Absolutism under Louis XIV
Louis XIV lived from 1638- 1715 and became the king of France in 1654. At the time he became king, France was financially ruined, politically corrupt, and divided between warring nobles and private armies and under the threat of riots from the people, especially in Paris. Louis XIV was an absolute monarch.
Absolutism is the system of rule that allows one or more rulers to maintain absolute power over everything in the land. There is no higher power and even the Parliament could not overrule Louis’ decisions.
As absolute monarch, Louis XIV set about reforming the state politically, economically and culturally. Louis XIV’s absolute monarchy had three components: • Centralization- this meant that the monarchy was the center of everything. All decisions from the monarchy were undisputable and final. All counties and villages were expected to follow this rule to create a united state and a centralized leadership. • Economic reforms- “Under the guidance of Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-83) a “modern” system of accountancy and yearly state budgeting was introduced.
Colbert also supervised systematic attacks on corruption, removing, punishing, or paying off office holders. He also introduced tax reforms – ending exemptions, tax-farming, and military collection of taxes – and state support for industry, science, trade, and the arts. As regards the operations of the state, Colbert raised government income to the point when it could pay for quite massive expenses. Government subsidizing and directing of industry and manufacture increased productivity, raised wages, and brought France into the trade wars with the English and the Dutch.
Colbert, like many French officials, repeatedly remarked that the inhabitants must pay the tax not only because it would raise additional funds, but also because paying the levy was ‘the obedience which is due His Majesty. ” • “Theater of Monarchy”-this is the public representation of royal power and glory. Under the theory of absolutism, sovereignty is grounded in God, not the people. The glory of the monarch is, as it were, the earthly point at which is expressed both the glory of the state – as a social whole ordered around and dependent upon the monarch – and the glory of God from whom the monarch derives power and role.
It was therefore important to show, through royal events and presentations, the state as personified by the king. Louis XIV distinguished between “nature as it ought to be”, as ordained by God, and “nature as it is”, disrupted by human activity. As the new, distant and mysterious God no longer intervened directly in the natural order, it fell to the monarch to uphold “nature as it ought to be” and prevent it disintegrating into disorder. One of his reforms began with the acquisition of the providence of Roussillonnais in 1659, which was inhabited by a specific ethnic group known as the Catalans.
Louis XIV understood that there can be no shared political allegiance without shared cultural values. Thus a government, if it is to exercise its political authority in an area, must first make the region culturally homogeneous with the ruling nation. Louis XIV undertook to replace the Catalan ethnic identity with the French one, mandating the foods, clothing, legal system, language, educational institutions, and religious traditions that should be used in the province. The Catalans did not agree with Louis and made it clear with smuggling, legal battles and even open rebellion.
They wished to maintain their own culture and laws and did not want to accept the monarchy as their ruler. Like all peasants, they were reluctant to pay taxes to the monarchy and many turned to smuggling as an alternative. By the 1680’s, however, Louis XIV and his government were successful in achieving their goal of political assimilation. The Roussillonais had accepted France as their political rules but continued to conduct their legal, commercial, judicial, and religious business in the Catalan language, continued to dress as Catalans, to give their children Catalan names, and to celebrate traditional feasts.
They were quite firmly French in a political sense, and equally firmly Catalan in their culture. A trend that began in the 17th century was for the ruler to govern from one location versus the many homes and palaces of the past. Louis XIV was one such ruler, moving from the royal palace of the Louvre in Paris to a permanent home in Versailles. It was from this location that he ruled France for his entire reign. Louis XIV was also known as the “sun king” due to his use of the symbol as his personal emblem.
As the highest star, now accepted by science as the centre of the universe, the sun was an obvious choice to symbolize absolutism’s claim to constitute the political centre of earthly life. The sun was both terrifying and awe inspiring, dazzling through its brightness, yet also warming and beneficent, and without its presence all life would whither away. One of the ways a monarch distanced himself from his subjects was to show his magnificence and largesse. This came in the form of elaborate operas, lavish banquets and court music.
It was not uncommon to have fountains with slowing wine, roast oxen, coins minted for the occasion and bread handed out to the masses. This was to show the generosity and benevolence of the ruler and assure the people that their trust in the monarchy was well placed. It also served to reiterate the idea that the monarch was the center of everything and should be respected as such. Not everything regarding absolutism was beneficial, especially for the peasants of the land.
The taxes imposed by Louis XIV and his government went far to provide funds for the monarchy and various military skirmishes, but The accumulative effect of these taxes was well observed by the royal commissioners sent to investigate the collection of taxes in the Orleanais and Le Maine in 1687 who observed that: there are hardly any peasants that own property…there are only small farmers who own nothing. The proprietors must furnish them with cattle, advance them money on which to live, pay their tallies and take in payment the peasant’s entire portion of the harvest. Even this is sometimes insufficient to cover his debts.
Thus the small farmers earn nothing; they leave the land as destitute as they came to it. What cash was left they said went into paying taxes so that there was almost no money left for individuals; from this comes the decline of commerce. As a result, riots and rebellions by the peasants were common. Tax collectors met with violence or even death in some instances. It was not until Louis XIV’s General Controller of Finance”, Jean-Baptise Colbert changed the way things were done regarding the taxes. Colbert’s everyday management of the taxes was intelligently conceived precisely to reduce the difficulties experienced earlier.
Much effort went into collecting existing taxes as equitably as possible, into preventing the accumulation of arrears (those of the final years of the war being formally cancelled), and into making the most unpopular forms of coercion a last resort. 94 Although the revenue from indirect taxes was greatly increased this was achieved without creating new levies. The significance of this policy was emphasized when financial pressure was increased after the renewal of war in 1672, with the new duties of 1675, the marque d’etain and the papier timbre, setting off the last major rebellions of the ancient regime.
Under Louis XIV’s absolute rule, France enjoyed a peaceful and prosperous era. Colbert reformed the taxes and they dwindled down to custom duties, a tax on salt and a tax on land. He also encouraged trade and commerce by the merchants and inventors of the land and sought to decrease the French’s dependence on foreign goods. These acts stopped the internal civil wars until almost a hundred years later. During Colbert’s ministry the position of the laborers was doubly affected, by more stringent tax assessment and by a sequence of good harvests which resulted in low grain prices.
Since these trends favored the mass of poor peasants, there was little prospect of uniting communities in revolt behind an unpopular minority of the rich, whose difficulties were in any case only relative. It was not until Napoleon that France had internal discord again. Other areas of improvement were the legal reforms Louis XIV implemented. The major legal code instituted at this time was the basis of the Napoleon Code which in turn is the basis for the modern French legal codes.
The War of Spanish Succession began when the King of Spain, Charles II, bequeathed all his possessions to Philip duc D’anjou, who was the grandson of Louis XIV. This made Philip the king of Spain. Aside from the fact that others wanted to claim the throne for themselves, the crowning of Philip assured Louis XIV of a Spanish alliance in his quest to expand. Other countries joined the side of the Holy Roman Empire, who wanted to stop France from expanding any further. Philip and Spain sided with Louis XIV and France. The war was fought both in Europe and in North America, where it was known as the “Queen Anne’s War.
” The war lasted for over a decade and as a result, Philip was removed from the line of succession for the throne of France. This made the opposition happy since a union of France and Spain was now impossible. In the end, Louis XIV’s numerous wars and extravagant palaces and chateaux effectively bankrupted the State (though it must also be said that France was able to recover in a matter of years), forcing him to levy higher taxes on the peasants and incurring large State debts from various financiers as the nobility and clergy had exemption from paying these taxes and contributing to public funds.
Yet, it must be emphasized that it was the State and not the country which was impoverished. Before his death in 1715, Louis XIV determined that his five year old grandson, Louis XIII would succeed him to the throne. He is alleged to have told the child “Do not follow the bad example which I have set you; I have often undertaken war too lightly and have sustained it for vanity. Do not imitate me, but be a peaceful prince, and may you apply yourself principally to the alleviation of the burdens of your subjects”.
Although Louis XIV did make some mistakes during his reign, he had many victories as well. His display of absolute monarchy set an example for many of the European princes, who followed his examples of art, food and political systems. Absolutism fell out of favor among the monarchy not long after Louis XIV died but the gains that he made provided a stable base for France to prosper in the future. Louis XIV had been married twice and fathered both legitimate and illegitimate children, none of whom followed in his footsteps of absolutel rule.
Works Cited Briggs, Robin. Communities of Belief: Cultural and Social Tension in Early Modern France. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. Parker, David. “French ‘Absolutism’. ” History Review (1997): 14+. Stewart, David. Assimilation and Acculturation in Seventeenth-Century Europe: Roussillon and France, 1659-1715. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. Wilson, Peter H. Absolutism in Central Europe. London: Routledge, 2000.