FC94: Laying the Foundations for Absolutism in France and Europe


FC94 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #2025.

The roots of the problems of state building in the 1600's, go back to the turmoil of the Dark Ages which helped give rise to two medieval institutions: feudalism and the medieval Church.  Feudalism formalized the fragmentation of France into some 300 different legal systems.  Over the centuries, custom and tradition firmly established a multitude of local rights and privileges across France. Various nobles and local officials claimed these rights, privileges, and the offices that went with them as their patrimonial birthrights.  Meanwhile, the chaos of the age helped make the medieval Church a major factor in state and society.  However, the revival of towns and trade in the High Middle Ages helped lead to the rise of kings.  They had always been recognized in theory as the rulers of France, but it had been centuries since anyone had taken them seriously. 

By the 1200's kings were making serious claims to rule in fact as well as name, strengthening those claims with the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings.  However, they were continually clashing with the Church and the locally entrenched rights and privileges that had evolved during the Dark Ages.  French courts, known as Parlements, were particularly troublesome in modifying, slowing down, or even stopping the king's decrees from being carried out.  The king could appear before the Parlements and plead his case, but that was seen as being beneath his royal dignity and was rarely done.

This made it especially difficult for kings to get new taxes, which the inflation and high military costs of the 1500's made even more necessary.  Kings had to resort to such fund raising techniques as taking out loans and selling offices and noble titles to ambitious members of the middle class.  Unfortunately, these created even bigger problems. Kings repaid loans through tax farming where creditors would collect the taxes of certain provinces.  Naturally, these creditors would take everything they could get from the provinces, which bred widespread corruption and discontent in the absence of a professional bureaucracy to check these abuses.  Selling offices and noble titles also bred corruption and made their owners tax exempt.  All this merely reduced the king's tax base even more, forcing him to sell more offices and tax farms, and so on until he was so far in debt he would declare bankruptcy or imprison his creditors on charges of corruption in order to erase his debts.

By the mid 1500's, these financial problems, combined with growing religious turmoil and continuing feudal separatism, helped trigger the French Wars of Religion which devastated France on and off for nearly forty years (1562-98).  One outcome of these wars was the willingness of people to recognize the king's power in order to ensure the peace.  The new king, Henry IV (1598-1610), and his minister, Sully, used this new attitude favoring absolutism and various economic measures to restore the power of the monarchy.  First of all, they repudiated all foreign debts, while repaying French creditors at a much lower rate of interest.  Second, they established the Paulette, a tax on hereditary offices that would partially make up for lost revenues when commoners bought into the tax-exempt ranks of the nobility.  Third, they built and repaired roads and bridges to encourage internal trade.  Finally, in the spirit of the economic theory of the day, mercantilism, which encouraged domestic industries to increase the flow of gold and silver into a country, they promoted such luxury industries as silk and tapestries to compete with foreign industries.  By the end of Henry's reign, the royal government was probably as financially solid as it had ever been.

Henry's successor, Louis XIII (1610-43), and his minister, Cardinal Richelieu, continued building royal power.  They particularly focused on breaking the power of the nobles by destroying their castles, quickly crushing any of their conspiracies, and infringing on their privileges (such as dueling).  They also excluded them from royal councils, relying more on middle class officials who had just recently bought noble titles and were thus more reliable.  By 1635, they felt France was strong enough to throw its weight into the Thirty Years War to stop Spain.  Unfortunately, the war's expense largely wrecked the progress of the last 35 years and forced Richelieu to resort increasingly on tax farming, but this time with one important innovation.

In order to protect the financiers who bought the tax farms, Richelieu created new officials known as Intendants, whose job was to report corruption and make sure the financiers got their money.  Naturally, both the financiers and intendants were quite unpopular, and got involved in numerous disputes.  However, since the intendants were new officials with no tradition of being tried in local or Church courts, all their cases went to the royal courts, which favored them and the king's interests.  Eventually, Richelieu expanded the intendants' authority, making them supreme in all provincial affairs and rearranging the provinces into 32 non-feudal districts known as generalites.  This neatly sidestepped the firmly entrenched interests of local authorities and laid the foundations for more thorough royal control of the provinces and France under Louis XIV.