16. The Creation of the French Realm

16.6 The kingdom of France

Feudal traditions allowed counties, duchies and fiefs to pass under different rulers according to marital arrangements. The emperor Charles the fifth was born in Gent (Belgium) and ruled over Belgians, Dutch, Germans, Italians, Slavs and Spaniards, not including Amerindians. The Swedes have accepted the French Bernadotte dynasty. Belgians have accepted as king an Englishman of German descent (Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha). The English readily accepted a German and a Dutch on the English throne. Philip II of Spain became peacefully Philip I of Portugal. These traditions favored peace among the different realms, whose leaders were reluctant to fight close parents. The French rulers, who transmitted their fiefs from father to son, refused to obey this rule. The Germanic laws of heritage made of the king of England also the King of Francia, which was inadmissible to the Frankish elite, intent to follow the Salic law. The Hundred Years War (1337-1453) was engaged to prevent the legal passage of the French kingdom into the hands of an English prince who would become king of France and England. The last possession of the English Crown in France was Calais, that became French in 1598. Once the English pretence to the French Crown was dissipated, brutal expansion was pursued at the expense of the Empire in Flanders and Lorraine, in Italy and in Spain.

Thomas More (born 1478-beheaded on order of Henry VIII in 1535) knew Dürer and Erasmus, and was contemporary of Francis I of France, Henry VIII of England and Charles V, the Germanic Emperor. In the first book of Utopia, he warned that the policy of territorial expansion pursued by France was disastrous, for France and for its neighbors, on many accounts. Firstly, because the youth of the nation was diverted from productive activities, was trained solely to destroy and was unable to care for itself. Secondly, because the wealth of the nation was diverted to unproductive applications. Thirdly, because the shifting alliances necessary to reach the set goals were bound to lead to foreign distrust. Fourthly, because the need to finance the war pushed up the taxes collected by the State to an intolerable degree. Finally, because a policy of expansion was condemned to be pursued indefinitely, until final discomfiture.

The XVIIth century marked the culmination of the French kingdom. Richelieu was called to power in 1624, by Louis XIII. Five years later, Descartes (1596-1650) was exiled to Holland, never to return to France again. His crime was to follow the scientific path taken by da Vinci, Kepler and Galileo, namely rely on experimental and observational evidences to distinguish the intrinsically right from the intrinsically wrong. Although raised by the Jesuits and a staunch catholic, he pretended to think by himself, striving to introduce order and logic in his thinking. This Cartesian taste for rational certainty was incompatible with Richelieu’s concept of royalty by divine right that entitled the king, according to Machiavel, to any action designed to magnify the Nation he ruled. Richelieu could not admit that political and religious questions be submitted to individual critical examination, especially since the catholic cardinal ruling France supported and encouraged those protestant and Muslim powers who fought the catholic Germanic Emperor.

Mazarin succeeded Richelieu in 1643, when Blaise Pascal was twenty (1623-1662). This mathematical genius, suffering from tuberculosis and crippled, invented the first calculating machine, developed statistics, solved complex mathematical problems, proved the existence of vacuum and of atmospheric pressure, helped Leibnitz in the development of calculus. He was a libertine as most Frenchmen of means of his time, pursuing the ideal of knowledge of the human spirit and heart, accommodating to man‘s nature and living comfortably. He became a Christian mystic in a flash of conscience, on 23rd November 1654, and adhered to the precepts of the Cistercian convent of Port Royal (fig. 16.10).

Figure 16.10. Ex voto. P. de Champaigne, 1662, Louvre, Paris. P. de Champaigne (1602-1674) was to painting what Pascal was to philosophy. This masterpiece was painted to commemorate the recovery of his daughter, a nun at Port Royal. It is one of the most moving pictures of the seventeenth century. Although P. de Champaigne was born in Brussels and had been a pupil of Rubens, there is no baroque theatrical apparatus in this painting: its effect is reached by directness and simplicity, in the manner Poussin attempted independently in Italy at that time. The miracle is symbolized by no more than a ray of light falling between the Abbess of Port Royal and the sick nun.

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The opposition between the Christian precepts on one side and the magnification of the Nation pursued by Mazarin, together with the obscene accumulation of wealth by the political leadership 6 on the other side, flared up with the accommodations of the Jesuits with Christian morals.

The raison d’être of the Company of Jesus was the defense and extension of the Roman Catholic Church. The Jesuits were the preferred spiritual directors of the nobility that presided over the destiny of their realms. The morality of these rulers was opposite to their declared Christian concerns and the spiritual directors were placed in the delicate position of arbitrators of their deeds. The secession of Henry VIII reminded them that schisms of the Spanish and French crowns were palpable possibilities and made accommodations with heavens’ rules imperative to keep their flock in the womb of the Roman Catholic Church. Molina, a Spanish Jesuit, described in 1588 the way casuists, i.e. the directors of conscience interpreting the moral rules applicable to individual cases, could handle the problem by systematically minimizing the faults and making devotion easy. This pact with human weaknesses was defended with theological and moral arguments centering on the divine grace.

Saint Augustine had defined the dogma of the divine grace: the original sin made it impossible for man to save himself by his sole merits; the redemption is gained by the grace of God. This doctrine presents a contradiction because man is said to be free and responsible for his actions but, on the other side, God chooses the elected whom he wants to save by his grace. Thomas Aquinas attempted to resolve the contradiction by drawing a distinction between a grace given to all men of good will, but insufficient to allow the accomplishment of the commands of God, that needs in addition a grace that be efficacious. This distinction makes no sense and the logically-minded Calvin resolved the contradiction by eliminating the free choice of man: regardless of his righteousness, man is predestined for damnation or heaven, according to the good will of God. The orthodoxy, i.e. Molina and the Jesuits, refuted this revolting and absurd heresy in 1588: there exists only one grace, which is given to all men of good will who freely use their own judgment to make the grace work. To Molina, this grace is sufficient to act accordingly, but not everybody makes use of it.

The Catholic Flemish bishop Janssens reverted to Augustine’s pristine doctrine and published posthumously the “Augustinus” in 1640, immediately adopted by Port Royal. The claim of Jansenius was that the grace of God cannot possibly be sufficient without being also efficacious. According to the Jansenists, Jesus came on earth not to save all men of good will but only those elected to receive the efficacious grace. The doctrine defended by the Jansenists was quite close to that of Calvin. The pope condemned the propositions of the Jansenists in 1653. Pascal went underground in Paris in 1655 to defend their cause: changing frequently his residence and name to avoid arrest, he published anonymously in 1656 the 18 letters known as The Provincials, which were immediately indexed by the Papacy.

Particularly offensive to the Hierarchy was Pascal’s assertion that the gift of the divine grace had been refused to Saint Peter, after he had thrice denied Jesus before the cock-crow. The legitimacy of the authority of the Holy See was thereby put in jeopardy. Also objectionable was the negation of the ruling of kings by divine right because their deeds (e.g. support of Protestants and Muslims, dement taxation and impoverishment of the productive forces of the nation, ferocious accumulation of wealth, intemperate search of pleasures, savage wars of conquest of neighboring nations) condemned them irremediably, regardless if they amended their lives later on. Finally, the moral leniency of the Jesuit casuists, directors of conscience who systematically absolved the mortal sins of their confessing criminals (the killing of enemies in duel or by poison was condemnable if the murder was accomplished to gratify one’s passions or eliminate a political contender or take vengeance of a lover, but was accepted and even approved of if it was to save one’s honor or the welfare of the State) was, according to the Holy See, unduly questioned.

The Papacy had faced the appearance of reformed Churches in Southern Italy, had suffered the looting of Rome by the Lutheran troops of the Germanic Emperor, saw Calvin carry away Switzerland, observed the burning of 100,000 women at the stake for religious reasons in Germany, and could not tolerate a puritan uprising in France, which itself was inclined to separate from Rome on the most trivial opportunity. The Papacy abandoned Port Royal. Louis XIV, who reigned and governed France personally from 1661 until his death in 1715, took action immediately. The destruction of the Jansenist convents, the submission of the Cistercian nuns and their dispersion in 1661, the death of an exhausted Pascal in 1662 consecrated the abandonment of all moral rules in the conduct of private and worldly affairs and the triumph of the secular rulers. The Hierarchy counseled by the Jesuits tolerated the amorality of the rulers in exchange for the illusory maintenance of the Christian monism. The literature of those days denounces an utterly spurious society composed of rulers and their courtesans, greedy beyond description, who excelled in the spoliation of the productive forces of the nation. Racine, La Fontaine, La Bruyère, Chateaubriand, La Rochefoucauld, Saint-Simon, Molière, Bossuet, Vauban, Voltaire and even the archbishop Fenelon all, in their own manner, describe the utter stupidity, greed and egoism of the ruling class of France. Scientific and social progress were abandoned. Descartes, Pascal and Leibnitz were brilliant scientists whose contribution to mathematics was essential for the development of calculus, which spelled the scientific and economic dominance of the West. All three were staunch Catholics. Pascal and Leibnitz were mystics. Descartes and Pascal were persecuted and Leibnitz was buried abandoned by all. Commerce and industry were state-regulated by Colbert and slowly withered away.

A ferocious taxation drastically impoverished the citizens, drove a great many of them into misery (fig. 16.11) and drained to Paris the funds needed to support the court and the courtesans as well as the army, the most efficacious of its time.


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Figure 16.11. Court of King Louis XIV and his subjects, engravings by Philipoteoux. The king is shown surrounded by his gentlemen of the bedchamber, each of whom had a particular duty to perform. These charges were purchased: they were paid for, including the cleaning of the royal anus after defecation. The miserable French peasants are shown contending with the dogs for bones or dying from malnutrition.

Conquest of neighboring lands was vigorously pursued with the greatest success and, between 1643 and 1683, France acquired large parts of Flanders, Alsace, the Franche-Comté, the Roussillon, all countries so savagely ravaged during the conquest and thereafter exploited that they never rose again. Xenophobia developed and Vauban built more than 30 fortresses along the borders of France. These fortresses defended the newly conquered lands. Their construction, the rebuilding of those destroyed during the conquests, and their garrison ruined the country as surely as the expenses of Versailles. Some of the interiors of Versailles were devised as a setting for court ceremonies (fig. 16.12). As Versailles was repeatedly enlarged, people became more and more willing to believe that Louis was the most powerful monarch in Europe. He thought so himself and choose to be called The Sun-King.

Figure 16.12. The hall of mirrors, Versailles, 1678. J. Hardouin-Mansart and C. Le Brun. The vast mirrors would have been even more impressive to Louis’ contemporaries than they are to us because of the expense involved at a time when mirrors were costly luxuries. The room was furnished entirely in silver (tables, candelabra) and this added to the overwhelming sumptuousness of the effect.

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All absolutist rulers of Europe took Versailles as a model to follow and joyously exhausted the public treasury of their subjects to support these follies. In France, this habit is not lost and the Elysée, the residence of the actual President of the Republic, is smothered in luxury. The welfare of the leadership of France has steadfastly increased during these last 50 years whereas the poverty of the common citizen has also increased: in 1980, about 20% of the French households were deemed unable to pay income taxes, this percentage has increased to a staggering 50% in 2008.

It is fashionable to hold that the rise of Nation-States at the expense of the Church was accompanied by economic development and social progress, by allowing access to the wealth of the Church and the application of their richness to useful ends. This was perhaps partially true in England but nothing is further from the truth in France. The waters of Versailles (fig. 16.13), built by Louis XIV around 1668, used up 6300 cubic meters of water per hour. The collection of water entailed 15 lakes, 168 km of troughs over a surface of 150 square kilometers, 30 kilometers of canals, and collected 4.300.000 cubic meters per year. The full display of the fountains during a whole day needed 75.000 cubic meters. This waste of water is a faraway cry from the exploitation of water organized in Christian times by the Benedictines and Cistercians. Today, the fountains of Versailles operate under closed circuit.

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Figure 16.13. Water was an important element of decoration of the gardens of Versailles. Versailles was built by L. de Vau and Hardouin-Mansart in 1669-1685.

At the time of Louis XIV, the kingdom was made up of different patches of land that interpenetrated, some foreign dominions penetrating deep into the national territory, and vice versa. This is still observable today for Belgium, which has a patch of territory, Bar–Le-Nassau, isolated in the Netherlands. The policy of Louis XIV pursued two objectives. The first, governed by the new spirit of logic introduced by philosophers and engineers, was to provide the kingdom with natural borders [Pyrenees, Rhine, Alps, Schelde (Escaut in French)] and homogeneous, continuous frontier lines, easier to defend and protect. Fortresses built by Vauban (1633-1707) would define the “pré carré”, a term used by Vauban in 1678 for a French kingdom with simplified borders, as does a peasant for his own exploitation (fig. 16.14).



Figure 16.14. The “pré carré”. Map of the North of France, drawn by Vauban in November 1678. The contemporary border of Belgium is colored (brown). He envisioned two lines of fortifications, the first going from Dunkerque, on the coast, to Dinant, the second from Gravelines to Charleville. Vauban measured distances by leagues, i.e. 4 km.
Figure 16.15: Lille

The fortresses were formidable constructions (figure 16.15): Lille had a citadel (left, under) and the whole town was surrounded by a protecting wall dotted with 13 bastions. Vauban called these fortified cities “places”. The purpose was to prevent the entry of foreigners in France and keep the French subjects prisoners within the kingdom. The king wanted complete allegiance of his subjects. A child of French parents born outside the limits of the kingdom was not considered French. As a consequence, he could not inherit the French goods of his parents, which were confiscated by the Crown.

The extravagant cost of this policy was not covered by gains in productivity but by taxes. Colbert created Royal Manufactures to finance these constructions but these manufactures were intolerant of competition and managed by civil servants deprived of powers of decision. Colbert attempted in vain to curb the sumptuous expenses of the Court and Louis replaced Colbert in 1671 by Louvois, who pursued the second political objective of Louis, which was the territorial expansion of the country. This was achieved by legists who perpetually and immediately questioned to the advantage of the Crown the agreements, treaties and settlements reached after war, and by the glory of arms involved in the new conflicts that were a continuation of the diplomatic shrewdness.

In May 1685, Louis XIV annexed Cologne, Hildesheim and Münster and, on 22 September 1688, occupied the Rhine valley. In March 1689, the French devastated the Palatinate, with the burning of Heidelberg, Mannheim, Spire, Worms and the further devastation of the archbishopric of Trier, and the county of Baden. The near totality of the Rhine valley was ruined. It was quite cold that winter. Voltaire exposes the plight of the inhabitants, elderly, women and babies, who lost their homes and were driven into the countryside in search of shelter in the biting cold.

A coalition of Holland, England, the Empire, Spain, Denmark and the Savoy, established on 12 May 1689, had the effect of raising the armed forces of France to 450,000 men, and the navy to 100,000 men, wherewith the invasion of England was planned. In 1692, Louis took personally the command of the armed forces, although he was ignorant in military sciences. On November 3, 1693, Vauban wrote “It is a pity to see meager and emaciated soldiers, and without strength as they are, so that they cannot work more than two hours without taking rest” The massacres were enormous but France resisted attacks until 1694. In 1694, the bishop Fenelon warned that the kingdom was exhausted in men, in material and financial resources. Louis banished Fenelon from Paris. The increased pressure of taxes, needed to sustain the war, fell on the peasants since Church, Nobility and part of the bourgeoisie were exempted. In addition, the banishment of the Huguenots (Calvinists) considerably weakened the economy. As a result, hunger was so great that acts of cannibalism took place in the province Auvergne. In 1697, peace was concluded with enemies who also were exhausted. Poverty, famine, illnesses and war had reduced the population of France from 23 million in 1670 to 19 million in 1700.

J. Dryden wrote in 1700: ”Enough for Europe has our Albion fought. Let us now enjoy the peace our blood has bought”. He was wrong: despite the steady refusal of French rulers to accept foreigners on the French throne, despite the fact that his Spanish wife had renounced to the Spanish heritage when she married him, Louis XIV was of the opinion that the Spanish heritage should go to his grand son, the duke of Anjou. The stakes were high: Spain possessed the southern part of the Netherlands, parts of Italy, the Franche-Comté on the east of France, the Philippines and the whole of Central and South America except Brazil. He obtained what he wanted and the duke became Philip V of Spain. Probably on purpose, in order to kindle a new war that he expected to win, which would be followed by a new more favorable treaty perhaps leading to the subjugation of the whole of Holland, he threatened the Low Countries from his newly acquired positions with garrisons installed on the borders of Holland on 5th February 1701.

This occupation, legal but not necessary, was perceived as an aggression and Holland refused to France the heritage. To finance the new war, Louis resorted to paper-money in 1701. Montesqieu wrote (Lettres persanes): “If he is engaged in a costly war, and has no money, he puts in the head of his subjects that a piece of paper is money, and they are therewith immediately convinced”. To force the issue, Louis ravaged Flanders and the Franche-Comté, which lost in this awful butchery 300.000 people upon a total population of 450.000. It never recovered from the devastation. Louis also decided in 1702 to recognize the catholic James Edward as king of England, which forced England to join Holland and the Empire into war, rapidly joined by Denmark, Prussia, Savoy and Portugal. The coalition was led by Marlborough. France raised an army of 450.000 men, i.e. as much as the whole of the coalition it faced, and the gruesome massacre was sanguinary beyond description. Marlborough inflicted to the French Royal army its first defeat at Blenheim (Hochstädt on the Danube), in 1704. This defeat was the beginning of the end. Vauban wrote, on August 19: ”I confess that I do not see how we will recover from such a loss”. The French soldiers were poorly fed, poorly clad and poorly outfitted, the French command was inept, the French bronze guns were no match for the iron guns used by Marlborough and France was invaded and devastated. The terrible winter of 1708, during which all newborns died, reduced the land to misery and forced 10% of the population to mendacity, while 50% had barely enough means to survive 7. After 9 years of succeeding defeats and the invasion of France, Louis asked for the disadvantageous peaces of Utrecht (1713) and Rastatt (1714). They heralded the ruin of Louis’ policies, one year before his death, with the evacuation of the German lands, indirectly the loss of Canada, dissatisfaction, and, of course, repression.

For the satisfaction of putting a Roman Catholic on the throne of England and a Frenchman on the Spanish throne, France weakened and impoverished Holland in an irremediable way and gave to England the mastery of the seas. The stupid policy stubbornly followed by Louis XIV despite repeated warnings of pending disaster, weakened France by the loss of a million lives in combat and the temporary collapse of its economy. This policy was nevertheless pursued by his followers. The reason for this stubbornness and persistence in error, still observable today with the claim to a French Exception, is exposed in chapter 17.

Voltaire quarreled with a nobleman, with the result that he was beaten up, “embastillated” (see fig. 17.2) and thereafter exiled to England, in 1726. The liberty of expression enjoyed in that country by politicians, philosophers and scientists enthralled him. He wrote about it in 1729. His book was burned in public and the Bastille awaited him again. He took to life-long exile, to return to France a month before his death. This censorship -in France, the public hangman burned books officially until 1815- was the refusal by the authorities to admit a source of civilization outside of France. France pretended to be the sole source of civilization on earth. Impermeable to the civilizations developed by its neighbors, the courtesan and self-satisfied French civilization sank during the 18th century in frivolity, amorous intrigues and mediocrity, well exemplified by the novel of P. Choderlos de Laclos, “Les liaisons dangereuses”, of which S. Frears made a movie (see also fig. 12.5). Voltaire, Bayle, Baeaumarchais and Diderot were banished, Rousseau was persecuted. Voltaire noted in 1769 (Torture, in Dictionnaire philosophique portatif) the difference between a refined and envied culture, and barbaric civilization that practiced torture whereas Russia had abolished it at that time. He wrote “the foreign nations judge France through spectacles, through novels (….), through the girls of the Opera whose mores are very sweet (….). They ignore that there is not, in reality, a nation more cruel than the French”.

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Figure 16.16. Seated portrait of Voltaire, 1781, J.A. Houdon, marble, Comédie Française, Paris. The statue has recognizable classical elements, which are accommodated to the demands of a contemporary portrait. It combines likeness and commentary in a subtle way. Voltaire wears no wig, which indicates that he is a philosopher. The animated expression tells us that he is about to deliver a devastating retort. Houdon, who also made a portrait of Jefferson, narrowly escaped imprisonment during the Revolution.

The ageing Voltaire (fig. 16.16) saw the confusion made by foreigners between culture and civilization but did not see that this confusion was made by the French themselves, who conceived of their evil civilization as supreme and envied by all. If the political primacy of France under Louis XIV was envied by the other European monarchs, the classical culture developed during this reign was, according to Madame de Staël (1766-1817), a brilliant imposture, costly, artificial and sterile, admired but by no means copied: Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, Schiller did not search inspiration in antique drama and tragedies, and the “rayonnement de la France” was mainly due to the reception and sustenance by foreign courts of the geniuses that France had banished. On the other hand, the people did not understand the language of its elite. The tongue was elegant and refined but spoken only by a small number. Napoleon banished madame de Staël from Paris.

On the eve of the Revolution (1787), obscenity, immorality, gluttony, pornographic abjections and vice were openly displayed with “Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue” by the Marquis de Sade. The Gallican Church was disqualified. In proclaiming “crush the infamous-écrasez l’infâme” and spotting “no reasoning – point de raison“, Voltaire wanted to brand a Gallican Church whose servile masters named by the Crown diligently supported a repulsive regime of which they scandalously profited (see fig. 9.3, part II), but he aimed at the wrong target and hit emotion, compassion, intuition and heart. He gave vent to opposite excesses as severe as those he combated.

The Free Masons took the lead of the Revolution: they added philosophical and political chaos to the existing military and moral ones. During the Empire, people with money indulged in pleasures as vain and as licentious as the excesses of the vanished world of the French court. The French regimes following the Revolution were no more virtuous (e.g. Rops : see the frontispiece). In Paris (Montmartre and Pigalle), depravation after WWI lasted until the flow of money, of artists and of American tourists abruptly dried up in 1929.

In 1789, France rejected God and the Church. Religion (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) unites the population and creates a human communion. Religion also links each human being to an invisible God and it is this common reference to an invisible transcendence that creates this emotional fervent link between the believers. Religion creates a social link and participates in a fundamental way to the identity and the culture of a population. It is this sacred social coherency that the French revolution jeopardized. It had dramatic consequences, not only for France but for the world, when Marx relied on the history of France to develop his philosophy of history.


6. Mazarin was an Italian captain who was named cardinal by Richelieu without being a priest. He died in 1661 at the head of a colossal fortune.

7. This is the situation in 2008, with 50% of the households unable to pay income taxes.

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