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France in periods of war


French Revolution
French Revolution

The resurgence of population and economic growth was accompanied by the political revival of the state. The scope of royal justice widened as parlements (royal courts) were established in Toulouse in 1443, Grenoble in 1456, Dijon in 1477, Aix-en-Provence in 1501, Rouen in 1515, and Rennes in 1551. In addition to hearing cases and overseeing local administration, the parlements were charged with registering, or officially adopting, royal edicts. Kings expected registration to be more or less automatic, since in their view the procedure did not involve anything like legislative approval. But the parlements sometimes used such occasions to protest against edicts they found objectionable by issuing formal dissents called remonstrances. In addition to expanding the judiciary, the royal government also compiled local customary laws and extended the system of royal administration by establishing baillis and sénéchaux, royal administrators who supervised the prevots, in areas that now fell within the expanding royal domain. To meet the demands of war, the crown expanded its military capacity by recruiting mercenaries.

In periods of war, the crown needed to expand its taxing power, and it did so by levying extraordinary wartime taxes, including indirect (sales) taxes and the taille, a tax paid by non-nobles on their personal wealth. These taxes were gradually levied on a more routine basis. To gain consent for them, the crown summoned a variety of local and regional assemblies, in addition to the kingdom-wide assembly, the Estates-General. In general, these assemblies approved royal initiatives, facilitating the expansion of royal power. At the same time, however, the assemblies ventilated grievances against the king, and they sometimes refused to consent to fresh taxes. For these reasons, the monarchy gradually sought to dispense with assemblies, arguing that the king’s right to tax unilaterally had become customary. But this right continued to be contested, as were the amount and nature of the taxes themselves.

French Revolution


This opposition was one factor that prevented the monarchy from establishing a uniform tax code before the French Revolution (1789-1799), despite its rising power. Another was that the monarchy granted permanent exemptions from some taxes to certain groups and bodies for both political and fiscal reasons. Nobles were free from paying the taille on the grounds that they provided military service to the king. Some localities were similarly exempt because at some time in the past they had bought a permanent exemption through a single large contribution. Some provinces were partially shielded from taxes because they retained the right to negotiate the size and nature of their tax burden with the crown through their provincial assemblies. The Catholic Church, a major landholder in the kingdom, also acquired tax advantages. Rather than pay the standard rate, the church was permitted to make a “free gift” to the crown. This amount was much smaller than what the church would have owed if it paid taxes like other groups. Such exemptions meant that the tax system was far from equitable and weighed most heavily on those who lacked the political influence to gain exemptions, notably the peasantry.

storming of the Bastille
Storming of the Bastille

To cover the costs of government, the crown sold state offices, a practice known as venality of office. By the early 16th century, an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 offices had been sold; by the late 16th century, the number had increased to about 15,000; by the 1660s, to about 50,000.

By the late 18th century, about 70,000 offices were venal, meaning that roughly one percent of all adult Frenchmen owned one. Although not all state offices were venal, some of the most important positions, including judgeships in the parlements,were. Venality limited the crown’s ability to control the quality of its own officials. Offices were resold to the highest bidder, and the crown could not fire officers without repaying the capital they had invested in their offices, a luxury that the state could hardly ever afford.

Yet by selling offices, the crown increased the loyalty of its servants: Normally few officials would revolt against a state they partially owned. Moreover, venality allowed the monarchy to make money. The crown not only profited from the initial sale of offices but also acquired further revenue by annually charging officeholders a sixtieth of their office’s value to ensure inheritability. Established in the early 17th century, this charge, called the paulette, yielded more revenue than did indirect taxes. In addition, venality occasionally resulted in officeholders being forced to lend the state money.

Venality was crucial for the state because it provided an administrative apparatus at relatively low cost. Venality was also the most important mechanism for ennobling wealthy commoners. Some of the costliest offices not only paid yearly dividends gauged on their value but also conferred noble status if held by a family for four generations. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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