache. The provincial arms were "officialized'"by Hozier's Armorial Général, but some of these arms were imposed, for instance for Franche-Comté:

Ecartelé, au premier et quatrième, de sable à la fasce d'or; au second et au troisième, d'or à un pal de sable (quartered I and IV sable a fess or II and III or a pale sable).

The provincial arms were suppressed after the French Revolution and resurfaced at the end of the XIXth century, especially in Lorraine in the 1850s. More research is required to know exactly when the provincial arms reappeared in the different provinces. It is clear that such arms were used on postcards, posters, cards offered with food products etc. in the beginning of the XXth century, but without a general pattern of use.

The heraldists Robert Louis and Jacques Meurgey de Tupigny attempted to clarify the situation in the years 1940-1950. They published in 1952 a book entitled Les Armoiries des provinces françaises : historique de chaque province. Compositions graphiques enluminées modernes d'après les documents anciens (Girard, Barrère et Thomas). The arms showed in that book have been used to design the modern provincial banners of arms, although it is established that the provinces never had such flags during the Ancient Regime.

Therefore, the reference for the modern provincial arms is Louis and Meurgey's preferences, at least when no standard arms were widely recognized. Louis and his daughter Mireille were very good lobbyists who pushed their creations very efficiently via heraldic maps, illustrations in dictionaries (for instance four plates of "genuine provincial arms" in the Quillet Encyclopaedia), reviews, posters etc.

Pascal Vagnat, 1 May 2003

List of the traditional provinces

Each page includes links towards the Region(s) and department(s) whose territory(ies) overlap(s) the former provincial territory, the history of the province and the explanation of its banner of arms, if known.

| Alsace | Angoumois | Anjou | Artois | Aunis | Auvergne | Lower Navarre (Basse-Navarre) | Béarn | Berry | Bourbonnais | Burgundy (Bourgogne) | Brittany (Bretagne) | Champagne | Comtat Venaissin | County of Foix (Comté de Foix) | County of Nice (Comté de Nice) | Corsica (Corse) | Dauphiné | Flanders (Flandre) | Franche-Comté | Guyenne and Gascogne | Ile-de-France | Languedoc | Limousin | Lorraine | Lyonnais | Maine | Marche | Nivernais | Normandy (Normandie) | Orléanais | Picardie | Poitou | Provence | Roussillon | Saintonge | Savoy (Savoie) | Touraine |

Ivan Sache, 8 October 2002

The provincial banners of arms on sugar cubes

A sugarcube series decorated with the French provincial banners of arms was released in 2002 by the French sugar house Béghin-Say.
Unwrapped, each paper has dimension 64 x 47 cm. It contains two lumps of sugar. This is type B2 according to the classification elaborated by the Club Français des Glycophiles.

This series is partially shown on Gwel's website. The image shows the coat of arms of the following provinces and pays:

  • 1st row: Angoumois - Anjou - Armagnac (Gascogne) - Artois - Aunis - Auvergne - Lower-Alsace - Béarn - Beaujolais (Lyonnais)
  • 2nd row: Berry - Bourbonnais - Burgundy - Bresse (Burgundy) - Brittany - Bugey (Burgundy) - Champagne - Comminges (Gascogne) - County of Foix
  • 3rd row: County of Nice - Comtat Venaissin - Corsica - Dauphiné - Upper-Alsace - Nivernais - Normandy - Orléanais - Pays Basque
  • 4th row: Périgord (Guyenne) - Picardie - Poitou - Provence - Quercy (Guyenne) - Roussillon - Saintonge - Savoy - Touraine

Not shown: Flandre - Franche-Comté - Gascogne - Pays de Gex (Franche-Comté) - Guyenne - Ile-de-France - Languedoc - Limousin - Lorraine - Lyonnais - Maine - Marche - Maurienne (Savoie) - Navarre.

All the provinces listed above are included in the series. I guess the pays have been selected to reach the number of 50, but other could have been added (for instance, Maurienne was selected in Savoy but not Chablais, Faucigny, Genevois and Tarentaise).

Ivan Sache, 29 December 2002