Nov 3, 2007

Book Review: Absolutism and Society in Seventeenth-Century France

Beik, William
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985

William Beik is professor emeritus at Emory University, and he is currently working on a synthesis entitled The Social and Cultural History of Early Modern France. Beik’s objectives in Absolutism and Society in Seventeenth-Century France were to explore the practice of absolutism using Languedoc as an example, while examining the role of individual elites within a comprehensive governmental system. The author chose Languedoc because he wanted a province “which was far enough away from Paris to have an independent existence and which offered good sources on the activities of all the major authorities,” and he found that Languedoc adequately fit these needs. Beik argued that historians should opt for a “change of emphasis in discussions of absolutism,” and that researchers of absolutist political systems should not overemphasize their modernity. Louis XIII and Louis XIV, argued the author, should be seen as monarchs who reinforced traditional social structures as a means of heightening their power as opposed to progressive rulers with forward-looking policies.

The first half of the text is devoted to a detailed examination of political, judicial, and social structures in seventeenth century Languedoc, and this material is useful for readers unfamiliar with the workings of provincial France. The book is organized in a thematic fashion, and Beik provided a significant number of tables and charts to make accessible his research data. Individual chapters are footnoted, and the author included an impressive 20-page bibliography that offers a wide range of additional reading options.

Beik identified four factors in French absolutism that historians have begun to reevaluate in their efforts to challenge the traditional historiographical assumptions about the relative successes of absolutist Bourbon regimes: venality of office, the intendant system, the role of clientage, and state finance. Venality, argued Beik, acted as a “demodernizing” force that linked absolutist rulers with feudalism, and was a “new expression of the king’s inability to control his society without conciliating his most powerful subjects.” Unlike traditional representations of intendants as powerful agents of the Crown, Beik argued, they should instead be seen as “isolated, beleaguered bearers of unpopular edicts who are threatened with denigration, pillage, and popular insurrection.” The author maintained that historians have traditionally overstated the degree to which loyalty and fidelity supported patron-client relationships in seventeenth century France, arguing instead that such connections were “often pragmatic arrangements” in which declarations of allegiance were as much a ritualistic formality as they were accurate representations of emotional attachment. Finally, in examining the role of state finance as an integral component of an absolutist regime, Beik noted that the traditional view of absolutist monarchs extracting ever-greater tax revenues as evidence of their power has given way to recognition that French tax farming was a decentralized system that simultaneously produced a new breed of parasitic financiers whose influence grew with the taxes they collected.

Map of the gouvernement of Languedoc (including Gévaudan, Velay, and Vivarais) among the former gouvernements of FranceMap of the gouvernement of Languedoc (including Gévaudan, Velay, and Vivarais) among the former gouvernements of France; click for larger image

Beik acknowledged, however, that the power of the intendants grew throughout the course of the seventeenth century. The author described the intendancy of Claude Bazin de Bezons as that of a “full-scale administrator, engaging in vast investigations” and “directing massive financial and economic projects as no previous intendant had done.” Under his successor, Henri d’Arguesseau, the office of intendant became “more a satellite of Colbert than a mere facilitator,” and with the term of service of Nicolas Lamoignon de Basville that commenced in 1685, Beik argued that the “development of the intendancy was complete.” The office of intendant, maintained Beik, evolved from one of a royal observer to an essential administrator in the emerging absolutist regime:
Between 1620 and 1690 the intendancy developed from an occasional institution attached to special missions and adjuncts of military commanders, to a full-fledged agency which had become the command center for directing and controlling royal projects in the province.
The author described the annual meting of the Estates of Languedoc as a “central bargaining place” in which the Crown and local nobility were able to work out political differences. In exchange for coming to terms with the king on matters such as taxes, fiscal edicts, and troop lodgings, the Estates were permitted to present the king’s representatives with a cahier des doléances. While the Estates scored some occasional triumphs, such as the 1632 Edict of Béziers that put a cap on the annual don gratuit (literally "free gift;" an annual subsidy paid to the Crown) collected by royal agents, over the course of the seventeenth century “Languedoc did pay much higher [tax] rates than previously… and the government did have better control.” Furthermore, noted Beik, the nature of national and provincial political structures worked against rebellion in Languedoc:
There was no real possibility of a ‘provincial front against the crown’ because of the very structure of provincial government and because the social interests of the rulers lay with the national monarchy, not with the provincial population. The rulers could not subtract their sphere from the larger polity because their authority was based on a system of shared power and gradated privilege which was presided over by the monarch.
Beik maintained that absolutism achieved successes during the reign of Louis XIV for a number of reasons, not the least of which was “the king’s particular genius” for “personifying traditional relationships while making them work through improved coordination.” In addition, the author noted that Languedocian leaders saw advantages in participating in many of the projects of Louis XIV and Colbert, while also recognizing that there were opportunities to secure personal profit in the realm of state finance. Beik argued that these factors, though, only account for part of the triumphs of the Sun King:
The reason for the adulation and conformity [by Languedocian leaders] lay deeper than particular administrative achievements which, after all, had their disadvantages as well as attractions. They lay in the very nature of absolutism as a system which protected the rank and hierarchy of a class of advantageously placed landowner-officers and in Louis’s ability to reinforce these relationships.
Absolutism and Society in Seventeenth-Century France is a thoughtful book that mixes together theories of social hierarchy and political philosophy with archival research. This text – while perhaps difficult at times for general readers to grasp – should be considered an essential component of any study of the phenomenon of French absolutism. Beik challenges traditional assumptions about absolutism with solid research, while avoiding the temptation faced by many revisionists to completely reject historiographical orthodoxy on their topic.

1 comment:

microdot said...

another book perhaps I'll have a chance to read.....
I'd like to comment more, but I am actually getting ready to leave for my first trip to the states in 2 years!
I will be in Toledo for a few days...tidy the place up, okay?