Jul 22, 2006

Book Review:A History of France, 1460-1560 - The Emergence of a Nation-State


Potter, David

New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995, 438 pages

Potter is the director of Centre for Medieval and Tudor Studies at the University of Kent, and among his research interests are the French aristocracy in the 16th century and Renaissance diplomacy. Both of these areas are highlighted in A History of France, and yet the text goes far beyond the mere political history suggested in the book’s title and the chapter headings. Potter also incorporates economic, social, and literary history into a synthesis that makes a convincing case for an earlier rise of French nationalism than traditional historians have claimed.

The author eschewed a chronological approach in favor of organizing the text around a series of themes. Even within the thematic schema Potter avoided the temptation to follow strict chronology, and he showed a remarkable ability to jump between periods while maintaining narrative cohesion. Potter began with a brief overview of late medieval French political, social, and economic conditions, and proceeded to examine the monarchy, the nobility, the Catholic Church, and the systems of taxation that existed in the century preceding the Wars of Religion. The author also devoted chapters to French foreign policy and the rise of a central bureaucracy during the period.

Potter argued that the monarchy in this period of state emergence engaged in both conscious and subconscious efforts to incorporate symbolic ritual into political life as a means of reinforcing central authority. While cautioning readers against assuming that such “fictions” were interpreted literally by the populace, the author nonetheless created a convincing argument for the simultaneous rise of national mythology and that of a nascent French nationalism. State symbols, such as the fleur-de-lis, began to prominently appear in French Catholic churches during this time, as was the symbolic use of the sun to denote royal power (later to be employed to greater effect during the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King).

Left: 15th-century stained glass featuring fleur-de-lis in cathedral of St. Etienne in Bourges

Also contributing to the emergence of the idea of a unified French state, according to Potter, was the growth of the royal court as a political and cultural center. Rather than seeing the court exist as a “beleaguered island” in a sea of incivility, as many traditional historians have maintained, Potter argued that the royal court acted as a magnet for those seeking favor with the monarch. The author also argued that, by the late fifteenth century, the courts of great principalities such as those in Bourbon and Moulins could no longer compete with the grandeur of the royal court. The ability of the court to offer access to the king, with his ability to dole out cherished political positions, created by the late fifteenth century a view that the court of the French monarch was the center of activity, and subtly reinforced the idea of a centralized French state.

The rise of a distinct class of royal officials, in Potter’s estimation, served a number of purposes that helped foster the emergence of a unified France. Such pensioned positions created hierarchical competition between the traditional nobility and those who sought to improve their lot in life through royal patronage. The growth of the royal administrators – often drawn from the ranks of the traditional nobility – simultaneously meant that a larger portion of collected taxes found its way into royal coffers instead of traditional noble pockets. Potter argued that what emerged in the sixteenth century was a nascent centralized administration composed of individuals with greater allegiance to the crown who were “effective guarantors of the unity of the kingdom.”
Potter disagreed with traditional assessments of the French nobility that suggest that nobles, as a group, entered into a period of economic decline that forced them to become dependent upon the largesse of the crown in order to survive. Instead, Potter argued that the nobility “gradually adapted to new political conditions that precluded the automatic control of provincial power by great magnates and their retinues.” Rather than being forced from the traditional ideals of military leadership and landed gentry, French nobles willingly entered the competitive field of royal administration as a means to improve their financial position and their individual status. Such closer association with the crown, argued Potter, also meant that the traditional suspicion and hostility with which the French nobility viewed the monarchy began to fade into the background.

Potter maintained that the close association between church and state in early modern France also helped reinforce the concept of a unified nation, while simultaneously stifling the spread of Protestantism in France. By the reign of Henry II, Protestants came to be viewed not only as heretics but also as traitors, for the renunciation of the Gallican church was, ipso facto, an abomination in the eyes of both God and king. By the time of the Wars of Religion the interconnectedness between church and state had produced strong bonds that could not be easily severed by the religious fervor of the Calvinists.

Prior familiarity with the history of the Reformation and the history of France are helpful when digesting The Emergence of a Nation-State. Readers should have at ready reference both French and Latin dictionaries, as Potter was oftentimes overly generous with the dispensation of foreign terms. Still, the text provides ample literature review for the various themes, and Potter’s own interpretations of the century preceding the Wars of Religion are stellar. This text should be considered the definitive synthesis of the period it covers, and should also be on the shelf of every early modern Europeanist.


liberal_dem said...

Potter began with a brief overview of late medieval French political, social, and economic conditions, and proceeded to examine the monarchy, the nobility, the Catholic Church, and the systems of taxation that existed in the century preceding the Wars of Religion.

Were it not for the so-called 'Wars of Religion' I would be blogging in France et écriture mon essai en français.

Kate said...

Is this your summer reading? I haven't read this one - I'll see if I can get one at the library.

Hooda Thunkit said...

This sounds like a work that only a serious history academician could love.

And, I thought that "Europeanist" meant that you could play the piano...

Perhaps that's why I never became a rocket scientist ;-)