views updated Jun 11 2018


ABSOLUTISM. Early modern European princes liked to promulgate the myth that they held "absolute power." For modern observers, both words create confusion. In contemporary English, the word absolute defines a dichotomy of this or that: a king would either have "absolute power," or he would not. Early modern Europeans lived in a world of accepted ambiguity: they believed the sovereign prince's power to be both "absolute" and "limited." Nothing could be further in spirit from the sovereign prince's "absolute power" than the modern idea that "absolute" means "unlimited."


The term absolutism, first used in a political sense in various European languages between 1796 (French) and 1830 (English), became popular through the work of late-nineteenth-century historians proselytizing for modern republicanism. The American John Motley's use of it in The Rise of the Dutch Republic (1856) offers a perfect illustration: he quotes Cardinal Granville, chief minister of Philip II of Spain (ruled 15561598), who wrote to the king that "I shall never be able to fulfill the obligations of slave which I owe to your Majesty." Motley concludes: "[Granville] was a strict absolutist. His deference to arbitrary power was profound and slavish."

Motley's treatment of Philip and his father (Emperor Charles V, ruled 15191556) as "despots" enables us to trace the roots of the confusion among several pejorative terms. He juxtaposes absolutism and despotism in a way that has lasted into the present: modern specialists of the eighteenth-century monarchies of east central Europe speak of enlightened absolutism, but outside that field the older term enlightened despotism is used instead. Dictionaries follow Motley's lead: a despot is a "ruler with absolute power" or a "tyrant." Making despot, tyrant, and absolute monarch synonymous concepts, however, completely misrepresents the political order of early modern Europe.

The myth of absolutism contains a kernel of truth. The prince's prerogatives enabled him to act in an arbitrary, even extralegal manner, but within certain well-defined limits. Few questioned the exclusive right of kings to the regalian powers conceptually inherited from the Roman Empire: to coin money, to act as the supreme judge in the kingdom, to declare war and make peace. Two other such powers, making law and taxing, had an ambiguous status. Medieval Europeans believed that God had made the law; the king merely "discovered" it. They also insisted on the necessity of consent for state taxation, another sharp variance with Imperial Rome. Even in the military sphere, the constant outbreak of civil disturbances illustrates the unwillingness of early modern elites to accept the state's monopoly of organized violence.

Most European states emphasized the contrast between a monarchy, a legitimate form of "commonwealth" (or "republic") in which one man ruled in the interest of all, and its illegitimate mirror image, tyranny, in which one man ruled in his own interest. In the vocabulary of early modern Europe, the state chancery defined a king as a legitimate ruler simply by calling him a "monarch." Political theorists adopted the classic republican comparison of the state to a ship: the citizens were its owners, the king merely its captain. The king/captain had "absolute power" in moments of crisis (battle or storm), but the citizens/owners regained full control once the crisis passed. In the perpetual crisis of the late sixteenth century, some European kings sought to take advantage of the tempests by making "absolute power" permanent. States traditionally had a mixed form of commonwealth, combining legitimate rule by one person (monarchy), by a few people (aristocracy), and by many (timocracy). (The categories came from Aristotle, for whomas for early modern Europeansthe word democracy did not mean legitimate rule by the many, as it does today, but anarchy.) In the late sixteenth century, however, princes sought, in the name of order, to create an unfettered monarchy.


The nineteenth-century substitution of "absolutism" for "absolute power" also blurred the distinction between power and authority. From the Middle Ages onward, Europeans spoke of the king's "absolute power" (Latin, potestas ) but rarely of his "absolute authority" (Latin, auctoritas the supreme source of legitimacy in the polity). For them, God alone had absolute authority: auctoritas rested with their sovereign prince only when he acted in accordance with divine law, in a just government. In the late seventeenth century, however, monarchs and their apologists, such as Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (16271704) in France and Robert Filmer (c. 15881653) in England, tried to claim "absolute authority," based on the king's divine right. Far from being a coherent theory of government, the divine right of kings was an incoherent, desperate attempt to salvage royal authority. Works such as Bossuet's Politique tirée des propres paroles de l'écriture sainte (1709; Politics drawn from the Holy Scriptures) were riddled with inconsistencies and anachronisms, a fact gleefully seized upon by their opponents.

Yet the central premise of a Bossuet or a Filmerthe connection of God and rulerpermeated even the humblest official publications. The 1768 catechism sent by the Prussian government to local schools summed it up succinctly:

Q: From whence comes the power held by the ruler?

A: This power comes from God....

Q: What does it mean to resist authority?

A: To resist authority is to rebel against the divine order.

The problem for eighteenth-century monarchies was that however much they might push such ideas with ordinary people, elites had rejected them. This division reflected larger cultural currents: while eighteenth-century elites bought secular books, peasants who became literate invariably bought religious ones. The religious cosmology of rural dwellers propagated the sacred element of monarchy at the same moment that the increasingly secular cosmology of urban elites rejected it.

Three different elements of rulershippotestas ('power'), auctoritas ('supreme legitimizing authority'), and imperio ('rulership')overlapped in early modern political theory. Auctoritas could not be divided, because it emanated solely from God. Power and rulership could be divided: tens of thousands of European nobles had their own courts, which tried the cases of tens of millions of peasants. To Europeans, as the Prussian catechism says, the just monarch mediated divine authority, providing legitimacy to the power and rulership carried out by many. The Reformation destroyed this neat arrangement, because a Protestant subject naturally did not accept the idea that a Catholic king mediated God's will, so monarchs had to find new tools to reforge the connection. The 1768 catechism, created for Catholic students living in a Protestant state ruled by a deist king, is evidence more of that earlier failure than of "absolutism."

The French legal philosopher Jean Bodin (15301596) created the new political synthesis that undergirded the new monarchies by redefining sovereignty in Les six livres de la République (1576; The six books of the commonwealth). Bodin made sovereign power into the perpetual, inalienable, and indivisible supreme lawmaking authority in the state: "The first mark of the sovereign prince is the power to give law to all in general and to each in particular." Subsequent European political theorists, like Samuel Pufendorf (16321694) in Germany and Thomas Hobbes (15881679) and John Locke (16321704) in England, took up Bodin's definition of sovereignty.

Monarchies adopted the idea that sovereignty rested with the lawmaking prince, giving us one measure of the anachronism of Bossuet's claim that the king was chiefly a judge, discovering laws that were "sacred and inviolable." Bossuet's master, Louis XIV (ruled 16431715), stripped his chief law courts, the parlements, of their right to the title "sovereign court," precisely because he rejected the idea that his sovereign power to make law could be shared with anyone. A century later Louis XV, speaking to the Parlement of Paris (1766), spelled out the monarchy's underlying premise: "The sovereign power resides in my person only . . . my courts derive . . . their authority from me alone . . . to me alone belongs the legislative power." His subjects disagreed: the Parlement of Paris, in thename of the "nation," sent remonstrances to Louis XV insisting that his arrest of a high royal official, on grounds of "a law of the state," meant that "all orders of birth and distinction, all bodies [corporations], all ranks, all dignities must henceforth fear the imperious force of absolute power." This exchange pointed out the obvious contradiction between defense of the interests of the nation and of the privileges of the few.


Bodin's original definition of sovereignty had limited the "absolute" sovereign prince in two ways. First, "all the Princes of the Earth are subject to the laws of God and of nature, and to many human laws common to all people." Second, the sovereign had "absolute" power only in the realm of public law; the citizens had control of private law. Theory and practice struggled most at those points, such as taxation and religion, where private and public law intersected. Bodin believed the king had no right to taxation without citizens' consent; Bossuet urged the king to act justly but gave the subjects no right of consent. All European states struggled with the question of whether or not religious choice was a matter of individual conscience, and hence private, or of social concord, thus public. The French case here demonstrates the extraordinary meaning of arbitrary power: Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes (1598), which defined religion as a matter of conscience and thus permitted Protestants to worship; his grandson Louis XIV revoked it (1685), claiming to defend public order, and thus made Protestantism illegal in most parts of his kingdom. Waves of persecution and massacres of Protestants, as well as a mass emigration, soon followed.

So-called "absolute" rulers found themselves limited in many ways. They had unlimited right to make public law but no right to touch private law, or "custom." Privilege ("private law") protected virtually every powerful member of every European society. Nobles everywhere had special rights, special courts, and a wide array of inviolable legal rights (according to their view) or privileges (according to the prince). Citizens of towns had many of the same privileges, and clergymen (especially in Catholic regions) had their own laws and courts and exemptions. Provincial customs almost everywhere in Europe, except in England, governed property transfers such as inheritances. "Absolute" rulers like Louis XIV of France and Joseph II of Austria (ruled 17801790) had no legitimate authority to change such customs, which governed even weights and measures.


Modern discussions of "absolutism" often forget the direct connection between the breakdown of religious unity and the creation of a new theory of "absolute power" in the 1570s. The old theories, with their direct ties to auctoritas and thus to laws promulgated by the prince but authorized by God, were not likely to convince a Protestant subject to obey a Catholic king, or vice versa. Political discourse everywhere in Europe moved away from the time-honored concept of "the public good," embodied in a commonwealth, and toward "the good of the king's service" in a monarchical state.

Most Europeans lived in a commonwealtha political society based on citizensbetween the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. These citizens, as in an ancient Greek city, formed a small percentage of the adult male population: only nobles and certain wealthy commoners (above all urban elites) participated in governance. Almost all participation in governance happened at the local level, usually in a town; when sixteenth-century townsmen spoke of being "citizens," they invariably meant citizens of their town. These commonwealths usually relied on a mixed constitution (forma mixta, an ideal Europeans took from the ancient historian Polybius), in which a prince, the aristocracy, and the broader group of prominent men shared power. In the last third of the sixteenth century, however, a Europe-wide constitutional crisis destroyed most of the commonwealths.

The flirtation of European monarchies with "absolutes" had two stages. In the first, defensive stage during the seventeenth century, monarchs from the tsar of Russia to the king of Spain claimed "absolute power" to remedy the chaos around them. Many of their subjects, hungry for order, went along with them. In the second, offensive stage, states claimed absolute authority to act on behalf of the community. The sixteenth-century commonwealths had collapsed constitutionally because of the conflicts between the ruler and the common good, above all with regard to religion. In restoring civil order, seventeenth-century monarchs sought to consolidate power, and they did so in a long, bloody, socially disruptive process that destroyed the civic order.

In the late seventeenth century, however, the old distinction between power and authority became more fluid. The great monarchies claimed an implied "absolute" authority in the name of public utility. Whereas citizens had once protected the common good through governance, with oversight and assistance from a small state apparatus, now the state became its guardian. In France, urban elites and some nobles shared power through the state apparatus, deliberately shunning the republican mechanisms (representative assemblies, elected judges, elected financial officials) proposed by the provincial nobility in the 1560s and 1570s. By the eighteenth century, secure in the identification of the state and the common good, officials sought to "reform" society, relying on the "absolute" authority of the ruler. Moreover, that authority had become progressively more secular, as cultural currents desacralized the monarchy in the eyes of elites.


In German lands, this transition from the old state of orders, the Standestaat, to a state of laws, or Rechtstaat, relied on cameralist and Pietist philosophers such as Johann Heinrich Gottlob von Justi (17171771) and Christian Wolff (16791754). Cameralism and Pietism provided secular and religious rationales for a philosophy of social action, carried out by the only universal social organ: the state. Everywhere in German lands, rulers sought to create the well-ordered police state, through laws promulgated by an "enlightened" state, under the "absolute" authority of the prince. In Austria, for example, Maria Theresa signed an edict (1774) mandating the creation of grammar schools in every parish in her empire; the edict also created an upper school and a training school for teachers in each provincial capital.

The uneven implementation of the 1774 edict illustrates the reality of "absolutism." Maria Theresa's empire had many nationalities and religions. Some groups viewed the creation of state-run schools as an attack on their ethnic or religious identity, but other ethnic groups used the schools for their own ends. Bohemia implemented the edict so thoroughly that two-thirds of its children enrolled in grammar schools by 1790, while Hungary enrolled virtually no one. Even in Austrian lands, school attendance rates ranged from 30 to 70 percent, in all cases a significant improvement, but evidence of radically different local responses to central action.

Prussia also tried to implement broader schooling. Johann Felbinger, the driving force behind these reforms in both places, voiced the same frustrations as any French or Russian bureaucrat when he wrote of the Prussian reform in 1768: "It is almost beyond comprehension that the express commands of such a powerful monarch, commands which a royal minister and two provincial chambers have sought to execute for the past several years, have had so little effect." Practical realities placed great limits on the real exercise of power. News and royal orders traveled at a horseman's pace, armies even more slowly. It could take months to move troops from one part of France or the Habsburg Empire to another. Early modern monarchies had to mediate the interests of kings and local elites, creating a compromise that preserved their common interests, in order to accomplish anything.

Princes in the post-commonwealth monarchies, having destroyed civic society during the search for order, boldly challenged the traditional limits on their prerogatives in the second, offensive phase of development. Monarchs could carry out grandiose personal projects, like Versailles or the Schönbrunn palace, or even construct a new capital city, as in the case of St. Petersburg. In wartime, rulers could trample on the most precious privileges of the powerful: in 1695 Louis XIV created the capitation, a tax on all French people, including otherwise exempt nobles, clergy, and urban elites. He created the tax by his simple will, even in provinces that still had Estates, which were legally subject only to voted taxes. Monarchs did not use this greater authority simply to levy taxes or build fancy palaces, however; European states became more involved in education, health care, poor relief, and transportation and communications. Above all, states created new laws. In France, the process began in earnest with Francis I (ruled 15151547), who issued more edicts and ordinances than all his predecessors combined. In German lands after 1680, cameralist ideas led to the promulgation of staggeringly detailed "police ordinances" that regulated every conceivable aspect of daily life. In England, Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Commonwealth (16491660), acting just as "absolutely" as any monarchy, even outlawed Christmas.

In the final stage of the assault, monarchs such as Joseph II of Austria attacked the holy of holies, customary property rights. Using the new calculus of utility to revive an idea of the commonwealth days, both Joseph (1781) and the French Revolutionaries (1790) confiscated church property in the name of the "public good" and abolished contemplative monasteries and convents as "useless." Joseph eliminated a third of all abbeys and secularized 40 percent of the monks and nuns in his lands. He also attacked lay property, "abolishing" in 1781 many of the personal restrictions on serfs, allowing them to marry, move freely, and choose their professions, and trying to legislate reductions in the forced labor (robot) they performed as rent for their lands. The most notable response to his efforts was a peasant uprising in Transylvania, where Romanian rebels burned noble manors and murdered their oppressive Hungarian lords. Joseph sent troops to butcher the rebels, whose leaders were drawn and quartered, their body parts publicly displayed. Joseph wrote to the governor: "I never imagined that such a terrible thing could happen . . . after the advice which I have given so often and so assiduously to promote the general good and general security."

In the eighteenth century, three developments changed the relationship among the monarch, the state, and society. First, the social and economic system became more capitalistic, abetting profound cultural shifts, such as a greater level of literacy and the creation of a broader and more vocal public opinion. Second, the state apparatus grew exponentially, enabling the state to interfere in everyday life in ways unimaginable in earlier times. Third, European elites demanded greater accountability from their rulers. In England, that meant more power for Parliament; in France, it meant a vigorous intellectual challenge to the established order by writers such as Charles-Louis de Secondat de Montesquieu (16891755), Voltaire (16941778), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778). In east central Europe monarchs like Joseph II or Frederick II the Great of Prussia (ruled 17401786) unilaterally implemented "enlightened" ideas.

Such action attacked the rights of the citizens (almost all of them nobles) in the name of public utility. Only those with privileges, like the Hungarian nobility with its powerful diet, could stand up against this new state offensive. The tumultuous events of 1789 in France bear witness to the strains on the new relationship. One of the Revolutionary leaders, Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, the count of Mirabeau, aptly remarked (August 1789) that "privileges are essential as a defense against despotism, but [are] an abomination used against the nation." The great conflict between monarchies and citizens at the end of the eighteenth century became a cataclysm, because the states made their assault on the old citizenry at precisely the moment when a new, more inclusive definition of citizen came into being. Thus people like Mirabeau could support the Parlement of Paris in its conflict with the king in 1788, because they viewed the Parlement as the protector of "rights" against a "despot," yet could demand the abolition of that same Parlement a year later, because the French Revolution had placed political power in the hands of the nation, making the Parlement, as a defender of "privileges," an anachronism.


Early modern political vocabulary used words like absolute or commonwealth to mean different things than they do today. Modern dictionaries define arepublic or commonwealth as "a political order whose head of state is not a monarch," yet most sixteenth-century Europeans, like Bodin, viewed monarchy as the best form for a commonwealth. The seventeenth-century linguistic shift, in which republic and monarchy became antonyms, informs us about fundamental changes in the nature of European monarchies. Sixteenth-century documents often refer to rulers as "sovereign seigneurs," showing the ambiguity of the prince's status. Those petitioning the ruler called themselves "loyal and very faithful servants" of the prince. Seventeenth-century documents speak of the "sovereign" and of "very humble and very obedient subjects." The citizens of the states that preserved the old commonwealths, such as the United Provinces of the Netherlands or Venice or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, described the "sovereign" princes of their neighbors as "despots," because in their view these rulers had broken the covenant with the citizens.

"Absolutism" exists as a term to define, in largely pejorative ways, a given phase of European monarchies. Nineteenth-century liberal historians, spokesmen for a middle class struggling for political power in a secular state, created it to bludgeon defenders of the old order into submission. Little wonder that it is not an effective description of early modern monarchies. Many European states evolved in three stages from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. In the commonwealth stage, various levels of government shared sovereignty, both theoretically and practically. Starting in the late sixteenth century, political theory defined sovereignty as indivisible, making the old divided sovereignty intellectually obsolete. These sovereign monarchies struggled throughout the seventeenth century to establish the internal order that would enable them to use indivisible sovereignty to expand the central state's power. By the 1690s European states of every kind sought to regulate even private life. Peter I the Great of Russia (ruled 16821725) could force his boyars to cut their beards, while the English Society for the Reformation of Manners could convince the government rigorously to prosecute swearing. Given the reality of such state interference in daily life, and the massive extension of the sphere of public law, monarchies in which the prince had no theoretical limits to his right to make public law posed a profound threat to elites.

The theoretical powers of a monarch changed very little from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries; the states ruled by those monarchs, however, underwent fundamental transformation. Lying on his deathbed in 1715, Louis XIV remarked, "I am going, but the state will remain." Louis understood that the state had begun to supersede the monarch, which made all the more urgent what Gouverneur Morris, a member of the American Constitutional Convention, rightly identified from Paris in February 1789 as "the great Question, shall [France] hereafter have a Constitution or shall Will continue to be Law." Because of the far greater power of the central state and because of its claims, increasingly derived from secular foundations, to universal authority in society, European elites could no longer allow a political system in which one man's will made the law.

See also Autocracy ; Divine Right Kingship ; Enlightened Despotism ; Equality and Inequality ; Monarchy ; Representative Institutions ; Sovereignty, Theory of ; State and Bureaucracy ; Tyranny, Theory of.


Beik, William. Absolutism and Society in Seventeenth-Century France:StatePowerandProvincialAristocracyinLanguedoc. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1985.

Blanning, T. C. W. Joseph II. London and New York, 1994.

Bluche, François. Louis XIV. Translated by Mark Green-grass. Oxford, 1990.

Collins, James. Classes, Estates, and Order in Early Modern Brittany. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1994.

. Fiscal Limits of Absolutism: Direct Taxation in Early-Seventeenth-Century France. Berkeley, 1988.

. The State in Early Modern France. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1995.

Kivelson, Valerie L. Autocracy in the Provinces: The Muscovite Gentry and Political Culture in the Seventeenth Century. Stanford, 1997.

Lieberman, Victor, ed. Beyond Binary Histories: Re-imagining Eurasia to c. 1830. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1999. This collection of essays effectively places European developments in their Eurasian context.

Major, J. Russell. From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles, and Estates. Baltimore, 1994.

Melton, James Van Horn. Absolutism and the Eighteenth- Century Origins of Compulsory Schooling in Prussia and Austria. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1988.

. The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2001.

Moote, A. Lloyd. Louis XIII, the Just. Berkeley, 1989.

James B. Collins


views updated May 11 2018


David Parker

First used at the end of the eighteenth century, the term "absolutism" is loosely employed by many historians as a synonym for absolute monarchy. It is most commonly associated with the personal rule of Louis XIV of France (1661–1715) and his contemporaneous rulers: Peter the Great (1682–1725) of Russia; Frederick William, the Great Elector of Brandenburg (1640–1688), and his son Frederick (1688–1713), who became the first king of Prussia in 1701; Charles XI of Sweden (1660–1697) and his son Charles XII (1697–1718). To these names may be added the so-called enlightened despots or absolutists of the eighteenth century, notably Catherine the Great of Russia (1762–1796), Frederick the Great of Prussia (1740–1786), and Joseph II of Austria (1765–1790).

Despite this unavoidable reference to particular monarchs, it is generally understood that absolutism cannot be equated with complete or total control by the ruler. Such a form of rule was beyond the reach of early modern states, where a ruler's effectiveness was limited by poor communications, constant difficulty in mobilizing adequate resources, and, above all, the need to satisfy the interests and aspirations of the nobility. Continued use of the term "absolutism" can, however, be justified to describe monarchical systems of government that were largely unrestrained by national or local representative institutions. The disappearance or weakening of these institutions, marked by the demise of the French Estates General in 1614–1615, the Castile Cortes after 1665, and the Brandenburg Estates after 1685, was the practical counterpoint to the increasingly powerful idea—clearly articulated and debated at the time—that monarchs were accountable to no one but God.


In absolutist as opposed to constitutional systems, representative institutions played no part in the lawmaking process; lawmaking was the prerogative of the king, who could override custom and the laws of his predecessors. Nor did absolute monarchs require consent for taxation. The growth of royal authority was frequently accompanied by a decline in municipal autonomy and in the independence of the church, while there was a tendency for seigneurial jurisdictions to be subsumed within a national legal framework. Paradoxically, the elevation of the personal authority of kings went hand in hand with the bureaucratization of their regimes as ever greater numbers of fiscal, judicial, and administrative officers were required to sustain them. Absolute monarchs also had at their disposition armies of ever greater size and firepower—to finance them was the essential reason for the expansion of the machinery of state.

These generalizations should, however, be applied with care. In Castile the disappearance of the Cortes was accompanied by a strengthening of seigneurial jurisdictions together with noble tax-raising powers as the Crown alienated many of its regalian rights. In Sweden, where the members of the Riksdag explicitly recognized in 1680 the Crown's legislative sovereignty and its powers of taxation, the curiously consensual nature of the process allowed the Riksdag to survive and to reassert its constitutional role within fifty years. Even in Louis XIV's France the survival of important provincial estates meant that representation and consent to taxation were not entirely emasculated; and in the half century after his death the parlements, although far from representative of anybody except their venal officeholders, were able to resurrect their right to remonstrate against objectionable royal edicts. In doing so, they severely dented the monarchy's absolute pretensions. Thus while absolute monarchies may be clearly differentiated from those that formally limited the power of the Crown—notably in England, Poland, and Hungary—absolutism was a tendency with considerable variations rather than a defined structure.

Only in France, for instance, had there developed by 1700 a practice of direct ministerial responsibility for the great departments of state (finance, war, and foreign affairs). Elsewhere a collegial style of administration, largely inspired by Axel Oxenstierna's reforms in Sweden in 1634, found favor. Between 1717 and 1720 Peter the Great established no fewer than eleven collegial departments falling into three groups: war and foreign affairs, financial affairs, and trade and industry. Each college was theoretically controlled by eleven high officials headed by a president; the presidents came together in the senate, which had earlier replaced the old privy council as the supreme administrative body under the king. There were clear parallels with the emerging structures of the Prussian state, where, at almost the same time, the General Directory was established as an umbrella body for four departments but with a limited degree of functional specialization. Even in France the emergence of functionally defined royal councils did not ensure a clear demarcation between the business brought before them.

Reorganizing the central government, however, was a relatively easy task compared with that of effectively directing local agencies. In Spain the monarchy was dependent on eighty or so corregidores (royal appointees), who presided over town councils and acted as chief magistrates. But because they were not career bureaucrats and were often drawn from the municipal oligarchies they were supposed to control, their commitment to royal interests was uncertain. They did not exist in at least half the country, where primary jurisdiction belonged to the local seigneurs. Not until the following century, with the disappearance of the provincial Cortes and the development of a system of royal intendants on French lines, did the Spanish monarchy begin to remedy this situation. However, as French experience itself showed that intendants were unable to fulfill their responsibilities without subdélégués (subdelegates) drawn from the local officeholders, the significance of their replication in Spain should not be exaggerated. In Prussia coordination of local government was improved by integrating the administration of the royal domains with the military-fiscal administration that had evolved during the wars of the seventeenth century; the resulting provincial chambers were then subordinated to the General Directory. Nonetheless, the regime's effectiveness continued to depend on the rural commissioners, or Landräte, nominated by the county squirearchy. Under Frederick II they acquired extensive administrative, judicial, fiscal, and military responsibilities.

Not surprisingly, in the vast and growing spaces of the Russian Empire the coordination of local and central administrations posed particular problems. Between 1708 and 1718 Peter the Great introduced a degree of decentralization, by transforming the old military provinces into eight sometimes vast guberniyas headed by governors with a full range of fiscal and judicial powers. Subordinate officials seem to have been displaced by military commandants. The resulting slippage of power in turn led within a decade to a renewed strengthening of upward lines of authority; in theory, all local agencies were subordinated to the new central colleges. However, the governors, appointed by the tsar, retained significant powers, and the military commandants soon gave way to civilian voevodas appointed by the senate. After 1728 Russia was governed by nine governors, twenty-eight provincial voevodas, and about seventy local voevodas. The resulting uncertainty about the chain of command contributed to tensions between local and regional authorities, and from 1764 there was a return to decentralized modes. The number of guberniyas increased while the police and fiscal powers of the colleges were redistributed to provincial chambers. Only in small and homogeneous Sweden was the integration of central and local control effected without noticeable uncertainty; but even there, royal governors and judges increased their presence by an accommodation with older, more egalitarian institutions, notably the jury system.


In contrast to those in central and eastern Europe (with the exception of the Prussian judiciary), institutional structures in France and Spain were dependent on sale of office. By the end of Louis XIV's reign the total number of venal offices, if those in the tax farms, municipalities, and army are included, may have been as high as seventy thousand or more, compared with around five thousand at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Information from Spain is less complete, but by the 1630s the sale of senior administrative offices together with those in the municipalities, which were vital to the financial and social stability of the body politic, was commonplace. It has been suggested that in Castile there were twice the number of offices per head of population as in France. In both countries the resulting patrimonial nature of the system was further reinforced by the practice of using private financiers to sell offices, tax concessions, and alienated regalian rights.

Venality was both a means of getting the bureaucracy to pay for itself and a source of additional revenue. In its absence other means had to be found to sustain expanding civilian and military establishments. The Swedish Crown partly solved the problem through the reduktion, by which, in diametric opposition to French and Spanish practices, it exercised the regalian right of calling in lands alienated to the nobility. This was accomplished in an increasingly comprehensive and aggressive manner in 1655, 1680, and 1682. The most influential of Sweden's reforms, however, was the cantonal, or allotment, system of maintaining an army. The government negotiated contracts with each province for the supply and maintenance of infantry soldiers, who were given either a cottage or accommodation on a farm. The advantages of this practice were considerable, enabling an army to be kept in permanent readiness at minimal cost while reducing more brutal methods of conscription, heavy war taxation, and the billeting of unruly troops on resentful communities; in the short term, at least, it helped a small country compete with, and even inflict military defeats on, their wealthier or more populous rivals.

In 1727 the cantonal system was introduced in Prussia with remarkable results. Although Prussian revenues increased by only 44 percent between 1713 and 1740, the size of the army more than doubled to 83,000. The annexation of Silesia in 1745 and West Prussia in 1772 took the population from 2.2 to 4.76 million. By 1786 it was 5.4 million, and the size of the army had correspondingly grown to 200,000. With about 4 percent of the population in arms Prussia exceeded all its rivals in the militarization of the populace. However, neither Prussia nor Austria, where a similar system was adopted in the 1770s, was able to emulate Sweden's success in controlling costs, for military reform in Sweden had been accompanied by the introduction of an audit department with the aim of adhering to a balanced budget, which placed it decades ahead of its rivals.

The variation in the incidence of venality has encouraged Thomas Ertman to postulate a typological difference between the "patrimonial" absolutisms of Latin Europe and the "bureaucratic" ones of the east. Yet bureaucratic absolutisms also displayed powerful patrimonial characteristics. In Russia the payment of salaries for local government officers was withdrawn in 1727, leaving them to "pay themselves" from the proceeds of their business. Not until 1763 were all officials salaried. The Prussian Landräte were paid a modest salary, but it came from the provincial chamber, not from the king; moreover, these were key positions much sought after by the more powerful nobles, who used them to establish patronage networks, which they deployed in the interests of family and allies. As far as military posts were concerned, no country emulated French practice, which by the 1770s had generated 900 colonels to 163 regiments. Even so, the Prussian officer corps grew dramatically during the reign of Frederick the Great, and many hundreds of captains supplemented their salaries by taking a cut of the company expenses and soldiers' pay made over to them by the state. The patrimonial character of the absolutist regimes was not, therefore, a simple consequence of venality. It might be more accurate to suggest the opposite—that venality was but one expression of the patrimonial dynamics that shaped absolutist regimes.


If it is indisputable that the emergence of absolutist regimes was a response to the bellicose turmoil of the seventeenth century, it is equally apparent that this was not the only possible outcome. In Sweden the military difficulties of the 1670s produced a lurch toward absolutism, but those of the Great Northern War (1700–1721), notably the military debacle at Poltava in 1709, led directly to a reassertion of constitutional rule; indeed in 1719 the Riksdag ended the hereditary monarchy established in 1544. During the same period, pressures of the War of the Spanish Succession on England accentuated rather than diminished parliamentary control of the burgeoning bureaucracy, the army, and the navy. The modern state may, in the most generic sense, be a product of warfare, but this is an insufficient explanation for the divergent forms of its development and cannot convey the full array of conditions required to produce a specifically absolutist variant.

Attempts by modern historians to address this problem have largely concentrated on the conditions under which states set about maximizing revenues. According to Charles Tilly early modern states were shaped by the interaction between their coercive capacities and their capital accumulation and concentration. Venice (capital intensive) and Russia (coercive) are positioned at opposite ends of the spectrum, with England, France, and Spain somewhere in the middle. Ertman, noting that Tilly's model can accommodate neither Hungary nor Poland, which despite being "militarily exposed" produced constitutional rather than absolutist regimes, has offered an explanation based on the prior character of representative and local government. Assemblies encompassing the three estates (nobility, clergy, and commoners), which could easily be divided, were less well equipped to survive than territorial-based assemblies, which tended to be more strongly rooted in local government. Brian Downing, on the other hand, relates the survival of constitutional practices to a plurality of factors: the capacity to exploit foreign territories; the protection offered by difficult terrain; diplomatic skill; or simple good fortune.


While these modern interpretations reject oversimplified connections between war and absolutism, they confine themselves largely to the dynamics of state finance, giving little weight to socioeconomic matters. This perhaps reflects the fading power of older class-based analyses of absolutism, which, in either Whiggish or marxist terms, fastened on the rise of the middle classes or the bourgeoisie. By the end of the twentieth century most historians, marxists included, had abandoned Friedrich Engels's notion that an equilibrium between nobles and bourgeois allowed the monarchy to rise above both. Indeed the longevity of such ideas is surprising since absolutism was most securely rooted in Prussia and Russia, where the bourgeoisie was insignificant, and positively rejected in the United Provinces and England, where it was most powerful.

If the association of absolutism with the bourgeoisie is to have any credence, one would expect it to be established in western Europe, where the urban populations were larger and commercial activity more vigorous. Yet even there the connection is doubtful. The Spanish monarchy's dependence on the compliance and resources of privileged urban centers is deceptive, for these towns had effectively become the patrimony of the caballeros (noblemen). State investors also made up the middle and upper cadres of the judiciary, the army, the church, the royal governors of the cities, and the king's secretaries and councillors. These noble urban oligarchs had little resemblance to a bourgeoisie. The entrenchment of their position was echoed in the countryside, particularly in the south, by the consolidation of seigneurial authority. During Philip IV's reign (1621–1665) some fifty-five thousand families—no less than 5 percent of the population—were sold into seigneurial jurisdiction, and at least 169 new señores (lords) were created with the right to appoint village magistrates and officials. One telling consequence of this process was a dramatic reduction in appeals to the royal courts at Valladolid and Granada.

Similar observations may be made about the social foundations of absolutism in France, where, despite the intendants, who held office by virtue of revocable commissions and not by purchase, the realm continued to be administered, taxed, and judged by rentier officeholders who at the higher levels formed the ranks of the noblesse de robe (judicial nobility). While much of the capital for the purchase of office came from trade, this diversion of merchant wealth into rentier and usurious investments inhibited the progress of capitalism. It is thus not possible, as some historians have suggested, to attribute urban patriciates' royalism to the support of a bourgeois class for the economic protection offered by the Crown. Such royalism is better explained by the deep social conservatism of urban elites, who aspired to advance their families through the purchase of office, land, and title. In any event, the bourgeoisie played no significant part in formulating the mercantilist policies that Richelieu (Armand-Jean du Plessis) presented to a handpicked assembly of notables (nobles, magistrates, clergy) in 1627. Not until 1700, with the establishment of the Council of Commerce, did the trading bourgeoisie achieve a modest level of influence at the highest levels. Even then, the Council's proceedings reveal a persistent attachment to local interests, traditional social values, and a corporate mentality. Traders and manufacturers were frequently hostile or indifferent to government economic initiatives yet without a principled basis for their opposition that might have suggested a developing sense of class interest.

Only about Sweden is it possible to argue that absolutism rested on some equilibrium between classes. But here it was the peasantry, not the diminutive bourgeoisie, that acted as the counterpoise to the nobility. Not only was the Swedish peasantry largely composed of freeholders but, uniquely in Europe, it was recognized as a separate estate of the realm with an autonomous political role. Although diminished as Charles XI gathered power to himself and an inner circle of councillors, the peasants' influence ensured the nobility would bear the brunt of fiscal retrenchment by relinquishing many of its lands. True, this was not accomplished without consolidating royal support among the lesser nobility, who, reinforced by an influx of newcomers, dominated the reduktion commission. But what is remarkable about the recovery of alienated lands was the extent to which it was carried through; even the president of the council was not spared significant losses, despite his personal appeals to the king. However the unusual balance of social forces in Sweden did not, as events were to show, provide the most propitious basis for an enduring absolutism.


Elsewhere in Europe the absolute state consolidated its position at the expense of the peasants, partly by increasing their tax burden and partly by reinforcing their subordination to landlords. Perhaps the most famous landmark in this process was the Russian law code of 1649, which bound the Russian peasant to the soil, a plight aggravated in 1722 by the imposition of the poll tax, from which the nobility was exempt. By comparison the Prussian peasantry was well-off. Nevertheless, in addition to providing or finding the labor to cultivate the lords' demesnes—up to sixty days per year in a fifth of cases and twenty-six days in another two-fifths—it also met the largest part of the tax burden. Even in western Europe, where estate ownership and jurisdiction were no longer coterminous, the landed classes retained a remarkable ability to extract taxes, seigneurial dues, and tithes from a legally dependent peasant population. In both Castile and France half the peasants' product was consumed in payments that sustained non-peasant classes. Inevitably, there was a certain tension between the demands of the central state and landlords for the peasants' surplus. Indeed during the massive endemic unrest in the 1630s and 1640s it was not unknown for French tax officials to encourage their tenants to resist the demands of the fisc, or royal treasury. Yet this curious situation also indicates that the absolute state was not, as is sometimes suggested, an independent competitor against the seigneurs but a state managed by them.

All this suggests that the dynamics of absolutism were generated by noble society itself. From at least the mid-sixteenth century the European nobility had been badly shaken and divided. In part this was due to the soaring costs of war, but warfare was itself the outcome of internecine conflicts within the nobility. The centuries-long struggle between the Valois and the Bourbon against the Habsburgs was the ultimate expression of noble rivalry. Such rivalry was also manifest in the civil wars that, compounded by religious passions, tore France and Germany apart. In Russia the governing boyar elite was terrorized, depleted, and left reeling by the onslaught of Tsar Ivan IV between 1565 and 1572, and when the ruling dynasty died out in 1598, Muscovy slid into chaos. Claimants to the throne set up rival governments within a few miles of each other, while Sigismund III Vasa of Poland, who had previously been deposed as king of Sweden by his uncle (Charles IX of Sweden), invaded the country in 1610 and had his son elected tsar by a group of boyars. Only the opposition of other nobles finally secured the throne, in 1612, for Michael Romanov, a member of a distinguished but non-titled family related to the previous dynasty. The Russian throne was to remain prey to adventurers, among whom one might count Catherine the Great, who had no claim to it whatsoever. Sweden, too, in the last years of the sixteenth century was destabilized by deep factional rivalries, accentuated by religious division. Having seized the throne, Sigismund's uncle subsequently ordered the execution of his leading aristocratic opponents.

The assertion of regal authority was accompanied by a growing differentiation within the ranks of the nobility and the emergence of a handful of very powerful and influential families. In Brandenburg, for instance, on the eve of the Thirty Years' War thirteen families had already achieved an extraordinary concentration of both office and wealth, holding between them one-third to one-half of seigneurial land. As historians have long suggested, this may in part have been due to a decline in noble revenues, a decline compounded for some by the catastrophic effects of decades of war on rural economies. Many lesser nobles found themselves little better off than their tenants, while others consolidated large fortunes. But the polarization was also an outcome of the jostling for place and favor, to which monarchs contributed with measures that simultaneously recognized noble aspirations and strengthened their own powers of patronage. As early as 1520 Charles V of Spain created four distinct noble ranks, with a tiny handful of grandees at the top and large numbers of often very poor hidalgos (yeomen) at the bottom. All expanded significantly in the 150 years that followed, with the number of titled nobility rising from 69 in 1530 to 212 a century later. In Russia new ranks within the boyar elite were created in the sixteenth century to accommodate pressure from social upstarts, although Ivan IV tripled the number of service gentry, much to the chagrin of some of the magnates. In Sweden the monarchy began to recover from the turmoil of the early seventeenth century by incorporating the nobility as a formal estate of the realm and introducing grants of hereditary status. The order was further divided into three: the titled nobility (twelve families), members of the council of state (twenty-two families), all other untitled nobles. This process, however, excluded four hundred families.

Having consolidated their position, European monarchs were able to exploit divisions between and within noble ranks and deploy their own powers of patronage further to restructure the relationship with the nobility. This process was particularly evident in the last decades of the seventeenth century, when the Brandenburg Junkers, the Swedish inner circle, the Russian boyars, and the overmighty French subjects all had their grips on the levers of power reduced. Between 1640 and the 1670s aristocratic domination of the Russian Duma fell from 70 to 25 percent. Most dramatically, in Denmark the almost overnight establishment of absolutism in 1661 was rapidly followed by the effective dissolution of the old nobility as a distinct social group; not only did it lose its monopoly of important offices, but its numbers and its wealth collapsed. In 1660, 95 percent of privately owned manors were in the hands of the old nobility; by 1710 that had been reduced to 38.5 percent.

However, in every case, these developments were only a phase in the integration of noble and monarchical interests. In Denmark the absolute monarchy almost immediately set about creating a new nobility by introducing in the 1670s the titles of baron and count, expressly designed to enable Crown officials of common origins to acquire noble privileges and status. Their land was also protected from market forces, making it subject to primogeniture and entail. Entailed estates made up one-fifth of agricultural land in 1800. A similar renewal of the nobility took place in Sweden, where the number of noble families rose from 150 in 1627 to 556 in 1700; half of these families owed promotion to Charles XI. In Russia a hereditary nobility did not exist, save for the princes, until the reign of Peter the Great. His extraordinarily elaborate Table of Ranks—with its fourteen grades; 262 functions, from general admiral to court butler; and tripartite classification into military, court, and civil nobility—was intended to create a Western-style noble estate. The process was not complete until 1785, when Catherine the Great's Charter of Nobility confirmed its legally privileged status. Matters followed a slightly different course in Prussia, where the Great Elector turned to the German imperial nobility to replace the Junkers. However, despite having to contend with an influx of newcomers, the Junker's never lost their virtual monopoly of the key posts in the provincial administration.

The refashioning of the nobility increased rather than diminished the preoccupation with rank and the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few families. Everywhere access to the highest councils was facilitated by family connections, which were constantly reinforced by the head of the clan, who secured advantageous marriages, offices and pensions, and other favors for kin and clients. Where patronage was bolstered by hereditary officeholding, as in France, the upper echelons of the state became the preserve of dynasties of ennobled officeholders. In Russia the 180 or so nobles who occupied the first four ranks were a self-perpetuating elite collectively described as the generalitet. Moreover, two-thirds came from old aristocratic families, who showed a remarkable staying power, particularly if connected to the royal family. While power and wealth were not perhaps as closely linked as in France, the political hierarchy was certainly underpinned by economic differentials. In 1797 four-fifths of landowners owned fewer than 100 serfs each, and a mere 1.5 percent of them had over 1,000 each, accounting in aggregate for 35 percent of the serf population. Moreover, as in western Europe, the monarchy was on hand to reward favored and influential families; Catherine the Great gave away 400,000 serfs, three-quarters of whom were acquired by the partition of Poland.

To a greater or lesser extent, nobles, which it is worth stressing rarely exceeded 1 percent of the population except in parts of Castile, were the managers and beneficiaries of the absolute state. But playing the power game could be dangerous. No fewer than 128 Russian nobles had their estates confiscated between 1700 and 1755, and a number of ministers were either executed or exiled. French absolutism was less brutal, but dissent could lead to prison or exile, and financiers were always vulnerable to the government's periodic investigations into their wealth. In the years before Louis XIV's accession the resentment felt by those who lost out in the intense competition for power and wealth threatened to plunge France back into civil war. The success of Richelieu and Jules Mazarin, both from relatively modest noble backgrounds, in achieving supreme public office, ducal status, and unrivaled fortunes in the process offended old grandees and the new officeholding elite alike. Resistance to ministerial tyranny and corruption erupted in the War of the Fronde (1648–1653). Fortunately for Mazarin, the Fronde largely served to expose the divisions between grandees, lesser nobles, parlements, tax officials, municipalities, and others, all of whom claimed to be the most loyal and suitable servants of the king. The chief minister's clientele also proved, as had that of Richelieu, more resilient and effective than those arrayed against him. However, Louis XIV's decision to dispense with a first minister was perfectly in tune with the public mood. Ironically, in doing so, he inherited not only a governmental machine but also a vast patronage system, which he manipulated with consummate success.

At the same time the French upper classes began to realize that they could ill afford to engage in perpetual conflict and that they might benefit from a king strong and prestigious enough to bring some order. This conviction was reinforced by three decades of tax revolts—themselves facilitated by upper-class rivalries, which both set a bad example and created opportunities for revolt. There is an evident parallel with the situation in Russia, where repeated waves of peasant resistance provoked demands from the service nobility for the suppression of the peasants' right of movement.

Versailles, to which the court moved in 1682, was the ultimate expression of all these pressures. Both the seat of government and the residence of an ever growing royal family, the very building embodied the inseparability of the public and the private. It served also, in the words of Françoise Bertaut de Motteville, as "a great market," made seemly by elaborate rules of etiquette, where courtiers jostled for position, pensions, and marriages. Through its preoccupation with rank and privilege the court gave renewed vigor to the social hierarchy, legitimating the privileged position of those who attended on the king. Not least Versailles created a dazzling stage for the king's deification as a great sun god whose rays brought light and order where there was darkness and confusion, a ruler systematically and consciously portrayed in prose, verse, painting, and music as the bringer of war, peace, abundance, and justice.


As these observations suggest, the absolute state even in the west was hardly a progressive or modernizing force. Despite the growth of centralizing bureaucracies and a degree of functional specialization, the elevation of royal authority reflected its success in recovering control of patrimonial systems that had sometimes appeared to be on the verge of succumbing to their inherent instability. Ideologically, too, the elevation of royal authority was a largely conservative response to the disorders afflicting the body politic. Although some historians have seen in French absolutism a manifestation of the modern idea of legislative sovereignty enunciated by Jean Bodin in 1576, it was largely legitimated by essentially traditional ideas. Bodin himself harnessed the concept of sovereignty to Thomist and neo-Platonic teleologies, which had by no means been vanquished as overarching ideologies by the end of the seventeenth century. Absolute power replicated that of God and was in harmony with the divinely ordained cosmos.

The overriding need, according to Bodin, was to restore the integrity of the monarchical order and the social hierarchy on which it depended. In fact his conception of the social hierarchy was not merely idealized but also very French. In most of the countries discussed here, hereditary monarchs and nobilities, titles, and estates of the realm were recent creations, but this did not prevent monarchs and nobles from asserting an ancient and imprescriptible role as the mainstays of a universal order. Heightened religious feelings also bolstered monarchical ideology by encouraging kings to assert their divine authority. If the Protestant kings of Prussia and Sweden did not radiate the sacral aura of Louis XIV, an "austere concept of divine providence" served Charles XI and the Great Elector just as well in imparting a sense of duty to those around them (Melton, p. 87). Protestant and Catholic authorities alike did not doubt that the rebellion and disorder of the age were results of man's inherent sinfulness, even signs of divine displeasure. Historians have also emphasized the way in which an increasingly neostoical and classical culture put a premium on both general good order and personal self-discipline. This went along with the progressive abandonment of the constitutional ideas and rights of resistance that had been espoused by many nobles in the sixteenth century.


After 1760 the equilibrium of the absolutist regimes was once more disturbed. The Seven Years' War (1756–1763), sparked in part by Prussia's annexation of Silesia from Austria, ushered in several decades of intense great-power rivalry. Poland was wiped off the face of the map. The French monarchy, debilitated by fighting in Europe and overseas, never recovered. By dint of a massive debasement of the coinage and its plunder of Silesia and Poland, the Prussian regime managed somewhat better. Even so, the war chest bequeathed by Frederick II to his successor was rapidly exhausted in the turbulent years between 1787 and 1794. In 1795 Prussia was forced to sue for peace with France, ceding all territory on the west bank of the Rhine. Russia, while jostling to assert its position as a major European power, was also pushing up against the Turkish Empire in the east with three bouts of open conflict (1768–1774, 1783–1784, 1787–1792). The pressure exerted on rudimentary financial systems, inelastic economies, and a resentful population had a predictable effect. New peaks of unrest were reached in the revolt of the Cossacks under Yemelyan Ivanovich Pugachov in 1773 and in Bohemia two years later, when a forty-thousand-strong army was required to restore order. In France a run of poor harvests brought an end to years of relative calm in the countryside and prepared the way for the peasant uprising in the summer of 1789.

It is difficult to characterize the highly ambivalent and often contradictory responses of the absolute states to the worsening situation as simply enlightened. The administrative centralization of Joseph II, the rigidly mercantilist regime of Frederick II, and Catherine's Legislative Commission, which for the first time gave the nobility a role as an estate of the realm, are among the many policies of conservative hue. Nor was this surprising, given that the impetus for reform was precipitated by pressures similar to those that had ushered in the absolutist regimes a century earlier. Even Joseph II's determined attempts to abolish labor services and reduce the burdens of seigneurialism may be construed as efforts to generate more state revenue.

On the other hand, absolutism had brought into being a class of now experienced and educated nobles, state servants who began to see that reform was necessary if their regimes were to survive as great powers. This realization was heightened by an awareness of the immense technical superiority of English agriculture, industry, and commerce, to which these regimes repeatedly turned for expertise and practical assistance. Even in Prussia, where the University of Halle was a bulwark of opposition to physiocratic ideas, Frederick the Great understood that the rural world ought to be freed from its burdens, although he achieved almost nothing outside the royal domains. In this changing intellectual climate, many nobles had by the 1770s absorbed utilitarian assumptions about the origins, purpose, and nature of government that had little in common with the religious teleology of their predecessors. Ideas of natural equality and meritocracy gained ground.

However, there was a self-evident contradictoriness in absolutist regimes attacking the hierarchical society of which they were so much part. When Joseph II died, his reforming program was in tatters. In France resistance to reform precipitated a chain of events that led to the destruction of absolute monarchy and the entire privileged order. Even then, although revolution and industrialization accelerated the pace of change and hastened the transformation of the nobility and the emancipation of the peasantry, the political superstructures of central and eastern Europe displayed an extraordinary resilience. Not until the 1870s was Prussia absorbed into a quite different type of state, and not until the twentieth century did the Russian regime finally disintegrate under the impact of a classic combination of war and social unrest.

See alsoThe Enlightenment (volume 1);The Aristocracy and Gentry; The Military (volume 3); and other articles in this section.


Anderson, Perry. Lineages of the Absolutist State. London, 1974.

Beik, William. Absolutism and Society in Seventeenth-Century France: State Power andProvincial Aristocracy in Languedoc. Cambridge, U.K., 1985.

Bonney Richard, ed. Economic Systems and State Finance. Oxford, 1995.

Crummey, Robert O. Aristocrats and Servitors: The Boyar Elite in Russia, 1613–1689. Princeton, N.J., 1983.

Downing, Brian M. The Military Revolution and Political Change: Origins of Democracy and Autocracy in Early Modern Europe. Princeton, N.J., 1992.

Dukes, Paul. Catherine the Great and the Russian Nobility. Cambridge, U.K., 1967.

Ertman, Thomas. Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Hoffman, Philip T., and Kathryn Norberg, eds. Fiscal Crises, Liberty, and Representative Government, 1450–1789. Stanford, Calif., 1994.

Köpeczi, Béla, Albert Souboul, Éva H. Balázs, and Domokas Kosáry, eds. L'absolutisme éclairé. Budapest, Hungary, and Paris, 1985.

LeDonne, John P. Absolutism and Ruling Class: The Formation of the Russian PoliticalOrder, 1700–1825. New York, 1991.

LeDonne, John P. Ruling Russia: Politics and Administration in the Age of Absolutism,1762–1796. Princeton, N.J., 1984.

Liublinskaia, Alexandra Dmitrievna. French Absolutism: The Crucial Phase, 1620–1629. Cambridge, U.K., 1968.

Meehan-Waters, Brenda. Autocracy and Aristocracy: The Russian Service Elite of 1730. New Brunswick, N.J., 1982.

Melton, Edgar. "The Prussian Junkers, 1600–1786." In The European Nobilities in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Vol. 2. Edited by H. M. Scott. London, 1995.

Miller, John, ed. Absolutism in Seventeenth-Century Europe. Basingstoke, U.K., 1990.

Munck, Thomas. The Peasantry and the Early Absolute Monarchy in Denmark, 1660–1708. Copenhagen, Denmark, 1979.

Parker, David. Class and State in Ancien Régime France: The Road to Modernity? London, 1996.

Parker, David. The Making of French Absolutism. London, 1983.

Rosenberg, Hans. Bureaucracy, Aristocracy, and Autocracy: The Prussian Experience,1660–1815. Cambridge, Mass., 1958.

Scott, H. M. ed. Enlightened Absolutism: Reform and Reformers in Later Eighteenth-Century Europe. Basingstoke, U.K., 1990.

Scott, H. M., ed. The European Nobilities in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. London, 1995.

Thompson, I. A. A. Crown and Cortes: Government, Institutions, and Representation in Early Modern Castile. Aldershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt., 1993.

Tilly, Charles. Coercion, Capital, and European States. Rev. ed. Oxford, 1992.

Upton, Anthony F. Charles XI and Swedish Absolutism. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.


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absolutism, absolutist state The term itself may be defined as a state-form typical of societies in the process of transition from feudalism to capitalism, wherein power is concentrated in the person of a monarch, who has at his or her disposal a centralized administrative apparatus. Viewed thus, the label has been applied to a wide variety of states, ranging from that of the sixteenth-century English Tudors to that of nineteenth-century Meiji Japan. This definition is, however, not uncontroversial: the label has also been applied to Tsarist Russia, where the transition was from feudalism to communism, and some would deny that Japan was ever a feudal society in anything other than the loosest sense.

There has also been great controversy about the role that such states played in the transition in question. Many historians have described this role in terms akin to that of the absolutist state having been a midwife of capitalism, an interpretation illustrated by the preference of some for the term ‘enlightened despotism’, rather than the (somewhat derogatory) alternative ‘absolutism’. (Others, however, have used this term in reference to the influence of Enlightenment rationalism on absolutism in Prussia, Austria, and so forth, rather than as a comment on the relationship of absolutism to capitalism.) By comparison, Marxists have (at least until relatively recently) tended to regard this role as closer to that of an abortionist, albeit an incompetent one. The problem that both parties to this dispute have had to address is the variability of the historical outcomes. Even within continental Europe, the rise of absolutist states appears, prima facie, to have been associated with both a rapid transition to capitalism in the West, and an intensification of feudal domination in the East.

For Max Weber (General Economic History, 1923) and non-Marxist scholars more generally, the explanation of the progressive role played by the absolutist or ‘rational state’ may be found in the immense contribution that these regimes made to the increasing predictability of action within their territorial boundaries, as they bureaucratized their own administrations, introduced elements of the rule of law, monopolized the legitimate use of force, and used this force to enforce their jurisdiction throughout society. Weber's response to the divergent outcomes of absolutism in Eastern and Western Europe was to portray what happened in the East as a delay rather than a regression, and to explain it as the result of the state's lack of allies in the wider society, which in turn reflected the more general economic and cultural backwardness of these societies.

The response of Marxists (such as Maurice Dobb, Eric Hobsbawm, and Perry Anderson) to this line of argument, has been to suggest that it owes more to the tendency amongst non-Marxists to accord a priori analytical privilege to the political realm, than it does to sound historical research. Given that the absolute monarchs and their most powerful supporters were always representatives of the feudal nobility, so Marxists have argued, it is the short-lived absolutisms of Western Europe (and especially of England and Holland) that require explanation, rather than the long-lasting ones of the East. The explanation that they provide revolves around the bold and controversial claim that the majority of continental states experienced a prolonged economic crisis during the sixteenth century, a crisis from which England and Holland were spared. The result was that in every society except those two, the feudal nobility was able to crush or constrain its capitalist rivals. For this reason, it was possible for the bourgeois classes of England and Holland to gain an early advantage over their potential competitors, an advantage which they enhanced still further by overturning their absolute monarchies in relatively short order. Putting to one side the many empirical objections that this thesis has encountered, it is important to note that it rests upon an analytical privileging of the economic realm that is arguably no more justified than the privileging of the political realm to which its proponents have rightly objected. Perhaps the most successful exception to both strictures is A. Lublinskaya 's, French Absolutism: The Crucial Phase, 1620–1629 (1968)


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Both a theory of the nature of political authority and a practice that prevailed throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. According to its principles, the ruler possessed an authority that was unconditional and unlimited. He was subject only to his own will and was not restrained in his actions by the laws of God or those of nature or by any other legal limitations.

Essential to the theory of absolutism was the ruler's and the state's relation to law. In the medieval period, the ruler was considered subject to the laws of God and nature. The laws of the state were laws only so far as they were in harmony with the natural law. In the early modern period, law became a thing not of reason but of the will of the ruler. Instead of the state being based upon law, law became solely a command of the state, depending for its efficacy upon the authority of the one who commanded. This concept served the cause of the rising nation-states. It entailed the death of the idea of empire, the rise of the independent sovereign state, the secular state's independence of the church, and the centralization of authority against existing customs and privileges of cities and of the nobility.

The theory of absolutism can be traced from machiavelli's justification of the separation of morality and politics, through the development of sovereignty in Jean Bodin, to a full-blown absolutism in the legal theory of Thomas hobbes. The result was the justification of the monarchical absolutism of the dynastic nation-state. During the 18th-century Enlightenment, in writers like Jean Jacques rousseau, the source of absolute authority was transferred from the monarch to the people, or the "general will," to form a "democratic" absolutism.

Catholic theologians such as bellarmine and suÁrez upheld the concept of a limited authority. The moral theologians of the 17th century held that the ruler was subject to divine and natural law, but that he was the sole judge of that limitation. Further, a great number of them taught that will was the source of law, that the ruler was above his own law, that the people could not resist a law of the sovereign, and that law was valid without the consent of the people. To that extent they taught a legal theory identical with absolutism and necessary to the rise of the absolute state.

See Also: monarchy; divine right of kings.

Bibliography: m. beloff, Age of Absolutism, 16601815 (New York 1954), bibliography 181182. j. w. allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (3d rev. ed. New York 1957). a. d. lindsay, Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 1:380382. j. n. figgis, Cambridge Modern History 3:736769. s. skalweit, Cambridge Modern History 2 5:96121.

[d. wolf]


views updated May 17 2018

ab·so·lute / ˈabsəˌloōt; ˌabsəˈloōt/ • adj. 1. not qualified or diminished in any way; total: absolute secrecy. ∎  used for general emphasis when expressing an opinion: the policy is absolute folly. ∎  (of powers or rights) not subject to any limitation: her absolute authority human right to life is absolute. ∎  (of a ruler) having unrestricted power: he proclaimed himself absolute monarch. ∎  Law (of a decree) final.2. viewed or existing independently and not in relation to other things: absolute moral standards. ∎  Gram. (of a construction) syntactically independent of the rest of the sentence, as in dinner being over, we left the table. ∎ Gram. (of a transitive verb) used without an expressed object (e.g., guns kill). ∎ Gram. (of an adjective) used without an expressed noun (e.g., the brave).• n. Philos. a value or principle that is regarded as universally valid or that may be viewed without relation to other things: good and evil are presented as absolutes. ∎  (the absolute) Philos. that which exists without being dependent on anything else. ∎  (the absolute) Theol. ultimate reality; God.DERIVATIVES: ab·so·lute·ness n.


views updated May 14 2018

ab·so·lut·ism / ˈabsəloōˌtizəm/ • n. the acceptance of or belief in absolute principles in political, philosophical, ethical, or theological matters.DERIVATIVES: ab·so·lut·ist n. & adj.


views updated May 18 2018


Complete; perfect; final; without any condition or incumbrance; as an absolute bond in distinction from a conditional bond. Unconditional; complete and perfect in itself; without relation to or dependence on other things or persons.

Free from conditions, limitations or qualifications, not dependent, or modified or affected by circumstances; that is, without any condition or restrictive provisions.

Absolute can be used to describe divorce, estates, obligation, and title.

Absolute (Theosophy)

views updated May 23 2018

Absolute (Theosophy)

Theosophists profess to know nothing further about the Absolute, the Logos, the Word of God, than that it exists. The universes with their solar systems are the lowest manifestations of this Being, which humans are capable of perceiving. Human beings themselves are an emanation from the Absolute, with which they will be ultimately reunited.


views updated Jun 27 2018

ABSOLUTE. A term indicating that a word, phrase, or clause stands apart from the usual relations with other elements in a sentence: This being so in This being so, we'll have to make new plans. Traditionally, such a combination is an absolute phrase, but it is now widely referred to as an ABSOLUTE CLAUSE.


views updated May 21 2018

absolute free from imperfection or qualification XIV. — L. absolūtus freed, pp. of absolvere ABSOLVE; infl. partly by F. †absolut (mod. absolu). Gram. use based ult. on Gr. apoleluménos.