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OFFICEHOLDING. The growth of the state was one of the central features of the early modern period. The state developed around two poles: the king's authority and that of the hierarchy of state officials. Monarchical powers and responsibilities were slowly extended from the twelfth century on as the rediscovery of the old Roman law gave monarchs new means to control their lords and bishops. Their duty was no longer confined to the armed protection of their people; they had to make and implement laws and raise taxes. As the governing task-load increased, it became necessary for the king to delegate authority. If the nobles were supposed to help the kings administer his kingdom, they were first and foremost warriors who ignored, for the most part, the subtleties of law. Their missions also frequently took them away from the court, and governing the realm required stability and continuity. Centralized bureaucracies became a reality during the early modern period as monarchs gathered around themselves persons specializing in domains such as justice and finance.

According to the French lawyer Charles Loyseau, who published a major book on the issue of officeholding in 1610, an office was "an ordinary dignity with public function." Dignity was bestowed upon the officeholder through the participation in royal power; the "public function" referred to the officeholder's service to the king and the state. Considering the fact that monarchs of the period were considered divinely chosen and their missions fixed by God, officials were also seen as engaged in a divine duty. They took pride in what they were doing, and their tasks were accompanied by a great sense of the importance of their responsibilities. But they were also subject to worldly temptations. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in particular were marked by popular revolts accompanied by demands that the judicial and financial systems be purged of abuses.


The German sociologist Max Weber (18641920) has defined "bureaucracy" as an administration, either public or private, by full-time salaried officials, who are professionals recruited for the tasks at hand, graded and organized hierarchically, with regular procedures and formalized record-keeping. In the early modern period, the European states were still building their bureaucracies; no state had at its disposal an entire body of professional officials before the end of the eighteenth century. Many officials were still considered personal servants of the king, and a significant number of minor officeholders were named by their superiors rather than by the central government. Moreover, most officials were not directly paid by the state. Their incomes were based on a combination of government recompense, contributions from subjects in need of their services (épices in France and candele in Sicily, for instance), and finally from bribes or simply theft. It is safe to assume that from one-half to three-quarters of the cost of the royal bureaucracy was assumeddirectly bythepublic.

When it was time to appoint or promote an official, the criteria were generally unclear. Technical qualifications and competence were considered, but in reality these played a far less important role than the candidates' ancestry, wealth, and familial connections. Individuals were typically asked to prove their competence before occupying a particular function, but more often than not, this was simply a formality. Open competitive examinations were only introduced in Bavaria and Prussia in the first years of the eighteenth century, and later elsewhere. The general belief was that by observing experienced officials doing their job, new recruits would learn their tasks and naturally assimilate the institutional code of conduct that was seen as a guarantor of the efficiency of administrative bodies. For instance, in sixteenth-century France, a member of the Parlement of Paristhe most important judicial court of the realmwas expected to be a good Catholic, a learned man able to cite readily the greatest Greek and Roman philosophers, a good orator, and a person of virtue. Networks of clientele were formed within institutions. Officials' children could expect to find marriage partners within these circles.

The organization of the bureaucratic system varied greatly from one state to another. Characteristics of the English civil service were its amateurism and, as compared with France, its small size. In the seventeenth century in England, a population of five million was served by five thousand to ten thousand officials, while France, with a population of 18 million, had at least forty-six thousand public servants in 1665. Public service did not cost the English state much, as, for example, justices of the peace were not paid. The officers held their position for an undetermined time: "at the pleasure of the state," "during good behavior," "for life." In England, officeholding was not a lifetime career: it did not offer the possibility of climbing the social ladder. In France, the structure was more rigid, in part because of the venality of offices, which was there highly developed. In Austria, Maria Theresa adopted a series of measures from 1740 on that aimed at giving more strength to her government. Between 1740 and 1762, the administration saw the number of its officials increase from six thousand to ten thousand. Civil servants who were now judged by their merits saw their remuneration increased. They became fully part of the state.

The Middle Ages saw the creation of many of the states' institutions. Over the centuries, procedures were developed from experience rather than from a carefully written plan. A good example of this is the Parlement of Paris. When a civil war plagued the French realm during the reign of Charles VI (13801422) the parlement stood firm, and its stability during the storm was taken note of. A greater number of councillors spent their entire adult lives working in the institution. This stability brought the parlement recognition as an arbitrator between factions. It gained the right to deliberate on every edict presented by the king to its members. To become law, an edict had to be registered by the courthence the importance of the courts' archives. From then on, it was possible for its magistrates to slow the legislative process. This gave them a say in the realm's political affairs and was a check on royal absolutism. The fact that French officials were the owners of their offices further strengthened their position.


France was not the only state in which it was possible to buy official positions. Venality was commonplace in Castile, for example, but not with respect to higher positions, only the municipal offices. Economically speaking, an office was originally a kind of pension. Because medieval kings were unable to look after all the needs of their faithful, they bestowed on certain individuals a political status that was accompanied by the right to charge for their services. Subjects who used the services of an official were required to pay for them. The logic behind the venality system was already present. In theory, an office was freely given by the monarch, a gift that implied a countergift in the form of a loan. The officer's salary could be considered as the interest on the loan. This system was developed during the Middle Ages. Through a royal declaration in 1467, Louis XI recognized the immovability of officeholders: according to the declaration, an office could only come back to the king via death, resignation, or felony.

The realm's involvement in the Italian Wars provoked a desperate need for money. Louis XII and Francis I created new judicial and financial officesthe many charges in the king's household were not for sale, for the most partin order to raise funds. In 1524 Francis I organized the Bureau des Finances Extraordinaires et Parties Casuelles to raise money by means of the new offices. It was possible for the officeholder to resign his seat and bestow it on a successor, usually a son or nephew. Those who benefited from such succession had to pay the king a tax of 10 percent of the price of the office. This helped in the creation of bureaucratic dynasties, as generation after generation of the same family held a particular office.

Such practices brought both benefits and problems to the king. Money was raised through the selling of offices, which from 1515 to 1565 increased fivefold. But the monarch lost the ability to name and control most public servants. Francis I reacted in 1534 by instituting the forty-days clause: an official who sold or resigned his office had to survive the transaction by forty days; otherwise the office reverted to the king. In 1604 the system was changed once more when Henry IV promulgated an official table of values with respect to offices. An officeholder had to pay a special yearly taxcalled the paulette of one-sixtieth of the stated value of an office in order to be exempt from the forty-days clause. What the king lost in control, he gained in finances: during the first thirty years of the seventeenth century, offices represented as much as 45 percent of royal revenues.

Offices were in demand, for the most prestigious of them conferred noble status on their owners. In France, officeholding was definitively the best way to climb the social ladder. But it was tempting for the crown to multiply them, especially in times of crisis, and many posts served no purpose. As early as the sixteenth century, some offices were divided in two: their holders serving one year out of two. In 1597 Henry IV created some for which the officials had to work one year out of three. In 1645 quadrennial offices were sold. This did not necessarily translate into a dramatic increase in the number of holders, since it was possible for one individual to own several offices. The cost of offices remained quite high throughout the seventeenth century, especially for the most prestigious ones. It became more difficult to sell them in the eighteenth century as commerce came to seem a better way to make money.

Venality produced a kind of privatization of public service. It opened the door to many abuses, for it was nearly impossible for a king to depose an official. It forced the monarchy to resort to other means in order to effectively govern the realm. Intendants were royal commissaries sent on a mission to act on the king's behalf. Their jurisdiction and tenure were limited. One who did a good job could expect to receive a new assignment; incompetents were not rehired. Of course, this caused jurisdictional problems, as some officials did not readily accept the arrival of these newcomers. Intendants were introduced gradually in the sixteenth century; they were commonplace in the middle of the seventeenth century. But on the other hand most commissaries owned a venal office. It was one of the many contradictions of the system. Despite modifications, the system of venality survived until the French Revolution of 1789.

See also Absolutism ; Church and State Relations ; Law: Lawyers ; Parlements ; Representative Institutions ; State and Bureaucracy .


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Michel De Waele