Photographic book

France in the 17th century


Bourbon Monarchy
Bourbon Monarchy

The late 16th century was an age of economic stagnation, characterized by a declining standard of living, social anarchy, and grotesque violence. It earned a reputation as one of the most wrenching periods in French history. Yet apart from exacerbating religious divisions, the Wars of Religion had no major long-lasting economic or social effects on the nation, which survived intact and without significant territorial losses. The Wars of Religion had their greatest impact on the state. Henceforth, the new Bourbon dynasty could point to the chaos of the religious wars as evidence that only a powerful, indeed absolute, monarchy, deriving its authority from God, could contain the virulent antisocial tendencies of private individuals. The additional threat of encirclement posed by the Habsburgs encouraged the Bourbons to build a state so large that, for certain periods during the next two centuries, France loomed as the dominant nation in Europe.

To understand this period, it is critical to recognize that even defenders of absolute monarchy sharply distinguished between absolute regimes and arbitrary regimes. In absolute regimes princes did not share power with institutions such as representative assemblies. But an absolute king could not legitimately violate the laws of God or nature or the fundamental laws that governed succession to the throne and ensured the integrity of the realm. By contrast, in arbitrary regimes—what became known around 1700 as despotisms—the state was subject to no law. Absolutists argued that in exercising sovereignty, an absolute king could make and impose new statute law on his subjects for their own good. Absolutists held that people had most to fear from each other and that only if the monarchy wielded unchecked power could they enjoy true freedom—that is, security in their lives and property.

In fact, absolute monarchy was never close to being perfectly realized in France. The crown always had to make compromises and cut deals with local institutions and elites, much as Henry IV had to come to terms with the Holy League. Although the nobility might have occasionally resented royal policies, they found much to gain from the absolute state. They looked to the state to find the means to support their own, sometimes extensive, networks of dependents. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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