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It is not possible to have a comprehensive discussion of European politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries without mentioning the emergence of absolutism as a new paradigmatic approach to a centralized authority. The abandonment of legal limitations to the power of a monarch was an important development in European history, which deserves careful consideration. This paper aims to discuss the rise of absolutism in Europe and its repercussions for existing political structures.
The sixteenth-century Europe was characterized by the existence of a layered system of governance, which guided various aspects of law-making (Wiesner-Hanks 317). The mandate of a monarch’s power was provided by a supreme authority—God. Therefore, even though European rulers could exercise authority over their respective domains, their power was limited by other governmental institutions. This social framework was transformed by the Reformation (Wiesner-Hanks 317). The transformation took place because substantial ideological differences between Protestants and Catholics prevented the two religious denominations from accepting “the idea of a smooth flow of authority and of a ‘common good’” (Wiesner-Hanks 318). The growing influence of a monarchy can be illustrated by a statement attributed to Louis XIV of France: “I am the state” (Wiesner-Hanks 318). A French diplomat Duc de Saint-Simon, in his account of the ruler’s life, stated that the man was of average talents whose appreciation of flattery prevented him from noticing shortcomings of his ministers (Arkwright 254).
Whereas the complete sovereignty of rulers was established in theory, in practice, it was often challenged by those who adhered to the notion of ‘natural law.’ Royal authority was also subject to God. A corollary was that a ruler performed fatherly duties that were limited by divine decrees; therefore, the rule of a monarch was paternalistic in its nature (Wiesner-Hanks 319). Regional political structures provided additional limits to the authoritative use of power. For example, provincial civil and criminal systems functioned in conjunction with representative assemblies and other mechanisms of governance, thereby catering to the unique needs of the local populace (Wiesner-Hanks 319). Even though monarchs were inclined to unify those systems, it was extremely difficult to accomplish. It has to do with the fact that regional nobility held the sway over the execution of written codes. The influence of the noble class was supported by military and financial power, thereby making it difficult to introduce meaningful changes in local political structures (Wiesner-Hanks 319).
Political Testament written by the chief minister of Louis XIII’s council is a historical document that provides invaluable insights into the difficulties faced by the ruler willing to exercise his authoritative power. The document reveals that the French aristocracy was not always following the ruler’s demands, which was harshly criticized by the author. Richelieu informs the monarch that “the most powerful governors of the provinces” conducted themselves “as if they were sovereign in their offices” (qtd. in “Documents on Absolutism” 1). The chief minister concludes that the need to reinforce the ruler’s influence is pressing.
The exercise of sovereign authority is an enterprise that cannot be carried out without regard for local systems of power. Therefore, absolutism in Europe was always limited to some extent. Financial implications of the local nobility’s rule were perhaps the most important restrictions of absolutist monarchs’ power at the time. It has to do with the fact that vast territories of states could not be ruled without allowing provincial nobles to exact control over their holdings. Due to the disparate nature of regional laws and structures, monarchs were unable to exercise unchecked power to exact taxes, which benefited local populations.
Although a full sway of absolutism in Europe was always inhibited by provincial authorities, checks and balances of power were missing in the new power system. Church leaders that had previously prevented monarchs from exercising their full autonomy lost their authority with the development of absolutism. It can be argued that the rise of absolutism was associated with largely negative consequences for populations that lived under monarchs.
The age of absolutism in Europe came to an end because people started to challenge the divine right of monarchs. In addition, the church, which was an institution that had helped to legitimize kingship, lost its influence to a substantial degree. As time went on, Europeans grew discontented with the royal centralization of authority. Therefore, they were willing to transfer their rights to local representatives instead of an absolute ruler. The yearning for democracy was a testament to the progressiveness of a society. Furthermore, it was a sign that the philosophical justifications of the unlimited authority of monarchs were successfully challenged by intellectual elites. Without having a philosophical underpinning, absolutism was no longer regarded as an unconditional necessity. Therefore, Europeans started actively seeking new sources of authority, which marked the arrival of a new historical era.
The paper outlined the key themes in Wiesner-Hanks’ discussion of absolutism in Europe and provided insights into the historical era. It has been argued that the rise of absolutism was a fundamental shift in the power structures of the continent. The emergence of absolute monarchy was predicated on the power struggles of main religious denominations in Europe.
Arkwright, Francis, editor. The Memoirs of the Duke de Saint-Simon. Vol. 5, Brentano’s, 1915.
“Documents on Absolutism.” People, Web.
Wiesner-Hanks, Merry. Early Modern Europe: 1450-1789. Cambridge University Press, 2006.