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Provincial Power and Absolute Monarchy: The Estates General of Burgundy, 1661-1790.

Provincial Power and Absolute Monarchy: The Estates General of Burgundy, 1661-1790. By Julian Swann. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. 460. $85.00.)

After rehearsing the necessary but hoary debate about absolutism, the author of this book presents a brilliantly researched study of a provincial estates general in the eighteenth century that sheds light on all aspects of the constituted powers in Burgundy. Chapters on the membership; opening ceremonial; and relations with the Crown, the parlement, the Church, the city governments (especially Dijon and Auxerre), the royal governor, the university, and even the stud farms come to life as political entities through scrutiny of their relations with the estates general.

The high cost of war in the late seventeenth century strained relations between the Crown and the Estates as a result of the desperate search for hard cash to pay for or quarter troops. Thanks to the prudent and genuinely statesmanlike role played by the governor-prince, Lewis of Bourbon, Prince de Conde, confrontation was avoided, and "gifts" from the province to the Crown of at least 900,000 livres became routine for nearly a century. In order to raise such a sum, the Estates had to borrow; thus, a highly desirable avenue of investment for the Burgundian well-to-do opened up in a period when security for savings remained scarce. William Beik, in his Absolutism and Society in Seventeenth-Century France [New York, 1985], found that most of the revenues raised by taxes voted by the Estates of Languedoc actually stayed in the province as payments by the Crown. Julian Swann does not find this to be the case in Burgundy.

What could be called standing committees, the alcades and the elus (The former reviewed the decisions of the latter!), carried out the work of administration when the Estates were not in session. Their principal tasks were to defend the privileges of the Estates against incursions by intendants, or officials in Versailles, and to negotiate the loans needed to supplement what was raised in taxes. The nobles paid virtually the same small sum every year throughout the eighteenth century. The clergy carried on intense disputes over the precedence of bishops and other ranks, while the third estate, consisting mostly of mayors from the towns, approved the higher fiscal demands that fell largely on the peasantry.

Swann has a remarkable sensitivity for the nuances of local politics; he does not offer an apology for the Estates, outmoded as their destruction became inevitable, and he is right not to do so. He admires the system of initiatives and brakes in an essentially slowly changing society "represented" by a "well-oiled political machine" (80). Grounded almost entirely in archival sources, this study is about as complete and definitive as a treatment of a provincial political culture can be. Anyone interested in politics, not just French or eighteenth century, will enjoy and benefit from reading this product of a deeply historical vision, unclouded by drinking too much Burgundy wine.

Orest Ranum

The Johns Hopkins University

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Author:Ranum, Orest
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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