Absolutism under Louis XIV

6 June 2016

Louis XIV lived from 1638- 1715 and became the king of France in 1654. At the time he became king, France was financially ruined, politically corrupt, and divided between warring nobles and private armies and under the threat of riots from the people, especially in Paris.

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Louis XIV was an absolute monarch. Absolutism is the system of rule that allows one or more rulers to maintain absolute power over everything in the land. There is no higher power and even the Parliament could not overrule Louis’ decisions. As absolute monarch, Louis XIV set about reforming the state politically, economically and culturally.

Louis XIV’s absolute monarchy had three components:

Centralization- this meant that the monarchy was the center of everything. All decisions from the monarchy were undisputable and final. All counties and villages were expected to follow this rule to create a united state and a centralized leadership.
Economic reforms- “Under the guidance of Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-83) a “modern” system of accountancy and yearly state budgeting was introduced.

Colbert also supervised systematic attacks on corruption, removing, punishing, or paying off office holders. He also introduced tax reforms – ending exemptions, tax-farming, and military collection of taxes – and state support for industry, science, trade, and the arts.

As regards the operations of the state, Colbert raised government income to the point when it could pay for quite massive expenses. Government subsidizing and directing of industry and manufacture increased productivity, raised wages, and brought France into the trade wars with the English and the Dutch. Colbert, like many French officials, repeatedly remarked that the inhabitants must pay the tax not only because it would raise additional funds, but also because paying the levy was ‘the obedience which is due His Majesty.” [1]

“Theater of Monarchy”-this is the public representation of royal power and glory. Under the theory of absolutism, sovereignty is grounded in God, not the people. The glory of the monarch is, as it were, the earthly point at which is expressed both the glory of the state – as a social whole ordered around and dependent upon the monarch – and the glory of God from whom the monarch derives power and role. It was therefore important to show, through royal events and presentations, the state as personified by the king.

Louis XIV distinguished between “nature as it ought to be”, as ordained by God, and “nature as it is”, disrupted by human activity. As the new, distant and mysterious God no longer intervened directly in the natural order, it fell to the monarch to uphold “nature as it ought to be” and prevent it disintegrating into disorder.  [2]

One of his reforms began with the acquisition of the providence of Roussillonnais in 1659, which was inhabited by a specific ethnic group known as the Catalans. Louis XIV understood that there can be no shared political allegiance without shared cultural values. Thus a government, if it is to exercise its political authority in an area, must first make the region culturally homogeneous with the ruling nation. Louis XIV undertook to replace the Catalan ethnic identity with the French one, mandating the foods, clothing, legal system, language, educational institutions, and religious traditions that should be used in the province.   [3]

The Catalans did not agree with Louis and made it clear with smuggling, legal battles and even open rebellion. They wished to maintain their own culture and laws and did not want to accept the monarchy as their ruler. Like all peasants, they were reluctant to pay taxes to the monarchy and many turned to smuggling as an alternative.

 By the 1680’s, however, Louis XIV and his government were successful in achieving their goal of political assimilation. The Roussillonais had accepted France as their political rules but continued to conduct their legal, commercial, judicial, and religious business in the Catalan language, continued to dress as Catalans, to give their children Catalan names, and to celebrate traditional feasts. They were quite firmly French in a political sense, and equally firmly Catalan in their culture.   [4]

A trend that began in the 17th century was for the ruler to govern from one location versus the many homes and palaces of the past. Louis XIV was one such ruler, moving from the royal palace of the Louvre in Paris to a permanent home in Versailles. It was from this location that he ruled France for his entire reign.

Louis XIV was also known as the “sun king” due to his use of the symbol as his personal emblem. As the highest star, now accepted by science as the centre of the universe, the sun was an obvious choice to symbolize absolutism’s claim to constitute the political centre of earthly life. The sun was both terrifying and awe inspiring, dazzling through its brightness, yet also warming and beneficent, and without its presence all life would whither away.

[1] David Stewart, Assimilation and Acculturation in Seventeenth-Century Europe: Roussillon and France, 1659-1715 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997) 39,
[2] Peter H. Wilson, Absolutism in Central Europe (London: Routledge, 2000) 5.
[3] David Stewart, Assimilation and Acculturation in Seventeenth-Century Europe: Roussillon and France, 1659-1715 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997) 1.
[4] David Stewart, Assimilation and Acculturation in Seventeenth-Century Europe: Roussillon and France, 1659-1715 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997) 9.

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