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From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles, and Estates.

J. Russell Major, a renowned authority on early modern France, has written what he claims will be his final book on French history. In this work he challenges the long-standing view that in the early modern period the bourgeoisie allied with the French kings against the nobility and together created an absolute monarchy. In doing so, he outlines a new synthesis which is the result of his forty-five years of study. As his title suggests, he focuses on the relations between kings and their ministers on the one hand, and local notables, particularly the provincial estates, on the other. He also explores the nature and role of the French nobility from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries.

Major maintains that the French monarchy which emerged from the Hundred Years War was weak and therefore subsequently reconstituted by Charles VII. The result was a decentralized Renaissance monarchy which regularly sought the consent of estates to taxation, particularly the estates in regions with strong local loyalties. Since both the bureaucracy and standing army of the Renaissance monarchs were relatively small, local administration was entrusted for the most part to nobles, the bureaucracies of the estates and towns, and the sovereign courts. Major asserts that the nobility was able to adapt effectively to the changing circumstances of the late Medieval-Renaissance period. It was also in this period that vertical ties between patrons and clients were revitalized, thereby providing monarchs with an adequate means of directing society as a whole.

The relative stability of the Renaissance monarchy ended with the coming of the Wars of Religion. This period was characterized by a breakdown of vertical ties and royal authority in general. Moreover, the estates' control of local affairs was challenged by both noble governors and the opposing religious factions.

Major goes on to discuss the development of a centralized absolute monarchy in the seventeenth century. Under Henry IV and Louis XIII, two royal ministers, the Duke of Sully and Michel de Marillac, initiated a policy of centralization by depriving the estates in certain regions of their tax-collecting functions, which were entrusted instead to the king's representatives. Cardinal Richelieu, who subsequently reversed Marillac's actions, chose to rely on patron-client relationships rather than on institutional reforms. However, under both Richelieu and his successor Cardinal Mazarin, royal intendants assumed a greater role in local administration, thereby contributing to a decline in the authority of some provincial estates. This was accompanied by a weakening of vertical ties between greater and lesser nobles and a growing division between nobility of the robe and sword.

Louis XIV was able to exploit this situation and thereby complete the process of centralization. He succeeded in making the estates and nobility conform to his wishes through personal control of royal patronage as well as punishment of any disobedient individuals or groups. Major concludes that these methods, combined with the creation of an enlarged bureaucracy and army, effectively established an absolute monarchy. However, his methods also further weakened the vertical ties that had held society together and thereby "laid the groundwork for the separation of the king from his people" (366), which culminated in the Revolution.

The book is based on the author's own extensive research as well as the recent work of other scholars. A particularly valuable feature is his analysis of the various provincial estates in each period. The masterfully written narrative is accompanied by useful endnotes and an extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources. In short, this book represents an important contribution to the institutional history of early modern France.

THOMAS I. CRIMANDO State University of New York, Brockport
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Author:Crimando, Thomas I.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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