The History of History 13: Where’d All These Frenchmen Come From?

The warring monarchies of early modern Europe are not my specialty, compared to my European-historian peers, so I read Pierre Goubert’s Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen (1966; English version 1970) at a mild disadvantage. Still, I found that I rarely needed to peruse Wikipedia for extra context, as Goubert writes with a non-specialist audience in mind. Goubert’s two-page preface (7–8) describes the book as a synthesis of then-current academic research on Louis–Dieudonné, alias Louis XIV, and the author’s new, provocative ideas. Describing the book as an intellectual experiment, Goubert seeks to connect the monarch to his kingdom. In other words, Goubert wants to blend the Annales School’s social history, which focuses on commoners, and traditional diplomatic history, which focuses on monarchs and military affairs. Goubert writes that the king “is as much dependent on his subjects and on the world in which he lives as his subjects are dependent on him and as that world bears his mark” (8). Such a statement conveys a desire to reveal the constraints upon the Sun King’s reign. We can rephrase Goubert’s thesis in this way: Although Louis XIV exercised some agency in matters of warfare, culture, and political intrigue, he found himself limited in his power due to bad harvests, poor demographics, and strong neighboring countries.

Part One gives a statistics-heavy rendering of French life, in accordance with the Annales School’s goal of writing total histories based on statistics and social records. Goubert projects a vaguely Marxist framework onto seventeenth-century France while modifying the terminology of Marxist theory. He describes a feudal country before industrialization, but he believes there was a proletariat comprised of farmers as well as exploited city workers. Similarly, Goubert depicts a bourgeois class, but it is comprised of clerics, landowners, and nobles, instead of Marx’s industrial-age factory owners. Having established this framework, Goubert shows how Louis XIV inherited a kingdom in a precarious state. France had strong agriculture, but the country had minimal investment in the natural resources needed for industrialization. Thirty years of civil war, sporadic plagues, and famines (including a nasty one in 1661) increased uncertainty. Life expectancies were low. Economic statistics in the modern sense are not extant, according to Goubert (34–35), but it’s clear that France’s economy lagged behind the trade juggernaut of the Netherlands. Although Goubert has painted a grim picture of Louis’s France, he displays national (and Marxist) pride when describing the proletariat: “[France’s economy] rested entirely on the hard, unceasing, intelligent, and multifarious labors of a people who, in numbers and virtues, deserved to be the foremost in Europe” (37).

In Part Two, Goubert begins the combination of diplomatic and Annales-style history that defines the remainder of the text. Goubert’s portrait of the king’s early years (1661 to 1679) successfully shows how a mixture of domestic economics, foreign trade, and warfare constrained Louis’s goals. The king’s reign began during a continental power vacuum, as England recovered from its civil war. Louis enjoyed some military success in this period, especially when he raided the Papal States of Alexander VII, but he failed to become a conqueror-king in the medieval sense. His bid to control Spain through a quirk of succession failed, and an economically motivated war with the Dutch did not end the Netherlands’ trade dominance over France. Additionally, the war caused France’s national debt and taxes to balloon, throwing the domestic economy into chaos. At home, Louis blended an enlightened mentality with authoritarianism. He cultivated the arts and letters, but exercised strict censorship. He centralized the government and weakened the nobility in a bid to control all French affairs, but he ultimately needed bureaucrats to manage state affairs. He weakened the power of Catholic priests while defending Catholicism via the persecution of Protestant Huguenots. The cumulative effect of Part Two is a contrarian interpretation of French history: The Sun King was not an all-powerful monarch, but rather an ineffectual one with limited agency and a desperate need to prove himself — a need that often manifested in authoritarian ways.

The demythologizing of Louis XIV continues in Part Three (1679–89), which shows how economic stagnation, bad soil, and civil discontent caused the king’s “golden age” to decline. At times, Goubert’s overwhelming catalogue of natural and man-made disasters feels like satire, as though the author wants to mock the very notion of a Sun King. Louis lacked real gains from the Dutch war; endless squabbles with the Vatican constrained his political machinations; the persecution of French Protestants and Jansenists was unsuccessful; and the Dutch economy still surpassed that of France. 1688’s Great Trial saw France attacked on all fronts — continental rivals, poor harvests, infinite bureaucrats overwhelming Versailles, and French intellectuals suffering under Louis’s censorship. Things get worse in Part Four (1689–1714), which recounts how William of Orange became king of England and the Netherlands. His British-Dutch coalition outmaneuvered France in Europe, while British colonists vied with the French and their Native American allies in the New World. French trade declined; the minister Colbert’s attempts to regulate the currency failed to mitigate high debts. The years 1697–1701 gave Louis a brief “respite,” but France’s political power and domestic cohesion deteriorated when another war when the Dutch began. Based on these chapters, I appreciated for the first time how ongoing strife, strong neighbors, and Malthusian limits imposed by poor agriculture curtailed the potential might of Louis’s reign. It was as though the Sun King continually hit a brick wall.

In Part Five, which covers the single year of 1715, Goubert describes how the nobleman Orleans seized power after Louis’s death. Goubert acknowledges that economic conditions and agricultural yields had recovered once the wars ended, but it is clear that Louis’s military dreams hurt France. Louis might have instilled a favorable impression of the monarchy in French culture, but the king himself was unpopular upon his death. The last chapter (289–301) reiterates Goubert’s contrarian interpretation of Louis XIV. Goubert reiterates that the king was a master of theatricality and subtle strategy, and enjoyed some territorial gains. Unfortunately, Louis’s inclination toward heavy-handed military actions and his poor choice of lieutenants, along with the aforementioned economic and environmental problems, weakened his government. Goubert ends by saying that forces known and unknown to Louis undermined the king’s efficacy (301). This passage suggests that broader social trends at least partially determine human behavior — an assumption common to both Marxist and Annales historians. Louis XIV could not operate free from the structural forces of trade, agriculture, and international diplomacy. His deliberate choices in war, French artistic culture, and religious persecution only went so far.

The book is a quick read, especially as an introduction to early modern French history, but the text seems lightweight as an academic investigation of Louis XIV. Goubert writes for a popular audience and describes the text as an “essay” instead of a book, so he provides only a short bibliography in place of typical footnotes. This choice makes it difficult to assess the author’s research. Two useful appendices supply a glossary economic terms and tables of French inflation rates, but these pages do not reveal Goubert’s method or sources for studying the French economy as a whole. I would have preferred that the back of the book supply additional data about French agriculture, trade, and other trends affecting Louis’s reign — in short, statistics like those included in Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence. On a structural level, Goubert’s cascading lists of European nobles and petty conflicts were difficult for me to follow as a non-specialist. I also felt that some of Goubert’s transitions from discussing diplomatic history to Annales history were abrupt. The author isn’t able to fully reconcile the top-down study of kings with the bottom-up study of commoners; the methods are simply too different. Still, for a quick gloss on early modern France and as a character study of the often-dimmed Sun King, Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen is a suitable read.

Cover Photo:
Dennis Jarvis, “France-000107 — Louis XIV [Equestrian statue of King Louis XIV in the courtyard of the Louvre],” 21 June 2014, Flickr Commons, CC BY–SA 2.0, accessed 9 March 2017,


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