Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-568f69f84b-klmjj Total loading time: 0.229 Render date: 2021-09-19T02:52:56.501Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

State Building in Early-Modern Europe: the Case of France

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2008

James B. Collins
Georgetown University


Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, Western European political units shared with political units elsewhere in Eurasia both underlying structural factors—population trends, bullion influx, an increasingly integrated world economy—and challenges, above all the rising costs of military activity. Western Europe reacted in ways similar to other regions to the stresses of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries: greater territorial integration (most notably in France, England, and Spain), stepped-up efforts to establish cultural hegemony in given territorial units, higher levels of taxation, increased military spending and larger military forces, sharply more standardized institutions and administration.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1997

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Muchembled, R., L'invention de l'homme moderne (Paris, 1988);Google ScholarPagden, A., Lords of All the World. Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France, c. 1500–1800 (New Haven, 1995). The many works of Norbert Elias also emphasize the dramatic change in European cultural attitudes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, what he has called the ‘civilizing process’.Google Scholar

2 The absolute sovereign could act with remarkable arbitrariness, often to accomplish a limited, specific goal; royal prerogative in foreign policy made such arbitrariness a particular danger there. We must certainly reject the notion that ‘absolute’ monarchs imposed a state system on their subjects. They worked out a compromise with local elites that protected the mutual interests of the central states and the thereelites. Two case studies of French ‘absolutism’ in practice are: Beik, W., Absolutism and Society in Seventeenth-Century France (Cambridge, 1985),Google Scholarand Collins, J., Classes, Estates, and Order in Early Modern Brittany (Cambridge, 1994).Google Scholar

3 Beaune, C., The Birth of an Ideology, trans. Huston, S. (Berkeley, 1991), 284, notes that this title became official in royal documents in 1254.Google ScholarDuby, G., France in the Middle Ages, trans. Vale, J. (Cambridge, MA, 1991), 129–31, suggests it became normative in other sources, such as monastic chronicles, by the middle of the twelfth century.Google Scholar

4 The line of towns along or close to the border would run from Sedan, down to Verdun and Toul, thence to Langres, Dijon, Beaune, Chalon-s-Saône, and Lyon. The King of France lost suzerainty over the county of Barcelona in 1162, to the kingdom of Aragon.

5 The number of fiefs holders in the bailiwick of Troyes (Champagne) doing homage to the count rose from 47 to 78% between 1172 and 1204/10. Evergates, T., Feudal Society in the Bailliage of Troyes under the Counts of Champagne, 1152–1284 (Baltimore, 1975), 93.Google Scholar

6 The government relied heavily on the institutional structure of the Church; it used the geographic boundaries of bishoprics for the first territorial jurisdictions of French taxation, the élections. Brittany and Languedoc kept the bishopric as their basic unit of fiscal geography until the Revolution.

7 See Strayer, J., The Reign of Philip the Fair (Princeton, 1980)Google Scholar and Baldwin, J., The Government of Philip Augustus (Berkeley, 1986).Google Scholar

8 Cited in Le Goff, J., ‘Reims, ville du sacre,’ in Nora, P. (ed.), Les Lieux de Mémoire. La Nation (Paris, 1986), Vol. 2, pt 1, 115.Google Scholar

9 Beaune stresses the royal government's efforts to get people to accept the idea that the king became king as soon as his predecessor died, but I would agree with Bloch, M., The Royal Touch, trans. Anderson, J. (New York, 1961, 1989), 128–9, that everyone from nobles to peasants agreed that the coronation alone made the king, the king. French royal mythology held that the Holy Chrism at Reims miraculously replenished itself with oils in time for each new coronation. The Chrism and oil were a gift from God to Saint Remigius, who used the oil to anoint Clovis as King of the Franks in the early sixth century. The custom of coronation at Reims only began with the third Capetian, Henry I (1027); the Pope officially recognized the sole right of the archbishop of Reims to anoint the king about fifty years later. Only two later French kings—Louis VI (1108) and Henry TV (1589)—did not receive their crowns at Reims.Google Scholar

10 TeBrake, W., A Plague of Insurrections (Philadelphia, 1993);Google ScholarMollat, M., Woolf, P., Ongles Bleus, Jacques et Ciompi (Paris, 1971).Google Scholar

11 Cazelles, P., La société politique sous Philippe de Valois (Paris, 1958), as well as the many books and articles of B. Guenée, E.A.R. Brown, and J.B. Henneman, offer details on these issues. The term Estates General refers really to supra-regional assemblies—the Estates General of Langue d'Oc (south) and of Langue d'Oïl (north)—and not to national bodies.Google Scholar

12 de Pizan, C., The Book of the Body Politic, ed. and trans., Forhan, K. Langdon (Cambridge, 1994), 20.Google Scholar

13 Nobles, except those actually fighting in the king's army, had paid taxation; the disaster at Poitiers led many to question the noble exemption. Froissart tells us that the Jacques claimed the ‘nobility of France … were disgracing and betraying the realm’ and that ‘those knights and squires who returned from the battle (Poitiers) were so blamed and detested by the commons that they were reluctant to go into the big towns.’ Geary, P. (ed.), Readings in Medieval History (Peterborough, 1991), 746–7.Google Scholar

14 Ladurie, E. Le Roy, L'Etat royal, 1460–1610 (Paris, 1987), 53, dates the dramatic increase in taxation from Louis XI, not from the official institution of taxes in the 1360s.Google Scholar

15 De Pizan, Body Politic, 50.

16 The men dispossessed first Jeanne of France, daughter of Louis X (d. 1316) and her son, Charles of Navarre, and then Isabella of France, daughter of Philip IV, and her son, Edward III of England. French customary law rarely barred male heirs of women from landed property, but the Estates General of 1328 did just that, selecting Philip of Valois. The so-called Salic Law, supposed law of the Salian Franks that denied inheritance of kingship through a woman, had no bearing on the decisions of 1316 and 1328; Charles V's lawyers dredged it up in the 1350s. The French throne passed out of the direct male line of the king in 1498, 1515, and 1589: the three new kings married, respectively, the widow, daughter, and sister of their predecessors.

17 French customary law gave the family clear rights to the landed property of all members; the lands given by the royal family to the apanagiste thus reverted to the Crown if his line of direct male issue expired. Although customary law invariably had a similar rule about direct issue, the rights of daughters varied widely by geographic region, and by their status (noble/commoner).

18 Beaune, Origins, 285, cites the phrase ‘douce France’ from the Chanson de Roland (c. 1100) as meaning the larger France (liasses 54 and 55, for example), yet in liasse 65 the meaning of the ‘Francs de France’ or the ‘Franceis de France’ seems clearly to be the smaller France. The poet suggests that Charlemagne's capital, at Aachen (Aix) is in France, which implies the larger unit. As in so many other matters, the Chanson remains ambiguous.

19 Two recent books offer important insights into the issue of citizenship in earlymodern France: Wells, C., Law and Citizenship in Early Modern France (Baltimore, 1994)Google Scholar and Bell, D., Lawyers and Citizens (New York, Oxford, 1994).Google Scholar

20 Beaune, Birth of an Ideology, 146.Google Scholar

21 De Pizan, Body Politic, 1516.Google Scholar

22 Bouchet, J., Le Panegyric du Chevallier sans reproche ou Mémoires de la Trémoille (Paris, 1820), volume XTV of the Collection complète des mémoires relatifs à l'histoire de France, ed. Petitot, funeral oration by Claude de Tonnerre, bishop of Poitiers, cousin of the deceased, 509–10, letter of Louis de la Tremoille to his wife, Gabrielle de Bourbon,511–13.Google Scholar

23 On the importance of this shift, see, among others, Crouzet, D., Les guerriers de Dieu (Paris, 1991), 2 vols;Google ScholarPocock, J., The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge, 1957),Google ScholarFranklin, J., Jean Bodin and the Rise of Absolutist Theory (Cambridge, 1973).Google Scholar

24 Bodin, J., Les Six Livres de la République (Paris, 1576; Geneva, 1961 reprint), 1. My translation.Google Scholar

25 As Nannerl Keohane has argued most eloquently about Bodin's work, ‘his discussion of certain limitations on the sovereign appears at first glance to be inconsistent…In fact, these limitations are essential parts of the theory itself.’ Keohane, N., Philosophy and the Slate in France from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Princeton, 1980), 71.Google Scholar

26 Bodin, , République: definition of sovereignty—122; lawmaking—221; contracts—152–3; primacy of divine and natural law—133.Google Scholar

27 Prior to 1539, many southern courts used Occitan; the Parlement of Toulouse used Latin.

28 Descimon, R. (ed.), Discours pour la majorité de Charles IX (Paris, 1993).Google Scholar

29 Gordon, D., Citizens without Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA, 1993).Google Scholar

30 Campbell, P., The Ancien Regime (London, 1990), offers interesting comparative insights into this question; in England, political discourse called these royal lavvmaking powers the prerogative.Google Scholar

31 The tailles fell primarily on land, but the local tax assessors—selected by the villagers themselves—also considered other forms of wealth.

32 Historians are about to revise completely the long-accepted model of royal legislative sovereignty. Parker, D., ‘Sovereignty, Absolutism, and the Function of the Law in Seventeenth-Century France,’ Past and Present, 122 (1989): 3674,Google Scholar and Schneider, Z., ‘Social Order and the State: Local Courts in the France of Louis XIV’ (Ph.D. diss., 1997, Georgetown Univ.).Google ScholarParker's, new book, Class and State in Ancien Regime France. The Road to Modernity? (London and New York, 1996), reached me only after I had finished this essay. All readers interested in these matters will want to consult it.Google Scholar

33 Louis XTV gave closer scrutiny to the marriages of titled nobles than most kings, thus getting some control over that fundamental form of property transfer.

34 Schneider, ‘Local Courts,’ chaps 3 and 8. In effect, local judges made the law by interpreting custom, and then took advantage of their own rulings.

35 For one example among many of the persistence of the common people's attitudes toward law in England, see Manning, R., Hunters and Poachers (Oxford, 1993).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

36 See, for example, Tilly, C., Coercion, Capital, and European State, 990–1990 (Cambridge, MA, 1990), Table 3.2 and the surrounding text, and Le Roy Ladurie, L'Etat royal, pp. 4853. Le Roy Ladurie estimates the silver tonnage amassed by French taxation to have risen from about 100 to 135 tons in the time of Louis XI to 190 tons under Henry II, then to 1,000 tons under Mazarin and to 1,600 tons under Louis XTV. These figures may not be entirely accurate, but they do give a reasonable sense of order of magnitude.Google Scholar

37 Tracy, J., A Financial Revolution in the Habsburg Netherlands (Berkeley, 1985).Google Scholar

38 Brewer, J., The Sinews of Power. War, Money, and the English State (New York, 1989), figure 4.2.Google ScholarThe French case is discussed in Collins, J., The State in Early Modern France (Cambridge, 1995).Google Scholar

39 Dickson, P.G.M., Finance and Government under Maria Theresa 1740–1780 (Oxford, 1987), table 3.6. In the seventeenth century, the Spanish monarchy similarly relied most heavily on direct taxes in the kingdom of Naples:Google ScholarA Calabria, The Cost of Empire (Cambridge, 1991), figure 3.3. Calabria shows an important shift around 1600; direct taxation in Naples dropped by stages from 80% of resources in 1550 to 55% between 1616 and 1638.Google Scholar

40 Huang, R., Taxation in Sixteenth-Century Ming China (Cambridge, 1974), indicates that the Chinese state had ‘no regular means of obtaining credit’ in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. China resembled sixteenth-century European states in its heavy reliance on direct taxes (grain tribute) and on a salt monopoly. On French credit problems,Google Scholar see Riley, J., The Seven Years' War and the Old Regime in France (Princeton, 1986).Google Scholar

41 Brewer, Sinews of Power, table 3.4, shows the Excise house increased its share of government revenue employees from 47 to 63% between 1716 and 1780.

42 Doucet, R., Les institutions de la France au XVI siècle (Paris, 1948), 2 vols.Google Scholar

43 Parker, G., The Military Revolution. Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500–1800 (Cambridge, 1988).Google Scholar

44 The complex intertwining of ministers and judges, and the constant shifts in alliances as ministers came and went, are documented in two excellent new books: Rogister, J., Politics and the Parlement of Paris under Louis XV, 1754–1774 (Cambridge, 1994)Google Scholarand Swann, J., Louis XV and the Parlement of Paris (Cambridge, 1995).Google Scholar

45 Faivre, A.-M. Mercier, ‘La nation par la langue: philologie, nationalisme etnation dans I'Europe du dix-huitième siècle,’ in Nations and Nationalisms: France, Britain, Ireland and the Eighteenth-century Context, ed. O'Dea, M. and Whelan, K. (Oxford, 1995), 161–80.Google Scholar

Cited by

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

State Building in Early-Modern Europe: the Case of France
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

State Building in Early-Modern Europe: the Case of France
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

State Building in Early-Modern Europe: the Case of France
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *