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Review of "The State in Early Modern France" by James B. Collins

Ryan Thomas is a university student with extensive interest in the histories of various societies and cultures around the world.


What the Book Covers

For most of the history of civilization, the state—the central government that rules over people or peoples—has been relatively distant and weak. This may sound strange to us today, but the actual ability of the governments in ancient and medieval times to be able to control and command the lives of their subjects was limited. Most of their subjects lived the lives of peasants, undisturbed and un-bothered except for the occasional tax collector, mostly self-governing or governed by a lord or other figure who was certainly not part of the great behemoth that we would call "the state". Nowadays, governments have vast social arms with social services, disability and old age protections, childhood protections, public medicine, work regulations, hosts of regulations on commerce and trade, centralized economic institutions, public works administrations, vast collections of courts, centralized police forces, intelligence agencies, and vast armies. In times of war, these arms of government can call on the blood tax for every citizen, fueled by hosts of taxes that reach each and every individual directly, and staffed by sprawling bureaucracies run on an impersonal, rational, and scientific—if not always efficient—basis.

How did this system develop from, say, the old European Medieval governments, when a king could count only on a relatively tiny collection of officials, limited taxes, and where most administration happened in venal, personal, and family methods? The transition happened in the Early Modern Era, when the reach and authority of the state expanded from leap to leap as states increasingly expanded their power, principally for that most dangerous game of kings: war. The State in Early Modern France by James B. Collins is a book (technically a "texbook") which covers this development in France, and which provides an excellent overview of how this process occurred, the factors driving it, the memory and propaganda—particularly concerning the extent of just how "absolutist" this was—and what the ultimate consequences were, both upon the people and the national destiny of France. It is a subject which only those greatly interested in institutional and government history might pick up, but it does its job rather well.

Louis XIV might have been an extremely powerful and influential monarchy, but the idea of him as "absolute" is dubious beyond its representation in propaganda.

Louis XIV might have been an extremely powerful and influential monarchy, but the idea of him as "absolute" is dubious beyond its representation in propaganda.

Analysis of Contents

To begin with, the book starts off as defining the historiographical conflict over the French monarchy (was the "absolute" monarchy, a phase in of itself, between feudal and parliamentary systems, or a strengthening of the feudal system?), who supported it, how it was defined, the eras of the monarchy in France (judicial, legislative, and administrative being the book's general definitions of the monarchy by era), and then an overview of the state of the state in France around 1625 and some historical examination of the developments in the proceeding centuries. This includes the state's judicial, military, and tax-collecting powers, followed by discussion of the situation of France after the French Wars of Religion and the state's consolidation of authority. It then proceeds to the reforms undertaken in this period, the crisis of the Franco-Spanish War of 1635-1659 (where both states came close to effective collapse), the Fronde (the French civil war of this period while Louis XIV was still a minor), Louis XIV's rule up until 1689, and then the crisis during the War of the League of Ausburg and the War of Spanish Succession that marked the end of his reign, the changes and reforms it brought about, their effects, continuities, and limitations, (both upon the state but also upon the common people of the realm, such as women or the poor). Chapter 5 is about the developments in France from 1720 to 1750, including the economic shifts in what people did (and what they defined themselves as doing), the development of new prerogatives of the state (poor relief, public works, policing), the collapse of the political legitimacy of the monarchy among the desacrilization of its rule which opened the floodgates to the end of the king's theoretically absolute status. This is vital for understanding its response to an increasingly disastrous financial situation from the Seven Years War onwards, as accumulated debts and political limitations overwhelmed the state's finance and threw it into collapse. This France, still a monarchy even though the ancient regime had in spirit had all but disappeared, was incapable of providing for the absolutism of the king which had solved previous financial crises by forced default. Money had always been a ring around the neck of the French monarchy: now it would bring it to collapse.

This book isn't really textbook in the sense of being a relatively blasé project which aims for consensus, and the author extensively draws upon his work and seeks to counter previously existing historical claims and demonstrate that they are false; the Fronde is an example. Collins says that most historians have traditionally said that it happened in Paris and then spread to the countryside, and then proceeds to take the opposite view and states so explicitly. This isn't a flaw, but it really doesn't make it a traditional textbook, which aims to steer clear of mentioning any such historiographical disputes.

A divine hand moves the crown of Charles I : the divine right of kings was not merely a device to strengthen kings, but their entire legitimacy and system of government rested upon it. When it collapsed in France, so did the ancien regime.

A divine hand moves the crown of Charles I : the divine right of kings was not merely a device to strengthen kings, but their entire legitimacy and system of government rested upon it. When it collapsed in France, so did the ancien regime.

The overall thesis propounded by this book is that although there were tremendous changes for the French state in the early modern era, the state was still fundamentally operating under the same principles of organization as in previous years, although increasingly towards the end of the 18th century this started to change. It was still a state which was based heavily upon personal connections, and the idea of "absolutism" —that the king could do whatever he so wished, that he was completely absolutely in his authority—was essentially royalist propaganda which has been exaggerated by historians: conversely the state was still one which was designed for the interests of the French landed elites, which stayed true up until the very end when it collapsed under financial pressure in 1789. Thus even though the French state expanded dramatically and became much more efficient and capable, it was still based on the rule of families, connections between noble elites, and personal status, rather than being a modern institutional state, and it certainly was no absolutist state seeking to destroy noble power. There were seeds of this which were present, with factions vying for influence rather than simply family politics, but it was still a way of doing business which was recognizable to people from centuries earlier. There were seeds of the "modern" state in some domains— such as in regards to poverty control, and policing—but these were always secondary to the main domain of the state, war. The ultimate collapse of the ancient regime, other than the immediate trigger of finance, came from the growing contradictions of its social structure and the secularization of its society: a regime which depended upon its structure being divinely ordained for the King to be legitimate (supposedly the King's contract was with God alone—and if not with god, then who else but with the Nation?), could not survive the loss of the sacred.

This thesis is one which seems to be broadly correct, and shared by historians - while as previously mentioned this book doesn't read like a textbook, it is a textbook in the sense of being a collection of existing readership. Furthermore the book provides a superb amount of information about ancient regime France, and actually manages to make this intensely confusing system somewhat understandable, even if sometimes the debate about Gallicanism and Jansenism—French theological movements—can become incredibly difficult to understand. Sometimes it seems that this detail of religious thought isn't matched by the same extent of information on political thought at the time. However, as far as supporting the development of why the sacredness of the king upon which the ancient regime rested collapsed, it is entirely suitable. Overall, this is a very good book, principally for institutions and social structures in ancient regime France, but also with important elements of light for its religious history, the history of women, cultural policy, and financial aspects.

© 2018 Ryan Thomas