HIST 202: European Civilization, 1648-1945

Lecture 2

 - Absolutism and the State


The rise of absolutism in Europe must be understood in the context of insecurity attending the religious wars of the first half of the seventeenth century, and the Thirty Years’ War in particular. Faced with the unprecedented brutality and devastation of these conflicts, European nobles and landowners were increasingly willing to surrender their independence to the authority of a single, all-powerful monarch in return for guaranteed protection. Among the consequences of this consolidation of state power were the formation of large standing armies and bureaucratic systems, the curtailment of municipal privileges, and the birth of international law.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

European Civilization, 1648-1945

HIST 202 - Lecture 2 - Absolutism and the State

Chapter 1. The Rise of Absolutism in the Continental States of Europe [00:00:00]

Professor John Merriman: So, what I want to do today — again, this is a parallel holding pattern lecture. I’m going to talk about absolute rule. This parallels what you’re reading. It’s just to make clear, with some emphasis, about the importance of the development of absolute rule. Now, one of the points I made last week, for those of you who were here, is that one of the themes that ties European history together is the growth of the modern state, of state-making. This tends to be an awkward expression or term that is used by historians. If you look at the way states are in Europe now, whether they be relatively decentralized, such as Great Britain, or extraordinarily centralized, as my France, the origins of the modern state must, in part, be seen in this kind of remarkable period of European history from the early seventeenth century through the middle of the eighteenth century.

Now, we have a process in late Medieval Europe of the consolidation of territorial monarchies. You did have monarchies like Spain, England, and France, namely. Those were the three most important ones, in which rulers consolidated to brush claimants to power aside and consolidated their rule. But the period of absolute rule really begins in the mid-seventeenth century, and is to be found in those states that had specific kinds of social structures. This is a point we’ll come back to, particularly when we’re talking about the two most important states, two of the great powers of the period that did not have absolute rule. And which, in the case of England, the civil war was largely fought, to a great extent anyway, trying to prevent the English monarchy from taking on characteristics of those emerging absolute states on the continent.

I’ll talk next Wednesday about English/British, because Britain doesn’t exist until 1707, self-identity and how not being an absolute state is part of what emerged in the sense of being British and being Dutch certainly, arguably even more, had to do with that because of the proximity of the direct threat to the Dutch by the megalomaniac, Louis XIV, who modestly refers to himself as the Sun King. So, between 1650 and 1750, and this is right out of what you’re reading, the rulers of continental Europe, of the biggest states, extended their power. And, so, there were two aspects of this. One is they extend their ability to extract resources out of their own populations; and, second, they work to increase their dynastic holdings at the expense of their neighbors munching smaller states, or by marriages, or by wars against their big rivals.

One of the most interesting examples of that is the Thirty Years’ War, which starts before this course and ends before this course or with the beginning of this course, 1618-1648, which I’m going to come back to a little bit in a while — they say while it begins as a religious war between Protestants and Catholics, it ends up being a dynastic struggle between two Catholic powers consolidating their authority over their own peoples, and expanding their dynastic domains, thus Austria and France. That’s an important point, because it tells you what really is the big picture that is going to emerge. So, when we’re talking about the growth of absolute rule, we’re talking about France, that is, the Sun King; Prussia, particularly Frederick the Great about whom you can read; Russia, Peter the Great, about whom I will have something to say in a week or two, I don’t know when; Austria, aforementioned; and Sweden. Sweden kind of disappears from the great power state when they’re defeated by Peter the Great in — when is it? — 1709.

Now, what did it mean to be an absolute ruler? What it meant was that in principle, your power was greater than any challenge that could come from those underlings, those craven reptiles in your imagination over whom you ruled. But there’s a balance to it that I’ll discuss in a while. There really can’t be a challenge to them from the state itself. So, they make their personal or dynastic rule absolute, based on loyalty to them as individuals and not to the state as some sort of abstraction. Of course, one of the interesting things that we’ll hear about in a couple days is the fact that British national identity, which is formed precociously early in European history, arguably in the seventeenth century and for elites perhaps even before, has this sort of constitutional balance between the rights of parliament, victorious in the English Civil War, and loyalty to the monarchy.

So, absolute rulers assert their right to make laws, to proclaim or to announce laws with the waive of their chubby hands, to levy taxes and to appoint officials who will carry out their will. So, it’s possible to talk about the bureaucratization of medieval states if you want, but when you look at the long-range growth of bureaucracies as part of government, as part of state formation, that’s why the growth of these bureaucracies is one of the characteristics of these absolute states in all of these big-time powers. So, what they do is — well, let me give you a couple of examples. One thing absolute monarchs don’t want is they don’t want impediments to their personal rule. What was a kind of impediment to their personal rule? One would be the municipal privileges. For example, in the German port towns, Lübeck and Hamburg and the others, they formed this Hanseatic League, and Germany remains to be centralized. There are all sorts of states. Some are more powerful than others. But Germany is not unified until 1871.

But if you think of Spain, if you’re hitchhiking through Spain or something like that, or through the south of France, or Eurail passes, and if you go to a town like Avila in Spain. Avila is one of the most fantastic fortified towns in Europe. Or, if you go to Nimes in the south of France, you’ll see boulevards that people race motorcycles around all the time and they keep you up all night. There are no walls there anymore, because the king had them knocked down. So, what happens with municipal privileges, towns that had municipal privileges, these are eroded and then virtually eliminated by powerful potentates. In the case of Nîmes, N-I-M-E-S, which was largely a Protestant town, they knocked down the wall so the Protestants of Nimes could not defend themselves against this all-conquering Catholic monarch.

So, municipal privileges — walls were put up for a variety of reasons around towns. Plague, for example. Dubrovnik, one of my favorite cities in Europe. Dubrovnik had these magnificent walls you could walk all the way around. They have a quarantine house where they would put people who were travelers arriving there, because walls kept out plagues. Walls keep out malfaiteurs — evil doers. They keep out bandits and things like that. The doors literally slam shut at night. There was a case of a very minor insurrection in an obscure Italian city in 1848 where the people of the town literally locked the ruler out of the town — and Italy remains decentralized. The tradition of these decentralized city-states that were the heart of the Renaissance. Italy is not unified — to the extent it has ever been unified — until the 1860s and 1970s.

What these kings do, these kings and queens is they get rid of these impediments to their authority. Even take the wordburgher or bourgeois. Bourgeois is a French word. It’s more of a cultural sense, but it also has a class sense. A bourgeois or a burgher was somebody who lived in a city and assumed that some of the justice that was levied against him or her would be the result of decisions taken locally. Now, big-time, powerful absolute monarchs don’t want that. So, part of the whole process is the elimination of these municipal privileges and replacing municipal officials, to make a long story short, with people that they have appointed. They eliminate — the one privilege above all that the big guys want to get rid of is the right to not be taxed.

Part of being an absolute ruler is being able to levy taxes against those people who have the joy or the extreme misfortune of living in those domains, and more about that later. So, what happens with all this is that absolute rule impinges directly on the lives of ordinary people more than kingly, or queenly, or princely, or archbishiply power had intruded on the lives of ordinary people before that. So, these rulers have a coercive ability in creating, and I’ll come back to this, large standing armies that will be arriving not immediately, they’re not arriving by train or being helicoptered in at some distant command, but they will get there if there’s trouble. They will arrive and they will get there and they will enforce the will of the monarch. We’ll see the statistics are really just fascinating about how big these armies become.

Chapter 2. Reaction against War: Absolutism as Reassertion of Order [00:11:26]

The argument that I’m going to make, drawing upon again Rabb — he’s not the only one that’s made this argument, but he’s made it more thoroughly than most people — absolutism may be seen as an attempt to reassert public order and coercive state authority after this period of utter turmoil. The English Civil War, the Thirty Years’ War, in which in parts of central Europe a quarter of the population disappeared, were killed, murdered in ways that I will unfortunately show you in a while. More than this, what happens is that the nobles, who in all these countries going back to the Medieval period, had privileges that they were asserting vis-à-vis their monarchs, they will say, “We agree to be junior partners in absolutism in exchange for the protection that you, the big guy, and your armies can provide us, so that we don’t have to lie awake wondering who is coming up the path to the big house. Is it peasants who are come and assert the rights of the poor against us?” And at a time of popular insurrections in all sorts of countries.

Think of all the insurrections or all the people who followed false czars to utter slaughter in Russia. The nobles say, “All right. We agree to be junior partners in absolute rule in exchange for recognizing your supreme authority over us in exchange for the protection that you will afford us.” Private armies are disappearing. The armies of the state, as you will see in a while, are growing, and moreover, “you, oh big guy, you will assert our own privileges. You will recognize our privileges as nobles.” So, it’s a tradeoff. But in absolute states, there’s no doubt who rules and who helps rule. So, in absolute states big noble families are very happy to send their offspring to become commanders in the army and navy, where they never do a damn thing, or to become big bishops like Talleyrand, and to profit from the state while recognizing that the big guy, the king and the queen, have absolute authority over them.

Now, the classic case, of course, Louis XIV you can read about. Louis XIV when he was a kid, he was about twelve or thirteen years old, he lived in Paris. He lived in the Tuileries palace along the Seine, which was burned in 1871 during the commune. There was a huge old insurrection called the Fronde, F-R-O-N-D-E. A fronde was a kind of a slingshot that Paris street urchins used to shoot fancy people with rocks as they rode their carriages through the muddy streets of Paris. It’s a noble insurrection against royal authority, and in Auvergne in central France you have people rising up against their lords saying, “Hell with you. We’re not going to pay anymore.” When he’s a boy, he hears the crowd shouting outside of the royal palace in Paris. It scares the hell out of him. At one time they burst into his bedroom and he’s a little guy. When royal authority conquers these rebels, the frondeurs — you don’t have to remember any of that, F-R-O-N-D-E, it’s good cocktail party conversation, or something like that, but it’s important — he makes them, literally, he’s a bigger guy then, they literally come and they bow down, and they swear allegiance to him in exchange for protection and the recognition of their privileges as nobles, as titled nobles.

That’s really the defining moment in absolute rule. What does Louis XIV do? He goes out and builds Versailles. He only goes back to Paris I think three times ever. He doesn’t like Paris. Versailles is only eighteen kilometers away. It’s about eleven or twelve miles away. The women of Paris in October, many of them will walk to Versailles to bring the king back to Paris. After that, he’s essentially, well to put it kind of ridiculously, toast, French toast, when that happens. He builds this big — I call it a noble theme park, basically, at Versailles. It’s not the most interesting of the châteaux at all. The most interesting is Vaux-le-Vicomte, which is southeast of Paris. It’s a big sort of sprawling — gardens everywhere. Ten thousand nobles lived there. How boring! But the point was that they could be watched, that they’re not going to — they can chase each other’s wives and mistresses around, and they can eat big drunken meals.

The château was so big that when it freezes, they were trying to get to the bathroom and most of them never made it and peed on these long corridors that some of you have seen. The wine would freeze on the way from the kitchen through — it is sad — to the big dining hall. But he has 10,000 of these dudes and dudesses there that he’s going to watch over. They can conspire against each other, and they can hit on each other’s wives and mistresses. He could give one damn. But he can control them there. He only goes back to Paris three times ever. All the time he’s expanding his own personal power vis-à-vis his own population, conquering Alsace and parts of Lorraine and going to these inevitable natural frontiers. Napoleon thought the natural frontier was the Pacific Ocean. That would be another story.

So, this is what, in a nutshell, kind of what absolutism was. But let me say two things now, after having said that. There were doctrines. You can read about this stuff — geez, it’s obvious. But there were doctrines of absolutism that originated with jurists early. This was out there. There was a theoretical conceptual framework for having a king or queen having absolute powers. Even the development of this theory of absolute rule is in response to the rise of these territorial states like Spain, and France, and Russia later. France is a good example. I quote in here a guy who croaks before this course starts, Jean Bodin, B-O-D-I-N. He says, “Seeing that nothing upon earth is greater or higher next unto God than the majesty of kings and sovereign princes,” he wrote in Six Books of the Republic, “the principal point of sovereign majesty and absolute power was to consist principally in giving laws, dictating laws, onto the subjects in general without their consent.”

So, for absolute rulers, the link to religion you can read about, but there’s always the sense that he or she is doing God’s will by exploiting ordinary peasants, ordinary people and conquering other territories. But there’s a theoretical framework, and it will catch up with the French monarchs, among others, later — that the ruler must be a father, a benevolent figure. As I said, in some context last time, how many Russian peasants died in the 1890s thinking, “Oh my god, if the czar only knew that we’re starving, how angry he would be with his officials.” Well, he could have given one damn how many millions of them died. But this was the image, that the big person is there to protect you, and that his glory is your glory. But along with this conceptual framework, provided by none other than Thomas Hobbs in England, who had lived through the English Civil War and thought that you shouldn’t mess around with this rights business, you need some sort of big powerful monarch there — but there was a sense inherent in all of this. This will be important to try and understand the French Revolution, La Révolution française, that there’s a difference between absolutism and despotism. And that even conceptually, theoretically, if the monarch goes too far against the weight of the past that there is inherent in this the idea that he or she might well go.

Of course, you can imagine the thoughts of Louis XVI as they were cutting back his hair to await the fall of the guillotine on the 21st of January, 1793. In the cabarets and the estaminets, the bars of Paris of which there are many, many, many — happily so — in 1789, when ordinary people are drinking to the Third Estate, and talking about despotism, and finding examples from what they saw around them as representing despotic behavior. That line had clearly been crossed and helps explain why it was that in a country in which there weren’t ten people who wanted a republic in 1789. It was possible to imagine life without a king. Imagine that. So, that’s there as well.

Chapter 3. The Shape of Government in an Absolute State: Nobles and Bureaucrats [00:21:56]

Now, let’s characterize — oh, geez. we’ve got to move here. Let’s characterize absolute rule. Now, you did have, in many of these countries, diets, or parliaments, or some representative bodies. Again, the king doesn’t have to call them. In the case of France again, since we’re talking so much about Louis XIV, they call the Estates General, which is to represent all the provinces after the assassination of Henry IV in 1610 or 1612. Appropriately enough, he was stabbed to death in a traffic jam in Paris when his carriage gets blocked in the center of Paris, and this mad monk sticks a big knife into him. So, they call the Estates General then, but the king never calls it again until 1789. So, you have these diets and you have these parliaments, but one of the characteristics of absolute rule is that you don’t have to call these bodies, because the king is the big person.

Now, in the case of England, one of the causes of the English Civil War is the refusal of the kings to pay any attention, to recognize the rights of parliament that people in the British imaginaire, in the British collective memory — I believe started on June 15th, which is my birthday, 1215, although I wasn’t born yet in 1215. And, so, the idea of the freeborn Englishperson, Englishman is what they would have said in those days, meant that rights of parliament had to be respected. When it looks like those kings are going to restore Catholicism, at least have lots of paintings of swooning cherubs, and cupids, and Baroque Italian art in Windsor, and London, and these other places, then you’ve got a revolution.

So, absolute rulers didn’t really have to pay attention to these assemblies. The best example I can think of offhand, I should let this wait, but Peter the Great, the czar of the Russians, who may or may not have beaten his son to death, at least he ordered him tortured. Peter the Great was a huge sort of power-forward-sized guy at a time when people were very small. He had this thing called the drunken assembly, which was in a way kind of a mockery of parliamentary representations where his cronies would come and just get wasted and would make all sorts of flamboyant proclamations that seemed to represent what a real parliament would do. But in fact, Peter the Great listened to whom he wanted to and ignored the others. And sometimes had them killed if he had to, if he thought that’s what he should do, because there wasn’t any sort of challenge to his authority. That, my friends, is part of what it meant.

So, I already mentioned about how nobles become junior partners in absolutism. That’s not a bad phrase, junior partners in absolutism. So, what happens? Two ways of measuring how this happened and what difference it made is to realize, to return to what I said earlier, that big state structures involve bureaucracies. So, the king’s representatives go out in the name of the king. They give out justice, or the lack of justice, or they send armies in, or taxes, or this stuff. Now, the Renaissance city-states of Italy had relatively efficient administrations, to be sure. But these are royal bureaucracies that expand dramatically in size. Even though decentralized England expands its bureaucracy and collected taxes much more efficiently than across the channel in France, state-making involved more officials there. So, in order to raise money, you have to enforce taxes. So, you may farm taxes out to someone. They’ll keep as much of the cut as they can possibly steal.

Or to make money you’ll sell noble titles. This gets the French kings into trouble. Or you sell monopolies. Peter the Great had a monopoly on dice, because people gambled a lot. The nobles gambled all the time. You could gamble serfs, real people. You could gamble them. You could lose them with a bad hand. This was Russia. So, the monopoly on dice he sells. He sells the monopoly on salt. Salt was a big commodity, obviously, for storing meat. That monopoly is sold in various places. So, these officials, nobles get these kinds of officials, and really, they could rake it in, get these titles and they are representing the king. They’re governors, or intendants you call them in France. And it expands the number of officials dramatically.

Chapter 4. The Arm of the Absolute State: The Rise of Large Standing Armies [00:26:50]

Then there’s warfare. There is nothing more symptomatic of the growth of absolute rule than the growth of powerful armies.

Again, when you traveling around Europe, if you’re lucky to do that, you’ll see these big fortified towns. In the case of France again, they are the work of a brilliant military engineer called Vauban, V-A-U-B-A-N. You go to a place like Perpignan or Lille or Montmédy, they’re all over the place. And these are fortress-like defenses in an age of essentially defensive warfare. But if you’re going to have a big old fort, and you’re going to have lots of cannon that you hope to use against your craven, reptile enemies that would want to get in your way, you’ve got to have people to try out the cannon. You have to have people who live in these fortifications. So, the size of the armies for these megalomaniac wars, these dynastic wars between Austria and France — and then they changed partners in 1756, and all of this business. You can read about that. But the big story is huge, huge, huge amount of troops.

During the sixteenth century, the peacetime armies of the Continental Powers were about 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers — very, very little. By the 1690s, 150,000 soldiers. The French army, which was then in the 1690s 180,000 people. That’s twice the Michigan football stadium. Can you imagine a stadium packed with soldiers and all that? How boring. But, anyway, it rose to 350,000 soldiers, the largest in Europe. I think I have in this edition a table the size of European armies. Habsburg empire, 1690, 50,000; 1756, 200,000. A polyglot army, too, because of all the different nationalities. Prussia identified with the Junkers, the nobles who were army officers, the dueling scars that they had — that Bismarck would have in a unified Germany, a mere 30,000 people in 1690; 195,000 people during the Seven Years’ War; in 1789, 190,000; in 1812, as they’re fighting Napoleon, 270,000 people. This is in a state that barely extends beyond Brandenburg and Pomerania in what now is Western Poland, and still Prussia in the unified Germany.

Even Sweden, 100 at the time of the Battle of Poltava. Forget it. Well, don’t forget it, but read about. In 1709, that’s when Sweden loses to Russia. The Swedish army was 110,000 people, soldiers. That’s an awful lot. So, that’s one of the things that happens. The modern state in action, the absolute state in action is the army. Even in peacetime, military expenditures take up almost half of the budget of any European state, and in times of war, eighty percent. Having said all that, let me just — oops, try to turn this baby on. Did that go on? Why didn’t that go on? Oh, I’ve got to put this thing down. That’s it. Again, these just illustrate my point, which is: Why did nobles and even other people agree to all of this? If they’re being exploited, they’ve got big armies that can crush them like grapes if they get in the way. But one argument that can be made is that things were so terrible and so out of control in the earlier period that the strengthening of the state is something that people saw as beneficial.

Again, Hobbes is over the top. Hobbes wants this sort of dictatorship to keep people from brawling in the state of nature. Again, the elite in Britain were scared, because you’ve got all these Ranter groups and Levelers and people who believe that everybody ought to have the right to vote, whether they have property or not and people that believe in the right of women. This is pretty scary. So, people like Hobbes thought, “Well, we need a really strong state.” But that’s not the outcome of the English Civil War. But how did this work in other places? Theodore Rabb’s argument is basically that the terrible wars of religion that had ripped central Europe apart in the middle of the nineteenth century led people to look for the kinds of safety provided by a strong ruler. That what had begun, and we’ll see this in a minute, as a war between protestants and Catholics, a war that began in Prague when somebody gets defenestrated, which is a fancy word for throwing somebody out of a window, that this ended up being a war fought by just vicious mercenaries who slaughtered the populations of central Europe. It didn’t matter if they were Protestants or Catholics or anything else. They simply killed them. And that this terrified elites in much of Europe and had the same equivalent of what the Fronde did for scaring elites in France.

One of the arguments that he [Rabb] makes, and I can’t make it as strongly because I don’t know enough about it, is the scientific revolution. What I know about it is what you’re kind enough to read. It was hard to piece all of this stuff together. But there is this sort of sense of uncertainty that you see in someone like Descartes, who finally just goes back to basics and says, “I think, therefore I am.” Here I am. They go from there to a methodology of science, a methodology of trying to study things in a rational way, to get rid of the kinds of blind faith that seem to have led to this, this utter catastrophe of mass slaughter in Europe. There are signs all over the place that this has happened. “I think, therefore I am.”

There is a return to these kinds of theoretical defenses of absolutism that even preceded the growth of the absolute state as I’ve described it. Absolutism did not simply just emerge out of this turmoil. As I already suggested, and I would insist upon this again, that the consolidation of territorial rulers had already given the basis to an expanding, more formalized state structure, even in England. This is for sure. It all just doesn’t start like that. Louis XIV was preceded in number by Louis XIII. Louis XIII helped expand the compelling course of structures of the French state. But yet when you look at all of this, you can see that the kind of chaos, the political upheavals finds in response in the growth of central government authority and the growth of bureaucracies. It wasn’t only in Sweden, Austria, Russia, France, etc. where you found this. Even in smaller states like Württemberg, a state in Germany which was a sort of middle-sized state. Even there you see the same phenomenon on a very lower, smaller level, at least in terms of the size of the state, where people are giving up, willing to compromise on their privileges in order for the protection of the ruler of Württemberg, who would never be confused with Louis XIV or Peter the Great.

Chapter 5. Representations of the Absolutism in Art and Literature [00:34:58]

So, this really becomes a sort of European-wide phenomenon. You can apply this also to the Glorious Revolution in England as well. People are happy to have a monarch back who is going to reassert control. In the case of England, they’re very happy to have a monarch back who was not threatening to turn England again into a Catholic state. So, this is the sort of argument that you can make, even in a state that had a constitutional monarch such as England. Let me just give you a couple examples of what one can mean here. Again, these are painters that you may have come across. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of them or if you never think of them again — but, Titian. The famous Titian. This is his picture of Charles V at a battle in Germany in 1648. This is a pretty dramatic representation of war. This is like Clint Eastwood, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This is a guy, he’s armored up; he’s ready to go. He’s somebody to be emulated from the point of view of the viewer.

But at the same time, this is slightly earlier, this is a painting — thanks, Dan — this is a painting of Bruegel the Elder. The first is the Triumph of Death, where you see what happens in real battle when people are just sort of slaughtered, and the commanders are off at a safe distance. Here again, the massacre of the innocents, where villages are just being executed because they are there. The Triumph of Death, the dialogue of the mathematician Pascal is quoted by Rabb. “Why are you killing me for your own benefit? I am unarmed.” “Why? You do not live on the other side of the water, my friend. If you lived on this side, I should be a murderer. But since you live on the other side, I’m a brave man and it is right that I kill you.” When the Swedes get into the act, Gustavus Adolphus brings this huge old Swedish army down and they do a lot of damage, too, and people are absolutely being devastated. Here’s Reubens’ The Horror of War. There’s a reason why the first attempt to even write about international law comes at this period. Again, this is before the course, but why not?

Hugo Grotius writes the Law of War and Peace. He publishes it in 1625. The goal was to stop stuff like this, to try to create a legal framework in which states could resolve their kind of differences without kind of butchering each other. So, there we go. But somewhat here in war and peace of battle is slowly being relegated to the background. But let me give you another example. Here’s the famous Spanish painter. Again, don’t worry about it. Velazquez, who died in 1610, I think. No, it’s 1660, sorry. This is his portrait of Mars. Mars is the god of war. Now, how different that is than the portrait of Charles that you saw by Titian. Here, this guy looks like kind of an overweight NFL player who hasn’t really gotten ready for the drill. He’s very human. There’s nothing admirable about him. It’s just war is being dissed by those people that are just so tired of the killing. And Mars has this sort of human, flabby torso that’s not — it’s sympathetic, but it’s a different portrayal of war. People are getting tired of the whole damn thing. He’s dull. He’s uncouth and he’s extremely human.

Now, one of the reasons why people would — it’s unthinkable for someone like me or for probably most of you to imagine giving up your rights to a kind of absolute rule, though we seem to be in a situation like that, where that’s happened quite a lot recently, even in this own country. But these are just illustrations that come out of the Thirty Years’ War, which people are trying to put behind them. This is a French painter, drawer, lithographer called Jacques Callot. These are just many ways that people died during the Thirty Years’ War. This is simply The Execution. You don’t even need the formal titles of these. But these get around. Peddlers who had these big, big leather bags that would go around Europe and sell things like pins and miraculous images of the Virgin Mary and the stories of saints and all this kind of stuff and Joan of Arc or Robin Hood, in the case of England, become part of the collective memory. These kinds of images do get around of the horrors of war that the misfortunes and horrors of war, which is basically what he calls this entire series.

Here’s the people sort of standing around watching this execution. This is somebody being tortured at the stake for merely existing, for having not confessed to being a Protestant or a Catholic or whatever. I’ll tell you, in the south of France near where we live, when there was a lot of resistance in World War II against the Germans, there were some Protestant villages there that were noteworthy for their resistance. A lot of Catholics resisted, too. But one of the interesting things about some of the villages that I know down there is that there were big mission crosses that were put out after the wars of religion that were sort of symbols of conquest by the all-Catholic king. Is it in the collective memory that people remember three centuries later that the Catholic Church was identified, at least as a hierarchy, with the Vichy Regime in World War II? That’s interesting, a fascinating subject.

But, anyway, this poor guy’s not doing very well up there and becomes this sort of big spectacle. These are dying soldiers along the side of the road. It’s sort of a sympathetic look at — that’s the name of this — of these expiring dudes there. Here’s the attack on a stagecoach. The point of this is it didn’t matter who you were. If you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you were history. That was all. There were new ways to be killed. Certainly in Europe, not until the massacres of the Armenians, and arguably some Napoleonic atrocities, and Napoleon’s armies’ atrocities in Palestine, or in the south of Italy, or in Spain as well. But there was nothing like this really, including World War I. There were some atrocities at the beginning of World War I, but there was nothing like this again until World War II and, of course, Bosnia. The point is this is why lots of people thought, “I don’t like this guy sending people around and taking my taxes, but I don’t want to get offed by some marauders. Just hang ‘em high, hang ‘em all high.” These were real ways that people were executed — stakes, massacres, and this sort of business.

There’s a convent, church that’s going to go. It’s a Catholic church. You can tell from the top. So, maybe these are Protestant mercenaries. It didn’t matter, because the Protestant armies had Catholic mercenaries and the Catholic armies had Protestant mercenaries. Everybody had Dalmatians, people from the Dalmatian coast, and Swiss. You have to imagine a time when Switzerland wasn’t extremely wealthy. Swiss were great, famous mercenaries fighting in these armies. Again, the Swedish, the “Swedish cocktail” was sort of suffocating people by stuffing manure down their throat until they died. This was a nasty time. I guess this is what Hobbes meant by “nasty, short, and brutish,” or whatever the fourth was. I don’t remember, but what life was in the Thirty Years’ War, that was the way it was.

Now, out of all of this, again to repeat, we are not making the argument that the Thirty Years’ War itself led to absolute rule, that the growth of state structures can be seen in the beginning and the late medieval period with the consolidation of these territorial monarchies. There were already bureaucrats representing the royal will. There were already armies. But many, particularly two — bureaucracies and powerful standing military forces — are characteristics of modern states. And to try to explain why it was that absolute rule came to Europe at the time it did, one has to not only look at the particular structures of states, but one has to look at the overview and the sheer horror of it all.

The boy king, Louis XIV, hearing the crowd shouting outside of his room. He goes out to Versailles and creates this noble theme park and sort of a Euro Disney for nobles where he can watch these nobles. They agree to be junior partners of absolute rule and they weren’t the only ones. The great power struggles of the eighteenth century would be very different than this bloodletting of civilians that had preceded it. There were professional kinds of armies and all of that. But those are more themes for future lectures. Wednesday I’m going to talk about exceptions to absolutism, what the Dutch and what the English had in common that gave them very different political outcomes. That’s important, too, in the emergence of the country in which many of you live. See you.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]