History 104: Western Civilization since 1648

Lecture: 17th Century Politics and Culture

Louis XIV

Music: "Galliard Battaglia" by Samuel Scheidt (1621), a dance.

Lecture contents:

Absolutism in France
Constitutionalism in Britain

Note: All lecture material is required reading/listening, but the links to outside pages are optional.

"L'état c'est moi." (I am the state) -- Louis XIV

Absolutism: France

The term absolutism refers to the absolute control of a single ruler of a country. Although such total power did not truly occur anywhere in the seventeenth century, France came close.

painting of Louis XIIILouis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu

King Louis XIII (13th) of France was the son of Marie de Medici, who was related to the wealthy Renaissance Medici family of Italy. Despite the force of her personality, nobles in France gained tremendous power and independence during her regency. Fortunately, she was the patron of Cardinal Richelieu, who helped her make decisions. Upon the accession of Louis XIII, Richelieu continued his role as advisor.

Louis XIII was not a strong man or a strong king.

painting of Anne of AustriaHe was acknowledged as being somewhat feminine in his character, and had homosexual tendencies. He preferred hunting and parties to affairs of state. Married at age 14 to Anne of Austria, a Spanish-Austrian princess, he tended to ignore his passionate and intelligent wife, who intimidated him. He became so reliant on Cardinal Richelieu that he left affairs of state to the older man, who was really the creator of French absolutism.

Richelieu was determined that despite the poor raw material, the king of France must become absolute ruler. The key was controlling the nobility. Richelieu created the intendant system, giving high positions to middle-class officials who would be dependent on the king and owe nothing to noble families. Cardinal RichelieuThese men were sent to collect taxes and enforce the king's laws. Any noble who refused found his men drafted into the king's army. Richelieu thus created the system that Louis XIV would later use as a model for his own power. There were even rumors, never proven, that Richelieu was the birth father of Louis XIV.

Louis XIV, the Sun King

Richelieu died in 1643, the same year as Louis XIII, having provided a successor to help Anne rule. Cardinal Mazarin assisted Anne during her time as regent, while little Louis grew up. Within five years, the nobility rose again in series of civil wars known as The Fronde. 10-year-old Louis watched in horror as nobles battled outside the palace for his own crown. The boy vowed that he would never again permit such threats to his power.

His creation of Versailles, and his own image as the Sun King, was more than Bust of Louis XIVvanity. Life at Versailles showed Louis XIV's plans to "domesticate the nobility". Nobles were required to spend each winter at Versailles instead of on their country estates. Anyone who did not attend found his family without royal support or patronage. During their months at Versailles, nobles took on common tasks to get closer to the king. They did gardening work, served at the king's table, and even emptied the king's chamber pot (potty) to get the king's ear and earn royal favors. In addition to continuing Richelieu's policies, and following the advice of his royal economist, Colbert, Louis XIV created a court that would be a model for all would-be absolutists.

Constitutionalism: Britain Click here for audio

Unlike France, which had no tradition of representative government, England did. Since the 13th century, the English Parliament had tried to assert its authority over the making of law. During the reign of King Henry VIII, Parliament had even determined the national religion by supporting Henry's separation of the Anglican church from the Pope's authority. Henry's Protestant daughter Queen Elizabeth had confirmed Parliament's authority and cooperated with them, but when she died without an heir in 1603, the throne passed to her cousin, Scottish king James VI (James Stuart).

James I

James VI became James I of England. He spoke little English and was accustomed to clan politics. His ideas were absolutist, gained from the ancient battles of Scottish kings.

As you can see, James wanted to create the kind of system that was emerging in France. He earned many enemies in Parliament, and by the time he died there was a battle for sovereignty emerging.

Sovereignty is the right to make law. Parliament, dominated by a House of Commons full of highly educated new gentry, was arguing that they held sovereignty. The king believed it was the monarch who held sovereignty. Writing from the comparative safety of France, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes would support the sovereignty of the king using historical argument. Hobbes claimed that in a "state of nature", before government, human life was "nasty, brutish and short". A strong monarch was needed, and people gave up their liberty for his protection.

Charles I and English Civil War

James' son Charles also believed in the sovereignty of the monarch. He angered Parliament with almost every act he did, including marrying a Catholic French princess and allowing Catholic-style ritual into the Anglican church. He demanded money from Parliament when war with Scotland threatened, and enforced taxes like "ship money" that were very unpopular. All this despite the fact that he was a very nice man, a good father, and a patron of the arts.

Ultimately these conflicts dissolved into the English Civil War, where a Parliamentary army was raised against the king. As you can read in your text and this overview of the war, the war tore England apart and ended with Charles' death at the hands of a small band of Parliamentary members with extreme Puritan views. Having disposed of the king, and thus the very idea of monarchy, the military dictatorship of the Commonwealth ruled England.

During the discussion of how to form the new government, other groups emerged with even more radical agendas than the Parliamentarians. The Diggers, for example, began claiming or reclaiming land for displaced peasants. The Levellers believed that all men should have the right to vote whether or not they owned property.

As you can see, the Parliamentarians insisted that only property owners should have rights in the new society. But the radical's points were not forgotten.

In 1660, a group of conspirators including ruling Parliamentary leaders and Anglican bishops plotted the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Oliver Cromwell, charismatic leader of the Commonwealth, had been dead for three years, and his son was incompetent. Without bloodshed, Charles I's son was brought from France to regain the throne. The result was the court of Charles II, which was every bit as extravagant as that of Louis XIV. In many senses it was a reaction to the austerity of life under the Puritans.

But Charles II died, and rule passed to his brother, James II. Like his brother, James had Catholic tendencies, which worried Parliament. Unlike his brother, James was open about his Catholicism, using priests as advisors. Since James was fairly old, Parliament and Anglican bishops seemed content to wait until he died, when his Protestant daughter Mary (married to Protestant Dutch ruler William of Orange) would take over. But when James fathered a son and baptised him Catholic, Parliament created another revolution.

Glorious Revolution (1688)

When James II was told to leave or face the consequences, and William and Mary offered the throne, it was called the Glorious Revolution. As with the Civil War, a political philosopher explained the action, providing the justification for the removal of a monarch:

bookWorkbook document: John Locke's Second Treatise (1689)

Locke's basic premise was that in a "state of nature", people were free, and required government only to protect rights to property. If a government did not protect natural rights (which Locke defined as "life, liberty, and property"), the people had a right to remove that government. A revolutionary idea, Locke's argument provided a future justification for the removal of any government, and the enforcement of Parliamentary sovereignty.


Click here for musicListen to a Pavane, a type of music popular in the 17th century (this one written by the Earle of Salisbury in 1611). Music like this commonly accompanied court masques.

drawing of Oberon masque constume
Costume for Oberon, a character in a court masque

Two of the most popular forms of theatre in the 17th century were the masques enjoyed by elites at court, and the neo-classical plays produced by professional theatre companies.

Court masques

A court masque was a play performed by and for elites, and encouraged their participation in the major roles. I can think of no contemporary form which resembles it. Much money was spent to impress guests. Costumes were extravagant, and the most renowned architects of the day were employed to design sets. See some costumes, and the Banqueting House and sets designed by famous English architect Inigo Jones.

French neoclassical theatre: the French Academy

The French Academy, which had been established under Richelieu, created rules for all theatre to be seen in France. These rules were:

  1. Real time: all plays had to take place in real time, so if a play were two hours long, it had to realistically show two hours of action. No flashbacks or bouncing ahead in time.
  2. Comedy or tragedy: no mixing of the forms was allowed (see below).
  3. Verisimilitude (realism) : nothing could happen in the play that couldn't happen in real life. No magic, no people disappearing, no flying around.
  4. Five acts: of equal length, no more or less.
  5. Moral lesson: each play must contain a moral lesson as its theme.

Not following the rules meant your play would not be performed in France.

Tragic maskA neo-classical tragedy

bookWorkbook Document: Phaedra by Racine

In the Greek tradition, tragedy has rules too. A tragedy has to involve the fall of an elite figure (no ordinary people) due to his/her own hubris, or excessive pride. Through participating with this character, the audience is supposed to achieve catharsis, a release of emotion. Racine achieved all of these.

Comic maskA neo-classical comedy

bookWorkbook Document: Tartuffe by Moliére

Unlike tragedy, comedy must be about ordinary people. In comedies, there may be humor, much of it raunchy, and the lowliest characters are often the smartest. Comedies tended to be political, poking fun at figures of the day, which is why some of them are too obscure for today's audiences. But Moliére was particularly good at creating characters with universal appeal. His protection under Louis XIV made it possible for him to openly make fun of French elites, including churchmen and nobles. And remember, he did it all using the neo-classical rules.

Map of Europe showing Netherlands

Dutch Golden AgeClick here for audio

The wealth of the Netherlands (which includes the populous province of Holland) was provided by the merchant trade. By the 17th century, this wealth was astronomical, and merchants controlled the constitutional government. Although the Netherlands itself comprised a small area of land (much of it waterlogged) in northern Europe, the Dutch dominated much of the world's trade. Expanding world-wide, the Dutch controlled global colonies, such as New Amsterdam (later New York). In each colony, the first permanent building was the counting house! Since they had not been born into the aristocracy, the wealthy middle class strove to gain social status by using their wealth to purchase luxury goods and patronize artists.

Rembrandt made his living doing portraits and pictures for the middle class, though he eventually came into disfavor with his patrons. An example is one of his greatest paintings, The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and of Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburgh, always called The Night Watch. These merchants had banded into a sort of Neighborhood Watch to protect warehouses of goods and keep the peace on the streets at night. They wanted a portrait showing them clearly in this noble role. What they got was this:

Rembrandt's Night Watch

Some faces are not portrayed clearly at all, and some are in the dark. Rembrandt refused to compromise his painting, even for his patrons, so he eventually turned to painting portraits for his own pleasure rather than for money. He died a poor man, but an incredible painter.

Judith Leyster self-portrait, smiling at viewer in front of painting she's working on Judith Leyster was also a Dutch Golden Age painter; this is a self-portrait. She was a pupil of Frans Hals, and sometimes her work has passed as his work in art markets. Indeed, until the 19th century, many of her works sold as Hals paintings, until the cleaning of one of them revealed her signature: a star with initials, a play on her name, which means "lode star" or "guiding light". She specialized in "genre paintings", works portraying daily life and interiors. Genre paintings were very popular during this time.

The art of portraits

In a time of powerful kings, being court painter was the best way for an artist to achieve wealth and status. In England, Flemish painter Anthony Van Dyck became court painter the Charles I. He created pictures revealing the character of the king.

Notice the king's beard/moustache. It's now called a "Van Dyck" because of these paintings.

painting of Charles I standing next to his horse, with groom
Las Meninas

Valezquez's Las Meninas (1656) gives us a different kind of portrait, and one of the most discussed pictures in history. This quotation is from British historian Sir Kenneth Clarke:

"Our first feeling is of being there. We are standing just to the right of the King and Queen, whose reflections we can see in the distant mirror, looking down an austere room in the Alcazar (hung with del Mazo's copies of Rubens) and watching a familiar situation. The Infanta Dona Margarita doesn't want to pose. She has been painted by Velasquez ever since she could stand. She is now five years old, and she has had enough. But this is to be something different; an enormous picture, so big that it stands on the floor, in which she is going to appear with her parents; and somehow the Infanta must be persuaded. Her ladies-in-waiting, known by the Portuguese name of meninas, are doing their best to cajole her, and have brought her dwarfs, Maribarbola and Nicolasito, to amuse her. But in fact they alarm her almost as much as they alarm us, and it will be some time before the sitting can take place. So far as we know, the huge official portrait was never painted."

This picture also shows how in the 17th century, the painter himself (here putting himself in as part of the painting) is becoming more important than the patron.

Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian painter, broke away from the traditional genre paintings and painted works of religious and spiritual significance. Scholars have noted that her subject matter may have been influenced by her having been raped by her teacher; it has been suggested that the violence of her work may have been cathartic. (My personal opinion is that, because the rape trial was highly publicized, the reaction may have been to the trial as much as the rape.) I find this interesting, since I've never heard of such a personal view being applied to a male painter, and I don't like the power of her work "explained" in such a way. You decide:

Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620): two women holding man down and cutting off his head as blood spurts
Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620)

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1630): she is viewed from the side, with the canvas off to the left, leaning toward the viewer and looking intently at her canvas as she paints

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1630)

In the 2003 film Girl With a Pearl Earring, about painter Johannes Vermeer, award-winning cinematographer Eduardo Serra worked hard to get the lighting right to make the whole movie look like a Vermeer painting. You can even see it in the trailer.

Vermeer Milkmaid

Girl With A Pearl Earring Trailer Excerpt (with music only)


Cavalier costume

This is the "Cavalier Style". You may recognize it if you've every seen any "Three Musketeer" movies.

Characteristic are the long curled hair for men, close-to-the-head style with ringlets for women. Both required curling irons, bars of metal heated in the fire. Note the Van Dyck on the man, and lots of French lace on both (the result of Colbert's subsidies for the lace industry in France). Since the man is not wearing a sword, I assume the cane contains one; no gentleman would appear in the streets unarmed.

The clothes and hairstyles generally required some help from personal servants, thus indicating the status of the wearer.

These are Dutch merchant women. The things around their necks are ruffs, material starched and curled with a hot iron. The bigger and fancier the ruff, the wealthier the woman. The muff is fur, probably from New World colony trade.

Notice that the colors are not extravagant; they reflect the Spanish desire for darker hues, since the Netherlands were controlled by Spain until the Dutch Revolt of the 1640s.

The modest cut of the dresses (compare to the Cavalier neckline, above) reflects the moral conservatism of both the middle class in general, and Protestants in particular.

Dutch costume
Late 17th c costume After the puritanical styles prevalent in England during the Commonwealth (1649-1660), Charles II returned to the throne. Thus his reign overlapped that of extravagant Louis XIV of France, and the courts became the dictators of fashion for the elites. The passionate Charles liked his women in déshabillé, looking like they just got out of bed. Thus the style for elite women got more, um, casual.
costume 1693

By the 1690s, absolutists were firmly in power. The elite classes got unbelievably extravagant in their dress.

First the man. The hairstyle for men got very long, so much so that most had to wear a heavy wig. Ribbons were also the norm as well as lace. You can see the beginning, believe it or not, of the modern business suit, as the coat got shorter. High heels made men walk with a sway in their step, and here the sword is worn low for easy sitting. His face is powdered.

She is powdered also, with black "beauty patches" in various shapes. Such patches were to offset a perfect face, and were sometimes shaped like moons, stars, or even horse-and-carriages. The headress is called a fontage, and is a Spanish style. The fan was also required to go with the fontage.

See this style in action:

Film clip (with period audio) from The Draughtsman's Contract
No Flash? Try here.


Development of family

Historians note three stages in the development of the modern family:

  1. Medieval extended familymedieval house
    Until the 16th century, families were accustomed to little privacy or individuality in the home. Beds were shared, and often the family slept in one room. Although the reasons might include tradition, the affordability of having or building only one bed, and the comfort of having children close to, a major reason was warmth. The only heated room in most European houses was the kitchen, which had a big open hearth and fire for cooking. In 1500, Europe was entering a "Little Ice Age", which meant colder and wetter climate conditions. Warmth was important! Extended families of aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. lived in the same dwelling. Starting a household required the inheritance of land, which didn't happen unless someone died.
  2. Smaller groupings (1550-1650)
    As the merchant class gained its independence and expanded, families became more authoritarian and more stable. Life expectancy in the 16th century was poor, as bad as in Paleolithic times: the average age at death was 25-30. Children often had stepmothers and stepfathers as parents died and the remaining parent remarried. Households continued to be extended, although producing items in the home (especially cloth), provided a greater opportunity for some to establish a separate household nearby. By 1650, things were improving. For women, the average age at death was 32 and rising fast; by the 1790s it would be about 50.
  3. Nuclear family
    House with chimneysThe idea that only parents and their children could occupy a dwelling emerged in the middle class around 1640. There was a decline in illegitimacy (possibly a result of religious strictures), and a new warmth, in two senses. The climate was still cold, but the fireplace and chimney were new trends in architecture. Fireplaces and chimneys allowed safe fires in rooms other than the kitchen. Although expensive to build, they provided local heat, and led to the creation of the "bedroom".

Couple in bedAbout this time, middle-class people began to marry later in life than they had before, out of necessity. Though sons of aristocracy could marry whenever in life their parents decided (some very young to secure alliances), and peasants could marry whenever their landlord permitted, sons of merchants had to wait till they could afford it. That was usually around 25 or 30 years old, and for some it never happened. In fact, the number of unmarried men increased from 5% in the Middle Ages to 15% during this period.

Also, middle-class people tended to marry someone about the same age. Previously, older men (who had some money) had preferred much younger women (with more childbearing years in them). But merchants needed mature helpmates. A male merchant wanted a wife who was secure in her personality, and confident and skilled enough to run both household and business when he had to be away. The self-assuredness you see in the paintings of Judith Leyster and Artemesia Gentileschi is the result of this maturity.

Middle-class women

Women had public significance in the middle class. Wives handled sales directly, and were in charge of distribution and paying bills. If the husband was a craftsman, she assisted in manufacturing as well. Many jobs were considered extensions of domestic care-taking duties and were thus permitted for women: running a tavern, midwifery, food preparation, innkeeping.

But independence was within known limits in the 17th century. "Market women" competed intensely with one another for sales, and sometimes ended up in court for using slanderous epithets against each other. "Whore", "thief", and "asshole" were the most popular. In court, women were not allowed to plead their case. Their husbands had to enter their plea, and a frequent defense was, "she's only an irrational woman". The wife was allowed in the courtroom only to beg for a lower fine.

"Ritual kiss":  witches kissing the ass  of the devil
"Ritual kiss":
witches kissing the ass
of the devil


The 17th century saw the end of most witchcraft trials. During the sixteenth century, they had emerged due to several causes: a demographic imbalance of male and female, religious conflict, and a reaction against the emerging dominance of women. Both women and men suspected of having made a contract with the Devil were hanged or burned at the stake.

But by the middle of the 17th century, scientific trends were developing which forced accusers to prove actual harm in court. This led to a decline in witch trials, one of the last taking place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.