• John Miller
Part of the Problems in Focus Series book series


The terms ‘absolutism’ and ‘absolute monarchy’ are all too often used uncritically and pejoratively, so they may indicate only ‘that the historian who uses them is thinking of a regime where the king has more power than twentieth-century scholars think a seventeenth-century king ought to have had’.1 Even the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary baldly equates ‘absolutism’ with ‘despotism’, although theorists of absolutism were usually careful to distinguish between the two.2 The English especially, proud of their ancient ‘liberties’, regarded absolutism as both alien and abhorrent and credulously swallowed stories of the tyrannous behaviour of continental rulers. As the seventeenth century wore on, indeed, English political writers increasingly fought shy of the word ‘absolutism’, which they had earlier used freely; Hobbes, especially, helped to endow it with sinister connotations.3 The aim of this collection of essays is to examine the reality of absolutism, in theory and in practice, to strip away the distortions created by both the hyperbole of its propagandists and the caricatures of its critics. The authors of the chapters that follow consider first the theory of absolutism, then the experience of most of the major European monarchies. They ask how far (and why) these were strengthened in this period and assess the effectiveness of, and limitations on, royal power.


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  1. Worthwhile studies of absolutism on a comparative basis (as opposed to single countries) are comparatively few. The pioneering essay by F. Hartung and R. Mousnier, ‘Quelques problèmes concernant la monarchie absolue’, Relazioni del X Congresso di Scienze Storiche: IV Storia Moderna (Florence, 1955) ought to have stimulated rather more debate than it has; the same is perhaps true of Perry Anderson’s Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974; paperback edn, 1979) which is discussed at length in the introduction. One reason for this lack of interest may be the tendency of historians to concentrate on particular countries; there have been many excellent publications on France, Spain and so on since Anderson’s work first appeared. (For an attempt at a bilateral comparison, see J. Miller, Bourbon and Stuart: Kings and Kingship in France and England in the Seventeenth Century, 1987.) Another reason is that in some countries the study of government is relatively unfashionable: historians are more interested in peasants (or witches) than in kings, more concerned with revolt than with authority: thus in France much of the best work on government has been done by American and British historians. Studies of revolt have indirectly addressed the problem of the nature of government, the debates on the subject being conveniently collected in T. Aston (ed.), Crisis in Europe 1560–1660 (1965) and G. Parker and L. M. Smith (eds), The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century (1978). Some general textbooks offer useful insights into the working of government: see J. H. Shennan, Origins of the Modern European State 1475–1725 (1974); G. Parker, Europe in Crisis 1598–1648 (1979); J. Stoye, Europe Unfolding, 1648–88 (1969); E. N. Williams, The Ancien Regime in Europe 1648–1789 (1972) and perhaps best of all G.N. Clark, The Seventeenth Century (2nd edn, Oxford, 1947). For one aspect of government that has been studied on a European basis see K. Swart, Sales of Office in the Seventeenth Century (The Hague, 1949). Finally, John Brewer’s excellent Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State 1688–1763 (1989) continually compares the growth of the English state to similar developments on the continent.Google Scholar

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© John Miller 1990

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  • John Miller

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