Life in the Early Modern period
France in the Ancien Régime covered a territory of around 200,000 square miles (520,000 km2). This land supported 13 million people in 1484 and 20 million people in 1700. France had the second largest population in Europe around 1700. Britain had 5 or 6 million, Spain had 8 million, and the Austrian Habsburgs had around 8 million. Russia was the most populated European country at the time. France's lead slowly faded after 1700, as other countries grew faster.
The sense of "being French" was uncommon in 1500, as people clung to their local identities. By 1600, however, people were starting to call themselves "bon françois."
Estates and power
Political power was widely dispersed. The law courts ("Parlements") were powerful, especially that of France. However, the king had only about 10,000 officials in royal service — very few indeed for such a large country, and with very slow internal communications over an inadequate road system. Travel was usually faster by ocean ship or river boat. The different estates of the realm – the clergy, the nobility, and commoners – occasionally met together in the "Estates General", but in practice the Estates General had no power, for it could petition the king but could not pass laws.
The Catholic Church controlled about 40% of the wealth, tied up in long-term endowments that could be added to but not reduced. The king (not the pope) nominated bishops, but typically had to negotiate with noble families that had close ties to local monasteries and church establishments.
The nobility came second in terms of wealth, but there was no unity. Each noble had his own lands, his own network of regional connections, and his own military force.
The cities had a quasi-independent status, and were largely controlled by the leading merchants and guilds. Paris was by far the largest city with 220,000 people in 1547 and a history of steady growth. Lyons and Rouen each had about 40,000 population, but Lyon had a powerful banking community and a vibrant culture. Bordeaux was next with only 20,000 population in 1500.
Peasants made up the vast majority of population, who in many cases had well-established rights that the authorities had to respect. In 1484, about 97% of France's 13 million people lived in rural villages; in 1700, at least 80% of the 20 million people population were peasants.
In the 17th century peasants had ties to the market economy, provided much of the capital investment necessary for agricultural growth, and frequently moved from village to village (or town). Geographic mobility, directly tied to the market and the need for investment capital, was the main path to social mobility. The "stable" core of French society, town guildspeople and village labourers, included cases of staggering social and geographic continuity, but even this core required regular renewal.
Accepting the existence of these two societies, the constant tension between them, and extensive geographic and social mobility tied to a market economy holds the key to a clearer understanding of the evolution of the social structure, economy, and even political system of early modern France. Collins (1991) argues that the Annales School paradigm underestimated the role of the market economy; failed to explain the nature of capital investment in the rural economy; and grossly exaggerated social stability
Although most peasants in France spoke local dialects, an official language emerged in Paris and the French language became the preferred language of Europe's aristocracy. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V(born in 1500) quipped, "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse."
Because of its international status, there was a desire to regulate the French language. Several reforms of the French language worked to make it more uniform. The Renaissance writer François Rabelais (b. 1494) helped to shape French as a literary language, Rabelais' French is characterised by the re-introduction of Greek and Latin words. Jacques Peletier du Mans (born 1517) was one of the scholars who reformed the French language. He improved Nicolas Chuquet's long scale system by adding names for intermediate numbers ("milliards" instead of "thousand million", etc.).
Consolidation (15th and 16th centuries)
With the death in 1477 of Charles the Bold, France and the Habsburgs began a long process of dividing his rich Burgundian lands, leading to numerous wars. In 1532, Brittany wasincorporated into the Kingdom of France.
France engaged in the long Italian Wars (1494–1559), which marked the beginning of early modern France. Francis I faced powerful foes, and he was captured at Pavia. The French monarchy then sought for allies and found one in the Ottoman Empire. TheOttoman Admiral Barbarossa captured Nice in 1543 and handed it down to Francis I.
During the 16th century, the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs were the dominant power in Europe. The many domains of Charles Vencircled France. The Spanish Tercio was used with great success against French knights. Finally, on 7 January 1558, the Duke of Guise seized Calais from the English.
"Beautiful 16th century"
Economic historians call the era from about 1475 to 1630 the "beautiful 16th century" because of the return of peace, prosperity and optimism across the nation, and the steady growth of population. Paris, for example, flourished as never before, as its population rose to 200,000 by 1550. In Toulouse the Renaissance of the 16th century brought wealth that transformed the architecture of the town, such as building of the great aristocratic houses.
French Wars of Religion (1562–98)
The Protestant Reformation, inspired in France mainly by John Calvin, began to challenge the legitimacy and rituals of the Catholic Church. It reached an elite audience. After 1630, came new wars and deep pessimism, because of the Protestant challenge, heresy persecutions by Catholic bishops, and civil war.
The two Calvinist main strongholds were southwest France and Normandy, but even in these districts the Catholics were a majority. Renewed Catholic reaction – headed by the powerful Francis, Duke of Guise – led to a massacre of Huguenots at Vassy in 1562, starting the first of the French Wars of Religion, during which English, German, and Spanish forces intervened on the side of rival Protestant and Catholic forces.
King Henry II had died in 1559 in a jousting tournament, he was succeeded in turn by his three sons, each of which assumed the throne as minors or were weak, ineffectual rulers. In the power vacuum entered Henry's widow, Catherine de' Medici, who became a central figure in the early years of the Wars of Religion. At her instigation, thousands of Huguenots were murdered in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572.
The Wars of Religion culminated in the War of the Three Henrys (1584–1598),at the height of which bodyguards of the King Henry III assassinated Henry de Guise, leader of the Spanish-backed Catholic league. In revenge, a priest assassinated Henry III. This led to the ascension of the Huguenot Henry IV; in order to bring peace to a country beset by religious and succession wars, he converted to Catholicism. He issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which guaranteed religious liberties to the Protestants, thereby effectively ending the civil war. The main provisions of the Edict of Nantes were as follows: a) Huguenots were allowed to hold religious services in certain towns in each province, b) They were allowed to control and fortify eight cities (including La Rochelle and Montauban), c) Special courts were established to try Huguenot offenders, d) Huguenots were to have equal civil rights with the Catholics.
When in 1620 the Huguenots proclaimed a constitution for the 'Republic of the Reformed Churches of France', the chief minister Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642) invoked the entire powers of the state to stop it. Religious conflicts therefore resumed under Louis XIII when Richelieu forced Protestants to disarm their army and fortresses. This conflict ended in the Siege of La Rochelle (1627–1628), in which Protestants and their English supporters were defeated. The following Peace of Alais (1629) confirmed religious freedom yet dismantled the Protestant military defences.
In the face of persecution, Huguenots dispersed widely throughout Protestant kingdoms in Europe and America.
Thirty Years' War (1618–1648)
The religious conflicts that plagued France also ravaged the Habsburg-led Holy Roman Empire. The Thirty Years' War eroded the power of the Catholic Habsburgs. Although Cardinal Richelieu, the powerful chief minister of France, had previously mauled the Protestants, he joined this war on their side in 1636 because it was in the raison d'état (national interest). Imperial Habsburg forces invaded France, ravaged Champagne, and nearly threatened Paris.
Richelieu died in 1642 and was succeeded by Cardinal Mazarin, while Louis XIII died one year later and was succeeded by Louis XIV. France was served by some very efficient commanders such as Louis II de Bourbon (Condé) and Henry de la Tour d'Auvergne (Turenne). The French forces won a decisive victory atRocroi (1643), and the Spanish army was decimated; the Tercio was broken. The Truce of Ulm (1647) and the Peace of Westphalia (1648) brought an end to the war.
Some challenges remained. France was hit by civil unrest known as the Fronde which in turn evolved into theFranco-Spanish War in 1653. Louis II de Bourbon joined the Spanish army this time, but suffered a severe defeat at Dunkirk (1658) by Henry de la Tour d'Auvergne. The terms for the peace inflicted upon the Spanish kingdoms in the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659) were harsh, as France annexed Northern Catalonia.
Amidst this turmoil, René Descartes sought answers to philosophical questions through the use of logic and reason and formulated what would be called Cartesian Dualism in 1641.
Colonies (16th and 17th centuries)
During the 16th century, the king began to claim North American territories and established several (unsuccessful) colonies. Jacques Cartier was one of the great explorers who ventured deep into American territories during the 16th century.
The early 17th century saw the first successful French settlements in the New World with the voyages ofSamuel de Champlain. The largest settlement was New France, with the towns of Quebec City (1608) andMontreal (fur trading post in 1611, Roman Catholic mission established in 1639, and colony founded in 1642).
Louis XIV (1643–1715)
Louis XIV, known as the "Sun King", reigned over France from 1643 until 1715 although his strongest period of personal rule did not begin until 1661 after the death of his Italian chief minister Cardinal Mazarin. Louis believed in the divine right of kings, which asserts that a monarch is above everyone except God, and is therefore not answerable to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or the Church. Louis continued his predecessors' work of creating a centralized state governed from Paris, sought to eliminate remnants of feudalism in France, and subjugated and weakened the aristocracy. By these means he consolidated a system of absolute monarchical rule in France that endured until the French Revolution. However, Louis XIV's long reign saw France involved in many wars that drained its treasury.
His reign began during the Thirty Years' War and during the Franco-Spanish war. His military architect, Vauban, became famous for his pentagonal fortresses, and Jean-Baptiste Colbert supported the royal spending as much as possible. French dominated League of the Rhine fought against theOttoman Turks at the Battle of Saint Gotthard in 1664. The battle was won by the Christians, chiefly through the brave attack of 6,000 French troops led by La Feuillade and Coligny.
France fought the War of Devolution against Spain in 1667. France's defeat of Spain and invasion of the Spanish Netherlands alarmed England and Sweden. With the Dutch Republic they formed the Triple Allianceto check Louis XIV's expansion. Louis II de Bourbon had captured Franche-Comté, but in face of an indefensible position, Louis XIV agreed to a peace at Aachen. Under its terms, Louis XIV did not annex Franche-Comté but did gain Lille.
Peace was fragile, and war broke out again between France and the Dutch Republic in the Franco-Dutch War (1672–1678). Louis XIV asked for the Dutch Republic to resume war against the Spanish Netherlands, but the republic refused. France attacked the Dutch Republic and was joined by England in this conflict. Through targeted inundations of polders by breaking dykes, the French invasion of the Dutch Republic was brought to a halt. The Dutch Admiral Michiel de Ruyter inflicted a few strategic defeats on the Anglo-French naval alliance and forced England to retire from the war in 1674. Because the Netherlands could not resist indefinitely, it agreed to peace in the Treaties of Nijmegen, according to which France would annex France-Comté and acquire further concessions in the Spanish Netherlands.
On 6 May 1682, the royal court moved to the lavish Palace of Versailles, which Louis XIV had greatly expanded. Over time, Louis XIV compelled many members of the nobility, especially the noble elite, to inhabit Versailles. He controlled the nobility with an elaborate system of pensions and privileges, and replaced their power with himself.
Peace did not last, and war between France and Spain again resumed. The War of the Reunions broke out (1683–1684), and again Spain, with its ally the Holy Roman Empire, was easily defeated. Meanwhile, in October 1685 Louis signed the Edict of Fontainebleau ordering the destruction of all Protestant churches and schools in France. Its immediate consequence was a large Protestant exodus from France. The two massivefamines struck France between 1693 and 1710, killing over two million people.
France would soon be involved in another war, the War of the Grand Alliance. This time the theatre was not only in Europe but also in North America. Although the war was long and difficult (it was also called the Nine Years War), its results were inconclusive. The Treaty of Ryswick in 1697 confirmed French sovereignty overAlsace, yet rejected its claims to Luxembourg. Louis also had to evacuate Catalonia and the Palatinate. This peace was considered a truce by all sides, thus war was to start again]
In 1701 the War of the Spanish Succession began. The Bourbon Philip of Anjou was designated heir to the throne of Spain as Philip V. The Habsburg Emperor Leopold opposed a Bourbon succession, because the power that such a succession would bring to the Bourbon rulers of France would disturb the delicate balance of power in Europe. Therefore, he claimed the Spanish thrones for himself. England and the Dutch Republic joined Leopold against Louis XIV and Philip of Anjou. The allied forces were led by John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, and by Prince Eugene of Savoy. They inflicted a few resounding defeats to the French army; the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 was the first major land battle lost by France since its victory at Rocroi in 1643. Yet, the extremely bloody battles of Ramillies (1706) and Malplaquet (1709) proved to bePyrrhic victories for the allies, as they had lost too many men to continue the war Led by Villars, French forces recovered much of the lost ground in battles such as Denain (1712). Finally, a compromise was achieved with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Philip of Anjou was confirmed as Philip V, king of Spain; Emperor Leopold did not get the throne, but Philip V was barred from inheriting France.
Louis XIV wanted to be remembered as a patron of the arts, like his ancestor Louis IX. He invited Jean-Baptiste Lully to establish the French opera, and a tumultuous friendship was established between Lully and playwright and actor Molière. Jules Hardouin Mansart became France's most important architect of the period, bringing the pinnacle of French Baroque architecture.