Course Overview


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The famous dictum, “L’état, c’est moi” (attributed to Louis XIV, pictured above) posits the claims of absolute rule of a king over his subjects. While the king’s claims to power were made evident through symbolic forms and ritual practices that were publically displayed and socially reinforced, his actual power as evidenced by historians of early modern France reveal real limitations. In the last few decades, research has demonstrated the limits of absolutism from the lowest to the highest levels of the social structure, showing that absolute power is in no way totalitarian rule. Moreover, some historians argue that absolutism as a system of power never governed the French state, but only existed as a guiding principle in the process of state-formation.

Our points of inquiry…
If the Sun King’s claim to be (or to embody) the state is an empty claim (or a complete myth, as some attest), what assumptions does it rest upon and what weight does it carry? What purpose does this claim serve if only to underscore the divine right of kings? Without such a sacred belief, what then, perpetuates such a system of rule?

What does this course promise?
            To provide you an opportunity to question the efficacy of absolutism as an historical concept, testing it against historical evidence. In reading some of the latest research, you will have the chance to see how leading historians have changed our understanding of royal authority, uncovering zones of resistance and reform, criticism and censorship in the rocky transition from the medieval to the modern state.
In the process, you will develop considerable insight into the inner workings of political systems based upon birthright and legal privilege, the rule of kings enforced by monopolized violence and prone to popular revolt. As the state grew in its reach, so did the power of literature and ideas as a cultural force of change.

What other opportunities do I have to enhance my learning?

  • A C-LAC section for French speakers
  • Public History Lectures and French Films
  • Visit to the VMFA on Monday, October 5, noon to 1:30 pm