Last modified: 2021-06-12 by ivan sache
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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
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 into the Kingdom of France as gouvernements (military provinces).
Abolished during the Revolution, the administrative system of the Ancient Regime strongly influenced the new administrative system, based on the departments.
The Roman administrative system
The Roman civitas (administrative division centered around a city) was divided in pagi, which included vici (rural centers), and villae (estates). Progressively applied to the whole of Gaul, the Roman system is the origin of the modern pays, cités, villes and villages.
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 (for instance, Pays de Retz), and even, especially in the countryside, a town or a village. Colloquially, two people from the same village may say: nous sommes pays (we are [from the same] pays).
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 often named after them (for instance, Aunis was known as pagus
Alienensis, from its capital Castrum Alionenis, today Châtelaillon). There were about 120 counties in the Merovingian
times, which split to some 800 under the Carolingians.
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 of France, the biggest counties were divided into bailliages and prévôtés; in the South of France, they were divided into sénéchaussées and vigueries.
Under the Ancient Regime, the counties progressively lost 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; Emperor Constantine the Great 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 5th 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, adding civil powers to their
The Germans kept the title of duc, similar to Herzog (military chief). Until the 12th century, the difference between a duke and a count was not clear. In the 16th century, duke was the highest rank in the feudal hierarchy. By Decrees (1562, 1566), King Charles IX prohibited the creation of new dukes. Under the absolute monarchy, the title of duke (duc à brevet) was purely honorific, a duke being called his cousin by the King.
In the 10th century, France had three big Duchies: France, Bourgogne and Aquitaine. When Hugh 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 14th century, the Duchy of Bourbon was created, together with the appanage system.
An example: Pagi in Provence in the 6-10th centuries
Here is the list of the pagi, compared with the modern departments that matched more or less Provence at that time. After each pagus are mentioned the city which gave the name to the pagus and the modern name of the city.
pagus dignensis / Digna / Digne
pagus glannadensis / Glannatia / Glandevès
pagus regensis / Regium / Riez
pagus rigomagensis / Rigomagus / Barcelonnette
pagus seneciensis / Senesium / Senez
pagus sigestericus / Sistericum / Sisteron
Hautes-Alpes - Provencal part only
pagus ebredunensis / Ebrodunum / Embrun
pagus vapecensis / Vapincum / Gap
pagus antipolitanis / Antipolis / Antibes
pagus niciensis / Nicia / Nice
pagus venciensis / Ventium / Vence
pagus aquensis / Aquae Sextiae / Aix-en-Provence
pagus arelatensis / Arelate / Arles
pagus massiliensis / Massilia / Marseilles
pagus forojuliensis / Forum Julii / Fréjus
pagus tolonensis / Tolonum / Toulon
pagus albionensis / now a nearly desert area called plateau d'Albion
pagus aptensis / Apta / Apt
pagus arausicus / Arausio / Orange
pagus avenionensis / Avenio / Avignon
pagus cavellicus / Cabellio / Cavaillon
pagus vasiensis / Vasio / Vaison-la-Romaine
pagus vindascensis / Vendasca / Venasque
Those pagi were also called comitates (counties). All of them
but pagus rigomagensis and pagus albionensis matched eclesiastic dioceses.
All pagi but the two mentioned above took their
names from town whose modern name has been directly derived from their
Latin name. The link between the Roman and modern systems is therefore
[E. Baratier (Ed.) Documents de l'histoire de la Provence, Privat, Toulouse, 1971]
Ivan Sache, 14 January 2004
The appanage system
The appanage system strongly shaped the territorial
building of France and "explains" the banner of arms of several French
The word appanage comes from low Latin apanare, "to feed", "to give bread" (panem). An appanage was a fief concession by the King to his youngest sons. Since the elder son became the King when his father died, appanages 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, which dated back to the Franks and indeed prevented women to inherit land, prevented them to access the throne.
The appanage system was set up to prevent the share of the kingdom among the Crown Princes, as it had happened in 843 (Treaty of Verdun) when Robert the Pious' Empire was shared among his sons Lothair and Louis the German. 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 Lothair.
King Charles V attempted to suppress the appanage system, to no avail. States conceded in appanage rapidly became de facto independent and hardly recognized the King's authority. Theoretically, the appanages could be reincorporated into the Royal domain only if their last lord had no male heir. The kings tried every possible means to get rid of the most powerful appanage states: for instance, Francis I confiscated in 1531 Bourbonnais, the last appanage state of importance, following the betrayal of the Constable of Bourbon.
Appanages were suppressed in 1792, short before the proclamation of the Republic. The youngest princes should have been given an allowance but no territory. Appanages were reestablished by Napoléon I and confirmed by Louis XVIII. The last of the appanages, Orléanais, was reincorporated to the Crown of France when Duke of Orléans became King of the French, as Louis-Philippe, in 1830.
The word appanage is still used in French in a non-historical sense. avoir l'apanage de, "to have the appanage of something", means, often ironically and in the negative form, to claim the exclusive possession of something.
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..
- The provinces were military governments (gouvernements), mostly established in the 14th century. There were 32 greater governments (grands grouvernements) and 7 lesser ones (petits grouvernements) enclaved into the greater ones. Earlier (13th 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 Henry IV and Louis XIII, but was subsequently incorporated to the greater government of Anjou.
- The généralités and the intendances were financial divisions, mostly established in the 16-17th 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 (États, 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 17th 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.
Ivan Sache, 19 July 2003
The modern legacy of the complicated administrative system of the Ancient Regime is rather small. The French Revolution suppressed the ancient divisions; 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 Kingdom of France.
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