Thursday, November 27, 2014

France Under Louis XIV

There was, in fact, nothing but the chase to occupy a gentleman on his own estate, for he was allowed no duties or responsibilities. Each province had a governor or intendant, a sort of viceroy, and the administration of the cities was managed chiefly on the part of the king, even the mayors obtaining their posts by purchase.

The unhappy peasants had to pay in the first place the taxes to Government, out of which were defrayed an intolerable number of pensions, many for useless offices; next, the rents and dues which supported their lord's expenditure at court; and, thirdly, the tithes and fees of the clergy. Besides which, they were called off from the cultivation of their own fields for a certain number of days to work at the roads; their horses might be used by royal messengers; their lord's crops had to be got in by their labour gratis, while their own were spoiling; and, in short, the only wonder is how they existed at all. Their hovels and their food were wretched, and any attempt to amend their condition on the part of their lord would have been looked on as betokening dangerous designs, and probably have landed him in the Bastille. The peasants of Brittany—where the old constitution had been less entirely ruined—and those of Anjou were in a less oppressed condition, and in the cities trade flourished.

Colbert, the comptroller-general of the finances, was so excellent a manager that the pressure of taxation was endurable in his time, and he promoted new manufactures, such as glass at Cherbourg, cloth at Abbeville, silk at Lyons; he also tried to promote commerce and colonization, and to create a navy.

There was a great appearance of prosperity, and in every department there was wonderful ability. The Reformation had led to a considerable revival among the Roman Catholics themselves. The theological colleges established in the last reign had much improved the tone of the clergy. Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux, was one of the most noted preachers who ever existed, and Fénélon, Archbishop of Cambrai, one of the best of men. A reform of discipline, begun in the convent of Port Royal, ended by attracting and gathering together some of the most excellent and able persons in France—among them Blaise Pascal, a man of marvellous genius and depth of thought, and Racine, the chief French dramatic poet. Their chief director, the Abbot of St. Cyran, was however, a pupil of Jansen, a Dutch ecclesiastic, whose views on abstruse questions of grace were condemned by the Jesuits; and as the Port-Royalists would not disown the doctrines attributed to him, they were discouraged and persecuted throughout Louis's reign, more because he was jealous of what would not bend to his will than for any real want of conformity.

Pascal's famous "Provincial Letters" were put forth during this controversy; and in fact, the literature of France reached its Augustan age during this reign, and the language acquired its standard perfection.

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