ABSTRACT

The term ‘identity’ refers to how people understand their place in society, and how that place informs people’s expectations, behavior, and actions. Identities in the Renaissance were collective and relational, meaning they were defined in opposition or hierarchy to others. Intellectuals developed various frameworks to inform people of their role in society. The three estates model divided France into the clergy, the nobility, and everyone else. Another framework was the ‘body politic’, which placed the king as the head, nobles as the arms and hands, merchants and artisans as the torso, and peasants as the legs and feet. In reality, society was much more complex than these frameworks suggested, and religious, social, emotional, and intellectual factors influenced people’s identities. Most French men and women identified as Catholic until the Protestant Reformation began in 1517. Many people in France converted to Calvinism, resulting in conflicting religious identities that ultimately led to The Wars of Religion (1562–1598). Like religion, social connections with family and community heavily influenced identities. Elites commissioned family histories or wrote memoirs for their children in order to solidify their familial narrative. In urban areas, many people belonged to various corporate organisations such as guilds, confraternities, and youth groups. Beyond participating in the organisation’s regular activities, women and men demonstrated their associations publicly in processions through villages and towns during festivals and holy days, when each group marched together. Elites also belonged to patronage networks, which rested on the concept of obligatory reciprocity and tied together vertical and horizontal alliances. One of the most visible marks of identity was clothing. Laws dictated what type of clothing was permitted to various groups. For example, sumptuary laws forbade non-nobles from wearing silk (although wealthy non-nobles often ignored this law), and strict rules governed colour and fabric in judiciary robes. Finally, people identified as part of less visible groups based on shared emotional and intellectual norms. Noble feuding, female ascetic groups, and magistrates offer examples of emotional communities in Renaissance France in which a shared emotional norm influenced members’ appearance, behaviour, and actions. Similarly, intellectuals from all over Europe, North Africa, and the Levant exchanged ideas in letters to one another in what was known as the Republic of Letters. Women led and participated in intellectual communities by producing their own written work and hosting weekly salons. All identities were complex and fluid, and even the idea of a shared French identity was more complicated than one might expect. Elites certainly considered themselves French, but most others would more readily identify themselves as residents of their town or province. About a third of the population did not speak mainstream French as their first language. They spoke a local dialect or a different language entirely, like Breton. What defined ‘Frenchness’ was in constant debate throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and it was not until the early eighteenth century that France shared a nearly universal acceptance of a French identity whose political form was a unified kingdom.