Hyacinthe Rigaud's famous portrait of Louis XIV, the Sun King (Louvre)

Hyacinthe Rigaud’s famous portrait of Louis XIV, the Sun King (Louvre)

However, the Dutch alliance between the ruler and his subjects was not as unique as was thought. It also existed in France, but there the results were completely different. The comparison between the history of France and that of the Dutch Republic again teaches us something about the Dutch consensus culture.

The serf peasants of Western Europe had wrested their freedom from their rulers in the Middle Ages. Because the monarchs of France saw it as one of their most important tasks to provide protection for the peasants, these peasants could acquire the land that they usually cultivated, sometimes as their property, sometimes under advantageous leasehold conditions. France was dominated by numerous small, independent peasant farmers. This situation was to the advantage of the ruler because the peasants paid taxes: something which the nobility, legally or illegally, managed to avoid. In France as in Holland, therefore, the same sort of alliance existed between the ruler and his subjects against the nobility..

All this was deliberate policy. King Louis XIV of France even went so far as to introduce a court etiquette for his aristocratic guests at his palace at Versailles that required the nobility to keep up such a high status that many of them went bankrupt in the effort. And that was also Louis’ hidden agenda. Since the peasants were the most important taxpayers and the nobles were ruined, there was no longer any need to convene the States-General and go cap in hand to the towns for money. The king could rule as an absolute monarch who was only responsible to God.

In the Dutch Republic, sovereignty rested with the Estates, whereas, in France, power rested with the absolute monarch. These are polar opposites: absolutism and the consensus culture. Not that there was no consultation in France, but Louis XIV only consulted a small group of advisors whom he called ‘ministers’, a word that had once referred to serf servants. Nevertheless, even these ministerial discussions took place in a most unusual way: the advisor presented his proposal to the monarch, who only said that he would consider it. The advisor discovered that his idea had been adopted only when it was implemented. As you can see, this was very different from Holland, where consultations took place continuously and then at all levels of the administration.

Absolutism offered a solution to a very serious problem. In the period between the Reformation and the Peace of Westphalia, between 1517 and 1648, Europe was plagued by religious wars. Many people believed that by nature people could not get along with each other and that only a strong government could guarantee peace. A one-headed authority and a unified administration, with ministries in the modern sense of the word, offered clear advantages.

Unfortunately, there was also one disadvantage attendant on the French form of absolutism: it put a brake on the growth of commerce and industry in the towns. Consequently, France has kept an agrarian character up to today.

>> to the next section >>