Louis XIV remains, without a glimpse of a doubt, one of the greatest French kings. His reign was a synonym of cultural, intellectual and military achievements which left an undeniable footprint in French history. Unfortunately, historians have not always been complaisant in their historical assessments. For a long time, his reign was heavily criticized for its absolutism, religious intolerances, famines, endless wars and disastrous economic situation towards the end. Historiography has drastically changed in the last decades, offering a more positive perspective on the reign. Louis XIV is undoubtedly a complex and ambiguous historical figure that needs to be understood. His reign is extremely long and almost impossible to cover entirely. Therefore, this series of articles will offer a brief overview of some key aspects of the Sun King.
Examining Louis XIV's historiographical evolution is an absolute necessity. Not only does it stand as an excellent example of how history is written but it is also essential in order to understand the Sun King.
The Early Reign of Louis XIV series is divided into five chapters:
The Early Reign of Louis XIV 101: Historians & Absolutism (I)
The Early Reign of Louis XIV 101: Colbert & the Navy
In the last three centuries, Louis XIV’s image underwent a considerable evolution, both in the French and Anglo-American historiographies. If Voltaire compared the Grand Siècle to the Age of Augustus in 1751 (Voltaire, 2-3), French and Anglo-American intellectuals shared a less glamorous image in the following century. Blamed for his belligerent policies, hubris, vanity, religious decisions, and the disastrous economic situation at the end of his reign, Louis XIV undeniably became a controversial figure. Absolutism stood out as a recurrent and fierce criticism held against him. Born in France in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and in Britain a decade later, the term ‘absolutism’ has long been perceived and considered as a synonym of despotism, arbitrary ruling and tyranny (Burns, 21). Even though the Sun King was not the only absolute ruler in Europe, he was erected as its epitome, which in turn tainted his image - both during his reign and in historiography since then - into that of a Catholic despot (Rowlands, 200). However, after World War II, many historians from diverse backgrounds explored and exposed the extent and limitations of absolute monarchy in practice and in theory. Resulting in a multitude of new definitions, these new assessments brought new perspectives and interrogations, with some scholars even questioning the existence of absolutism itself. By the end of the century, Louis XIV’s historiographical image was still contentious, but the consensus had been transformed into a more positive and diverse one. This first article will exclusively focus on the early historiographical assessments, both in France and in the Anglo-American world, during the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.
Louis XIV's absolute image did not have to wait long before being criticized in the British Isles. The first hostile sentiments emerged in the 1660s and became virulent from around 1672 (Rowlands, 179). Even before the creation of the term ‘absolutism’, the notion of absolute power had already met fierce criticisms in the writings of John Locke. For the English philosopher, ‘absolute power is, by its very nature, arbitrary and indeed despotic; and wherever it subsists there is an ever-present danger of degeneration into sheer tyranny' (Burns, 5). Locke’s ideas resonated in Britain in the following centuries, as they shaped the writings of intellectuals such as Thomas Babington Macaulay and Lord Acton. In 1849, Macaulay expressed his fascination for Louis XIV's military capacities but described his government as 'a mild and generous despotism, tempered by courteous manners and chivalrous sentiment' (Macaulay, 143). In the 1890s, Lord Acton claimed in a lecture that “Louis XIV was by far the ablest man who was born in modern times on the steps of a throne" (Church, 53). The Englishman believed that strong leadership from above was the primary requisite of human advancement in the seventeenth century, and that Louis XIV fulfilled this role superbly (Church, 53). However, these praises also fiercely opposed and rejected absolutism. Author of the famous aphorism: ‘Power corrupts, absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely,’ Acton declared that ‘resistance to absolutism was no mere matter of political prudence, it was an imperative moral obligation' (Burns, 7). His lecture on the French Revolution even stated that: 'the despotism of Louis XIV renders him odious and contemptible and is the cause of all the evils which the country suffer' (Acton, 5).
English hostility was heavily related to the ongoing political mentality and recent historical events. Guy Rowlands rightly reminded that the memories and traumas of the Napoleonic wars were still fresh in English collective minds. Napoleon had been England's arch-nemesis and, from an English perspective, shared some similarities with Louis XIV. After all, the Sun King was 'the archetype of continental monarchy, the arbitrary ruler of an unfree people who - just like Bonaparte - embarked on numerous wars and conquests and was a threat to British liberties and freedoms' (Rowlands, 198). Similar to Napoleon, 19th century England had also been defined with the Whig movements. Dominating British historiography, Whigs were protestant liberals who believed to be ‘the only true defender of the people’ and defended the idea of Britain exceptionalism (Parry, 43). According to them, while European kingdoms had succumbed to the authoritarianism of popes, kings, and Roman lawyers, England had always been and remained a land of freedom and liberty (Sommerville, 169). Both Macaulay and Acton were Whigs and for them, Louis XIV incarnated this authoritarianism, an enemy of the reformed faith that Britain had triumphed against, and continued to do so in its historiography. Such considerations continued to entail Louis XIV's portrayals long after Macaulay or Acton. In the 1930s, David Ogg shared one of the harshest evaluations on Louis XIV as he came to compare the monarch to Hitler (Hatton, 279). Ogg received numerous criticisms for his historical approach to the subject, but his writings nonetheless testified to the deep hostility of the British Isles for the French monarch and absolutism before the war.
On the other side of the Channel, French historiography had not been more forgiving towards Louis XIV's absolutist nature. Voltaire's laudatory narration was an exception that heavily contrasted with the historiographical developments that followed the French Revolution. In 1828, François Guizot – notorious historian and statesman – argued that Louis XIV greatly contributed to the growth of modern France but that ‘its inherent vice and absolute power caused its downfall and rendered it superfluous to the further advance of civilization’ (Church, 31). Ernest Renan and Jules Michelet later sustained not only that absolutism was despotism, but also emphasized on its religious dimensions. In 1860, Michelet held the authoritarian spirit of absolutism accountable for the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 (Church, 37) which had resulted in violent religious repressions (Michelet, 277). A year before, Renan denounced the religious implications behind absolutism when he described the reign as:
The strangest phenomenon of modern times […], an imitation after a fashion of the Sassanid or Mongol ideal, which must be considered an occurrence contrary to nature in Christian Europe. The Middle Ages would have excommunicated him, this Oriental despot, this anti-Christian king, who proclaimed himself sole proprietor of his kingdom, disposed of souls as much as of bodies, and eliminated all rights before the boundless pride that the feeling of his identification with the state inspired in him (Renan, 59).
Louis XIV, however, found a place within French historiography later in the century. Joël Cornette argued that intellectuals of the Third Republic progressively integrated the Sun King into the nation's epic narration, and that this evolution could be seen in the works of Ernest Lavisse (Cornette, 561). In 1910, the French historian edited three volumes dedicated to the reign of the Sun King, which were widely acclaimed and uncontested until World War II. Throughout this extensive study, Lavisse recognised a certain greatness to Louis XIV's reign. His writings notably praised the incredible artistic and cultural contributions, along with the crucial reforms that led to the birth of the French modern state. Cornette sustains that these works finalised the annexation of Louis XIV within French history, making him the archetype of the 'king of glory', head of an administrative monarchy foreshadowing the bourgeois Republic that was getting in place at that time (Cornette, 561). Nevertheless, these editions testified of some continuities with the 19th century. They continued to blame the king for his aggressive foreign policies, egotism and more importantly, absolutism. According to Lavisse, there were no doubts that absolutism had progressively turned into despotism and had several harmful impacts on the French monarchy. He explained that it had pushed the monarchy to its fullest capacities, resulting in its incapacity to change in the upcoming century, which, combined with the numerous wars and famines, inevitably separated the monarchy from its indispensable roots in the French people (Church, 53).
Once again, explanations behind these rough historiographical considerations are related to the political context of 19th century France. Guizot, Michelet, and Renan were liberals who wished to defend the legacies of the French Revolution and of the Republic. One must remember that this century was a synonym of political instability and that the Republic was not yet deeply anchored in society. Born in 1798, Michelet lived through the First French Empire, the Restoration, the Second Republic, the Second Empire, and finally, the Third Republic. Even after his death in 1874, the Republic was still a fragile reality, as monarchist parties continued to be strong actors of French political life. In the midst of these tumultuous times, Louis XIV and absolutism stood out as the incarnations of liberals' opposite values and a threat to their Republican ideals. Absolutism was more than the rejection of individual rights and freedoms that had been painfully gained during the Revolution. As suggested in the earlier citation of Renan, this doctrine was heavily connected to religion. Absolutism found its legitimacy and drained its strengths in the religious institutions of the Ancien Régime. In 1998, Lucien Jaume reminded that after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo which resulted in the Bourbon Restoration in 1815, one of the greatest fears was the re-establishment of the Church in the centre of French political and social life (Jaume, 43). Both Renan and Michelet were ardent defenders of anticlericalism, and therefore could only condemn absolutism. Born decades later, Lavisse was a convinced and fierce liberal who dedicated his career to anchoring the republican institutions in French society through his teaching of history (Lavallée, 28). His writings were less hostile to the Ancien Régime, as long as this latter embraced similar political concepts to the Republic, but no concessions were to be made about absolutism.
Overall, the examination of Louis XIV's historiography in the 19th and early 20th centuries offers a grim depiction of the Sun King. On both sides of the Channel, the French monarch left a bitter memory of his reign. While the English had been marked by his belligerent campaigns, the French people held grief for the famines, unshared power, and religious oppression. Both historiographies held him responsible for his excesses, and particularly his thirst for glory. If historians could recognize some greatness to Louis XIV's reign, acknowledging, for example, his cultural, intellectual, military, and administrative achievements and reforms that contributed to the birth of modern France, they also heavily condemned its absolutist nature. French liberals, as much as the English ones, considered and defined absolutism as a pure manifestation of despotism and an expression of religious predominance and intolerance within French society. Despite varied historiographical evolutions, academics seem to never have been able to forgive the king for absolutism, and therefore, on the eve of World War II, Louis XIV's portrayal was one of a ruthless despot. Fortunately, this consensus was about to be challenged and entirely changed by a new generation of historians.
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Ciro, F. (1663). La gloire de Louis XIV triomphe du Temps. Oil on canvas. Retrieved from: https://bit.ly/3h0qqzK
David, J. L. (1791). The National Assembly taking the Tennis Court Oath. Drawing. Retrieved from: https://bit.ly/3s0hdNV
Van der Meulen, A. F. (1690). Louis XIV Crossing the Rhine, 12 June 1672. Oil on canvas. Retrieved from: https://bit.ly/3v3oqii