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Modern Western Civilization
Class 4: The Rise of Absolutism
A. The problem of political disintegration in 16-17th Centuries.
- France - Wars of Religon
- England - the English Revolution
- Holy Roman Empire (Germany and Austria) - 30 Years War.
B. Causes of disintegration
- -Competition between the aristocracy and the Monarchy
- -often mainspring behind the religious wars.
C. Ways of Uniting States
Two alternatives evolved
- Constitutionalism and
- we will be looking mainly at both.
Absolutism formed the immediate background to the French Revolution,
but constitutionalism provided many of the ideas.
D. Absolutism and Constitutionalism.
- -Nature of "isms".
- -Both were modernizing in different ways.
1. Definition of Constitutionalism
- Constitutionalism does not require a written constitution,
but does require a set of rules about government which government
respects - it is not arbitrary.
- It also implies a balance in power between the government
and its subjects - this was provided in Britain by power of subjects
2. Definition of Absolutism
- In contrast to Constitutionalism, Sovereignty, the power and
right to rule, resides exclusively with the King and not the nobles
nor any assembly.
- -Represents a change from medieval reality
- -The importance of the idea of Divine Right in this context.
- -Note that in this period Government did not impinge on many
areas at all, for instance social welfare to any great degree.
Absolute Monarchs were limited in actual power and were not totalitarian.
Absolutism was very practical - it developed state bureaucracies
and standing armies to make its claims work.
II. Poland - A failed state
- Large state in Eastern Europe.
- The Noble republic - Elected kings.
- Any noble could veto any law.
- Complete collapse of central government.
- Enserfment of peasant population.
- Eventual disappearance of Poland from map of Europe.
Result of no Constitutionalism and no absolutism.
III. Spain - Absolutism Attempted
The dominant country of the late 16th Century, based on military
power and enormous wealth from the new world.
Philip II. Ruled by himself. One of first absolute monarchs. It
is possible to see many of the later marks of absolutism in his
- -Centralizing control
- -Bureaucratic systems
- -Central source of authority
- -Spain declined after 1600: due to economy and bad government.
IV. France - Absolutism Triumphant
What happened in France provided more of model for Europe than
Spain, (or England).
France's importance as a country was based on its wealth and its
population, as well as its culture.
A. French Wars of Religion and Henry IV
- The Reformation in France. Calvinist.
- Catholic and Protestant nobles.
- Lax and inefficient rulers.
- Noble wars virtually destroyed the Country
- What was needed was a new approach to government. (If the
goal was a stable country).
- Henry VI (1598-1610), formerly King of Navarre. - "Paris
is worth a mass"
- Edict of Nantes 1598 quieted country. Allowed toleration to
B. Louis XIII (1610-43)
Effective ruler Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642)
- He broke power of nobility and made it clear there was only
one law - the King's. However still very limited legal unity in
[cf. Stuarts where local law was in hands of JPs.]
Estates General meats for last time in 1615.
- He began adminstrative reform and centralized control over
regions. He sent out Intendents. [cf. the Stuarts lack
of local control]
- He fought Habsburg Dynasty - made France a great power (fought
for Protestants in Thirty Year's War)
- Richelieu also opposed Hugenots - as defiant of King's power
and began the road to oppression. Removed their right to fortified
C. Louis XIV (Ruled 1643-1715)
- Cardinal Mazarin (1602-1661)
effective ruler at first - continues policies of Richelieu.
- The Fronde 1649-52
- revolt by nobles sick of absolute claims. This had big
psychological effect on Louis XIV. He was determind to be powerful
- Louis comes to power in 1661.
His reign is the height of absolutism. "L'etat. c'est moi."
- Louis' conception of himself as King - and of the problems
Although egotistical he was not a madman. ref. Letter to Heirs
- He thought he had to work hard and let good sense act. But his
working hard was two hours a day.
- Government under Louis XIV
It is often seen as one of the first modern governments.
- its system of councils to control the real ruling of the country
- Intendants - royal officials in provinces gives central control
of the entire country.
- Its establishment of a standing army which Louis used in a series
of expensive wars. This gives him great power.
- Versailles and Ritual
Used to bring all the important nobility to his court."
This deprived them of power - as did a very expensive lifestyle.
[cf. Philip II and the Escorial]
-Note etail of manners and ritual. Different ways to open a door
etcetera. Aim was to impress. Half Louis' income went on Versaille
but it gave him power.
- Influence of Louis XIV's Government and Style
Versailles and Louis' government were admired in Europe and
it was copied everywhere;
French became the language of many courts - eg Russia (ref. Tolstoy:
War and Peace). Copycat Palaces built all over Europe:
Vienna/Schonbrunn, St. Petersburg, Berlin.
- Fiscal Policy
Important both in explaining how Europe came to expand overseas,
and certain elements in the outbreak of the French Revolution.
Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1693) - Finance minister. Colbert's
aim was to have a trade balance in France's favor.
Mercantilism is name given to this policy.
-It centralizes economy + close government control.
-Relieves the need for direct taxes.
Problem was nobles would not pay tax. This was not solved.
France remained under-taxed.
-Expansion abroad - emphasis on exports and getting bullion into
-Trade is needed especially by absolutist governments as it enables
indirect taxes to be raised - which are necessary without parliaments.
-Expansion of Mercantile empires in India, North America and above
all the West Indies. This was encouraged by governments.
- Louis XIV and Religion
The Position of the Church as State within a State
-Divine Right was important in Louis' ideas.
-It is important to realize the power of the Church in France.
It was like a state within in a state
-largely independent of Rome
-Church Courts had power over parts of life, for instance marriage
-Louis supported the Church fervently.
-Revocation of Edict of Nantes 1685
-1/4 mill Protestants left - (New Rochelle)
- Absolutism and Religion
Absolutism did not allow, in France liberty of conscience.
This effects French Enlightenment thinkers. There was anti-clericalism
even from those who support monarchy. [cf.-anti-clericalism in
- Discussion: The Theoretical Elaboration of Absolutism
Absolutism came into being as a practical way to control the state.
But there were theoretical justifications.
- Bishop Bousset (1627-1704) Politics Drawn from the Very Words
of Scripture (1679). He was tutor to Louis XIV's heir.
-His basic justification was Divine Right: God makes a King absolutely
- Jean Domat, (1625-1696), Public Law, attempted to set Absolutism
in context of law of nature and law of God. [Discuss dangers of
such a project]
- Other justifications were offered by later writers.
-Voltaire praised Louis XIV as being an effective ruler.
-Probably most of the French people accepted him because his type
of rule brought peace after decades of civil war.
At this stage Nobility and Monarchy were the only players. It
was the emergence of another class which was to be important in
VII. Reading Notes to Bishop Bossuet
These are some questions to guide your reading. It might help
if you note down possible answers in the spaces between the questions.
Come to class prepared to comment.
A. What position does the author of this piece hold? Who is he
B. What principles lie behind Bishop Bossuet's theory of government?
Why did would he adopt such principles?
C. What alternative justifications for absolute monarchy are given
in the other assigned readings?
D. From your understanding of the other readings how do you think
absolutism worked in practice?
VIII. Reading Notes to Jean Domat and Others on Absolutism
Answer the questions below. Find your information from the source
itself, or from the textbook. You may use other sources, but indicate
what they are.
A. Who was Jean Domat? What were his qualifications for writing?
Who was he writing for? What kind (genre) of literature is this?
- What imagery provides the basis for Domat's theorizing?
- C. How does Domat prove that government is necessary?
D. Who does Domat mean by the `sovereign'? What is the basis of
E. Are there any indications in the text that world might be less
perfectly ordered than Domat indicates?
IX. Absolutism in Other States
The Holy Roman Empire
Fades. So does Poland and Ottoman Turkey. Three new powers occupy
central Europe in the 18th century.
- Absolutism without a nation-state. Maria Theresa 1740-
- Prussia copies France but has its own distinctive character.
Prussia becomes an important state under Frederick I (1688-1713).
Military emphasis: the upper class become the officers in the
-300 other states in Germany remain divided.
- Russia - Emerges at this time.
remains divided with inefficient old-fashioned governments
and some republics.
- England and Holland
- will look at in next class.
- Absolutism is the political actuality of the Ancien Regime.
- We have seen it was a development in Early modern, not medieval
- It was background to French Revolution and also to the Enlightenment.