Www.WorldHistory.Biz
Login *:
Password *:
     Register

 

9-08-2015, 17:19

Absolutism in theory and practice

Nineteenth-century historians, writing at a point at which most men in Europe had obtained the right to vote, looked back at politics and palaces in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and were nearly as dazzled by the Sun King as were Louis XIV’s contemporaries. They proclaimed this an “age of absolutism,” when rulers fi rst in western Europe (especially France) and then in eastern Europe built up their personal powers, becoming “tyrants” or “despots” completely above the law. In tracing the rise of absolutism, they highlighted both political theory and actual measures imposed by rulers, and contrasted absolutist states such as France and Russia with “constitutionalist” states such as Britain or the Dutch Republic, where the monarchy had more limited powers. This intellectual model of a broad rise of absolutism contrasted with the more limited development of constitutional monarchy has been a powerful one in discussions of politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and there is certainly evidence supporting it. In terms of political theory, scholars have noted that, into the sixteenth century, various levels of government shared the power to make laws, impose taxation, and handle crises. The monarch was authorized to guide the “commonwealth” – the standard term for a large political entity – but only in the interests of the “common good,” not in his own interests. The authority to do this emanated from God, but the monarch was understood to share this authority with other levels of government, whose authority was also God-given. The Reformation shattered this arrangement. Not only did it set different levels of government against each other in practice – Protestant city councils against Catholic kings, Catholic bishops against Protestant princes, Protestant law courts against the Catholic emperor – but it destroyed the idea of a smooth fl ow of authority and of a “common good.” How could a Catholic king possibly be a mediator of God’s will and sacred law for his Protestant subjects? Bossuet and other advocates of the divine right of kings provided one answer: sovereign power came from God, but only to a single monarch whose power was “absolute” and indivisible, shared by no other authority. In words attributed to Louis XIV, though he probably never said them, “I am the state” ( L’état, c’est moi ). In terms of actions, historians have pointed to the ways rulers from Spain to Russia created new institutions of government, limited the powers of privileged social groups, expanded state activity in many realms of life, such as education and poor relief, and extended involvement in new areas, including health care, transportation and communication. Louis XIV stripped the title “sovereign court” from the parlements , the highest law courts of France, and created a new tax – the capitation – that the previously tax-exempt nobles and clergy would have to pay. In German-speaking lands, the rulers of both large and small states issued “police ordinances” ( Polizeiordnungen ) that regulated minute details of daily life. Peter the Great did as well, ordering men, women, and children above the level of peasant to adopt western dress, including “hats, jacket, and underwear.” 5 Russian men were to shave off their beards and moustaches, with fi nes set by social status ranging from 100 rubles for wholesale merchants to 1 copeck (one-hundredth of a ruble) for peasants, “to be collected at the town gates each time they enter or leave a town.” Faculty at German law schools developed the idea of cameralism : that the state had the right – or indeed, the duty – to carry out policies that would enhance the well-being and tax-paying capacity of its residents. Bureaucrats trained in cameralist principles helped rulers in their close attention to all aspects of life; they promoted new crops such as the potato, collected statistics about longevity and health, and tried to develop industries such as silk-making. By the eighteenth century, rulers and their offi cials were actively involved in changing – or attempting to change – areas of life that had previously been the province of the church, the family, or local organizations such as guilds, enhancing their authority in the process. More recent scholarship has pointed out that these changes in theory and practice did occur, but they were much more limited than earlier historians had assumed. In terms of political theory, even the most vigorous supporters of the divine right of kings regarded the authority of the king as subject to the laws of God and to what they termed “natural law.” Bossuet declared that royal authority is sacred and absolute, but in the same work he also asserted that it is neither godless nor lawless, and is also “paternal” and “subject to reason.” The paternal nature of the king’s authority was generally used to make it appear stronger and more natural. “By the law of nature,” stated James I to Parliament, “the king becomes a natural father to all his lieges at his coronation.” 6 Criticism of monarchs could also be couched in paternal language, however. Pamphlets directed against the crown during the revolt known as the Fronde in seventeenth-century France, for example, justifi ed their opposition by asserting that the king was not properly fulfi lling his fatherly duties. They did not call for a reduction in his powers, however, but wanted him to act like a more responsible father. Advocates of limited monarchy were thus not the only ones to set limits on royal power. Existing political structures put even more limits on the level of actual control even the most “absolute” monarch could impose. Many states had been built up through the gradual assembly of different provinces, and each province often had different civil and criminal legal systems, local representative assemblies, taxation structures, and even weights and measures. Making these more uniform was often a goal, but very diffi cult in practice. Civil law, which regulated the private relations between individuals on such matters as inheritance and the exchange of property, was based on custom as well as written codes, and was thus nearly impossible for monarchs to change. Nobles still held considerable military and fi nancial power, and in many areas of Europe met regularly in representative bodies where they could make their wishes known. Like private law, their privileges, and those of other groups such as the clergy or the citizens of towns, were regarded as “customary” and thus very diffi cult to alter. Louis XIV might create a capitation paid by every person, and other rulers might invent similar new taxes, but they could not simply do away with the huge range of privileges established by custom. The most successful monarchs collaborated with aristocrats and other privileged groups on projects that enhanced both royal and elite prestige. “Absolutism” was a joint venture, with the most effective rulers generally co-opting, rather than crushing, traditional elites. Those elites remained the dominant group in the more “constitutionalist” states of Britain and the Netherlands as well, creating similarities across Europe rather than a sharp dichotomy between limited and absolute monarchy. Legal variations and customary privileges provided signifi cant limitations to absolutism, and geographic and cultural realities created even more. It would have taken a traveler three weeks to cross a large country like France in 1600, so royal orders were slow to communicate, and in many states they would need to be translated into local dialects, or even into different languages, in order to be understood. They were also hard to enforce. Maria Theresa (ruled 1740–80), the ruler of the Habsburg territories in central Europe, ordered the creation of grammar schools in every parish in 1774, but parents in Hungary refused to enroll their children, and she had no way to force them to comply. Peter ordered men to shave their beards and dress in western clothing, but enforcing this across the vast territories of Russia was impossible. Such dissonance between proclamations and orders emanating from the capital and what actually occurred was repeated in

METHODS AND ANALYSIS 10 The “crisis of the seventeenth century”

During the middle of the seventeenth century, there were violent revolts against existing regimes in England, France, Catalonia (northern Spain), Portugal, and Naples. These nearly simultaneous challenges to existing regimes led historians in the middle of the twentieth century to propose that there was a “crisis of the seventeenth century” involving much of Europe. The conceptualization of a “crisis” was expanded to include more political upheavals, along with certain striking economic, intellectual, and social developments. Some scholars, including the British historians Eric Hobsbawm and H. R. Trevor-Roper, suggested that there was a “general crisis” that involved continentwide patterns of change in all aspects of life, which may have started in the early sixteenth century. Other historians wondered whether it made much sense to call something that went on so long a “crisis,” which generally suggests a short period of extreme distress followed by some sort of resolution. (The word “crisis” was originally used in medicine, and meant the point in a disease at which the patient suddenly begins to get signifi cantly worse or better.) In the 1980s the American historian Theodore K. Rabb suggested that “struggle for stability” was a better term, though others pointed out that this phrase could be used to describe certain historical eras in many places, not simply the seventeenth century in Europe. Despite criticisms, however, both the notion of a “crisis of the seventeenth century” and of a “struggle for stability” still shape some scholars’ understanding of this period. The economic historian Jan de Vries, for example, fi nds that contractions of the seventeenth century led to a transformation in basic patterns of economic life in Europe. Demographic historians have noted that the famines and epidemic diseases of the midseventeenth century were the last major check on European population growth, which would begin its steep ascent upward from that point on. (See graph on p. 464.) every state in Europe. In many of those states, orders that came from centralizing rulers also provoked vehement reactions, leading to mob violence, localized urban and rural revolts, regional upheavals, and in some cases nationwide civil wars. METHODS AND ANALYSIS 10 The “crisis of the seventeenth century” For additional chapter resources see the companion website www.cambridge.org/wiesnerhanks . During the middle of the seventeenth century, there were violent revolts against existing regimes in England, France, Catalonia (northern Spain), Portugal, and Naples. These nearly simultaneous challenges to existing regimes led historians in the middle of the twentieth century to propose that there was a “crisis of the seventeenth century” involving much of Europe. The conceptualization of a “crisis” was expanded to include more political upheavals, along with certain striking economic, intellectual, and social developments. Some scholars, including the British historians Eric Hobsbawm and H. R. Trevor-Roper, suggested that there was a “general crisis” that involved continentwide patterns of change in all aspects of life, which may have started in the early sixteenth century. Other historians wondered whether it made much sense to call something that went on so long a “crisis,” which generally suggests a short period of extreme distress followed by some sort of resolution. (The word “crisis” was originally used in medicine, and meant the point in a disease at which the patient suddenly begins to get signifi cantly worse or better.) In the 1980s the American historian Theodore K. Rabb suggested that “struggle for stability” was a better term, though others pointed out that this phrase could be used to describe certain historical eras in many places, not simply the seventeenth century in Europe. Despite criticisms, however, both the notion of a “crisis of the seventeenth century” and of a “struggle for stability” still shape some scholars’ understanding of this period. The economic historian Jan de Vries, for example, fi nds that contractions of the seventeenth century led to a transformation in basic patterns of economic life in Europe. Demographic historians have noted that the famines and epidemic diseases of the midseventeenth century were the last major check on European population growth, which would begin its steep ascent upward from that point on. (See graph on p. 464.) The aims of European rulers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries far exceeded what they could actually do, and could also work at cross-purposes to one another. Opening schools or taking them over from the church allowed greater control of the education of one’s subjects, but cost money, as did the bureaucracy needed to oversee other royal projects. Building fabulous palaces or better roads enhanced royal prestige, but could be enormously expensive. Defending or expanding one’s territories offered the greatest possibilities for personal and national aggrandizement, but could also bring bitter disappointment and fi nancial ruin. The possibilities war offered were too great to ignore, however, so that all political developments in these centuries played themselves out against a backdrop of nearly constant warfare.

 

 

html-Link
BB-Link