1“I like being at La Brède” (Pensées, no. 2169)! Montesquieu did not conceal his attachment to the manor and the château where he was born on 18 January 1689, and the allusions to it in his work are not rare. A maternal legacy, transmitted from the La Landes to the Pesnels, from the Pesnels to the Secondats, the barony of La Brède of which he bore the name on the registers of the college at Juilly in many ways represented the pride of his landed possessions, confessing straightforwardly: “[…] at La Brède, it seems to me that my money is beneath my feet” (“[…] à La Brède il me semble que mon argent est sous mes pieds”, ibid.). The patrimonial properties situated in Montesquieu, near Agen, did not in fact amount to much, despite a constant intention to make them more substantial, and the important properties that Charles Louis de Secondat owned in Entre-deux-Mers, the manors of Raymond and then Bisquetan, did not present the same interest as the sharecropping and other farms regrouped almost all in one piece around the small village of Graves, from Léognan to Saucats. The town of La Brède, described by François de Paule Latapie (Archives historiques de la Gironde, t. XXXIV, p. 274-276), which counted a population of about 400 in the middle of the 18th century (a thousand with the neighboring hamlets, according to the parish registers), was the seat of a seigniorial justice district, a center of production and, at the confines of the Landes, an active agricultural exchange.
2In the name of seigniorial rights, which were as lucrative as prestigious, Montesquieu struggled doggedly against the infringements of the royal administration and opposed, from1726 to 1743, the pretensions of the city of Bordeaux to ill-defined properties between Léognan and Martillac. The lands of La Brède often gave him the opportunity of demonstrating his juridical know-how, and sometimes his bad faith; they also illustrate a kind of life and the baron’s material preoccupations. The royal wages due to members of parlement were in fact paid irregularly and the lease on his presidential function in 1726 could not cover his train of life, even stripped of all superfluous pomp. So Montesquieu devoted particular care to the management of his patrimony. If the day-to-day operations were overseen by managers (we know the names of Jean Argeau and Charles Couloumié), the decisions were always made by Montesquieu or his wife. This propertied policy, in fact quite conventional, combined modest but numerous transactions, and a system of traditional mixed farming. Thus, contrary to what is usually thought, to limit the climatic risks, vineyards at La Brède occupied only a limited space – 11.5 hectares in an at least 150 hectares of directly exploitable land overall – but its income was very important in comparison to the profits that could be drawn from this highly speculative crop. Outside of the rich parcels of Martillac, the philosopher’s lands at the confines of the Landes, in Saint-Selve or Saucats, nevertheless remained of mediocre quality. The post-mortem inventories made in 1755 show that the principal activity there was sheep raising and one understands better the constant care taken by Montesquieu to try to improve them and to experiment with the most modern agricultural techniques, like using Dutch clover, for which he asked his correspondents to send the best rootstocks.
3Slightly outside the village, the château had dominated the center of the domain since the 13th century, but beginning with the original tower, the central part of which now constituted the library, numerous complementary additions were superimposed over the centuries. The chapel was built in the 16th century, the gravelled moats in the 17th… It was especially the visual imprint of the park that Montesquieu attended to redesigning, in the English manner, working on the perspectives, but also with a park en étoile (a reconstitution is under way at La Brède), a subtle mixture between the architectural heritage and the modernity of the landscape, the result in any case pleased its owner: “My dear abbé […], why should you not come see your friends and the château of La Brède which I have so enhanced since you last saw it? […M]y château which is now worthy of receiving he who has visited all countries” (“Mon cher abbé […] pourquoi […] ne viendriez-vous pas voir vos amis et le château de La Brède que j’ai si fort embelli depuis que vous ne l’avez vu ?”, letter to Guasco, 16 March 1752) ; he later insists, inviting him to his château “which is now worthy of receiving the one who has visited every country” (“ qui est à présent digne de recevoir celui qui a parcouru tous les pays” (8 August 1752). The transformations intended by Montesquieu very early produced imitators, for the Marshall de Berwick apparently followed them closely: “I am delighted to see you in country occupations and I hope you will communicate the plans to me, so I can take ideas from them for Fitzjames, and alsos give you my advice” (10 January 1724, OC, t. XVIII, letter 65).
4At La Brède, life was simple, without ostentatious luxury but the baron, who preferred to take official residence in Bordeaux or Paris, came to seek calm and rest far from the sparkle of Enlightenment life. O rus quando te aspiciam (‘My country home, when will I see thee again?’), the Horatian motto that emblazoned the fronton of the château’s first drawbridge, underscores a rural myth that is also very present in the correspondence and significative of the traditional dual residence led by members of the Bordeaux parlement until the beginning of the 18th century: “I would speak to you with more assurance if I were in Bordeaux, but I am now in the country” (letter to Dortous de Mairan, 10 November 1721, OC, t. XVIII, letter 39). After the philosopher’s death, when Jean-Baptiste de Secondat had to divide up the paternal holdings among the three children, he significantly reserved for himself the barony of La Brède and abandoned Montesquieu to his sister Denise on 27 November 1755. To be sure, he regretted this choice a few months later, but La Brède nevertheless became an inescapable stop for travelers stopping in Bordeaux.
Léonce Lamothe, “Le château de Montesquieu à Labrède”, Commission des monuments historiques de la Gironde, Paris : Victor Didron, 1849, p. 20.
Jean-Max Eylaud, Montesquieu chez ses notaires de La Brède, Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956.
François Cadilhon, Montesquieu, parlementaire, académicien, grand propriétaire bordelais, TER typewritten thesis, Université de Bordeaux 3, 1983.
Gérard Aubin, La Seigneurie en Bordelais au XVIIIe siècle d’après la pratique notariale, Rouen: Publications de l’université de Rouen, 1989.