In ancien regime France almost all posts of public responsibility had to be bought or inherited. Rather than tax their richer subjects directly, French kings preferred to sell them privileged public offices, which further payments allowed them to sell or bequeath at will. By the eighteenth century there were 70,000 venal offices, comprising the entire judiciary, most of the legal profession, officers in the army, and a wide range of other professions - from financiers handling the king's revenues down to auctioneers and even wigmakers. Though now yielding diminishing returns to the king, offices were more in demand than ever for the privileges and prestige, profit and power, that they conferred; and although it was widely accepted that selling public authority was undesirable, nobody imagined that those who had invested in offices could ever be bought out. The Revolution brought an unexpected opportunity to do so, but the legacy of venality has marked French institutions down to our day. William Doyle, one of the foremost historians of early modern Europe, has written the first comprehensive history of the last century of venality. He traces the evolution and dissolution of a system which was fundamental to the workings of state and society in France for over three centuries.
Publisher: Oxford University Press