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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.

In the present century all the serious French writers on the Revolution have been Marxists, and for long they found an explanation of the Ancien Régime sufficient for their purposes in a doctrine of the class struggle derived partly from the revolutionary propaganda, partly from Tocqueville, and partly from their own sacred texts. This explanation began by being clear and simple. The Ancien Régime was portrayed as a regime torn by a class struggle which finally erupted into revolution. The protagonists were represented as a privileged feudal aristocracy becoming, as Tocqueville said, more and more of a caste, and a bourgeoisie—which belonged to the third estate and was therefore not privileged. The nobility was said to be ruining itself by extravagance, or because of its exclusion from the money-making pursuits. The bourgeoisie was said to be continually increasing in wealth and self-confidence, and in consequence in resentment of its unprivileged status.

These assertions have been repeated ad nauseam during the last fifty years, but their authors have felt obliged to qualify them in the light of the facts which the monograph literature has brought to light, and these facts have increasingly burst apart the framework of generalizations within which it has been sought to contain them. The nobility and the bourgeoisie, it has become plain, did not constitute social classes either in the usual sense of the word, once defined by Marc Bloch as people with comparable incomes and ways of life, or in the Marxist sense of people who shared the same relationship to the means of production. Many categories of nobles have been shown to have been growing richer not poorer throughout the eighteenth century. Analyses of the capital owned by the various sections of the population in various areas has revealed that the members of the highest groups were wholly or predominantly noblemen. The nobility, on the other hand (apart from certain groups within it from the late 1770s onward), was becoming less and less of a caste, for titles were created (usually in return for money) on an enormous scale. The object of every successful bourgeois was to buy himself a title. So far, in fact, from showing any hostility to the nobility the bourgeoisie, until just before the Revolution, desired nothing so much as to enter it.

As French doctoral theses produced more and more evidence in support of these assertions, and as the upholders of the orthodoxy failed to refute it, or to accommodate it within their general theory, and yet, in deference to the claims of scholarship felt bound to mention it, the generalizations about the Ancien Régime became increasingly self-contradictory, and French history in the period before the Revolution increasingly incomprehensible. Particularly to the foreigners, reduced by this state of affairs to exasperated bewilderment, the appearance of Professor Goubert’s Ancien Régime, coming as it does from an author with an established reputation, marks a red-letter day; for Professor Goubert is able to show that much of the current orthodoxy is nonsense. All the old clichés, he says, must be abandoned or thought out afresh. The causes of the French Revolution, he asserts categorically, cannot be explained by “the triumph of an unidentifiable capitalist bourgeoisie over an unidentifiable feudal aristocracy.” At last a French professor has the courage to concede that Turgot spoke the truth when in a public debate staged for the instruction of Louis XVI he said: “the cause of privilege is no longer the cause of the distinguished families against the third estate but the cause of the rich against the poor.”

It is presumably Professor Goubert’s sense of the urgency of his task which has dictated the form of his book, which he sees as fulfilling in part the functions of a “manual.” He has designed it (as far as is permitted by the nature of his subject whose distinguishing characteristic he describes as confusion) to present established truths in a clear, orderly, and easily assimilable way. The several different kinds of type and the subdivisions of the text by means of letters and numbers are evidently designed to ensure that the student shall not in future suffer from any misapprehensions.

One can accept all this so long as one is convinced that Professor Goubert writes with authority. He has assembled a great body of information never before made available in any one book. He writes admirably on many matters. Doubts nevertheless obtrude themselves in the reader’s mind as he proceeds. There are no footnotes and no index. Professor Goubert seems to be strangely lacking in a respect for figures. Among the evidence, for example, appended at the end of each chapter to provide the student with illustrations of the themes discussed in the text, is an estimate in livres of the income of the Condés and its sources during the years 1701-1710. We are not, however, told how many families are in question, nor are we given any standard by which to measure the value of the livre, nor is it even entirely plain that the 1.7 million livres referred to represent not an annual average but the total sum which the Condés received in this period (in which case, by the English standards of the time, they would have had only a moderate income, even for one great noble family).

These may be only minor blemishes. There are, however, generalizations (for example the assertion on p. 131 that half the taxes went on war and in payment of debts contracted in war) which are apparently meant to apply to the whole of the one and a half centuries which Professor Goubert’s account covers, though it is plainly impossible that they can. There are contradictory or irreconcilable statements relating to matters of the first importance. Professor Goubert, for example, stresses that France under the Ancien Régime was an overwhelmingly agricultural country. On p. 130 he writes in heavy type: “almost everyone who counts, everyone who shines or commands in the kingdom, lives wholly or partially from various kinds of income from land.” The land, he goes so far as to say on p. 145, provided the nobleman with almost his whole means of support. On p. 178, however, he tells us, again in heavy type, “it is money that governs the social evolution of families”; and on the next page he explains that as far as is at present known, this money came from trade in the provincial towns and from finance in Paris.

In conjunction these statements are hard to follow. Anyone who asks what part the towns played in the French economy at any time between 1600 and 1750, or in what ways the growth of urban wealth altered the structure of French society, will get no clear answers. It is now accepted that in agricultural communities the towns are the agents of change. Professor Goubert cannot consider this question because, as he explicitly says, he is not concerned with change.

This is not because he is unaware of it. In his first chapter he tells us that the Ancien Régime experienced no act of birth but evolved gradually. He also asserts in one part of this chapter (though in another part he argues to the contrary) that it experienced no act of death, but that some of its characteristics lingered on for decades or more after 1789. He further admits that the term Ancien Régime can be interpreted differently, and that historians now give it a meaning which it did not have for the revolutionaries.

He forgets all about these assertions, however, after he has finished his first chapter. In other parts of the book he argues as if the term Ancien Régime (a French term invented, he believes, to describe a purely French phenomenon) is in some ways sacrosanct and stands essentially for something changeless. He accepts the view that about the middle of the eighteenth century the French economy entered on the phase of “take off” and continually repeats that the state and society after that moment were altogether different from what they had been before. If he were to end his account at the conventional date (for however interpretations may vary, the Ancien Régime is always held to have been destroyed by the Revolution) this view would require him to begin in 1750. To do so, however, he feels, would be preposterous. Every first year student, he maintains, would reject such a procedure as intolerable, since every first year student knows that the Ancien Régime had its roots in the remote past. Professor Goubert accordingly ends his account in 1750 (whether or not the first year student might find this even more preposterous) and begins it in 1600, on the assumption that in the following one and a half centuries the social characteristics that remained constant were more significant than those that changed, and are the only ones worthy of his attention.

These are debatable assumptions. Many important social changes occurred between 1600 and 1750 which Professor Goubert has to omit or slur over. Adam Smith said that the discovery of America, and of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, were “the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.” From the end of the seventeenth century Britain and France were the principal beneficiaries. The first French empire was born and reached its prime between the days of Richelieu and Colbert and the Seven Years War. We hear nothing about it or the industries it fostered or the wealth it created. (In Bourdeaux Professor Crouzet estimates that there was an annual average rate of growth of 4 per cent between 1715 and 1789, achieved in a series of leaps—under the Regency; from 1738-1743; from 1749-1753; around 1770.) Between 1672 and 1748 Louis XIV and Louis XV waged great wars, mobilized great armies, and created great navies. We hear nothing about the social and economic consequences of these either. The chapter on culture and attitudes of mind occupies only twenty-four pages out of over two hundred and sixty, and has to be mainly confined to discussions on the extent of literacy and the prevalence of superstition since otherwise it would have been forced to take account of momentous changes. By 1750 Voltaire and Montesquieu were already famous. They, and the audiences which applauded them, are unthinkable in the reign of Henry IV.

Professor Goubert has rendered us a great service by disposing of the nonsense in the current orthodoxy, but he has disposed of the sense in it as well, for its supporters at least recognized that history is concerned with change; they saw that the social changes which France experienced in the age of absolutism would have been impossible (as Voltaire, who continually emphasized them, said as early as 1751) without the growth of trade; they assumed that the growth of trade must have increased the influence of bourgeois ways of life and thinking even though they misrepresented the form this process took.

Outraged by the violence which the orthodoxy has done to the facts, Professor Goubert has set out to tell us what the Ancien Régime was really like. As he himself, however, admits in his first chapter, it was like the Cheshire Cat, which was sometimes visible as a whole cat, sometimes disappeared gradually, beginning with the tip of the tail, and sometimes was merely a grin. How is such a phenomenon to be described? Professor Goubert’s response to this difficulty is to evade it. In so doing he ends up in the same boat in which all the scholars who deal with this perplexing subject now find themselves. They need some framework of general ideas which will enable them to relate their facts clearly, coherently, and convincingly. Time, however, is too short, the mass of information too overwhelming, and the intellectual effort required too acute, to permit such a construction. The flow of information would nevertheless be greatly diminshed, and many people’s time saved, if the need for this kind of effort were more widely recognized.

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