Sep 29, 2007

Book Review: Absolutism in Seventeenth-Century Europe

Louis XIV, baptised as Louis-Dieudonné, King of France and of NavarreMiller, John (ed.)
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990

Left: Louis XIV of France

John Miller assembled historians with specialties across the European continent for this collection of essays on seventeenth-century absolutism. The authors typically focused on the most exemplary of monarchs depicted as absolutist in nature; Roger Mettam’s chapter on France, for example, highlighted Louis XIV, while Jean Bérenger examined the reign of Leopold I in his essay on absolutist Austria. While the contributing authors in Absolutism in Seventeenth-Century Europe approached the topic from a variety of methodological and philosophical perspectives, most of the essays tended to downplay or even disagree with the idea that there existed absolutist regimes in this period of European history.

The book is organized in thematic fashion, with each chapter dedicated to one of the seventeenth-century European powers. The contributing authors provided a wealth of footnotes for their sources, which tended more toward the secondary than the primary. There is a cross-referenced index that is quite thorough in its depth, and Miller provided a brief biography for each of the contributors. Unfortunately, there is no bibliography that accompanies the text, forcing readers who desire additional information on absolutism to pick through footnotes for bibliographical material.

J.H. Burns contributed an informative essay entitled “The Idea of Absolutism” that traced the evolution of absolutist theory, both in historiographical and philosophical terms. Burns credited Perry Anderson and his Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974) with being one of the most influential texts that support the idea of the presence of absolutist regimes in seventeenth-century Europe.

Mettam, as would be expected, disputed the idea that the term “absolutism” could be used to accurately describe seventeenth-century France during the reign of Louis XIV. For the Sun King, argued Mettam, absolutism remained “a hope rather than a certainty,” and the author dissected many facets of the Bourbon ruler’s sovereignty that have often been described as absolutist. Mettam dismissed the idea that the king and the parlements were often at odds with one another during the reign of Louis XIV – which might support the idea of an absolutist regime – citing recent research that indicates the conseil prive and the parlements “worked closely together in their attempts to give good justice.” Mettam also argued that the noblesse d’épée were quite vocal in their criticisms of Louis XIV throughout his reign, and that noble members of such international aristocratic houses as Guise, Bouillon, and Rohan often interfered with and influenced French foreign policy. While acknowledging the expulsion of the Huguenots with the 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau, Mettam argued that “most of the royal plans for reducing papal interference in the internal affairs of the realm were unsuccessful,” citing such failed attempts by Louis XIV to divert papal revenues to the treasury and to sieze papal territory in Avignon. Moreover, noted Mettam, the attack on the Huguenots unleashed a period of blistering criticism by French writers who were “focused on the inadequacies of this particular king.”

Philip IV (Felipe IV), King of Spain from 1621 to 1665Left: Philip IV (Felipe IV), King of Spain from 1621 to 1665

The essay by I.A.A. Thompson on the question of absolutism in Spain begins with a title – “Castile” – that hints at the author’s perspective. Seventeenth-century Spanish monarchs, argued Thompson, ruled over territories in the Iberian peninsula, the Americas, the Italian peninsula, the Low Countries, and in the Far East, and subservience to the crown began a downward-oriented slope the further one traveled from Castile. Thompson noted that there was no belief among subjects of a divine origin of the Castilian monarch, citing a 1523 Cortes ruling that informed Charles V that he was the created “mercenary” of the people. While acknowledging that the Castilian monarch alone possessed the power to make laws, Thompson noted that the Cortes retained the right to determine “the legitimate form and substance of royal decreees and how they were to be received.” During the reign of Philip IV, argued Thompson, financial grants by the Cortes represented 60 percent of royal revenue, and many of these grants carried the stipulation that full administration of the associated monies remained in the hands of local officials. Thompson summarized the state of Castilian royal absolutism as “the maximum concentration of authority at the summit, and the minimum extension of power to the base.”

Philip Longworth, in “The Emergence of Absolutism in Russia,” argued that the traditional dating of Russian absolutism to the reign of Peter the Great is faulty, as “the chief elements of absolutism… were already established by 1700,” and that the entrenchment of absolutism should more accurately be attributed to the period of rule of Peter’s father, Tsar Alexis I (1645-76). Among the accomplishments of Alexis that Longworth argued have been overlooked by historians of absolutism include the formation of a modern army, the encouraged influx of Western technological specialists, and the development of legislation that fostered Russian-style mercantilism.

Absolutism in Seventeenth-Century Europe also includes essays that examine the phenomenon of absolutism in such European countries as Sweden, Brandenburg-Prussia, Austria, and Britain. Several of the essays also included discussions about contemporaneous theorists of absolutism-related philosophies, such as Jean Bodin, Thomas Hobbes, and Justus Lipsius. While the contributing authors, in general, question the degree to which seventeenth-century European monarchs achieved absolutist regimes, the essays should be considered essential reading for scholars and non-specialists desirous of understanding the origins and effectiveness of European absolutism.


Jay Cam said...

lol philip had a beastly mustache

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