Home > Book Summary > William Beik, Absolutism and society in 17th century France

William Beik, Absolutism and society in 17th century France

In this book William Beik deals with two main questions. Why did Louis quatorze succeed in effectively asserting his royal rule over France (in other words develop absolutism), and what were the social dynamic of absolutism.

Some context is required before answering these questions. The question that Beik is dealing with is that of the rise of the state and state institutions. Two models are prominent as examples of early state building: France and England. Both had diverse histories leading up to their state institutions and in France it was in the reign of Louis 14 that the state became visible. The period under Louis starting from the mid 1600 is know as the absolutist period. The assumptions are that the state became strong enough under Louis 14 to enforce its bureaucracy and become respected by most of modern day France. Louis 14 was especially interesting because of his striking history. He was a very young king at 25 years old and inherited a crown which was largely being challenged and was seen as overbearing by its constituents. He had to deal with la Fronde (or portions of it) and saw great civil unrest.

Generally the assumptions were that after the peace of Westphalia in 1648 the French army was free to return to France and deal a heavy dose of internal repression and enforcement. Society was resisting and the state was attacking. This is held by what Michael Mann calls the Weberian or war making school of the state.

Beik locates three main schools on state development which held to the assumption that absolutism was authoritarian and enforced.

  1. Political and Institutional historians, who focused on the development of institutions of the state versus society. Society was divided into orders rather than classes. These orders are economically heterogeneous and divided according to the prestige that they hold. Those in higher orders were determined by their utility to the King and the king exerted his influence through this social dynamic by manipulating it around him. The state triumphantly organized society.
  2. Marxists, who view classes as billiard balls. There is a tension in Marxism since the state according to Marx is seen as the progressive vector through which capitalists can overthrow feudalism. But while that applied to England, France was a different matter. In any case for Marxists the King used the state to quash the feudal lords and bring about an intermediary stage paving  the way  to Capitalism. (Beik can be said to  be more of a Marxist in that he ascribes to class divisions based on material differences rather than social orders)
  3. Annales school. The Annales school look at trends such as demographics, economics, weather, age of population and from there they argue that the state was an inevitable product of long-term social dynamics.

Beik masterfully exposes weaknesses in all three schools, and he also shows that these ideal types no longer exist, giving credit where it is due. He argues that while French society did indeed revolve around a sense of social order, these orders did in fact have economic bases. There were classes whose economic interests were opposed to one another. Prestige of social orders is merely the story told by the royals to justify their rule. Beik asks (p8) why were the higher classes useful for the King, how did they  get there? So while social orders did exist they did not determine the structure of society. Beik argues that the classes were divided between those producing essential and luxury items and those who consumed them (p9). Beik later on (p29) argues that in capitalism it is the capitalist who owns the means of production. In Feudal france the peasant owned the means of production and had they wanted to could have been autonomous they were not simply replaceable like their capitalist counterparts. The key to society therefore lay not in the means of production which peasants had. As a result Economics plays a lesser role in French society, the major role goes to ideas on order in society and the social relations in feudalism. This is opposite to Marx, politics is key. Absolutism is therefore about Extra-economic domination (30) not economic.

His second criticism is that the state was much weaker in the absolutist era than previously thought. State did not oppress society, there was an interaction between the two. When the people wanted to they could easily run out state notables, or royal intendant. What Beik asks is, why was it that those subjects which had been unruly a few years ago, did not resist or rise up now under Louis 14. So it is not about the state versus the society, but the mix between the two. The state is actually created and infiltrated by society. Therefore the state was regressive in that it was Feudal and cemented the feudal ties of the era rather than challenging them. Beik argues that Louis 14 was successful because unlike Louis 13 he worked within the social order and got it to work for him because french feudal social order placed the king at the top of the hierarchy. So rather than the state dominating it was the state harmonizing with the idea society  had for it as an arbiter enforcing the hierarchical lineage.

Finally he criticizes the annales school for being deterministic. Long-term drives are hardly useful in answering the short-term questions.

Beik raises three questions which shape the rest of the book in answering the questions of absolutism (14).

  1. Why was it that intendants sent by the King were at time respected and at other times driven out. What determined the power that royal intendants received (and by substitution the king)
  2. Institutions were more about personal ties rather than the positions themselves. Therefore absolutism rested on social consent more than on power relations.
  3. The state finances in the 30 year war were the largest in history. The state borrowed, raised,  taxed, and paid back larger sums than ever before. This implicated the state in the financial institutions in ways that it had previously not been. A mutually dependent relationship rose between state and financers.

France did go through a period of economic slow down and stagnation and shrinkage (by late 1600s) but the state and royals always managed to make money through state institutions. Even local notables then benefited from the state. It wasn’t that society rejected the state but that society wanted the state to work in the way it was supposed to. Everyone won out except for the peasants. Absolutism was merely restructured feudalism. That it undermined the french nobility in the end was merely an unintended consequence of the increasing efficiency of feudalism (31).

Ultimately by the end of the 17th century autonomous provincial power was erased to be replaced by power of royalty. Royalty co-opted the existing provincial situations. (35)

The process to this end was relatively short but had begun with the consolidation of the idea that the French King had authority. The economic situation favored absentee landlords and finance as opposed to farming, this also meant royal state institutions were more lucrative. (41)

Beik focuses on Languedoc and studies the interaction of the different sources of power in the province with Paris.

He locates three local sources of power. Estates, Royal agents, and Sovereign courts (like parliaments)

The power of local secular courts was gradually undermined by royal intervention. So was city government. After 1660 a new generation reeling from the Fronde valued stability and forgot the benefits of autonomy that their fathers remembered. Plague and events destroyed the older generation.Frequent calls for order from the state undermined the autonomy of sovereign courts.

Royal agents after 1630 and before always had to work within the local social powers if the hoped to be heard. They were two way access points from and to the king. And thus the respect they were given represented the standing of the King. In times when the King was losing they had less power, when the King was winning they were better respected. Royal agents are heterogeneous united only in their allegiance to the king. They were dependent on local fixers and in return could give out royal titles. They were often paranoid because they were always in dangher of being recalled if they fell out of favor in Paris (103). Initially royal agents were largely respected and empathetic to the local province. The count of Montmorency even rebelled against the king. Once he lost the intendant slowly shifted towards allegiance to paris until in 1663 Bezan was so successful economically that he set precedent for the behavior of agents. (114)

Finally estates which were yearly negotiations for tax payments showed the different power that the king had in the negotiations. But this was not a negotiation over the role of the King, but within the system itself.

The trend that emerges in increasing influence and stature of central authority in paris.  But why did it emerge? Yes it was interaction with society and benefited local notables in gaining more money but what was the factor that allowed royal agents to gain more power.

The values in the Languedoc society also helped the cause of absolutism. Society was deeply loyal to the idea of royalty, especially the position of the king (150). While Beik does not tell us where this idea came from, it could be posited that this was the result of a gradual negotiation between church and state authorities. There was no viable intellectual alternative to this model of social organization with the king on top. Royalty and notables felt that it was a great honor to bask in the glow of the sun-king, and therefore when Louis 14 deliberated and sent representatives, there was great honor to be had merely in associating with the royal figure. Unlike his predecessor there were no longer negotiations between the king and his subjects, the king gave orders and the subject obeyed. But even though there was no negotiation the subjects had greater leeway in deciding the outcomes of the actions in their representation of the king. Society also had a proclivity to holy war especially against the Hueguenots which Louis 14 satisfied.

Authority in Languedoc was mostly based on prestige along with sporadic enforcement. Ultimately the physical coercion of local parties was quite rare and the last incident was perhaps with Montmorency.

(cool quote on p191)

There was no real enforcement of rules, rather the great loss of reputation received by the spectacle of legal deliberation was sufficient in maintaining the rule of the king. Nothing short of a siege could unhinge a locally popular ruler. It was much mroe effective to carry the threat of a marring of honour and prestige. So often notables wouuld rescue prisoners and deal with feuds by assassination, which is not to say that law prevailed by arms, but that one could not arrest a powerful figure.

There was a crisis of authority from 1630-1660 after 1660 we can say that the absolutist period began. (196) The use of the social hierarchy harmoniously on many levels explains the success of louis 14.  The interests of the local rulers lay with the monarchy, the province had a chance at rising up against the king but they never took it because they benefited from the system (211). The point is that teh social dynamics before 1664 before louis 14 didn’t just disappear, a number of factors explain his success but the one Beik highlights is that the king took his position as it was laid out in the popular discourse of the time.

The finances of the time were so that land ownership and financing gave much higher returns than other forms of economic activity. This also encouraged a rallying around the state. The state under louis 14 and colbert initiated large scale infrastrucutre projects and to do so it moed from taking cash to accepting credit., This married teh state tro financiers in complex ways which ultimately made both more dependent on one another. Since the state was the largest debtor and payer it came to play te most important role in the economy.

Having outlined the social underpinings of absolutism The following are explanations as to why Louis 14 succeeded(280):

  1. Repression: Louis 14 set an early example that dissidence would be dealt with by overwhelming force. It took only a few key events to set an example. Leaders were called to Paris instead of him going to them, and the army now back from the frontlines was better present in France.
  2. Creative State building: Colbert the minister initiated a series of innovative movements, rationalzied bureaucracy, and enacted dirigisme. These policies allowed the state greater control and power.
  3. Breathing spell of Peace: The peace that followed 1648 gave louis 14 enough time to deal with local challenges.
  4. End of previous generation: As mentioned a new generation saw stability as beneficial and anarchy as counterproductive.

Beik argues that some of these are overemphasized and others fail to make sense unless we see them in the context of French society. He uses three examplesto illustrate the complex ways that state and society interacted: The resolution of military burdens (Winter stays). Colberts Economic reforms. Repression of Huguenots.

On the first account this was a longstanding complaint which was a long time coming. but steps towards resolution had been taken prior to the 14th. Ultimately a new disciplined organization of them ilitary meant better accountability. The province was dealt with as a whole instead of as communities, the sate took credit instead of cash. And  the estates were given responsibility to oversee the counting.

Cobert’s economic reforms succeeded for reasons unrelated to rationality. As those before him when Colbert suggested building a canal to link Mediterranean to pacific in Languedoc the province failed to recognize the national importance of the project, nor took to using the new infrastructure to generate returns. Rather the province ultimately agreed and enthusiastically supported the canal project because they saw it as an honor the king had bestowed upon  them. An ornament meant to decorate the state in which they could take pride, they noticed the world talking of the great technical advancement of the canal and felt proud. Therefore when the province expanded the canal it was usually aesthetic and without much use.

Finally the Huegonot campaign was the first time when the estates actually invited the king and accepted his taxation without negotiating any further. It was a brutal repressive campaign but it proved to give the king much popularity and through it allow him to cement his authority in Languedoc.  (303)


How did the idea of the king on the top of the hierarchy emerged. I know Beik doesn’t cover that time period and finds these ideas in place, but how did these ideas come about. especially in places with strong provincial governance. Perhaps in this sense Strayer is a good guide.

Where is the violence of the state? The armies and the uprisings were seemingly glossed over. After Westphalia all the Huguenots disappeared. Poof! They were killed. Not part of his book.

Beik fails to show why the success of louis 14 cannot be explained outside of existing explanations. He does show the social basis of absolutism but the fact that the army came home, that there was peace, that the state built new institutions, that there was a new generation all do in fact explain the success of louis the 14. There is a large role for contingency and luck which he fails to recognize. There are long-term historical forces behind a lot of social movements and a lot of historical forces which hold back change as well. Any society is trapped by its historical past in determining where there are venues for change and where there is much difficulty to create change.

We know why rulers sub,it to the king but why do the peasants submit to it. If absolutism is light on the 10thousand rulers of langue-doc it is absolutely totalitarian for peasants. Here there is something to be said on the chains of commnication between church and peasantry as a two way street of communciation.

Linking to other authors:

Migdal argues that there is a need for a break in societies for new institutions to take hold. Why can this not be made for 1600 France. The plague and paved the way for new institutions to take root.

This has a lot of consequences to modern authoritarianism. Libya went through 40 years of dictatorship and others. These dictatorships cannot be divorced from society. though it is easier to do so today, it is still impossible not to have some grounding in local society. We can say this more comfortably now given that the arab spring refutes the arguments that link arab culture to repression. Still this does not lessen from the fact that regimes, even repressive ones, have social bases if at least when they begin (1970 arab revolutions).

Some thoughts:

There are feudal vestiges in the modern state. Including the link between finance and state-hood. This does not mean that we are in or returning to a feudal world (see FP article 2003 I think) the fact that some historical tendencies remain in today’s systems does not make them the same as those historical situations whole sale. We are indeed outside of feudalism despite certain similarities. These similarities are : access of average citizen to state. Importance and privilege of local notables.  Taxation in the US of peasants.

Grov: The capitalist class is created when public property is given to private individuals who are in a social position to use it so that they may return public goods which the state is unable to provide. Capitalists are never self made, this is merely a myth. The case is that capitalists are made by the state delegating public goods to private individuals.

What is the difference between state and empire? There is really no substantive difference between the two. Territoriality was fluid especially in colonial times. We could say that france was an empire with provinces. We can just as well say that the US has a global empire. This question does not benefit from the differentiation of phrases between state and empire. Perhaps the US is an empire of states as Meikins wood argues (or Harvey).


Categories: Book Summary
  1. July 27, 2013 at 5:09 pm

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