French Renaissance Paleography


Alençon,[1] between 1574 and 1589
_Déclaration de Michel Mercier de tenue en bourgage de sa maison à Alençon _
Chicago, Newberry Library, VAULT folio Greenlee MS 455


Noticing the words “tient, confesse et advoue tenir” and “sont subjects faire foy et hommage,” one might conclude that this document is an aveu, the written declaration a vassal in pre-modern France provided to his lord upon gaining possession of a fiefdom through purchase or inheritance. Yet this is not the case here, as the asset in question was not held by nobles; rather, the declaration comes from a free man, a bourgeois, living in a city.

In Normandy’s civil customs, free men could own land and buildings in cities such as Rouen, Bayeux, and Alençon, provided they paid a modest tax to the king every year. This type of ownership was called bourgage or bourgage-alleu (in this text, “bourgaige et alleu”). Upon gaining posession of a property, new owners would provide a written declaration to the local tax collecting bureau specifying its location and boundaries, as well as the amount of the yearly tax to be paid and the amount of the fine to be incurred if they failed to pay.

Here, Michel Mercier and his siblings are inheriting from their father Pierre a house and a flour mill in the city of Alençon. The house is on the “rue à la Personne” and sits between the properties of the Langlois and the Du Bois families. The tax is set at 20 sous tournois to be paid to the prévôté of Alençon every year, on the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. The fine for non-payment would be 60 sous tournois.

The document, unsigned and undated, is most certainly a draft, written on a low-quality piece of parchment when Pierre Mercier died, at some point during the reign of King Henry III of France (1574-1589). Pierre’s father, Jean, a merchant and breadmaker, had purchased the flour mill, so it had been in the Mercier family for two generations.

See the Aveu et dénombrement de la seigneurie de Taillepied for an example of an aveu where the vassal Robine Bordinelle declares through her representative the possessions that she holds from her lord, Catherine de la Fontaine, lady of Vevers and Taillepied.

[1] Commune in Lower Normandy, capital of the Orne département