First posted on May 29th 2006

Narratives : Absolutism, 1660-1789

Definition : in European history, kingship had arisen in the early centuries A.D. as an institution of military / administrative leadership, instituted by the Church. Monarchs depended on the loyalty of their followership (the nobility) and on cooperation with the church. When the knights' services were no longer useful on the battlefield, their military service was converted into a monetary tax, and the land (i.e. the taxpayers of importance) were given the right to approve or disprove the request of the monarch for an extraordinary, one-time tax (the bede). Thus, late medieval and early modern Europe saw a political battle of powers, made up by monarch, church (i.e. archbishop or bishop) and the diet, the latter usually consisting of three estates (1. clergy, 2. nobility, 3. Third Estate, the mayors of the larger cities).
Absolutism is the political philosophy of the monarch to rule alone, without interference of church and diet. In many countries, the church/clergy was eliminated as a political factor by the Reformation, when both the Lutheran and the Catholic church depended on the monarch to establish herself/maintain the position of official religion.
There were a couple of attempts by monarchs to rule absolute, without securing a firm financial base (for instance Charles I. in England, 1628-1640). However, the term Absolutism in history is inextricably combined with the economic philosophy of Mercantilism - which had the sole purpose of increasing the monarch's revenue and making him independent of extraordinary taxes approved by the diet.

Le Roi Soleil (The Sun King) : While he did not invent Mercantilist policies, under Comptroller of Finances Jean-Baptiste Colbert revenue of the French monarchy experienced the most significant increase. This enabled King Louis XIV. to rule without the Estates General - they could only assemble if he called for them to convene, and he did not (actually, his predecessor, Louis XIII. hardly ever did). What distinguishes Louis XIV. from Louis XIII. are two main points - Louis XIV. had a lot of revenue to spend, and Louis XIV. was 'his own prime minister', i.e. monopolized decision-making, while his predecessor had left decisionmaking to Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin.
Louis XIV. became a role model for European monarchs of the late 17th century. Louis pursued a number of policies. One as the reorganization of the state of France, around the person of the king. He moved the royal palace out of Paris, to Versailles - a palace with 200 rooms, huge gardens and no lavatories. France's nobility was split in two - those who lived at Versailles, where they enjoyed lavish entertainment and became subject to a complex etiquette (the in-crowd) and the nobleas who lived on their estates. The opera, ballet and theatre performances at Versailles, the mask balls etc. were to provide distraction, prevent the nobles from scheming - and to financially drive them into ruin.
Louis XIV. and his successors build up a professional state administration, made up of civil servants loyal to the state, most of them of non-noble background, and therefore more trustworthy, as they were not to be suspected of pursuing family interests. As it was still regarded necessary for any person in higher state administration to be noble, these persons were often given non-hereditary noble titles (nobility ofr the robe). This marks the beginning of the development of modern state bureaucracy.
Under Louis XIV., a synod of French bishops claimed Gallican liberties (1682) - i.e. they told the pope that he had no right to interfere in the affairs of the French church. Louis XIV. declared himself to be the defender of Catholicism, revoked the Edict of Nantes (1685), sent the army to expel the protestants from France (Dragonnades). The clergy, like the nobility and the state himself, was to be loyal to the king.
Louis XIV. created a standing army, permanently in readiness and sworn to be loyal to the king. As France had significantly greater revenue than any other state in Europe, the country threatened to impose her hegemony over Europe. Louis XIV. fought a series of wars; from 1689 onward against a coalition of major European powers (War of the Grand Alliance 1689-1697, War of Spanish Succession 1701-1714). France was not defeated in these wars, but financially ruined.

Absolutism outside France Versailles set fashion trends in contemporary Europe, trends in arts, manners, fashion (European nobility chose to speak French), but also political trends.
Frederick the reat of Prussia built himself Sanssouci palace in Potsdam, outside capital Berlin; the Autrian Habsburgs built Schönbrunn palace outside capital Vienna; Catherine the Great built Tsarskoe Selo, a palace outside capital St. Petersburg.
All these monarchs pursued mercantilist policies, in an attempt to expand their state revenue. Often, Jews functioned as financial advisers (Court Jews). Many monarchs introduced standing armies. In the case of many German states (Prussia, Hessen-Kassel etc.) these standing armies formed their actual raison d'etre, as the armies, for pay or for diplomatic gain, could be rented/deployed.
Absolutism simplified the process of political decisionmaking. When King, Church and Diet had to agree over policy, often the system was unable to produce a decision, to focus the countries energies. In 1658 the Kingdom of Denmark, after a series of military defeats at the hands of the Swedes, faced ruin; then the Rigsråd (diet) recognized the king as absolute sovereign. With the aid of the Maritime Powers, Denmark could rally her forces, defeat Sweden and regain complete control over the Sound Levy (Denmark's major source of income). According to Danish historiography, Absolutism saved Denmark.

Era of Liberty . The attempt to establish absolute rule on several occasions caused resistance. Sweden 1718-1772, the Dutch Republic 1650-1672, 1702-1747 went through periods in which the monarch / stadholder was a mere figurehead / the post vacant, and the diet in control of politics.

Enlightened Absolutism . Voltaire believed that an absolute monarch, provided he was enlightened, could implement progress - kings had the right to make law and to break law. His books were read by numerous monarchs, some of whom even corresponded with him. Voltaire temporarily lived at the court of Louis XV of France and of Frederick the Great of Prussia, and he visited Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg.
Enlightened absolute monarchs (Frederick the Great of Prussia 1740-1786; Joseph II. of Austria 1780-1790; Gustavus III. of Sweden 1772-1792; Catherine the Great of Russia 1762-1796; Leopold of Tuscany 1765-1790) agreed in principle with a number of policies suggested by enlightenment philosophers - abolition of torture and the death penalty, termination of witch hunts, reform of education, religious toleration, limitation of the power of the church, improvement of the state of the peasants (as it was them, not the nobles, who created national wealth), liberation of the serfs. Yet the degree on which they implemented these policies depended on political circumstances.

The period of Absolutism marks a significant change in European history. The reforms in education produced a generation which was to implement both the Industrial and the French Revolution. The standing armies revolutionized warfare. State bureaucracy, once established, would only increase in importance.
Absolutism broke the power of nobility and of the Catholic church. A number of absolute rulers shaped their states to such an extent, that these states (Prussia - the nucleus of unified Germany; Savoy-Piemont - the nucleus of unified Italy; Denmark) is difficult to imagine without them.
States who failed to implement Absolutism - the Holy Roman Empire, the elective kingdom of Poland-Lithuania, the Papal State, lost in political importance and, in some cases, soon vanished (Polish Partitions 1772-1795).
Yet later Absolutism showed that monarchy itself was an anachronism, an obstacle to further reform. The lavish and costly lifestyle at Versailles may have contributed as much to triggering the French Revolution as poverty, famine and excessive taxation.

REFERENCE Isser Woloch, Eighteenth Century Europe. Tradition and Progress, 1715-1789, NY : Norton 1982, 364 pp., KMLA Lib.Sign. 940.2 N882h v.4
Leonard Krieger, Kings and Philosophers, 1689-1789, NY : Norton 1970, 369 pp., KMLA Lib.Sign. 940.2 N882h v.3
Clarissa Campbell Orr (ed.), Queenship in Europe 1660-1815, Cambridge UP 2004; KMLA Lib.Sign. 940.09 O76q
Selma Stern, The Court Jew, A Contribition to the History of Absolutism in Europe, New Brunswick : Transaction Books (1950) 1985 [G]

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