Class and State in Ancien Regime France: The Road to Modernity?

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by Hippolyte A. Taine

It controlled important territory in Europe and the New World. Spain's American colonies produced enormous quantities of silver, which were brought to Spain every few years in convoys.

Spain had many weaknesses as well. Its domestic economy, possessing little business, industry, or advanced craftsmanship, was poor. It had to import practically all its weapons. Spain had a large army but it was poorly trained and poorly equipped. It had a surprisingly small navy, for seamanship was a low priority among the Spanish elites. Local and regional governments, and the local nobility, controlled most of the decision-making. The central government was quite weak, with a mediocre bureaucracy, and few able leaders.

King Charles II reigned to , but he was in very poor physical and mental health.

The French Revolution And The Revolution

As King Charles II had no children, the question of who would succeed to the Spanish throne unleashed a major war. The Vienna-based Habsburg family, of which Charles II was a member, proposed its own candidate for the throne. Spain's silver, and its inability to protect its assets, made it a highly visible target for ambitious Europeans. For generations, Englishmen had contemplated capturing the Spanish treasure fleet, a feat that had only been accomplished once, in , by the Dutch. English mariners nevertheless seriously pursued the opportunities for plunder and trade in Spain's colonies.

His grandfather, Louis XIV, eagerly endorsed the choice and made unilateral, aggressive moves to safeguard the viability of his family's new possessions, such as moving the French army into the Spanish Netherlands, and securing exclusive trading rights for the French in Spanish America. Furthermore, the prospect of dividing up Spanish holdings, especially its vast colonial possessions in the New World, proved very attractive. The opposing alliance, for its part, consisted primarily of France and Spain, but also included a few smaller German princes and dukes in Italy. Extensive, back-and-forth fighting took place in the Netherlands.

However, the dimensions of the war once again changed when both Emperor Leopold and his son and successor, Joseph, died, leaving his brother Charles as both the Alliance candidate for king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. After another year of fruitless campaigning, Charles VI would do the same, abandoning his desire to become the king of Spain. The Treaty of Utrecht in resolved all of the issues.

France gave up Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in modern-day Canada. Louis' grandson became Philip V, king of Spain, and kept all its overseas colonies, but renounced any rights to the French throne. Spain lost its European holdings outside the homeland itself.

French Government before the Revolution - World History Curriculum Sample

The quarter century after the Treaty of Utrecht was peaceful, with no major wars, and only a few secondary military episodes of minor importance. The main powers had exhausted themselves in warfare, with many deaths, disabled veterans, ruined navies, high pension costs, heavy loans and high taxes. In indirect taxes had brought in ,, livres; by they had plunged to only 46,, He was Louis XV and he lived until the s. France's main foreign policy decision-maker was Cardinal Fleury. He recognized that France needed to rebuild, so he pursued a peace policy.

France had a poorly designed taxation system, whereby tax farmers kept much of the money, and the treasury was always short. The banking system in Paris was undeveloped, and the treasury was forced to borrow at very high interest rates. London's financial system proved strikingly competent in funding not only the English forces, but its allies as well. Queen Anne was dead, and her re-successor King George I was a Hanoverian who moved his court to London, but never learned English and surrounded himself with German advisors. They spent much of their time and most of their attention on Hanoverian affairs.

He too was threatened by instability of the throne, for the Stuart pretenders, long supported by King Louis XIV, threatened repeatedly to invade through Ireland or Scotland, and had significant internal support from the Tory faction. However Sir Robert Walpole was the dominant decision-maker, , although the role was not yet called prime minister. Walpole strongly rejected militaristic options, and promoted a peace program.

The Origins of Contemporary France, Volume 1, The Ancient Regime by Hippolyte A. Taine

He and Cardinal Fleury agreed, and signed an alliance. The Netherlands was much reduced in power, and followed along with England. Relations with France therefore were undramatic. In addition, certain provinces within France were ostensibly personal fiefs of noble families notably the Bourbonnais , Forez and Auvergne provinces held by the House of Bourbon until the provinces were forcibly integrated into the royal domain in after the fall of Charles III, Duke of Bourbon.

From the late fifteenth century up to the late seventeenth century and again in the s , France underwent a massive territorial expansion and an attempt to better integrate its provinces into an administrative whole. Despite efforts by the kings to create a centralized state out of these provinces, France in this period remained a patchwork of local privileges and historical differences.

The arbitrary power of the monarch as implied by the expression "absolute monarchy" was in fact much limited by historic and regional particularities. Administrative including taxation , legal parlement , judicial, and ecclesiastic divisions and prerogatives frequently overlapped for example, French bishoprics and dioceses rarely coincided with administrative divisions. Certain provinces and cities had won special privileges such as lower rates in the gabelle or salt tax. The south of France was governed by written law adapted from the Roman legal system , the north of France by common law in these common laws were codified into a written form.

The representative of the king in his provinces and cities was the gouverneur. Royal officers chosen from the highest nobility, provincial and city governors oversight of provinces and cities was frequently combined were predominantly military positions in charge of defense and policing. The title "gouverneur" first appeared under Charles VI. The ordinance of Blois of reduced their number to 12, and an ordinance of increased their number to 39 18 first-class governors, 21 second-class governors. Although in principle they were the king's representatives and their charges could be revoked at the king's will, some governors had installed themselves and their heirs as a provincial dynasty.

The governors were at the height of their power from the middle of the 16th to the midth century. Their role in provincial unrest during the civil wars led Cardinal Richelieu to create the more tractable positions of intendants of finance, policing and justice, and in the 18th century the role of provincial governors was greatly curtailed. In an attempt to reform the system, new divisions were created. The first sixteen were created in by edict of Henry II. The desire for more efficient tax collection was one of the major causes for French administrative and royal centralization in the early modern period.

The taille became a major source of royal income. Taxation districts had gone through a variety of mutations from the 14th century on. Together they were the Messieurs des finances.

The number increased to 21 at the end of the 16th century, and to 36 at the time of the French Revolution; the last two were created in Until the late 17th century, tax collectors were called receveurs. The taille was only one of a number of taxes. There also existed the "taillon" a tax for military purposes , a national salt tax the gabelle , national tariffs the "aides" on various products wine, beer, oil, and other goods , local tariffs on speciality products the "douane" or levied on products entering the city the "octroi" or sold at fairs, and local taxes.

Many of these fees were quite elevated, but some of these offices conferred nobility and could be financially advantageous. The use of offices to seek profit had become standard practice as early as the 12th and 13th centuries. A law in made these offices irrevocable, except through the death, resignation or forfeiture of the title holder, and these offices, once bought, tended to become hereditary charges with a fee for transfer of title passed on within families.

In an effort to increase revenues, the state often turned to the creation of new offices.

Class and State in Ancien Regime France. The Road to Modernity?

Before it was made illegal in , it had been possible to leave open-ended the date that the transfer of title was to take effect. In , the "forty days rule" was instituted adapted from church practice , which made the successor's right void if the preceding office holder died within forty days of the transfer and the office returned to the state; however, a new fee, called the survivance jouissante protected against the forty days rule. The "paulette" and the venality of offices became key concerns in the parliamentarian revolts of the s La Fronde.

State finances also relied heavily on borrowing, both private from the great banking families in Europe and public. This system first came to use in under Francis I. Until , the head of the financial system in France was generally the surintendant des finances. Justice in seigneurial lands including those held by the church or within cities was generally overseen by the seigneur or his delegated officers. In the exercise of their legal functions, they sat alone, but had to consult with certain lawyers avocats or procureurs chosen by themselves, whom, to use the technical phrase, they "summoned to their council".


The appeals from their sentences went to the bailliages , who also had jurisdiction in the first instance over actions brought against nobles. To appeal a bailliage ' s decisions, one turned to the regional parlements. The following were cours souveraines , or superior courts, whose decisions could only be revoked by "the king in his conseil" see administration section below. The head of the judicial system in France was the chancellor. One of the established principles of the French monarchy was that the king could not act without the advice of his counsel; the formula "le roi en son conseil" expressed this deliberative aspect.

The administration of the French state in the early modern period went through a long evolution, as a truly administrative apparatus — relying on old nobility, newer chancellor nobility "noblesse de robe" and administrative professionals — was substituted to the feudal clientele system.

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Under Charles VIII and Louis XII the king's counsel was dominated by members of twenty or so noble or rich families; under Francis I the number of counsellors increased to roughly 70 individuals although the old nobility was proportionally more important than in the previous century. The royal administration during the Renaissance was divided between a small counsel the "secret" and later "high" counsel of 6 or fewer members 3 members in , 4 in for important matters of state; and a larger counsel for judicial or financial affairs.

Francis I was sometimes criticized for relying too heavily on a small number of advisors, while Henry II , Catherine de Medici and their sons found themselves frequently unable to negotiate between the opposing Guise and Montmorency families in their counsel. Over time, the decision-making apparatus of the King's Council was divided into several royal counsels.


The subcouncils of the King's Council can be generally grouped as "governmental councils", "financial councils" and "judicial and administrative councils". With the names and subdivisions of the 17—18th century, these subcouncils were:. In addition to the above administrative institutions, the king was also surrounded by an extensive personal and court retinue royal family, valet de chambres , guards, honorific officers , regrouped under the name " Maison du Roi ".

This system of government, called the Polysynody , lasted from — Under Henry IV and Louis XIII the administrative apparatus of the court and its councils was expanded and the proportion of the "noblesse de robe" increased, culminating in the following positions during the 17th century:. The main source of royal administrative power in the provinces in the 16th and early 17th centuries fell to the gouverneurs who represented "the presence of the king in his province" , positions which had long been held by only the highest ranked families in the realm.

With the civil wars of the early modern period, the king increasing turned to more tractable and subservient emissaries, and this was the reason for the growth of the provincial intendants under Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Intendants attached to a province had jurisdiction over finances, justice, and policing. By the 18th century, royal administrative power was firmly established in the provinces, despite protestations by local parlements.

In addition to their role as appellate courts, regional parlements had gained the privilege to register the edicts of the king and to present the king with official complaints concerning the edicts; in this way, they had acquired a limited role as the representative voice of predominantly the magistrate class. In case of refusal on parliament's part to register the edicts frequently concerning fiscal matters , the king could impose registration through a royal assize "lit de justice". As a sign of French absolutism, they ceased to be convoked from to The provincial estates proved more effective, and were convoked by the king to respond to fiscal and tax policies.

The symbolic power of the Catholic monarch was apparent in his crowning the king was anointed by blessed oil in Rheims and he was popularly believed to be able to cure scrofula by the laying on of his hands accompanied by the formula " the king touches you, but God heals you ".

Class and State in Ancien Regime France: The Road to Modernity? Class and State in Ancien Regime France: The Road to Modernity?
Class and State in Ancien Regime France: The Road to Modernity? Class and State in Ancien Regime France: The Road to Modernity?
Class and State in Ancien Regime France: The Road to Modernity? Class and State in Ancien Regime France: The Road to Modernity?
Class and State in Ancien Regime France: The Road to Modernity? Class and State in Ancien Regime France: The Road to Modernity?
Class and State in Ancien Regime France: The Road to Modernity? Class and State in Ancien Regime France: The Road to Modernity?
Class and State in Ancien Regime France: The Road to Modernity? Class and State in Ancien Regime France: The Road to Modernity?

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