|The Hero and Society: Pierre Goubert, Jean-Louis Flandrin, George Rude|
Copyright 1993 Adam Barnhart. All Rights Reserved. Fair use of this document.
The study of history has traditionally been focused on the actions of great individuals and their impact on the larger society. Of these "heroic" individuals, few, if any, have been the subject of more inquiry than Louis XIV. In his book, Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen, Pierre Goubert continues in this tradition, combining a modern historiographical approach with a traditional exploration of the individual in history. By closely examining the relationship between Louis XIV and the French population though demography, Goubert provides new insight into the nature of the "hero" and provides a new orientation to the history of pre-revolutionary France. While many elements of Goubert's argument are viable, the implementation of other historiographic methods to describe the structure and activity of the French population ultimately appears valuable in constructing a more coherent history of France during the age of Louis XIV.
Traditionally, the study of the individual in history has focused on the correlation between the persona projected by the individual and the diplomatic events of the state. The individual is portrayed as a larger than life character, feared by contemporaries, with the ability to transcend the limitations of the time. As the primary representative of the state, the heroic individual is able to act independently as a diplomatic prime mover, establishing relationships with other states and defining internal policy. The hero further acts as a cultural leader, sanctioning artistic expression supporting the leader and the contemporary socio-political structure. In playing a comprehensive role, the individual ultimately evolves into an embodiment of the state, representing the beliefs, culture, and history of the broader population.
As a leading member of the Annales school, Pierre Goubert seeks to place Louis XIV in a broader context of a "total history," including the experience of the general population in evaluating Louis XIV as a historical figure. In examining the demography, economy, society, and governing institutions of pre-revolutionary France, Goubert attempts to locate Louis in relation to the population. Rather than depicting late seventeenth and early eighteenth century France by describing the actions of Louis, Goubert emphasizes the exchange between the ruler and the broader society. The manipulation of resources, allowing for the establishment of a more universal power, provides Goubert with a vehicle for understanding both the constraints the population places on Louis and the results of the rule of Louis on the French people.
Goubert displays his modern methodological considerations most clearly in his initial depiction of France under the leadership of Mazarin. Central to his methodology is the use of demography to depict the conditions of life for people of the era. Goubert's demographic model of France under Mazarin establishing mortality, marriage, and reproduction in traditional roles. Contemporary mortality rates limited population expansion, with life expectancy under 25 years and infant mortality over 25 percent. Disease, warfare, and famine further limited family size indirectly through mortality among those of childbearing age and increasing the average age of marriage. The forces of mortality balanced the fecundity of a French population that averaged a child every twenty-five to thirty months, establishing a Malthusian pattern of expansion during the seventeenth century.
Goubert's analysis illustrates the strong similarity between the economy of France and demographic patterns with a pre-modern economy reflecting traditional patterns of reproduction. The productive forces of France emphasized agricultural production, which was carried out inefficiently without the use of technology. As a result, tax collection was relatively low, restricting the ability of the government to develop a solid infrastructure. The Dutch played a major role in the French economy, with the Bank of Amsterdam acting as a stable force in an unstable economy unable to develop a viable monetary system, as coinage throughout France was primarily foreign. Economic instability and foreign dominance prevented the state from developing either a banking system or a state budget, creating an instability countered only by foreign activity and the quality of natural, particularly agricultural, resources.
Paralleling the decentralization of the French economy is Goubert's description of the social structure. Before the time of Louis XIV, France was a peasant-based society in which the production of the peasantry was used, in large part, to support the local community, the Church, the seigneur, and the king. While they enjoyed an increasing amount of liberty, the majority of the peasantry remained subject to the economic needs of the landowning nobility. The three estates, as a result of economic support provided by the labor of the peasantry, remained strongly entrenched in the traditional system, though the urban bourgeoisie began to supplant officials and traditional tradesmen in the third estate. While peripheral elements of French society made small changes, the traditionally rural and peasant-based roots of French society remained intact.
The decentralized nature of French society is further exemplified by contemporary governing and administrative institutions. Provinces, including Normandy and Brittany, maintained their own independent courts, laws, and parlements, indicating the deemphasis on universal rule. Fiscal considerations, particularly taxes, were administered locally, as taxes levied by the state were collected only sporadically. Towns often maintained independent charters, using financial resources to assure the primacy of their own administrative bodies. The social power secured by the nobility in this environment is reflected by their role in the political structure, maintaining many of the institutions that had operated during the feudal period, though to a lesser extent than in the past. French nobles of the period operated independent courts and developed standing armies to deal with local and provincial concerns, indicating the viability of small governing institutions. Through a variety of rule, French government developed a wide variety of laws and customs, corresponding to the diffuse nature of French society before Louis XIV.
Goubert, in tracing the development of these factors, shifts his methodological emphasis to a more traditional study of Louis XIV. By examining the rule of Louis in a more conventional manner, focusing on diplomatic and political history, Goubert seeks to explain the social results of policy decisions made by Louis. Goubert studies Louis' interest in centralizing society and social power and the manifestations of that interest, creating a more holistic view of his reign and more clearly illustrating the relationship between the hero and the context of the society. In exploring this relationship, Goubert's shift in methodology assists in providing insight into the psychological aspects of Louis as a "hero" and of the social context in which French modernization began.
The policy of Louis XIV was centered around the notion of royal absolutism, which gave him control over every aspect of French society, making him "accountable only to God." By assuming absolute power at home, Louis sought to promote himself as the embodiment of the French state. In reducing the power of the aristocracy, he was able to assume control of the institutions of the state, including the courts and the military, shaping them in his own image. Cultural and religious expression reflected the change, supporting a greater universality and community, shifting the social sanction from provincialism to a more nationalistic sentiment. As a result, Louis became increasingly able to consolidate his domestic resource base, supporting his desire for territorial expansion and a larger role in international politics.
Goubert's later metholodogical approach assists him in illustrating the role of Louis in the development of France during the first twelve years of his reign. The domestic policy of Louis immediately created an environment in which France began a process of modernization, as evidenced by changes in demography, the economy, society, and governing institutions. The centrality of rule allowed for the systematization of government instruments, including the courts and the agencies of tax collection, allowing for the implementation of universal laws and customs. As a result, Goubert argues, economic growth was stimulated, creating a modification of the existing social structure that emphasized greater productivity and the role of the bourgeoisie in commerce. The increase in population and productivity increased the economic resources available to Louis through taxation, enabling him to expand the scope of his activities.
Goubert's emphasizes this personalized rule by detailing Louis' use of the resources of France in pursuing foreign policy in the later part of his rule. Louis begins his reign as a tacit ally of the Dutch, whose economic and commercial success serves as a model for Louis' own economic policy. However, the accumulation of resources during the first twelve years of his reign allowed Louis to pursue his desire to become the most powerful ruler of Europe through territorial expansion. In 1672, with his attack on Holland, Louis clearly defined the desired scope of his rule, attempting to seize resources that had once served as an example of economic and political success for him. His lack of military success in Holland in 1672 was exacerbated by the formation of a European coalition that opposed French military activity, halting the expansion of France and diminishing the capability of the king to secure financial resources. Excessive warfare during the last half of Louis' reign prevented any further development in France, as the increased burden of taxation stunted economic and social progress. For Goubert, the vanity of Louis XIV that served to unify France during the early part of his rule ultimately caused the disruption of the French movement toward modernization.
While Goubert's use of demography provides insight into the context of the rule of Louis XIV, his failure to explore the private sphere in greater detail prevents him from clearly articulating the complexity of the social structure. In Jean-Louis Flandrin's Families in Former Times, the nature of kinship, household, and sexuality are used to create a more precise view of the complexities and manifestations of the family. An exploration of French demography shows varying responses to external pressures by extended and nuclear families, as well as illustrating the impact of geography on family composition.
Flandrin's study of demography includes a mediation of the theories of Fredric Le Play and Peter Laslett and an investigation of their scope of applicability. Le Play's work emphasizes the communal, stable nature of the family in a traditional model, where family size is large, allowing for self-sufficiency. His description of demographic change is economically based, as large families remain in the early period of commercial development, but reorient themselves to the pressures of market production, assuming positions of wage labor. Laslett's theory discounts the prevalence of extended families, arguing that the nuclear family has been more common historically, creating a greater economic and vocational flexibility that accommodated a change in the mode of production, rather than being forced to restructure the organization of the family to meet new social needs. Flandrin affirms, but qualifies both theories, emphasizing geographic emphases, with extended families having a stronger impact in Southern France and nuclear families being more common in Northern France. The diversity of family experience becomes useful in understanding the varying effects of the rule of Louis on the French population, while explaining the geographic differentiation of his impact.
In seeking to explore the relationship between the individual and society, Goubert studies the conditions of life in society extensively. While his explanation of the population as a resource providing constraints on the ruler is useful, Goubert's methodological shift diminishes the role of the peasantry as a political actor. In The Crowd in History, George Rude explores the political activity, particularly through revolt, of larger social groups and the ramifications of that activity, providing a model for inquiry during the Age of Louis XIV.
In Rude's study, the actions of the crowd are displayed as attempts to preserve "just" elements of the status quo, indicating the conservativism of the peasantry. Social upheaval is motivated by a perception of necessity, avoiding an overtly political character and taking on regulatory function. In France, this can be seen in an early support of Louis, who restricted the exploitive capacities of the seigneurs, providing the peasantry with a greater right to the land and centralizing taxation for the construction of a national infrastructure. As Louis continued to wage war, the crippling of the infrastructure allowed for the lower classes to engage in protest, ceasing in some cases to pay the taxes that funded military activity. Rude's model, applied to France under Louis XIV, provides for a greater understanding of exchange between the hero and the population, giving the broader society the ability to take action in response to its perception of the ruler.
Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen provides a strong argument for the relationship between the ruler and society. Goubert's description of French society under Mazarin and the role of Louis convincingly show the correlation between Louis' persona and his domestic policy. However, Goubert's methodological shift in the second half of the book limits the scope of its study of society, deemphasizing the complexity of the peasantry and its possibilities as an active, as well as a passive, constraint on the actions of Louis. By utilizing the work of Jean-Louis Flandrin and George Rude to examine the demographic composition and social forces of France, a more coherent and complete reconstruction can be made of France during the Age of Louis XIV.