The Zenith of European Monarchy and its Elites: The Politics of Culture, 1650-1750
In The Myth of Absolutism (1992) Nicholas Henshall destroyed many clichés. Die Henshall-these, as it is known in Germany, demonstrated that absolute monarchies resembled limited monarchies with representative institutions more closely than they did the ‘rogue’ despotic monarchies of Denmark, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. There could be more limits on the power of an absolute monarch than on a ruler who had the support of his parliament. Both conducted an independent foreign policy.
In this new book, The Zenith of European Monarchy and its Elites, Henshall writes about ‘the politics of culture’ from 1650 to 1750. He sees this period as the apogee of aristocratic influence, when aristocrats’ dress, manners and literature were more dominant than ever before or since. Culture became more elitist than in the age of Luther and Shakespeare – whose language was ‘revised’ by prudish editors. Henshall argues that ‘absolute monarchy rested as much on mentalities as on institutions’. ‘The key to monarchs’ successes was skilful management of the nobility.’ Rulers monopolised the arts and used them for political ends as surviving palaces and churches show. Louis XIV’s ‘media strategies’ persuaded contemporaries and historians that he wielded more power than in reality he did. The wealth of the Catholic Church and the size of rulers’ households increased. Monarchy became hereditary in Russia, Hungary, Bohemia and Denmark. City states such as Nuremberg and Augsburg declined from their peak in the Renaissance. Only after 1750 did ‘demystification’ challenge the authority of ‘monarchy and its elites’.
Henshall’s book is distinguished by exceptionally broad geographical and cultural perspectives. He uses as many examples from Brandenburg and Piedmont – the latter was the first state to attempt to try to impose a secular education system – as from England and France. Into his dense and fascinating narrative he weaves examples from architecture, dress, literature and opera, as well as politics and economics. He quotes the foundation document of Louis XIV’s Academy of Dance in 1661, which describes dancing as ‘one of the most valuable and useful arts for nobles’ and a preparation for ‘bodily exercises concerning the use of weapons’. He reads the Karlskirche in Vienna or the Royal Hospital in Greenwich as historical ‘documents’ with messages to convey: in James Thornhill’s fresco in the Painted Hall at Greenwich, William III and Mary II restore the cap of liberty to a grateful Europe.
The Zenith of European Monarchy and its Elites attacks the myth of English exceptionalism. Provincial estates in France raised loans for the king in essentially the same way as the English parliament. By 1750, according to Henshall, there was a ‘cohesive cultural identity’ across Europe, based on the landed elite, reverence for classical Roman culture and the French language. Thanks to the spread of colleges and academies, and larger libraries, nobles had become more cultivated. Royal and aristocratic patronage remained crucial. Only Handel and Pope in England had, through the market, become financially independent of their patrons. After 1750 the ‘clear light of reason’ and the rise of neoclassicism blew away this aristocratic apogee. The reasons for this change are hard to pinpoint, but they included fashion; the strain placed on the monarchies of Europe by the two world wars of 1740-48 and 1756-63; and the beginning of the de-Christianisation of Paris. Nevertheless Napoleon I and his imitators reinvented new systems of monarchical and elite power in the 19th century.
Henshall has written another tour de force. However, perhaps he exaggerates when he says that ‘early modern officials obeyed or were obeyed not because of their office but because of their status as clients or patrons’. If that were the case, nobles of the highest rank, such as the Duc de La Trémoïlle or the ‘proud’ Duke of Somerset, would not have yearned for office. Moreover, whatever the role of palaces and academies, at the time many people, including monarchs like Louis XIV and the rulers of Brandenburg and Piedmont, saw force as the basis of ‘monarchy and its elites’. Cannons were, as inscriptions on them often proclaimed, ‘ultima ratio regum’. Or as Voltaire wrote, in the period described by Henshall, ‘God is on the side of the big battalions’ – not always on the side of swaggering Baroque palace.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Food & Drink
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology