Our ancestor, Francois Houallet, was a contemporary of the people portrayed in this scene.
France in the 17th century is described by historians as "early modern France"; this phrase conveys the confusing and ambiguous mixture of historic and modern social institutions that existed in those long-ago times. The French monarchy was almost continuously embroiled in foreign wars and internal conflicts. The progressive increases in the size of standing armies, and the increasing complexity of armaments and military equipment, meant that the French crown was in a state of quasi-bankruptcy for most of a century. The constant need for money led the crown to seek new methods for raising tax revenues, and created groups of individuals who participated in, and profited from these measures.
Taxes raised by the French Crown in the 17th century could be grouped into several distinct categories. These included Direct taxes such as the Taille, Indirect taxes (including Aides, Gabelles, and Traites), and Occasional taxes. The Taille can be considered to be similar to a property tax, and was levied on all non-exempt households in France. The Direct taxes constituted the Recettes-General, and were levied and raised by bureaux des finances as described below. The Indirect taxes were usually raised by letting contracts to private individuals, a practice known as tax farming.
For the purposes of the collection of the Direct taxes, France was divided into over twenty Generalites, each with its own bureau de finance. According to Bonney, the following method of tax collection was commonly used for Direct taxes. First, the King in consultation with the Council of Finance and finance ministers would decide to levy the tax. A Brevet established the amount of the tax for each generalite, which was sent to each bureau of finance where the Tresoirier-General would ratify the tax, and distribute it to the election, or subdivisions within the generalite. The Elus within each election would then distribute the tax to the parishes. Assessors in each parish would distribute the tax between parishioners. Collectors in each parish would then collect the tax. These taxes were paid to the receveur-particulier in each election. The receveur-particulier would pass all of the funds to the receveur-general and submit proper accounts to him. The receveur-general would pay the funds to the Tresorier de l’Epargne at Paris.
From this we can see that the 20-odd Receveurs-General were very important people in the tax collection scheme in 17th century France. Essentially all of the direct taxes for a generalite would pass through the accounts of the Receveur-General. This could amount to a very substantial sum of money for a rich generalite such as Poitou. The Tresorier might be paid only once per year or so; in a day when there was little distinction between public and private funds, these monies would remain in the accounts of the Receveur-General until payment was required. A review of the estate of Francois Marin, Receveur-General for Paris and a contemporary of Francois Houallet, demonstrates the wealth that a Receveur-General could obtain. Marin died an untimely death in 1646. His home in Paris was on the Rue St. Catherine, and included a central garden and 20 rooms. The home was richly furnished, including a Gobblins tapestry worth as much as the house itself. Marin also owned a country estate outside of Paris with a small home and vinyards. Although we do not have such information yet for Francois Houallet and Elizabeth Barre, such wealth was commonplace among French financiers of the time.
The curious phrase commis au cinq grosse fermes as applied to François Houallet deserves close attention. Literally translated into English, this phrase means "committed to or involved with the five big farms". I believe that this phrase meant something quite different to the 17th century frenchman than it does to a person from modern times. We learn from close study of French economic history that a Commis in the 17th century was a person who was a representative or a lieutenant for someone else. A Commis in the 17th century French financial world was a person of varying importance who represented the interests of one or more financiers or a group of financiers. Persons of noble birth were discouraged from being involved with financial markets; such a person might employ a Commis to represent them for transactions. A group of financiers might select one of their number to be a Commis representing group interests. Thus the word Commis when applied to Francois Houallet's life probably had a specific meaning. One form of indirect taxes were called the Traites. The traites were custom duties that were levied upon goods entering France and goods crossing provincial borders within France. The Traites were originally contracted to, or farmed out to, five groups of financiers, and thus this area of taxation became known as the Cinq Grosses Fermes. Thus, Francois Houallet appears to have been a representative for others involved in tax contract speculation concerning Traites or customs taxes.
Because of the constant need for revenue, the French crown in the 17th century developed unique methods by which to raise revenues. The government could borrow money, but there was no central bank from which to borrow. The Catholic church and the French crown had laws which forbade lending money at interest rates above 5.5%, as lending at higher rates was considered usery. Because of the bankrupt state of the French crown, it was difficult for the crown to obtain any loans at all at this interest rate. The result was that French financiers would form consortia which would lend money to the government. Although the official interest rates of such loans would not exceed 5.5%, various mechanisms and payment schemes were developed so that lenders had an actual return greatly in excess of 5.5%. Although we do not know that Francois Houallet participated in such activities, it would have been likely for him to do so, and it would have been quite lucrative.
Another method for the French crown to obtain revenue was to sell offices. Essentially all government posts in France in the 17th century were obtained by purchase. Although the purchase amount was technically a bond from which the office-holder's salary was paid, in reality the crown was commonly in arrears in paying salaries, so that the initial money put forth by the office-holder was, in fact, a purchase of the office. In such a system, it is likely that office-holders sought the office because it afforded other access to wealth, as described above. A law put in place during the early 1600's, called the Paulette, allowed the office-holder to pay additional sums in order to allow the office-holder to be able to designate his successor in the office. By such a mechanism, offices could be handed down to succeeding generations and kept within the family.
The information above provides us with clues about our ancestors. Francois Houallet must have purchased the office of Receveur-General of Poitou. To do so, he must have had access to a very large amount of money. The most likely sources for these funds for a young man in the 1630's who was married but had not yet had children would be the dowry he received from his wife's family and his own family's money. Thus we see that the Houallet and the Barre families must have had access to wealth. In studying French culture in the 17th century, one learns that all marriages were arranged. Family ties were incredibly important, and liasons between families were founded on good marriages with the aim of improving the situations, economically, politically, and socially, of both families. One suspects, therefore, that both the Houallet and the Barre families were closely linked. These clues are likely to be important in searching for the ancestors of Francois and Elizabeth.