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Old October 30th, 2009, 05:17 PM   #1

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How Successful was Absolutism in France?


Hello,

Recently, I've been breaking away from the Italian Renaissance and learning about Early Modern Europe (17th century). One of the major factors affecting Early Modern Europe was obviously the implementation of Absolutism in France. This trend started with the Catholic-convert Henry IV all the way up to the end of Louis XIV. Significant figures at this time were Sully, Richelieu, Colbert, the Fronde, the Huguenots etc. Key events include the implication (1598) and revoking (1685) of the Edict of Nantes, the time of which was a turbulent era in religion. Another key event was the Bartholomew's Day Riot (which may or may not be the doings of Catherine de' Medici).

Although, most religious persecution had a political/economic motive about it, like the sack of La Rochelle, the rich Huguenot port in France.

French classicism and the ability of Louis XIV to establish a centralized French culture was also a major factor. He sold propaganda ("the Sun King"), a feat hardly new as it was also used to large extents by Cardinal Richelieu.

The demise of Spain was arguably another factor in the rise of the French Monarchy, although, the demise of Spain was more due to bad financial planning. The War of the Spanish Succession and the Treaty of Utrecht were also instrumental in the implication/failure of absolutism in France. Another area of interest are the English monarchs of Charles II and his agreement with the French as well as James II and his forced abdication. The Dutch were also factors in success/failure of absolutism.


So my question is, please evaluate how successful the attempt of absolutism was in France.

Also, hero or villain: Cardinal Richelieu. How was he significant?
Sully? Colbert? Mercantilism?
Significance of the implication/revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

A lot of info and questions, I know, but it's rather provoking, no?
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Old October 31st, 2009, 03:46 AM   #2

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Re: How Successful was Absolutism in France?


On the success of absolutism:

Okay this is indeed a large portion of items to be discussed and on each one a lot of information can be given, but to stick with the single question of 'the succes of absolutism' first, I would give a mixed answer.

It was both succesful and a failure at the same time. It was succesful cause Louis XIV did reign supreme and threw for over half a century everything that France had in the battle over Europe (so to say). He did this by curbing internal opposition and making the state and his dynasty (though he used to refer to the abstract concept of the state a lot he still had an emphasis on his own dynasty, contrary to the enlightened despots, Louis XV turned the clock back and only talked about his dynasty, never using the term 'state' but this is another item). Both the nobility and the peasantry were forced in line and the days of revolts were over. Never again would unruly nobles rush in the room of a young king while he was sleeping, scaring the living daylights out of him. It would be Condé himselve, who once led the nobility and seemingly achieved a victory that would then bow to the king and lead his armies to victory. Not just the nobility but also the peasants would be kept in check as throughout his reigns their uprisings were curbed and ultimately be silenced for over a century.

But we immediately see that in doing so Louis XIV put a strain on his country, a strain that would affect his immediate successors to the point that Louis XVI would have to assemble the Etats Généraux with the known consequences (this to is another item).

Why did France ultimately fail in her ambitions? The key factor is that Louis XIV did ultimately not succeed in breaking with the heritage of the past. More or less he simply centered power around Bourbon and the 'state' - contrary to around the selfrigtheous nobility - but did not succeed in creating a basis which would last. Louis XIV had so to say a good time: France was still a virgin to be used, while Louis XVI had to do with an old and used up woman (hope that I don't offend any women here). The administrative and economical system which was imposed on France was fundamentally flawed (people might be familiar with the salt taxes and the insane difference in price just across the other river, the smuggling etc etc etc etc). In the long run France would pay the price for this, but that wouldn't be under Louis XIV, although the country was already moaning under the pressure by the end of his reign in the SWOS (1700-1715).

On the contrary it was England later Great-Britain that set the path to the future with parliament and the involvement of the bourgeoisie, the fiscal-administrative complex here was much more flexible then that in continental Europe and would ultimately be the biggest reason in their capability to wage wars on par with the biggest players (for they were no demographical giant like France). In France it would be Napoleon that would pull open all registers on the resources France had, and even his road was still fundamentally a dead end.

So a seemingly succesful absolutism in France was ultimately a dead end that when it had used up all the resources it could, found itself banging her head against her own limits.

On Richelieu, Colbert, etc:

Villains or heroes, I'd say both and none at the same time. The approach of 'hero/villain' is from a historical perspective unfruitful. Let us simply say (for now) that they were all men with goals and the will and talent to achieve them .
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Old November 1st, 2009, 03:34 AM   #3

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Re: How Successful was Absolutism in France?


Quote:
Originally Posted by Hopeless03 View Post
Hello,

Recently, I've been breaking away from the Italian Renaissance and learning about Early Modern Europe (17th century). One of the major factors affecting Early Modern Europe was obviously the implementation of Absolutism in France. This trend started with the Catholic-convert Henry IV all the way up to the end of Louis XIV.
The trend (or at least the will) was there during medieval times. Someone who did a lot towards the strengthening of power in the hands of the king was Louis XI. He took rebellious nobles on one by one and destroyed those with too much power. Also, he employed mostly commoners in important positions and was therefore even less in need of them. Perhaps most importantly, he destroyed the independence of Burgundy, whose dukes had been a big threat to the kings of France in the fifteenth century.
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Old November 1st, 2009, 04:56 AM   #4

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Re: How Successful was Absolutism in France?


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The trend (or at least the will) was there during medieval times. Someone who did a lot towards the strengthening of power in the hands of the king was Louis XI. He took rebellious nobles on one by one and destroyed those with too much power. Also, he employed mostly commoners in important positions and was therefore even less in need of them. Perhaps most importantly, he destroyed the independence of Burgundy, whose dukes had been a big threat to the kings of France in the fifteenth century.
The trend has always been there, but succes was generally very limited. The Estates were ever-present.

Burgundy, or rather Charles (who wasn't a competitor for the French throne anyway), father of Mary, destroyed himself at Nancy, though the efforts of Louis XI against him were fruitful, it was ultimately his death that dealt a stinging blow to the dreams of a new Middle Empire. Moreover, Maximilian retained most of the Burgundian heritage (they lost very little overall) and Charles V would in an exhausting struggle finally tame the French beast of Francis, exhausting the country and helping to throw the country in inner turmoil. The civil and religious wars of the 2nd half of the 16th century heralded a defeat of the efforts of previous Valois kings. And even so, those efforts have to be put in perspective: they weren't nearly as thorough as those of the Bourbons.
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Old November 1st, 2009, 05:37 PM   #5
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Re: How Successful was Absolutism in France?


Cardinal Richelieu: A True Pioneer of Conducting Smart Foreign Policy.

I could drone on about Richelieu and how I think he's a hero, but to sum it up, he did not let his religious interests effect international affairs and security. He was a true Catholic (helping Louis with the Edict of Nantes), but he supported the Protestant Netherlands in their war against the Holy Roman Empire because the HRE and France clashed.
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Old November 1st, 2009, 10:11 PM   #6

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Re: How Successful was Absolutism in France?


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Originally Posted by gaius valerius View Post
The trend has always been there, but succes was generally very limited. The Estates were ever-present.

Burgundy, or rather Charles (who wasn't a competitor for the French throne anyway), father of Mary, destroyed himself at Nancy, though the efforts of Louis XI against him were fruitful, it was ultimately his death that dealt a stinging blow to the dreams of a new Middle Empire. Moreover, Maximilian retained most of the Burgundian heritage (they lost very little overall) and Charles V would in an exhausting struggle finally tame the French beast of Francis, exhausting the country and helping to throw the country in inner turmoil. The civil and religious wars of the 2nd half of the 16th century heralded a defeat of the efforts of previous Valois kings. And even so, those efforts have to be put in perspective: they weren't nearly as thorough as those of the Bourbons.
Burgundy wasn't dangerous because they were competitors for the French throne, but because of their wealth and independence from it. Louis' alliances, economic sanctions and sly methods were ultimately what exhausted the duke and got him destroyed (it helped that Charles wasn't exactly the most prudent of men). With him the other rebellious nobles lost their most powerful figurehead and it became easier for him to take them down one by one.

He also granted privileges to cities, thereby strengthening their power vs their neighboring nobles, something that couldn't be turned back later. He also improved the way taxes were collected, so that the crown obtained more money. Another important thing was that he had a system of post horses set up, so that communication was improved.

Before Louis, lots of noble houses basically ran wild. Louis' reign was important for absolutism because of him breaking too dangerous nobles, giving power and functions to towns and the central government that had been in the hands of nobles first.

The religious wars of the sixteenth century caused chaos, but a lot of what Louis had done stayed intact and was something the Bourbons could further build on.
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Old November 2nd, 2009, 07:37 PM   #7

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Re: How Successful was Absolutism in France?


Gaius Valerius, thank you for your insightful post. It's clear you know a lot about this period. I'm glad you took the time.

Although the Burbons were the closest to Absolutism in Western Europe, I don't think any nation did achieve (or could achieve) true absolutism. The heritage of the great nobles were just too great, as well as Sully's Paulette in creating a new hereditary office of the upper middle class Robe Nobility (The problems of which were later seen in the Fronde). It kinda back-lashed on Anne of Austria and Louis XIV, despite Henry IV's intentions on lessening the burden on the peasantry.

Of course the economic sector was the major weak link in France due to inadequate tax collection, among other things. The agricultural sector was often in crisis due to heavy taxation while tax collectors were often corrupt. Louis XIV did solve much of these problems but instead of crushing the nobles, he co-opted them instead.

We must then distinguish pragmatic absolutism from theoretical absolutism and figure out how close France was.

Quote:
Originally Posted by huskerguy77 View Post
Cardinal Richelieu: A True Pioneer of Conducting Smart Foreign Policy.

I could drone on about Richelieu and how I think he's a hero, but to sum it up, he did not let his religious interests effect international affairs and security. He was a true Catholic (helping Louis with the Edict of Nantes), but he supported the Protestant Netherlands in their war against the Holy Roman Empire because the HRE and France clashed.

But on the flip side, I could say that Richelieu was a villain who used propaganda, killed a great number of suspects and justifed what he did by attributing it to God.

Not that I disagree with you, I agree that Richelieu is a great minister and a very intelligent man, but I'm playing the devil's advocate here.

Richelieu often defines absolutism, agree, disagree? But what historical evidence proves/disproves this statement?
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Old November 3rd, 2009, 05:26 AM   #8

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Re: How Successful was Absolutism in France?


His very behaviour. Richelieu his policy you can say had 2 parts: first of all to advance the power of the king within France, this especially meant curbing the nobility. Secondly, the power of Bourbon was not only to increase within but also outside France, which meant a confrontation with Habsburg, the hereditary enemy of Valois/Bourbon since the days of Maximilian. Thirdly you might add he also sought to strengthen his own position. Absolutism as a uniform system does obviously not exist, , just as mercantilism doesn't exist, it is merely the name which we use to describe the various policies of dynasties/states to reach certain goals. And in the case of absolutists policies these varied in each place, absolutism in France was a different beast then that of Spain. In France the policy to enhance royal power against the nobility in this period go back to Catherina de Médici, and follow a straight line over Richelieu and Mazarin to Louis XIV, who seemingly completed the process. Under Richelieu plotters were executed, for example Chalais in 1626, Montmorency (who rose in rebellion) in 1632 and Cinq-Mars in 1642. A better example of his actions can hardly be given. The Grandees no longer received the highest military commands. The office of Constable and Admiral of France were abolished, unreliable nobles were removed from governorships along the frontiers. The greatest problem for royal supporters was the sheer size of France, ultimately being the greatest handicap to curb noble rebellion. This is the main reason why despite the successive efforts of men like Richelieu, the Frondé still happened, yet it was the last staunch effort of the nobles to assert their ancient rights until 1789. The nobility was even more then the crown at an absolute disadvantage, one which the Frondé highligths as well: they operated from a narrow powerbase, namely their own region. The king stood above this, but the nobles were always tied to local and regional networks of power. Louis XIV would ultimately redefine the purpose of the nobility, fitting them into the framework of his new France. Condé who but a decaded earlier commanded a Spanish army against France, now did his kings bidding without a second thought. As said the burden placed upon France by successive bids for dominance and the accompaning warfare ultimately in 1789 created an opening for the nobility to rear their head again, and often people forget that the French Revolution started with what you can describe as nothing less but a noble coup d'état.


Another important note is what is absolutism? In highschool you are bombarded with vague facts and half truths without the time or will to really dig deeper. Reading up on the subject quickly reveals the weakness of the assumptions held from such education. So the question rises: how absolute were early modern rules? How absolute were the acts they commited? Absolutism is also often wrongfully associated with kings and royal power. Better it would be to describe it as policy to assert power over others. In Poland the high nobility held hostage the king, absolutism was not an exclusive right for the king, it was one of many ways to assert government power. Another example in this direction is that after 1640 English parliament wielded more power then any English monarch ever before or ever after. Spinoza even argued that absolute sovereignity only belongs to the common people. So there is more to it then the believes of Le Bret, Strafford, Olivares, Richelieu and many others supporting the king.

Similarly even absolutist sovereigns had boundaries to respect. Le Bret in 1632 wrote that royal sovereignity was unlimited but that private property had to be respected, that he could not alter the succession to the throne nor could he issue orders contrary to divine law. Another exponent of royal absolutism, Bossuet, argued that the king was above the law, only because he was fount of the law, not because he was intending to break it.

The question whether acts of sovereigns were 'absolute' ultimately comes down to a more philosophical inquiry rather then a historical one, which has been argued enough above. Most broadly put, every royal decree de facto is absolute. Another example could be when raison d'état dictated one sided action like political assassination. How absolute where absolute acts of rulers? An example often given is the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, but this is ironically the worst example of an absolutist act one can think of (though not depicted as such in lower education). The revocation only came after a few decades of persecution that originated not from Louis XIV, but from the lower levels of administration. Absolutist acts are in other words not that easy to define. Another assumption is that absolutism means to rule without the Estates, but though rulers would prefer to rule without the latter, this doesn't de facto mean that to rule without consulting your Estates means absolutism. Bourbon France is a perfect example - also in the light of the OP - for though the Estates weren't called forth from 1614-1789, France wasn't short on representative assemblies. A general rule is that no western monarchy could rule completely free from consulting parts of their elites. In France Richelieu for example did not call upon the Estates, but that didn't keep him from calling together the Assembly of Notables. Similarly the Habsburg Castillian rulers did not call upon the Cortes after 1665, they simply consulted the individual cities directly. The reason is that Ancient Régime societies were highly complex amalgans of various classes and networks, to rule and enforcement of law could be done not solely by relying on representative bodies, there were also regional assemblies, the power of the church, of city corporations, etc.
Another faulty assumption is that when absolutism flourished, this meant a crushing of the power and privileges of the ruling elites, that taxes increased, etc, a view which in other words suggests solely coercion. But nothing could be less true. Sully himselve argued that the intention was never to crush the nobility, but simply to redefine her position within a state-dictated framework. Sovereigns like Isabella of Castille and Henry IV were succesful in absolutist policies with a minimum amount of coercion. The emerging power of the state hence has more to do with consent then coercion. The 17th century might have been more absolute then the 16th, however this change was political rather then legal: the old laws were simply reasserted more vigorously and made more effective, not fundamentally changed.
On another the crown often did not act according to the ideas of royal supporters like Loyseau and Le Bret, who hammered the importance of the law and tradition. They did also revert to coercion, let us be clear that sovereigns did usurp ecclastial rights, did arrest and execute nobles, levied uncalled taxes and broke laws. This simply cause they could. As mentioned above the opponents of royal sovereigns were fundamentally handicapped due to being divided. In 1614 the Estates were literally annihilated in their efforts by the king and the Frondé failed just as miserably. Nevertheless, despite an amount of coercion, the rise of absolutist power of the monarch never did effect the power of the elites (which would have been contrary to royal theory anyway): power shifted within the elites, not away from. Often war played an important role for the sovereign to direct noble power, for it was his power alone to declare war. However that sword cuts both ways, for wars not only meant more taxes could be levied, that industries (weapons, munition, uniforms, etc) would flourish, that a professional army corps free from noble control as in the old days could be trained, etc, war also meant a continuous burden on the resources of the states and its elites. The more professional army still relied on nobles to take commanding positions, and hence, war not simply gave the king more power, it also stimulated the power of the elites. Moreover, the enormous cost of the military operations placed a severe burden on the state, finally leading in the case of France to the Revolution in 1789.

Last edited by gaius valerius; November 3rd, 2009 at 06:08 AM.
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Old November 3rd, 2009, 12:38 PM   #9
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Re: How Successful was Absolutism in France?


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Gaius Valerius, thank you for your insightful post. It's clear you know a lot about this period. I'm glad you took the time.

Although the Burbons were the closest to Absolutism in Western Europe, I don't think any nation did achieve (or could achieve) true absolutism. The heritage of the great nobles were just too great, as well as Sully's Paulette in creating a new hereditary office of the upper middle class Robe Nobility (The problems of which were later seen in the Fronde). It kinda back-lashed on Anne of Austria and Louis XIV, despite Henry IV's intentions on lessening the burden on the peasantry.

Of course the economic sector was the major weak link in France due to inadequate tax collection, among other things. The agricultural sector was often in crisis due to heavy taxation while tax collectors were often corrupt. Louis XIV did solve much of these problems but instead of crushing the nobles, he co-opted them instead.

We must then distinguish pragmatic absolutism from theoretical absolutism and figure out how close France was.




But on the flip side, I could say that Richelieu was a villain who used propaganda, killed a great number of suspects and justifed what he did by attributing it to God.

Not that I disagree with you, I agree that Richelieu is a great minister and a very intelligent man, but I'm playing the devil's advocate here.

Richelieu often defines absolutism, agree, disagree? But what historical evidence proves/disproves this statement?
Yes, it's freaky that the man with this intelligence was a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. As a result, he believed that his actions in centralizing power in France, were for God, were fore the king (who was chosen by divine right). However, when it came to dealing with international relations, none of that mattered because France needed to be #1.

Richelieu was a scary man. The influence he had...I mean even the portraits of him would send fear down some spies. A smart man, that's very religious, that holds influence over a country would scare anybody.
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Old November 3rd, 2009, 08:37 PM   #10

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Re: How Successful was Absolutism in France?


I will reply to all these posts later, when I have enough time/sleep to type coherently.

I just have one pressing question that Gaius's very insightful post brought to my mind.

In Central-Eastern Europe, how did serfdom contribute to absolutism? Did it make a significant difference between the West and the East (especially Russia) in terms of absolutism?

Also, I agree. Richelieu's secular style of ruling mixed in with his religious belief did indeed make him formidable. It is sad how 19th century romanticism painted him to be such a notorious ******* (for lack of a better term)

Again, thanks to Gaius for the long and very well-organized post. I love reading them.
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