New York: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1987
Roger Mettam recently retired from Queen Mary, University of London, but his Power and Faction in Louis XIV’s France remains an essential text in the study of the political phenomenon known as absolutism. Mettam argued that historians have traditionally relied too heavily on seventeenth-century government propaganda, court narratives, and outdated historiographical models that overstate the degree to which the reign of Louis XIV can be described as absolutist. Instead, maintained Mettam, the lengthy personal rule of the Sun King should instead be viewed as one in which the French monarchy simply recovered its traditional powers, and that the attempts by Louis to expand his power into new facets of French life – and thus achieve a greater degree of absolute rule – were largely unsuccessful. Moreover, argued the author, historians have misinterpreted the sociopolitical structure of seventeenth-century France, and French monarchs of the period should more correctly be seen as successful power brokers than as absolute rulers:
It was because of their greater skill in balancing and manipulating power groups, and not through any extension of their own absolute authority, that Henry IV and Louis XIV created the reputation which some historians have described as absolute monarchy.Mettam began by providing readers with an overview of French politics in le dix-septième siècle, and the author defined a successful monarch in this period as “one who managed to keep all the volatile elements at court, and by extension in the country, in a state of equilibrium.” One of the strengths of Louis XIV, argued Mettam, was his ability to use his patronage as a means to “neutralize the power of his most ambitious subjects,” and the Sun King exploited client-patron relationships as a tool to achieve political equilibrium. Mettam held that French society in the age of Louis XIV was a “complex network of interdependent relationships,” unlike traditional historiographical accounts that depicted a world in which the kind was both the center and fount of all power.
The high levels of debt and poor creditworthiness of the French crown after decades of continental and civil warfare, argued Mettam, left Louis XIV with “a very limited range of options in 1659” as he prepared to assume personal rule. Moreover, the legacy of the Frondes – which Mettam argued was provoked by the French monarchy and gave “common grievance to many different sorts of people” – was that Louis XIV began his rule with clear knowledge that he must “proceed with caution, respecting traditional rights and privileges,” and avoiding the sort of arbitrary rule that would lead to a recurrence of united opposition against the monarchy.
Left: Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French minister of finance from 1665 to 1683
The personal rule of Louis XIV has been depicted by historians of absolutism as the apex of absolutist rule, and Mettam devoted a significant portion of his book to a careful examination of the nature of the authority of the Sun King. Mettam argued that Louis desired to “create the impression of a new beginning” by replacing a few prominent advisors, but that there remained a great deal of continuity in policy with his predecessors on the French throne. Moreover, the author argued that the earlier tendency by absolutist historians to describe the reign of Louis XIV as one filled with reform-minded and forward-looking les hommes nouveaux ("new men") was an overstatement, and that Jean-Baptiste Colbert was the only “real newcomer.” Mettam argued that Colbert, however, was an advisor prone to “continuing an established tradition,” and that “many of the principles underlying his plans for economic expansion stemmed from theories that had been current in the reign of Henry IV.” The author also rejected the claim by some absolutist historians that the intendants represented “cornerstones of absolutism” during the reign of Louis XIV, arguing instead that these crown representatives were viewed as outsiders by provincial elites, and that the intendants were largely ineffective as agents of change. Mettam held that, far from being an ideal of absolutism, Louis XIV maintained a “façade of change” and labored “to restore the traditional social order and to rebuild good relations with the provincial and institutional elites.” The author, however, paid little attention to such significant factors as the 1682 Declaration of the Clergy of France, the 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau, and the Code Louis in his assessment of French absolutism during the reign of Louis XIV, leaving knowledgeable readers with the impression that Mettam focused only on those aspects of the reign of Le Roi Soleil that fit his theory.
Mettam followed a thematic approach in this text, which incorporates political, diplomatic, and sociological history in its examination of the rule of Louis XIV. The text contains few footnotes, and the accompanying bibliography is surprisingly thin on secondary sources. Of particular annoyance to this reviewer was the poor quality of the index of the book, which lacked entries for common terms associated with the reign of Louis XIV. Still, Power and Faction in Louis XIV’s France serves an important role in curbing some of the historiographical excesses by earlier writers, and the text should be considered an integral component of any serious reading on the subject of French absolutism.