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Looking for the Ancien Régime

Paris in the Age of Absolutism

by Orest Ranum
Wiley, 316 pp., $3.95 (paper)

French Absolutism: The Crucial Phase 1620-1629

by A.D. Lublinskaya, translated by Brian Pearce, with a Foreword by J.H. Elliott
Cambridge, 350 pp., $13.00

L’Ancien Régime Vol. 1, La Société

by Pierre Goubert
Armand Colin, 271 pp., 22 francs

At the beginning of the present century historians could speak of making a contribution to knowledge in a sense that is no longer possible. At that time, when academic history, if not in its infancy, was still, by present standards, only adolescent, the mere accumulation of facts could seem a virtue, provided the facts were set out in an orderly way. This is no longer true. As more and more researchers get to work, and more and more fields of research are brought under cultivation, teachers, not to mention students, of history are in constant danger of being overwhelmed by the facts. The need is for explanations that will give the facts a meaning.

Explanations involve arranging the facts within a framework of a coherent argument and in relation to some general principles. As historians increasingly see the relevance to their subject of other disciplines, such as sociology, economics, and statistics, so that not only more, but more diverse kinds of facts are accumulated, the task of explaining becomes both more urgent and more difficult. Among other things it involves redrawing the lines of divisions between periods, since the conventional divisions seem arbitrary in the light of new facts and new insights; particularly it involves rethinking the familiar concepts, such as feudalism, absolutism, and the Ancien Régime, which have commonly formed the basis of the divisions, and in the past were often used without due reflection.

All such “isms” (and in effect the term Ancien Régime is merely an “ism” like the others) were invented for the sake of convenience, usually after the phenomena they described had ceased to exist. The word “feudalism,” Marc Bloch tells us in his introduction to La Société Féodale, is derived from the famous decree of the 11th August 1789, which declared that “the National Assembly totally abolishes the feudal regime.” The word “absolutism” was invented at the beginning of the nineteenth century; the phrase “Ancien Régime,” as Professor Goubert emphasizes in his work here under review, was first used in 1790. Significantly, perhaps, these terms were to start with terms of abuse. In the course of time, however, they have come to mean different things to different people and in different countries. We continue to use them because we cannot avoid doing so, but we change their meanings to suit our preoccupations.

Since preoccupations are different on the different sides of the iron curtain, the meanings given to words are different too. Feudalism in the communist countries still means what it meant to the French peasants in 1789, who called it “le temps des seigneurs,” though this is far from what it meant to Marc Bloch when he wrote his classic work on feudal society. Absolutism in the west means a particular form of autocracy; in the communist countries (where it stands, like the term Ancien Régime in western terminology, for a whole way of life), it means a particular set of social and economic relations of which a particular form of autocracy is seen as a necessary consequence.

These terminological differences have often led to impassioned disputes, as when the late Professor Cobban attacked his French colleagues for erroneously describing French society in 1789 as feudal. Such disputes over words are usually profitless. What does it matter, Professor Goubert asks in effect, whether the revolutionaries may be judged to have used the term “feudal régime” correctly or not, so long as we know what they meant? There is in fact no right or wrong in these matters. Historical concepts are merely tools which writers can shape and use well or badly for the purpose of organizing their material.

Some historians still use their concepts without reflection and in consequence cannot give their works coherence. Professor Ranum is one of these. The title of his book is Paris in the Age of Absolutism. He starts in 1600, plausibly enough, but he stops with the death of Louis XIV, though no one has yet maintained, and he himself gives no reason for believing, that absolutism should be held to have ended in 1715. Though he tells us a certain amount about how absolute government functioned in Paris in the reign of Henry IV, absolutism is not a term to which he attempts to give a meaning. He cannot use it as a focus for his discussion, nor has he any other concepts which fulfill this purpose. He describes his book as an essay, but it is in fact a series of essays whose only connecting link is that the events, persons, or buildings described had their being, wholly or partly, in Paris. Many of the essays—those on the wars of the League and the Fronde for example—deal with matters whose importance is more national than Parisian. Though he tells us much that is interesting about the city’s topography and administration, the part which Paris played in the social and economic—indeed even in the political—life of France is nowhere explicitly discussed. He disarmingly admits that some of his colleagues have pointed out to him that his work is old-fashioned and impressionistic. Their criticisms, he says, “went unheeded.” He prefers to write this way.

His way of writing, needless to say, is not calculated to appeal to the Moscow Academy of Sciences of which Dr. Lublinskaya is a Fellow, and which encourages its historians to concern themselves with the major causes of social and economic change. Dr. Lublinskaya sets out to consider these in what she holds to be the formative period of absolutism, that is, in the years 1620 to 1629, and poses herself a specific problem which she describes in her Introduction. France, she says, which was the country of classical feudalism, became the country of classical absolutism, and was thus prevented from becoming the country of classical capitalism. Why should this have happened?

Translated into concrete terms, what Dr. Lublinskaya means is why, on the one hand, did France not decline like Spain, where the feudal grandees retained their hold on the court and the country; but why, on the other hand, did she not succeed, like England, in creating the conditions, particularly equality before the law and a rational system of finance, which made an industrial revolution possible?

She finds the answer to her questions principally in war and the cost of war. The desire of the French monarchs to establish their authority forced them into civil war with the Huguenots, since these provided the great magnates, in their struggle for independence, with an indispensable body of allies. At the same time and later the monarchs were forced to engage in international war, partly for political reasons (the rebels received help from abroad) but also for economic reasons. French trade and industry, Dr. Lublinskaya asserts, were backward because of the successful competition of the more advanced countries and not, as western historians have hitherto maintained, as the result of an economic crisis which affected the whole of Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century, and of which France was the particular victim.

The French could save themselves only by armed force, including particularly naval force, from losing to the foreigner their markets at home, in the rest of Europe, and in the colonies. The cost of the civil and foreign wars, however, which the French government had to fight could only be met by the sale of offices, and with the aid of taxfarmers who became an integral part of the machinery of state, and procured themselves huge fortunes by the oppression of the people. These arrangements, which endured till the Revolution, made it impossible to introduce a rational system of taxation or of government finance in general, and Richelieu so far from being able to modify them, as he wished, was forced to foster them under pressure of the demands of war.

Thus, Dr. Lublinskaya concludes, the French government in her period, though it succeeded in defeating the grandees who claimed to share its authority, and though it used its enlarged authority to foster trade and industry (and in consequence the bourgeoisie) could only accomplish these tasks by creating new priv leges (those of the office holders and tax farmers whom, more reasonably than many French writers, she reckons not among the bourgeois representatives of an emergent capitalism but as the principal beneficiaries of the old order). By these means the government perpetuated and developed practices inimical to capitalist growth.

These, as far at least as the present reviewer has been able to discover, are the outlines of Dr. Lublinskaya’s theme. The reviewer, however, may be wrong for the theme is extremely difficult to disentangle. Though her book has one or two excellent chapters, it has many more in which no clear line of argument is discernible. It is polarized between analysis and narrative. The analysis is concerned with the nature of pre-capitalist economies, with the conditions in which they could expand, and with the misconceptions on this subject which prevail in the west. (Practically one third of the book is devoted to refuting seriatim the arguments of the principal western scholars who have believed that there was a general economic crisis in Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century.)

The purpose of the narrative is apparently to explain the circumstances which permitted the French economy to advance up to a certain point but no further, and which date from the time of Richelieu. Points of substance in the analysis, however—for example the repeated assertion that in the period of absolutism trade wars were a necessary concomitant of economic expansion—find no echo in the narrative devoted to Richelieu’s wars and diplomacy. Many points in the narrative seem devoid of general significance. Analysis and narrative, in fact, proceed on parallel lines that do not meet, and Dr. Lublinskaya attempts to build a bridge between them only in her introduction and conclusion, and by means of a few perfunctory sentences scattered about the main body of her work. Much of this, in consequence, makes tedious and even exasperating reading; but the book nevertheless contains a number of illuminating ideas and interesting facts, and in its broad outlines expounds a more convincing, up-to-date brand of Marxism than that which has hitherto found expression in French writings on the Ancien Régime.

This subject, admittedly, is one which French scholars have for a long time not taken seriously. In the last half-century a huge literature has grown up consisting of monographs devoted to this that or the other of its aspects. Since the days of Tocqueville and Taine, however, over a hundred years ago, there has been little attempt to consider the specific characteristics of the society which the Revolution destroyed. This curious omission must be attributed to ideological reasons—to the unwillingness of the left to study a regime which they see as one of corruption, tyranny, and oppression, and to the inability of the right, who look back to some of its features with nostalgia, to avoid superficiality; for they can concern themselves only with the relatively few families who lived in wealth or affluence, and must neglect the great mass of the population whose conditions of life were intolerable even by the standards of the time. As a result of this state of affairs discussions of the Ancien Régime in France in the last fifty years have been relegated more or less perfunctorily to the introductory chapters of works on the Revolution.

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