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10.11: The Overall Effects of Absolutism

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  • While Britain was thus the outstanding exception to the general pattern of absolutism, the growth in its state was comparable to the growth among its absolutist rivals. As an aggregate, the states of Europe were transformed by absolutist trends. Some of those can be captured in statistics: royal governments grew roughly 400% in size (i.e. in terms of the number of officials they employed and the tax revenues they collected) over the course of the seventeenth century, and standing armies went from around 20,000 men during the sixteenth century to well over 150,000 by the late seventeenth century.

    Armies were not just larger - they were better-disciplined, trained, and "standardized." For the first time, soldiers were issued standard uniforms. Warfare, while still bloody, was nowhere near as savage and chaotic as it had been during the wars of religion, thanks in large part to the fact that it was now waged by professional soldiers answering to noble officers, rather than mercenaries simply unleashed against an enemy and told to live off of the land (i.e. the peasants) while they did so. Officers on opposing sides often considered themselves to be part of a kind of extended family; a captured officer could expect to be treated as a respected peer by his "enemies" until his own side paid his ransom.

    What united such disparate examples of absolutism as France and Prussia was a shared concept of royal authority. The theory of absolutism was that the king was above the nobles and not answerable to anyone in his kingdom, but, he owed his subjects a kind of benevolent protection and oversight. “Arbitrary” power was not the point: the power exercised by the monarch was supposed to be for the good of the kingdom – this was known as raison d’etat, right or reason of the state. Practically speaking, this meant that the whole range of traditional rights, especially those of the nobles and the cities, had to be respected. Louis XIV famously claimed that "L'etat, c'est moi" - I am the state. His point was that there was no distinction between his own identity and the government of France itself, and his actions were by definition for the good of France (which was not always true from an objective standpoint, as was starkly demonstrated in his wars).

    Those who lost out in absolutism were the peasants: especially in Central and Eastern Europe, what freedoms peasants had enjoyed before about 1650 increasingly vanished as the newly absolutist monarchs struck deals with their nobility that ratified the latter’s right to completely control the peasantry. Serfdom, already in place in much of the east, was hardened in the seventeenth century, and the free labor, fees, and taxes owed by peasants to their lords grew harsher (e.g., the Austrian labor obligation was known as the robot, and it could consist of up to 100 days of labor a year). The general pattern in the east was that nobles answered to increasingly powerful kings or emperors, but they were themselves “absolute” rulers of their own estates over their serfs.

    The irony of the growth of both royal power and royal tax revenue was that it still could not keep up with cost of war. Military expenditures were enormous; in a state like France the military took up 50% of state revenues during peacetime, and 80% or more during war (which was frequent). Thus, monarchs granted monopolies on products and then taxed them, and they frequently sold noble titles and state offices to the highest bidder (the queen of Sweden doubled the number of noble families in ten years). They relentlessly taxed the peasantry as well: royal taxes doubled in France between 1630 – 1650, and the concomitant peasant uprisings were ruthlessly suppressed.

    One aspect of the hardening of social hierarchies, necessitated in part by the great legal benefits enjoyed by members of the nobility in the absolutist system, was that the rights and privileges of nobility were codified into clear laws for the first time. Most absolutist states created “tables of ranks” that specified exactly where nobles stood vis-à-vis one another as well as the monarch and “princes of the blood.” Louis XIV of France had a branch of royal government devoted entirely to verifying claims of nobility and stripping noble titles from those without adequate proof.