Bordeaux and the Guyenne

François Cadilhon

1Few European cities changed as much as Bordeaux in the 18th century and the capital of Guyenne no doubt offers a summary of all the economic, social or political mutations of the Enlightenment. According to a simple numeric approach, the city which counted about 40,000 inhabitants at the end of the 17th century had at least 60,000 in 1750 and a spectacular democraphic expansion was to make it, with 110,000 inhabitants, the third largest French city, after Paris and Lyon, on the eve of the Revolution. The Bordelais crucible was not a vain word. To the men and women who came from the whole southwest of the kingdom, from the Pyrenees to the fringe of the Massif Central, were added indeed all those who from the American islands or northern Europe wanted to profit from the extraordinary economic growth that made the city the emporion of the Atlantic world.

2Since the Middle Ages, Bordeaux had been exporting the wine and agricultural products of its inland countryside, better drained by the Garonne, the Dordogne and their affluents that all the bumpy roads of the realm. The wheat trade was just about the only thing that the royal authorities tried to control closely. Even before the death of Colbert, thus long before traditional historiography often recognizes it, the Bordelais had in fact deliberately turned toward the large re-exportation market, much more remunerative than the slave trade, abandoned to the Nantais, and this even if the slave trade was equally practiced by a few merchants in the Port de la Lune. Indeed the local trade preferred to attract colonial products from the Antilles – especially St Domingue – to resell them, with considerable profit, on every square on the continent. The peace that guaranteed freedom of trade was thus indispensable for the city’s business and Montesquieu, rightly presented as a farmer little concerned by the daring wagers of finance, was far from feeling indifferent about it; this concern returns often in most of his writings, notably L’Esprit des lois.

3Traders and merchants were no doubt those who benefited the most from the overall enrichment. Often regrouped in national or confessional minorities in the active quarters of the Port aux Chartrons, Saint-Pierre or Saint-Michel, they came from all over Europe and built impudent fortunes. For one Nicolas Beaujon, who quickly left Bordeaux for Paris, many Peixottos or Saiges preferred to establish themselves where they were and slowly climb the rungs of provincial society. The former incarnated the Jewish community living in France since the Spanish persecutions. Money handlers, they lent to the humblest as well as the grandest and in 1725 Montesquieu owed them at least 31,000 livres. The latter symbolized the quest for consideration and social ascension in a less fixed world than it is often thought to be. Ship outfitters and merchants at the end of the reign of Louis XIV, they sent their heirs to Juilly to rub shoulders with the province’s elites before thrusting them with the fortunes made towards the sovereign courts of Guyenne. These merchants who until then had not had the time to taste the pleasures of leisure discovered new passions. In 1789, François Armand de Saige, mayor and advocate general in the parlement, member of the Museum Literary Society, was thus one of the greatest readers of Montesquieu, whose bust adorned his sumptuous formal salon. The spectacular profits made by Bordeaux trade – there were also some spectacular failures – should not, however, hide the reality of the scale of fortunes. At Montesquieu’s death, the nobility remained, and by far, the dominant group in Guyenne as much on the financial as the political level, but that nobility, largely open to the new merchant rich, had known since the beginning of the 18th century a profound renewal. In 1770, 40% of the local aristocracy did not go back farther than the reign of Louis XIV. This movement of integration with new families like the Saiges, the Pellet d’Anglades or the Basterots, was accompanied by the progressive extinction of the old dynasties, like the d’Augeards, the La Chabannes or the Navarres, with whom the Secondats had been living for generations. The lifestyle of this new Bordeaux elite also was rapidly evolving. The setting up of the culture of appearances defined by Daniel Roche translated indeed as much in the quest of domestic luxury as by a profound architectural transformation of the city that can hardly be attributed to the intendants alone.

4A major economic center, Bordeaux was also an administrative and religious capital. Montesquieu remains discreet on the role of the archbishop. As Primate of Aquitaine whose jurisdiction extended over nine suffragan bishoprics, from Luçon to Bazas, the distant successor of Pope Clement V was an important personage but whose personal authority was perhaps no longer, in the first half of the 18th century, as great as that of the masters of the Catholic Reformation in the 17th, in particular the Sourdis brothers. This effacement, quite relative, can be compared with the more significant one of the city government of Bordeaux, the territorial pretensions of which gave the Baron de La Brède the opportunity to begin a drawn-out, twenty-five-year lawsuit to delimit their respective properties around the village of Léognan. To mark an “historic” victory in 1743, of which the paperwork is piled up in the Bordeaux municipal archives and municipal library, the philosopher envisaged having a pyramid erected on the contested lands. A fine epitaph would condemn the ambitions of that little, presumptuous senate of which his own father had all the same been a member (Pensées, nos. 1386 and 1545).

5In fact, in addition to the traditional hostility of the parlement and its members, the city body had inexorably abandoned its prerogatives to the direct representatives of the king and the state in Guyenne – the difference between the two not always being recognized: the governor and the intendant. James Fitzjames, first Duke of Berwick, an English Jacobite who had come to serve the cause of Louis XIV, who made him one of his marshalls, was also one of Montesquieu’s protectors in Guyenne and especially at court, for the governors, kept in Versailles, were usually represented in the provinces by a lieutenant. Governor in title from 1716 to 1724, Berwick also adopted the habit of leaving his adjunct, the Marshall de Montravel, resolve on location the small and large quarrels of honor that had no interest for him. Outside the parlement, the real master of Guyenne, from Bayonne to Angoulême, from the Atlantique to the slopes of Périgord, was the intendant of police, justice and finance, a commissioner dispatched for government business. From 1720 to 1753, two strong personalities successively served in Bordeaux, quite determined to transform the city and see that the law was applied throughout the généralité. Between 1720 and 1743, Claude Boucher thus fought to open a sumptuous royal square against the will of all the local interests. The intendant, who had denounced Montesquieu for Masonic activities, who forbade him to plant new vines, wished indeed to open up the streets of the port to construct a quai and a neoclassic perspective to the glory of Louis XV. If the Baron de La Brède threw in his lot with the parlement which was rejecting the commissioner’s decrees, he showed himself on the other hand more discreet in dealing with his successor, though equally authoritarian and just as determined, Louis Urbain de Tourny.

6Montesquieu hastened to get the king’s new representative admitted into the Royal Academy of Science, Letters and Arts of Bordeaux, the goal of which was to incarnate the renewal of knowledge in the province. Yet the assembly in very large part relayed the parlement’s pretensions and the Bordeaux Enlightenment was not necessarily as tolerant as the founding sponsors had imagined in 1712, to open the spirit of the city where the Jesuits and their college nearly exerted an intellectual monopoly (the municipal college, called Collège de Guyenne, was indeed no more than the shadow of the prestigious establishment of the Renaissance vaunted by Montaigne). The tensions between the Marquis de Tourny on the one hand, and the parlementarians and academicians on the other, soon proved to be even stronger than with Boucher. The city’s various salons were less political and also more worldly. As with the diversity in Paris, each group had its own, but Mme Duplessy’s was undeniably the most prestigious. The young widow of a counselor at parlement had effectively resumed, in 1736, her husband’s habits and was determined to invite into her private home on the Rue Saint-Seurin the most brilliant minds of the region. There one could run into Montesquieu as well as most of his intimates, such as Barbot and Bel (who died in 1738), the Président de Ségur, Messieurs de Navarre, de Marcellus or de La Tresne.


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Histoire de l’Aquitaine, Charles Higounet dir., Toulouse: Privat, 1971.

Paul Butel, Les Dynasties bordelaises de Colbert à Chaban, Paris: Perrin,1991.

Actes du XLIXe congrès de la Fédération historique du Sud-Ouest, Bordeaux: Fédération historique du Sud-Ouest, t. I, Bordeaux et l’Aquitaine, 1998 ; t. II, Bordeaux porte océane, 1999.

Histoire des Bordelais, Michel Figeac dir., t. I, Bordeaux: Mollat, 2002.