Limitations of Louis XIV's Absolutist Rule Research Paper

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¶ … limitations of Louis XIV's absolutist rule on economic, religious and domestic developments during his reign (1643-1715)

In his book, Louis XIV and Absolutism, William Beik undertakes the mission of presenting the readers with primary and secondary sources from Louis XIV's reign in the light of the latest researches that attempted to nuance the concept of "absolutist rule" generally applied to the French monarch until then. On one hand, the author does not attempt to demolish a myth, while on the other he is set on proving that Louis XIV's absolutism had its limitations. When considering the question of effectiveness in terms of governance, one has to take into consideration the way the king communicated with his whole kingdom and the effects his decisions and actions had at a macro level.

The implications of seven decades of absolutist rule for the economic, social and political life of France were complex and subject to speculations over the various aspects of the king's relationships with the different layers of the French society and their representatives. As Beik points out, the king was first and foremost subject "to the fundamental laws of the realm"

: "(1) the Salic law, which decreed that the throne passed in the direct male line, excluding women; (2) the rule that the royal domain (property) could not be sold off (alienated); (3) the idea that the king should uphold the Catholic faith" (idem). While he was above the law, monarch by divine right, Louis XIV, had to act according to the divine laws and use his divine right to the best of his abilities, in the interest of his realm.Get full Download Microsoft Word File access
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Beside the theoretical limitations imposed by the kings' own Christian faith, his conscience and awareness of his role of representing God's will for the French people, Louis XIV, like his predecessors, had to take into account the presence of the powerful and to a wide extent, autonomous Catholic Church thorough its representatives: archbishops and bishops. The clergy, as the first estate of the realm, participated and played a major role in important consultative assemblies. Moreover, the immense number of parishes was forming a network that represented the only effective way of communication between the monarch and the masses. The overwhelming majority of the population, the peasantry, the real backbone of the French society, the principal source of tax revenues, was being informed mainly and most efficiently through the channels the Catholic Church had created and had come to master with extreme authority. Above all, the Pope, the representative of God on earth, challenged the claims of divine right of a king that proved to be disloyal in any way or did not know how to assert his authority.

The Catholic Church was not the only estate that the king had to deal with and convince it of his power. The next estate was the nobility. On his way to reach greatness through warfare, the king needed a powerful source of financing. The powerful land nobles, owners of vast lands and thus the direct and most notable beneficiaries of the peasantry's working forces, often held an undisputed authority over the local peasantry and the community they belonged to. The land nobility was thus entitled to levy taxes, decide in matters of local politics and act as intermediaries in local disputes

. Louis XIV had inherited a feudal state whose revenues were mainly coming from the agrarian production and he favored a traditional layering of the society that encouraged little progress in the evolution of the French society from a predominantly agrarian one towards one that tended to rely more on the revenues coming from sectors of trade and manufacture. The king's interest in encouraging the merchants and their trade was kept to a minimum and thus the taxes imposed on their economic activities were kept at a higher less encouraging level. He was interested, after all, in collecting taxes and not necessarily in creating new ways and opportunities for future revenues for his war campaigns. As long as the money kept flowing toward the royal treasury, it was of lesser importance where it came from.

Although the seventeenth century saw the position of land nobles loosing in importance, power and authority in their relationship with the peasants working their lands, the latter were still an important source of revenues for this social category. Form the point-of-view of their influence and political authority, the land nobles were limited by the king's undisputed right to summon the consultative assemblies where they could participate as one of the three estates. Although this kept their relationship with the monarch at a unilateral level, the king holding the sole right to initiative, they still managed to interfere in matters of political and economic interest through indirect means.

In his book, Beik emphasizes the role of "personal connections" they hold as a vital source of indirect influence. The author even goes as far as pointing out that these networks of influence along with key positions some of them hold in provinces and towns allowed them to reach such levels of power that sometimes challenged that of the king himself

. The balance was thus extremely sensitive to the way these actors played their role at the royal court and more especially, the way the king was handling those who came in his favor.

Beik places "life at court" at the center of the absolutist royal universe. The theater of operations was leaded from these quarters through "royal council meetings."

"Thus the running of France was cleverly concentrated in the hands of the king and a few trusted ministers, backed up by a few various agencies, which prepared the business of the meetings."

Another layer of nobility, the robe nobility, developed toward the beginning of the seventeenth century, encouraged and sustained the kings' policies in the territory. The system of "venality of office" gave those who paid fortunes for the right to hold official posts for life, not only extended rights over the regions they were administering in the name of the king, but also access in the noble layer of the society for them and their descendants

. Educated professionals, who disposed of large fortunes and had earned and paid for the right to represent the king's authority in the territory and have some of the royal dignity bestowed upon them, formed the body of the robe nobility. These trained professionals migrated to serve office in the king's services instead of using their knowledge and fortunes to develop an economic system that would have brought a new perspective to the overall economic situation. The economy continued thus to rely heavily on revenues coming from agricultural labor. The whole wealth and prestige of a nation and her monarch was depending on the humblest and largest part of its society: the peasantry and the small village craftsmen.

Beik points out in his introduction to the book Louis XIV and absolutism: a brief study with documents that even if Louis XIV became king in 1643, his young age made him unsuitable for ruling France. His mother, Anne of Austria, became regent and ruled over France with cardinal Mazarin at her side. Thus, the real king, effectively started to exercise his power as absolute monarch only after cardinal Mazarin's death, in 1661. For the first three decades of his rule, he asserted his power as a monarch who was decided to put a stop to the social unrest that had troubled France for the most part of the last century. Weakness was not an option for the young king and Beik concentrated on the documents dating form this period of Louis XIV's reign, considering that the first thirty years were the most illustrative in creating the image of absolute monarchy "le Roy Soleil" has left to the world.

There is no doubt that the king of France was obsessed with war and the greatness war victories bestowed upon his rule. War campaigns need financing and taxes need tax collectors. A new class, the urban bourgeoisie, started to develop during Louis XIV's years of ruling. Although this new class was far from becoming representative for the French society of the second half of the seventeenth century, it still found ways to develop its business in some isolated regions where production and manufacturing centers traditionally developed.

As previously mentioned, the effectiveness of the absolutist ruling of king Louis XIV was heavily depending on the work of his government. A handful of ministers who enjoyed the king's trust reigned over the agencies destined to prepare the business of their meetings. A picture depicting Louis XIV attending a meeting in Versailles suggests the complete and undisputed authority the king held over the council members who are all looking at him.

One of the most trusted and famous ministers of king Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, whose economic principles were classified as mercantile, made efforts to collect data from the provinces and present it to the king in order for him to be better… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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