Modern history


Well before 1700, the surface glamour of court life on which the Louis-Quatorzian myth had been founded had begun to pall. The gap between representation and reality widened – dangerously so for a regime which placed importance on impressing through a show of grandeur. Louis’s association with the pious widow, Madame de Maintenon (with whom he contracted a morganatic marriage in 1684) had led to a new tone of piety, even prudery, at court. The wilder festive extravaganzas of Louis’s youth died out, Christian prevailed over pagan symbolism, and naked statues around the gardens of Versailles acquired strategically placed figleaves. Ageing played a part in this change in the ceremonial regime: Louis XIV had been his own Principal Dancer in court ballets down to the 1670s, but he increasingly took a spectatorial rather than a participatory role in entertainments, which became fewer and less grand. To Versailles, he now came to prefer the homelier and more comfortable adjacent palaces of Trianon and Marly. In the last decade of his life, he spent most evenings in private with Madame de Maintenon, hearing a little chamber music, reading or else chatting with a few family friends.

The growing discrepancy between the diminishing splendour of court life on the one hand and the continuing stream of displays and glorifications of the monarch outside Versailles on the other was linked to a related development, namely, the deterioration in the fortunes of the monarch in international affairs. The quest for international gloire had been an important component in the popularity of Louis XIV’s policies: ‘every petty person feels elevated and associated with the king’s greatness’, noted one pamphlet in 1690. ‘This compensates him for all his losses and consoles him in his misery.’20 Yet that international and military greatness seemed increasingly in question. Had Louis died at forty-six rather than seventy-six, his reputation in French history would have stood far higher: for from the 1680s to his death, he added virtually nothing to what he had achieved hitherto. The Wars of the League of Augsburg (1688–97) and of Spanish Succession (1701–13) proved disastrous for his own reputation – and for the fortunes of his subjects. The Spanish struggle, aimed to secure for his grandson, the duc d’Anjou, the crown of Spain bequeathed him by the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, Charles II (r. 1661–1700), went particularly badly. By 1708–9, with the English marshalling their European allies, France’s military situation was appalling. Limited recovery thereafter meant that the Treaty of Utrecht (1713–14) ending this cycle of warfare was not as catastrophic as had seemed likely. In particular, Anjou was accepted as Spanish monarch – though only in return for Philip V (as he became) renouncing any claim to the French throne. The cost had been high, however, straining the French state’s finances to the limit and placing a tax burden on the country which was made almost intolerable by the extremely harsh population losses caused by bad weather and harvest failure.21

France’s international prestige plummeted accordingly. In 1685, the king further tarnished his international reputation by revoking the Edict of Nantes of 1598, which protected the Huguenot minority. The move, which caused even the pope to express reservations at the violence involved, had the effect of driving Protestants to leave France rather than convert. This was not only financially and economically ill-advised, it was also politically inept, for it helped to manufacture a vehement opposition to the principles of government which the king embodied. From the late 1680s onwards, Huguenot refugees in the United Provinces, England and Germany poured out a stream of invectives against the king, a chorus to which propagandists of the allied powers fighting Louis added their voices. Louis’s quest for la gloire, it was suggested, had tipped over into folie de grandeur, with the ruler wishing to establish a ‘universal monarchy’ throughout Europe, crushing Protestant communities beneath the Catholic jackboot. Louis’s turn to straightlaced piety was forgotten, and he was luridly depicted as a saturnalian debauchee from whom no virgin was safe. European printing presses highlighted Catholic atrocities inflicted in the so-called dragonnades, the enforced dragooning of orthodox piety by regular troops. The violent repression of the revolt of Protestant ‘Camisard’ rebels in the Cévennes between 1702 and 1704 restoked the fires of anti-Bourbon and anti-Catholic propaganda. In spite of a brutal campaign of counter-insurgency, moreover, which involved the wholesale extermination of rebel villages, the French government found it humiliatingly difficult to liquidate the Protestant community within its borders. Indeed, even as Louis lay dying, the Protestant community was reforming ‘in the wilderness’ (au Désert): on 21 August 1715 in the Cévennes mountains behind Nîmes, the pastor Antoine Court held the first truly national Protestant synod in France since 1685.

The emergence of an ideology of anti-absolutism came as a rude shock to a monarch who had taken extraordinary pains to control written and visual representations of his authority. The flipside of the Bourbon state’s generous patronage of artists and writers was a regime of censor-based surveillance over publication of books and images. During his reign, over 170 writers, publishers and booksellers had to cool their heels in the Bastille prison for publishing offences. Affairs of state, which Louis thought of as his business alone, had become a matter of international public debate. Foreign and Huguenot critics seemed, moreover, to be taking absolutism at its own valuation, finding in Louis XIV’s mythic present the lineaments of a monstrous and tyrannical despotism. Even more worrying than this international campaign against his authority was the fact that there were echoes of anti-absolutist rhetoric emerging from groupings close to the centre of the French state. A major complex of opposition and polemic was opening around the issue of Jansenism, while the reform of absolutism was under debate within the entourage of the king’s own grandson, the duke of Burgundy.

‘It is a great pity’, noted the minor English divine Silvester Jenks, that ‘so important a matter as Jansenism should be so universally talked of and so little understood.’22 Certainly, the issues brought up by Jansenism could not easily be boiled down to a checklist of key doctrinal points – efforts to do just that in the past had only succeeded in making matters more complex and more embattled (and would, as we shall see, do so again).23 The Jansenist current of ideas had originated in the early seventeenth century and been propagated by Cornelius Jansen, bishop of Ypres, and Jean Duverger de Hauranne, abbé de Saint-Cyran. These men drew on the example of the early church and the writings of Saint Augustine to stress the invincibility of God’s grace and the innate corruptibility of human nature. They were critical of what they adjudged the morally laxist attitudes associated with the Jesuits, whose doctrines of Molinism allowed a good deal of latitude to human free will. The puritanical, inward-looking Jansenist movement, whose spiritual headquarters became the monastery of Port-Royal outside Paris, attracted much support from the social and political elite from the middle of the seventeenth century. Louis suspected its adherents of political heterodoxy and, with little justification, of treasonous involvement in the Fronde.

Louis’s harassment of Jansenist views, which won much support from dévot circles, was put on hold in the late 1660s, when it was agreed that individuals who subscribed to Jansenist opinions should not be pressed publicly to declare their views either way. But further religious and diplomatic disputes in the 1680s between the king and Innocent XI (pope 1676–89) came close to causing the church in France to split from Rome. In order to restrict the influence of the papacy in French church matters, Louis formulated what became known as the Four Gallican Articles – the fourth of which stated that no papal ruling even on spiritual matters could be accepted as binding on Catholics in France without the approval of the temporal power. In 1682, the king insisted that the Gallican Articles, enunciated as a royal decree, should be formally registered by the Paris Parlement and thus become incontrovertible state law, and taught as doctrinal orthodoxy in theology faculties and seminaries.

On the warpath again by the turn of the century against a doctrine which he increasingly interpreted as being quite as disruptive of religious harmony and royal power as Protestantism had proved, Louis pestered Clement XI (pope 1700–21) into promulgating the bull Vineam domini (1705) which formally condemned the compromise of the 1660s over inwardly held Jansenist views. Louis’s clumsy attempts to get Rome to police French consciences provoked an anti-papal backlash, for the king’s actions seemed to infringe his own Gallican Articles of 1682. There was, however, no holding back the monarch, newly won to devotion and egged on by Jesuitophile Madame de Maintenon’s regular bedtime diet of anti-Jansenist horror-stories. Louis stepped up persecution of prominent Jansenists, using lettres de cachet to imprison the most subversive, and in 1709 closed down the Port-Royal convent outside Paris, razing the site and disinterring those buried there. In 1713 he extracted from the pope the Unigenitus bull which defined and formally stigmatized allegedly Jansenist theses.

The papal bull Unigenitus was, in the opinion of the Jansenist bishop of Montpellier, Colbert de Croissy, ‘the greatest event there has been in the church since Jesus Christ’. Louis had expected the papal pronouncement to put an end to disputes as confidently as he had expected the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 to be acceptable to the Huguenot community. Instead, Unigenitus marked the inauguration of the Jansenist question as one of the most intractable political issues of the century. The body of the bull’s text – which soon proved to have, as d’Aguesseau put it, ‘as many enemies as readers’24 – took the form of a step-by-step condemnation of 101 putatively heretical statements to be found in one of the most widely read religious works of the late seventeenth century, the Moral Reflections (1692) of Pasquier Quesnel, a Jansenist exile resident in the Low Countries. This upset many individuals, including Cardinal Noailles, archbishop of Paris, who deemed that Quesnel’s work contained items well within the bounds of doctrinal orthodoxy. It was the form rather than the content of the bull which annoyed others. The pope seemed to be laying down rules of orthodoxy in a way which smacked of belief in papal infallibility and which infringed the French church’s cherished constitutional independence, recently affirmed in the 1682 Gallican Articles.

The crisis was still going strong when Louis was on his deathbed: indeed, the king had been planning the convocation of a church council to force through the Unigenitus bull against a handful of bishops holding out against assent – an act which might well have resulted in schism within the church. Inept royal policies, instead of pouring oil on troubled waters, had simply inflamed the issue, and driven Gallicans like Noailles into the arms of Jansenist opponents of Unigenitus. This was all the more significant, moreover, in that Jansenism had developed faithful supporters in the highest echelons of the state as well as the church. In the eyes of the constitutional watchdog, the Parlement of Paris, the bull had raised Gallican as well as Jansenist hackles. ‘Unigenitus’, d’Aguesseau predicted with more than a little accuracy, ‘will be the cross not only of the theologians but also of the premier magistrates of the kingdom.’25

Opposition to Louis’s policies was not merely located, then, among Huguenot refugees and outlaws; the state’s administrative apparatus and the upper reaches of the church were nurturing hostility towards royal policy and authority. Generalized dissent reached even further into the heart of the absolutist polity, moreover, for the entourage of the duke of Burgundy, second in line to the throne, was also developing a reform programme. In the late 1690s, Burgundy’s grandfather had organized a nationwide inquiry through the provincial Intendants to reveal the character of the society over which the young duke, it was thought, would eventually rule. The replies to this inquiry proved to be grist to the mill of a grouping of nobles and churchmen who were acting as advisers to the young duke, led by François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon, who from 1689 had been the child’s tutor. Though he was exiled from court in the mid-1690s following religious disputes, Fénelon continued to develop a critique of Louis-Quatorzian absolutism from his post as archbishop of Cambrai. In writings which circulated in manuscript, he vehemently attacked wars which, as the 1698 inquiry seemed to confirm, were harmful and destructive, and suggested that the king was seriously out of touch with the needs of his suffering people. Fénelon’s austere morality of power reserved its most stinging barbs for courtiers who out of flattery and self-interest sought to blind the king to his divinely ordained regal duties.

The War of Spanish Succession provided even more ammunition for the critics of the state within Burgundy’s circle, for whom Louis XIV seemed to be failing in the Bourbon task of combining international success with domestic tranquillity. Pierre Le Pesant, sieur de Boisguilbert, had in 1695 penned an attack on Louis’s dirigiste economic policies, and his Supplément du Détail de la France (1707) further elaborated the critique. In the same year, Boisguilbert’s cousin, the military engineer, Sebastien Le Prestre, comte de Vauban, who was personally responsible for much of the fortress-building which had equipped French frontiers with quasi-impregnable defences, also produced a widely and clandestinely circulated piece, Projet d’une Dixme royale (‘Plan for a Royal Tithe’), which, in the light of the appalling conditions which he had witnessed throughout the country, urged a fairer apportionment of the costs of war. The two authors were unsparing in their attacks on financiers who, it was held, were leading Louis astray, building up colossal wealth for themselves and draining the country dry. Vauban and Boisguilbert were publicly censured in 1707, but this failed to stop the assaults. The eccentric abbé de Saint-Pierre, polymathic enthusiast for postal services, phonetic spelling and social reform, produced a Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe (‘Plan for Making Peace in Europe Perpetual’) (1712), which urged arbitration rather than aggression in international disputes.

The Burgundy circle assailed some of the most cherished principles of Louis-Quatorzian government: it criticized existing economic and financial policies in the name of a humane commitment to assisting the distressed peasantry; it preached peace instead ofgloire-driven warfare, and frugal virtue over luxury; and it implied a politics which involved more than a single person, howsoever ‘absolute’. In many ways this disparate movement was trying to reimagine absolutism ‘from the inside’. Some of the circle – men like the dukes of Beauvillier, Chevreuse and Chaulnes – were indeed close advisers to Louis XIV. They shunned a public forum for their work – they had no wish to take on the mantle of tribunes of the people or to topple the polity from without – and operated like an in-house brains trust for innovative statesmen and faithful servants of the crown, thinking the unthinkable as Louis’s impending death presaged the closure of the Sun King’s mythic present. The quasi-manifesto that the group drew up in 1711 at Chaulnes’s home – the so-called ‘Tables of Chaulnes’ – urged a reconfiguration of power so as to include the high aristocracy, who would meet periodically in local estates and in the Estates General. Secretaries of state, subservient vehicles of state centralization, would disappear, while the Intendants, centralizing agents in the provinces, would have many of their powers switched to provincial governors drawn from the high aristocracy. A similar pro-aristocratic note was struck by Saint-Simon, sometime associate of the Burgundy circle, who also began circulating position papers calling for the aristocracy to take a more significant representative role in government and to preside over a reconvened Estates General. At around the same time, another royal adviser, Henri de Boulainvilliers, penned works also calling for a greater role for the nobility in government.

The barrage of criticisms bubbling up from within the political establishment was not without an effect on government, which engaged in a number of reform endeavours in these last years. The wish that tax might be apportioned more fairly so as to cushion the needy was heeded, notably in the 1695 poll-tax, or capitation, paid by all from the humblest peasant to dukes and peers of the realm, and from 1710, in another universal direct tax, the ‘royal tithe’ (dixième), intellectual progeny of Vauban and Boisguilbert. Similarly, criticisms of state economic policy led to the appointment in 1700 of a Council of Commerce on which merchant lobbies were well represented. The acknowledged wish for a more rational system of administration also stimulated Colbert de Torcy’s creation of a ‘Political Academy’ in 1712 to train diplomats, as well as influencing important legal and procedural reforms masterminded by d’Aguesseau in the Paris Parlement.

Significantly, royal decrees now muted the language of imperious demand. Louis presented himself less as the equal of the gods than as the doting paterfamilias of the national family. Commenting on the preamble to the decree establishing the capitation in 1695, the Gazette d’Amsterdam noted how the king spoke ‘as a master who appears to have no need of his people’s consent’, yet also ‘as if he is asking and trying to persuade at the same time as he commands’.26 By the time of the War of Spanish Succession, Louis’s propaganda machine had become even less triumphalistic, as it reticently stressed the need to ground Bourbon foreign policy in legitimate dynastic claims to the Spanish crown based on respect for international law.

There were several features of this episode of court-based critique from the late 1690s onwards which were of particular note for the future. The movement of criticism demonstrated, first of all, a resurgence of interest among the high aristocracy in politics and a wish to find a new vehicle for their authority. The royal court was viewed not only as a baneful vehicle of state centralization and the personalization of power, but also as a source of moral decay which encouraged luxury, corruption and conspicuous waste. A further feature of the high nobility’s revival of interest in politics as Louis XIV’s death approached was a kind of rediscovery of history, as aristocratic critics of absolutism looked to the past as a means of cracking open the timeless mythic present of the Sun King. Whereas absolutist theory justified dynastic authoritarianism as a response to the anarchy of the Wars of Religion and the Fronde, its critics constructed rosy-tinted versions of an even more far distant past, less implacably saturated with absolutist values. Echoing sixteenth-century theorists whose work had been effaced by the dazzling brilliance of the Sun King, Boulainvilliers in particular claimed to locate in the Merovingian Franks the ancestors of the aristocracy, and in the Franks’ warrior assemblies an alternative to the royal court as a locus of legitimate authority. Under Boulainvilliers’s prism, history transmuted from being the epic recounting of the heroic, God-given acts of the ruler into the charting of a national story which was markedly different from the chronicle of royalty. King and state were no longer equated; indeed, for Boulainvilliers, the historic record seemed to show that the Franks’ assemblies pre-dated the institution of kingship by Clovis. The imputation was that kings derived their legitimacy from their aristocracy, who were consequently the true representatives of the nation. Rampant medievalism thus became a channel for attacking arbitrary government, as aristocratic critics sought to replace the royal mythic present with a kind of nostalgic pluperfect.

It was in Antiquity – and an even mistier, more fictive history than that of the Franks – that the eloquent Fénelon grounded his arguments in Télémaque, the most influential text to emerge from the Burgundy grouping. It now seems clear that Fénelon intendedTélémaque, which he composed between 1694 and 1696, essentially as a primer in government for the young duke of Burgundy, a ‘mirror of princes’ which would instruct the young man by painting a picture of the ideal monarch which would warn him of moral perils to be overcome if he was to rule in a way consonant with the spiritual responsibilities of the royal office. A deceitful copyist leaked a version of the manuscript to the publishers, who released the work in 1699, causing a wave of what one contemporary described as ‘Telemachomania’, as re-edition speedily followed re-edition.27

In a classic demonstration of how readers’ reception can transcend an author’s intentions, this moralistic pedagogic text was interpreted as a roman à clef overlaying a swingeing attack on despotic government in general and Louis XIV in particular. Fénelon consistently rejected this interpretation of his work – and certainly for a putatively anti-absolutist text it has long paeans in favour of absolute authority, punctilious attempts to legitimate it in scriptural terms and violent attacks on any form of revolt. The fictive and allegorical dimensions of the work, however, lent themselves only too easily to a more subversive interpretation. Telemachus, the son of Ulysses, follows his father around the islands of a Homeric Mediterranean, being taught precepts of good government by his tutor, Mentor, through the concrete examples they encounter on their way. In a kind of ‘Golden Age’ Crete, for example, they come across one king Idomeneo, whose vices have produced his downfall. His case shows, Mentor tells the youthful Telemachus, that the ideal monarch

has an absolute power (une puissance absolue) (sic) in doing good, but his hands are tied from doing wrong. The laws … are there so that a single man may serve, by his wisdom and moderation, the happiness of so many men; and not so that those men should serve, by their misery and servitude, to flatter the pride and the weakness of a single man.28

Under the mask of allegory, political cognoscenti saw Fénelon as Mentor, Burgundy as Telemachus – and Louis XIV less as Ulysses than as Idomeneo. When Mentor went on to cite as the most pernicious sicknesses within a state ‘luxury’, which ‘poisons a whole nation’, and ‘an arbitrary power’ as ‘the bane of kings’, it seemed to be only too easy to detect a sly assault on the luxuriant court-based political culture of the Sun King.29

The existence of an audience receptive to such critical views particularly among the aristocracy fails to explain, however, the deep and enduring influence of Fénelon’s master-work. Its literary and pedagogic qualities made it much admired, while its fictive form provided a model in a century in which, as we shall see, political polemic would often take the form of lightly allegorized Utopias.30 Moreover, its themes of virtuous sovereignty characterized by respect for the law and concern for popular welfare, of moderation versus luxury, of rural frugality versus urban corruption, of freedom versus arbitrary government, and of collective felicity versus dynastic aggrandisement provided an ideological matrix which would be tirelessly drawn on over the century. Télémaque would not only be read widely in schools throughout the century, it would also be cited approvingly in the Encyclopédie, cherished by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, précised by Louis XVI, and its author saluted by Robespierre as ‘tutor to the human race’.31 Fénelon had penned the perfect script for political reform, with which individuals from every political spectrum, either in power or without, could feel comfortable and inspired. After Télémaque, both supporters and opponents of absolute monarchy were agreed that rulers could – and should – make a difference to the welfare of their subjects. ‘You should wish to be a father, not a master,’ Fénelon told the duke of Burgundy in 1711. ‘It shouldn’t be that all belong to a single individual; rather a single individual should belong to all, so as to make them happy.’32

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!