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 criticised 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.
While last week's article explored Louis XIV's historiography during the 19th and early 20th centuries, this one seeks to illustrate the changes that took place in the aftermath of World War II.
The Early Reign of Louis XIV series is divided into five chapters:
The Early Reign of Louis XIV 101: Historians & Absolutism (II)
While little innovation was to be observed in the historical perception of absolutism, the decades that followed World War II embodied a wind of change for the subject. The terrors and atrocities that had shocked Europe forced a reconsideration of what was to be seen as despotism and tyranny. As J. H. Burns retrospectively assessed: "moving into the century of totalitarianism and total war, of dictatorship and the one-party state, we may feel that the threat in what we may term its traditional form is a thing of the past" (Burns, 1990, p. 2). Compared to totalitarian rulers, Louis XIV’s despotic reputation seemed outdated and was in dire need of a reassessment. Paradoxically, the main historiographical developments were not to be found in France, but in the Anglo-American world. There, a new generation of British and American scholars rejected the definition of absolutism as tyranny or despotism and transformed it into something else. The theme of absolutism in historiography is a wide subject, which cannot be entirely covered in this article. Therefore, it will only confer an overview of the main evolutions that shaped the Anglo-American and French historiographies between the 1960s and 1990s.
In the 1960s, British and American historians accused the traditional historiographical depiction of the Sun King of being flawed. Herbert H. Rowen explained that absolute monarchy was the consequence of the triumph of dynastic monarchy, when the hereditary king was able to enforce the claim to sole legitimate ownership of sovereign power (Rowen, 1969, 314). His study admitted that the owner of this new power might abuse it, but nonetheless stressed that Louis XIV was confronted to limits; the most notorious ones being the existence of fundamental laws, which the king could not transgress nor change easily, and the importance of counselling which was central to the king’s decision-making (Rowen, 1969, 311). Rowen concluded that 'the view that absolute monarchy was simple tyranny, can neither be wholly accepted nor wholly rejected' (Rowen, 1969, 311). In Britain, Ragnhild Hatton went even further, as she rejected the possibility that absolute monarchy could be an expression of tyranny. For her: 'French absolutism found its foundations on a fundamental law and could not either be assimilated to despotism nor tyranny' (Hatton, 110). Many other academics joined and contributed to the debate, each sharing different arguments and visions but all refusing to reduce absolutism to despotism and, more importantly, dissociating it from totalitarianism. On a broader scale, revisionist historians recognized that Louis XIV held alone all governmental power in the state, but also pointed out that such power was subjected to limitations, the most recurrent ones being that the king was obliged to observe the dictates of divine, natural and fundamental law, and should respect, as much as possible, the legal rights of his subjects.
On the other side of the Channel, French historiography remained relatively static. Some studies were released in the 1940s and 1950s, but these hardly brought any significant changes. Even during the 1660s, the renowned Annales school continued to present a traditional picture of absolutism. In 1966 and 1969, Pierre Goubert and Robert Mandrou published two of the most notorious studies of the decade in which they shared the common objective to place Louis XIV in the context of his time, and to measure his achievements accordingly (Church, 99). Unfortunately, their conclusions ended in a grim depiction of the reign. Both reproached him for his inherent thirst for personal glory and domination, which they considered to be the primary motives behind many, if not most, of his policies (Church, 100). Goubert’s conclusion even maintained an authoritarian description of the Kingdom:
Everlasting glory, territorial aggrandisement, and dominion abroad; at home mastery of all political and administrative life, of religion, society and thought, and the protection of the dynasty and the succession: these were the vast spheres, for all or part of the time, Louis dared to reserve his own sole jurisdiction (Goubert, 295).
In 1976, Church reproached these two studies to have limited their analysis to socio-economic aspects, and therefore had 'failed in their treatment of Louis XIV as a humanistic study' (Church, 109). He argued that this approach through trends, statistics and blanket categories 'seemed to have caused both authors to be satisfied with depicting Louis XIV merely as a type' (Church, 109). More importantly, Church explained that by chiefly relying upon Louis XIV’s Memoires, the two French historians had limited their perception of divine-right absolutism as an expression of personal glory and domination over all others, whereas it consisted in a wider and more complex idea (Church, 109). Nevertheless, these publications were not a total continuity with the past as they brought an undeniable contribution to the field for having extensively broadened the knowledge of the period.
Promising interpretations only started to appear in France in the 1970s and further decades. In 1969, Georges Durand wrote that 'no declaration, edict, charter or constitution ever established a system of absolute power' (Durand, 18). For him, absolutism was to be understood as Louis XIV's constant struggle in the direction of greater independence, without ever achieving complete freedom of action. In short, he explained that the monarch continuously tried to break from the restraints of the exercise of his power (e.g. laws, traditions) but that little was achieved (Durand, 18). Around the same time, other French historians noticed and welcomed the contributions of their Anglo-Saxon homologues. In the 1970s, Jean Meyer and Bruno Neveu praised the historiographical analysis of William F. Church. In his review, Meyer declared that: 'Anglo-Saxon historians have done tremendous progress. We now have much to learn from them' (Meyer, 200). He urged his peers to be ready to leave behind orthodox ideas and to stop judging Louis XIV through anachronistic or political prisms (Meyer, 202). Some historians fulfilled this request in the following years. Among them, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie published, in 1991, an extensive study on the Ancien Regime, which accepted that absolutism went far beyond the simple notion of despotism, and embraced other concepts such as 'monarchical sovereignty' (Ladurie, 146). Louis XIV was still a controversial figure, but the study demonstrated a unique open-mindedness towards the works of his Anglo-American colleagues, while acknowledging the numerous flaws which had composed French scholarship in the 1960s (Doyle, 738). A member of the Annales, Ladurie's conception of absolutism resonated more with the ideas of Hatton and Rowen, than the ones previously found in France. Other historians such as Roland Mousnier or Jean-Louis Thireau contributed towards this reassessment, but overall only a few intellectuals presented such awareness in this subject.
Meanwhile, Anglo-American intellectuals continued to explore the extent of absolutism, to the point of suggesting its nonexistence. In 1984, Andrew Lossky argued that, despite the different theories affirming that Louis XIV was only answering to God, his control over the clergy was limited and his power enforcement depended in large part on public opinion (Lossky, 2-3). His conclusion claimed that 'one must invent a concept of “limited absolutism”' (Lossky, 15). Although Lossky's research had not rejected absolutism, his interpretation paved the way for new interpretations. In the 1990s, Nicholas Henshall brought the debate to a new dimension. Basing his conclusion primarily on the comparison between the French and English monarchies, Henshall invited his contemporaries to abandon the term 'absolutism'. Even though the historian maintained that England was never subjected to absolutism, he nevertheless asserted that it shared many similarities and, without being identical, was 'clearly of the same species' to its continental nemesis (Henshall, 199). Henshall also raised awareness of the history behind the term 'absolutism'. Tracing its first mention back to 1823 in France, he explained that 'absolutism' was purposely designed to denigrate the French monarchy in the aftermath of the French Revolution and during the Third Republic (Henshall, 210-11). From these arguments, Henshall sustained that this term had been employed as 'an impressive excuse for sloppy thinking', and there seemed to be no point in further extending its run anymore (Cuttica, 218). Many historians refused and contested this perspective, reproaching it to be based on a flawed analysis and 'distorted idea of absolutism' (Bonney, 1254). Nevertheless, Henshall's study held the merit to bring a new perspective to the subject and enrich the existing historiography.
Another historiographical development exclusive to the Anglo-American world that needs to be mentioned is the emergence of the New Left. Composed of Marxist and radical left-wing intellectuals, these scholars came to see absolutism as a transitive epoch between feudalism and capitalism, 'one contaminated by and linked to both' (Cuttica, 289-290). In 1974, Perry Anderson stood out from the ongoing historiographical debates by arguing that European absolute monarchies were not to be conceived as an alliance between the bourgeoisie and kings, but rather as a continuity with the feudal system, which implied important limitations and resulted in many failures (Rowlands, 200). One of his main arguments resided in the fact that French Absolutism failed to accomplish its primary purpose: military hegemony (Anderson, 102). Anderson observed that, by the end of the reign, Louis XIV’s consolidated and stabilised form of monarchy did not manage to impose itself in Europe, whereas 'the still defective and incomplete state structure of Richelieu and Mazarin had achieved spectacular foreign successes' (Anderson, 106). Failure was not due to strategic decisions, but rather to the incapacity of absolutism to compete with the rise of English capitalism. According to him, the real victors of the War of the Spanish Succession were 'the merchants and bankers of London', who emerged with the development of English capitalism and the consolidation of its state in the late 17th century (Anderson, 106). David Parker and William Beik also joined Anderson's views and brought major contributions in the 1980s. In 1983, Parker underlined that Louis XIV was only able to end resistance to his monarchy by accepting the corporate and hierarchical organisation of French society and the continued existence of privileged groups within it (Schneider, 572). Beik went even further, and demonstrated that absolutism was a system that protected, rather than threatened, the class' and elite's interests. He argued that to secure his authority, Louis XIV developed an alliance between local elites and his institutions by playing upon their corporate and material self-interest (Wood,1213). All these interpretations demonstrated that Louis XIV, despite his so-called absolute rule, had to make compromises with existing power centres to keep his authority (Beik, 219).
Overall, the conception of absolutism drastically shifted during the 20th century. Even though its definition diverged from one historian to another, absolutism was no longer systematically associated with tyranny. However, this evolution significantly differed between the French and Anglo-American historiographies. Despite their protestant legacy and their old rivalry with France, American and British scholars were the first to overcome their orthodox perspectives, and introduced in the 1960s a more positive and fair assessment of the subject. Until the 1980s, most French historians remained true to their traditions and continued to harvest an animosity towards the subject. Even in the two last decades of the century, French historiography was relatively minor in comparison to the Anglo-Saxon one, which kept growing and innovating. In the end, one could suppose that this reluctant historiographical evolution in France testified of an old and deep tension between the Republic and the Ancien Régime, which emerged in the aftermath of the French Revolution and in the first breaths of liberalism.
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Doerr, C-A-V. (1857). Louis XIV recevant Louis II de Bourbon, dit le Grand Condé, à Versailles après la bataille de Senef, Novembre 1674. [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from: https://bit.ly/3sFSHSE
Mignard, P. (c. 1694). Louis XIV à cheval couronné par la Victoire devant le siège de Namur. [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from: https://bit.ly/3pwmuvf
Mosenthal, John W. (c. 1945). The defendants in the dock at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. [Photography]. Retrieved from: https://bit.ly/3HEisa5
Verdier, François. (c. 1670-1687). La chute des anges rebelles. [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from: https://bit.ly/3HsYlff