In Chapter III, Book II of The Wealth of Nations (Adam Smith), the author wrote:

If you except Rouen and Bourdeaux, there is little trade or industry in any of the parliament towns of France; and the inferior ranks of people, being chiefly maintained by the expense of the members of the courts of justice, and of those who come to plead before them, are in general idle and poor.

I have looked into the definitions of "parliament" in Oxford Dictionary but cannot find a appropriate meaning for the word when it comes with "towns".

So what does "parliament towns" mean?

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    I’m voting to close this question because it's about social history, not the use of English as such Jun 2, 2020 at 16:15
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    @FumbleFingers No it's not: it's "What is a parliament town?" Is it a town with a parliament? If not, what? Perhaps some formatting might help...
    – Andrew Leach
    Jun 2, 2020 at 16:42
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    I've interpreted the question as being, "What did Adam Smith mean by parliament towns?" The OP is requesting a definition of that term. Jun 3, 2020 at 8:09

2 Answers 2


In England, a "parliament-town" was a town which returned at least one Member of Parliament. This appeared in "Mr Anderson's Chronology of Commerce" in The Gentleman's and London Magazine: Or Monthly Chronologer of April 1764, which allows the meaning to be deduced from the context:

Image of entry in the publication, from Google Books

1283: The English Parliament constituted of Knights, Citizens, and Burgesses, as well as of Lords spiritual and temporal. But the Representatives of cities and towns sat in a chamber separate from the Barons and Knights. Yet several counties had no parliament-towns.

What it is in the history of France may be another matter; but since it was in common use in England at around the time of Smith (1723–1790), he may well have used the expression to mean the same thing — towns returning at least one member of the French parliament of the time.

[This would appear to be an omission in OED, where the head word parliament has 32 uses as an attributive noun. "Parliament town" is not among them.]


Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, so he was referring to institutions that existed under the Ancien Régime -- that is, under the French monarchy before the 1789 Revolution.

Parlements in France were not the same thing as the English Parliament was then or as most parliaments are today. Adam Smith may have used the term "parliament" fairly liberally to translate the word parlement.

Parlements were courts, not legislative bodies. They were the judicial system's final court of appeal, and by 1789 there were 13 of them throughout the regions of France. The judges were members of the nobility and apparently quite powerful, as the monarch's edicts became official in their regions only after the parlements published them. They tended to have an adversarial relationship with the crown, due to a longstanding power struggle. They were abolished during the aftermath of the Revolution in 1790.

While the parlements covered regions, they were named for towns. Two of them were the Parlement de Rouen and the Parlement de Bordeaux, which were located -- not surprisingly -- in the towns of Rouen and Bordeaux, mentioned in the cited passage by Adam Smith. Others were located in towns including Paris, Grenoble, Rennes, Toulouse, Pau, Besançon, Metz, Nancy, Douai, Dijon, and Aix.

Searching in Google Books, I found a reference to the term villes parlementaires in a book called Parlements et parlementaires : Bordeaux au grand siècle by Caroline Le Mao (Editions Champ Vallon, 2007). She compares Bordeaux to "other villes parlementaires like Dijon or Besançon".

Translating villes parlementaires as "parliament towns", would be the likeliest choice, both now and in 1776 (as a speaker of both French and English, I'll vouch for that). It seems likely that this is exactly what Adam Smith did.

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