In France the Falloux Law of 1850 set out the distinction between state-run public schools and écoles libres maintained by individuals or associations. This article argues that Catholic nobles’ historic property-based and charitable ties with rural communities underpinned their foundation of écoles libres. Drawing upon the private archives of noble families, the article shows how networking between aristocratic laity and religious orders facilitated the running of these schools. Nobles’ determination to guard a reputation for charitable patronage, especially in the locality of their landed estate, meant they were impelled to invest financially in écoles libres when doing so made no practical sense. From 1879 successive governments of the Third Republic introduced secularizing legislation that clashed with the aims of Catholic school founders. Even when taken to court for breaking republican laws, nobles, nuns, and monks remained passionately committed to upholding the culture of Christian faith within education.
Elizabeth C. Macknight is Senior Lecturer in European history at King’s College University of Aberdeen and a Scottish Crucible alumna of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Educated in Australia and France, her primary field of research is the history of European nobilities, with particular interests in gender, power, and emotion.