Dec 15, 2007

Book Review: Absolutism and Its Discontents: State and Society in Seventeenth-Century France and England

Absolutism and Its Discontents - State and Society in Seventeenth-Century France and England, by Michael S. KimmelKimmel, Michael S.
New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1988

Michael S. Kimmel is a professor of sociology at SUNY-Stony Brook whose recent work has moved away from the historical sociology methods used in Absolutism and Its Discontents. Unlike interpretations by doctrinaire Marxists, who argue that early modern change occurred at the level of production, Kimmel argued that absolutism was a “transitional social formation, the political form of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.” The author examines the English Revolution and the Fronde, which were seventeenth century events that Kimmel argued were “movements of resistance against a perceived absolutist centralization of political power in the hands of the monarchy.” Revolutions, noted the author, have historically been social and political responses to state fiscal crises more than any other factor, and Kimmel is especially interested in this text as to the reasons why these nearly simultaneous attempts at revolution led to such divergent outcomes.

Kimmel argued that there are four issues upon which “dynamic tension” exists between state and society: the preservation of property relations, the maintenance of order and stability, the military resources of the state, and resources from taxation. The manner in which the French and English societies and states interacted with these factors, maintained Kimmel, determined the direction in which their respective revolutions headed. Ultimately, noted the author, the differences between the English Revolution and the Fronde can be attributed to the fact that the “impulse for change in the relationship between state and society came from the crown in France and from mobilizing social forces in England.”
Despite the opulence exhibited by the French crown, Kimmel maintained that seventeenth-century France “was also a very poor country.” French monarchs ruled over a land that failed to maximize its agricultural, commercial, and industrial potential, and Kimmel estimated that “over 80 percent of the population was chronically malnourished.” The author argued that absolutism developed under Louis XIII and his finance minister, Cardinal Richelieu, as a “method of meeting fiscal demands without generating social reform.” Absolutism, maintained Kimmel, was “both the cause and the outcome of Richelieu’s fiscal policies,” and the finance minister’s efforts to extract revenue from every conceivable source led to increases in both government centralization and political opposition to the Bourbon regime.

Louis XIII of France, also Louis II of Navarre, also called Louis the Just, King of France and NavarreLeft: King Louis XIII of France

Richelieu’s attempts to increase tax revenues without structural reform, argued Kimmel, highlighted the “contradictions of absolutism.” The French crown achieved a degree of increased centralization and minimal increases in revenue, but the costs of the new administration of Richelieu’s policies consumed the vast majority of new revenue; the crown also engendered powerful political opposition from a wide variety of social groups across the realm though the actions by the unpopular finance minister and his successor, Cardinal Mazarin. The author argued that the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, coupled with an underage French king, led to a “legitimacy crisis” that “spilled out of the sovereign courts and into the streets of Paris.” The failure of the Fronde, however, can be attributed to the strength of the French monarchy, whose use of venality of office had “incorporated into the structure of absolutism precisely those class elements that might have sustained a revolutionary challenge.”

Turning to England, Kimmel dismissed scholarship by revisionists that placed emphasis on the causes of the English Revolution on such factors as overreactions by local leaders, the psychology of Charles I and his opponents, or the idea that the religious struggle between Anglicans and Presbyterians was the basis for the English Civil War. Instead, the author argued that the “contrapuntal relationship between the monarchy and the nobility” – and between the state and agrarian society – created “deep fissures in traditional English social structure that made revolution possible.” Kimmel maintained that the personality clashes between Charles I and his adversaries provided only a “surface-level immediacy to the struggles;” the author also noted that the religious aspects of the English Civil War began to appear after the revolution began, and served in the main as a means of maintaining the unity of political coalitions.

Kimmel noted that the England inherited by James I was “increasingly ungovernable by a centralizing monarchy,” and that the nation’s “social, financial, political, and religious institutions rested on increasingly shaky foundations.” Elizabeth I, argued the author, left a legacy of inflation, war debt, factionalism, and corruption, and it was the “constant scramble for money” that forced James I to pursue absolutist policies. Kimmel held that the 1621 decision by the English king to dissolve Parliament caused James I to throw himself “into the hands of the Spanish rather than giving in to demands for structural reforms.” The eventual collapse of the English monarchy under Charles I, argued the author, could be attributed to structural causes:
Of course, the failure of the war against the Scots was simply the trigger that set off the Revolution, the revolutionary moment… Long-run changes in the structure of English society— the decline of the traditional moral economy of the English village and the commercialization of agriculture; the rise of sectarian religious ideologies; the changing political relationship between court and country; and the social transformation of the English class structure — provided the backdrop for the events of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The endemic fiscal crisis of the Tudor and Stuart state was an expression of these changes, and the crown’s search for revenues precipitated the outbreak of revolution by galvanizing the opposition into a political coalition.

Charles I, King of England, King of Scotland, and King of Ireland from 1625 until his execution in 1649Left: King Charles I of England

The success of the English Revolution, argued Kimmel, was due to the greater unity in the opposition coalition than was the case with the Fronde. Religious ideology, the author noted, generated “ideological cohesion despite differing economic interests” among members of the political opposition to Charles I. In addition, Kimmel argued that the fear among social elites of social upheaval posed by radical groups such as the Levellers and the Diggers served as a unifying force among the nobility. Finally, the English Revolution owed its success in part to the monarchy’s inability to “absorb political contenders” due to its “smaller administrative structure and the traditions of autonomous local administration.”

The author used a thematic approach in developing this synthesis, relying in large measure upon secondary works related to European absolutism. Absolutism and Its Discontents also incorporates some primary source material in its examination of the English and French political systems of the seventeenth century. Endnotes are supplied to individual chapters, and the book uses a curious mix of in-text and end note references. Wilson also included a 30-page bibliography of primary and secondary works, categorized by topic, which will prove useful to scholars unfamiliar with the historiography of absolutism and the sociological interpretations of European monarchies. Unfortunately, the five-page index is woefully short, and there are a number of entries that would have benefited from additional cross-referencing.

Absolutism and Its Discontents, by nature of its efforts to develop broad models to explain the reasons for the respective success and failure of the English Revolution and the Fronde, occasionally drifts into elliptical generalizations and oversimplifications that might make narrow specialists in either field cringe. Kimmel, for example, argued that the failure of the Fronde was due in part to “both the ambivalent royalism of the Huguenots and the divisions within the Catholic church,” glibly sidestepping over a century’s worth of religious-focused warfare that tore France apart in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and contributed to the Thirty Years’ War. Still, Absolutism and Its Discontents provides an adequate summary of the efforts of English and French monarchs in the seventeenth century to pursue absolutist policies, and the book offers non-specialist scholars and general readers with thought-provoking models to explain the successes and failures of the various revolutions in these nations.


microdot said...

Very interesting analysis of the English Civil War and the sectaroan religious warfare in England.
I had been using Antonia Frasers "Cromwell, Our Chief of Men" for background for this period.
I find Cromwell a very interesting figure with so many scary parellels today!

Anonymous said...

I am afraid that Kimmel's work was seriously out of touch with the historiography of the period when it was written, let alone now when the focus of historical research has moved on so rapidly. No one has ever supposed that the localist emphasis of the work of John Morrill and, before him, of Alan Everitt on the post-1640 period was a sufficient explanation of the pre-1640 origins of the conflicts in England. And although Charles I's attitudes to kingship were and remain important, studies of his psychology have yet to be written: studies of his opponents' psychological attitudes cannot be written because the material simply does not exist. There was no struggle between 'Anglicans' and 'Presbyterians' in the Stuart period although there was one between supporters of Presbyterian and Independent forms of Church government on the Long Parliament's side in the 1640s. Elizabeth's I's legacy at her death in 1603 was certainly not one of inflation, war debt, factionalism and corruption: her debts were equivalent to about one year's royal income and more than counter-balanced by the debts owed to her regime by Henri IV of France and the Dutch. The peaceful accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne testified to England's stability. Much of Kimmel's analysis is based on sceondary works rather than on primary sources and ignores the importance of the problems of 'multiple kingdoms' under discussion by seventeenth-century historians from the mid-1980s onwards. Unfortunately, some of his claims are not well founded: there were no 'classes' in the Marxist or sociological senses in early modern England and no threat of social upheaval of the kind attributed to the Levellers or Diggers, both extremely ephemeral phenomena unjustifiably given exaggerated prominence by later Marxist theologasters.

historymike said...

Thanks for an engaged and thoughtful comment, Anonymous. Your insight is much appreciated.