The Establishment of the Town Consulate in Medieval Agen
By Frank Williams
Paper given at the Austrian Scholars Conference (2002)
Introduction: When in 1789 the leading men of Agen met to deliberate on “the rights, powers, and functions of our municipal administration and jurisdiction,” they asserted that the rights of the Agen community and the powers of her consuls dated to the time of the Romans in the first century AD. Moreover, they said that the source of those consular powers came from their fellow citizens and not from the king, and they believed their statutes had been made long before their pays of Agenais was even a part of the French kingdom. One should regard skeptically the historical accuracy of a view advanced at a time when people were so sympathetic to democratic ideals and so bitter against the monarchy. Yet their opinion should not be dismissed out of hand, for it reflected a long-held view in Agen and one expressed elsewhere in early modern France, as well. The view was that members of the community had themselves established the government which ruled them, and implied that, as they had founded the government, they should decide how it governed them. To what extent was this view accurate and why is it important to examine who established this government of a small town?
The people of Agen have constituted the primary community on the Garonne River between Toulouse and Bordeaux since before Caesar. During much of that time, either a nobleman or a bishop governed the community, and those leaders were largely independent of any “national” sovereign entity. The community of Agen, though normally owing some obligations in either men or wealth to a lord, was an autonomous entity. As inhabitants of Guyenne and the pays of Agenais, the people of Agen came decisively into the French kingdom only in the aftermath of Charles VII’s successful campaign of 1453 against supporters of the English claimants to the crown of France, for during the Hundred Years War some men of Agenais had sided with the English and others with the French. Their more distant ancestors of the thirteenth century had resisted stoutly the northern knights who in the Albigensian Crusade had invaded their homeland and forced it into vassalage to the French crown. Therefore the loyalties of the people of Agen to the French crown were tenuous long before the revolutionary fervor of 1789. Indeed, Jacques Ducros, a consul writing in the seventeenth century, agreed with the prud’hommes of 1789, saying that Agen had organized its town government based on consuls, who were responsible for enforcing the town customs, which regulated the loyalties and habits of its citizens, assigned punishments, and stemmed the flow of evil inclinations “over the course of so many centuries since the beginnings of this town”.