Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Eighteenth Century: France

For some reason, the eighteenth century was little covered in history lessons when I was at school. So in the last week or so I have decided to learn a little more. This has become a three-book odyssey travelling from France, over to England and then back down to Venice. Each book showed a separate aspect of the era, and altogether I found it a very rewarding experience. I now feel I know a lot more about how it was to live in the era of The Enlightenment, which some call The Age of Reason, others call The Early Modern Era (late part) but which I shall call The Eighteenth Century.

The first book I read was this: What Life Was Like During the Age of Reason (by the 'editors of Time-Life') which spanned the time 1660 until 1800 in France. This was a short book with lots of pictures, and I particularly liked the introduction which neatly set the scene.

The Renaissance (the fourteen and fifteenth centuries) was the time when western Europe emerged from the dark ages and rediscovered ideas from the Greek and Roman (and, I suspect) Chinese civilisations. They turned from studying God to man, and these ideas were developed in the sixteenth century with people like Martin Luther and John Calvin reforming the church, and Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei using mathematics to describe nature. In the following century, the seventeenth, observation and mathematical analysis increasingly became more important, as man became more confident he could explain what was around him without resorting to the presence of the divine. Francis Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke and Isaac Newton led to the conviction that science, reason and observation rather than religion, dogma or revelation was the way to the truth - the 'Enlightenment'.

In 1661 Louis XIV was crowned King of France. He was a relic from the days before Enlightenment because he was considered semi-divine, and God's representative on earth. He lived extravagantly, rather like the nations of the twentieth century century, beyond his means. And, also like the modern world, it was his descendants that had to pay. He built up debt and persecuted protestants, but also led to a cultural flowering in France, with the establishment of Academies.

He was succeeded by the five year old Louis XV in 1715. He inherited debt and in consequence his people were taxed: half of what they earned was claimed by the King. A huge gulf developed between the rich and poor. The strength of the commoners grew: they could purchase titles and jostled nobility. Jesuits were driven out and Protestants were still banned. Free-thinkers like Voltaire (pen name of François-Marie Arouet) scoffed at them all.

In 1774 Louis XVI came to the throne. Unrest grew, and the king was undermined by the new middle class, the Duc d'Orleans and the rise of the free-thinker. Tax was still punitive, and the poor were still desperately poor. 45% died before the age of 10.

After examining the lifestyle of the Royalty, the book goes on to deal with the Bourgois, the petit Bourgois, and then individuals like Joseph d'Hémery (chief of police) and Madame de Coudry (midwife extraordinaire) and a typical journeyman called Jacques-Louis Menetra who was befriended by Rousseau. The tension builds until the storming of the Bastille and the Reign of Terror.

Altogether I found it to be an excellent book for a quick, accessible look at pre-revolutionary France.

Many thanks to my mother for lending me this copy!


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