Absolutism (European history)

Absolutism or The Age of Absolutism (c. 1610 – c. 1789) is a historiographical term used to describe a form of monarchical power that is unrestrained by all other institutions, such as churches, legislatures, or social elites.[1] Absolutism is typically used in conjunction with some European monarchs during the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and monarchs described as absolute can especially be found in the 16th century through the 19th century. Absolutism is characterized by the ending of feudal partitioning, consolidation of power with the monarch, rise of state power, unification of the state laws, and a decrease in the influence of the Church and the nobility.

Louis XIV of France, often considered by historians as an archetype of absolutism

Absolute monarchs are also associated with the rise of professional standing armies, professional bureaucracies, the codification of state laws, and the rise of ideologies that justify the absolutist monarchy. Absolutist monarchs typically were considered to have the divine right of kings as a cornerstone of the philosophy that justified their power (as opposed to the previous order when the kings were considered vassals of the Pope and Emperor).

Monarchs often depicted as absolute rulers include Louis XIII and Louis XIV of France,[2] Peter the Great and Catherine the Great of Russia, Leopold I and Joseph II of Austria, John V of Portugal, Frederick III of Denmark, Charles XI and Charles XII of Sweden, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I of England.

Absolute monarchs spent considerable sums on extravagant houses for themselves and their nobles. In an absolutist state, monarchs often required nobles to live in the royal palace, while state officials ruled the noble lands in their absence. This was designed to reduce the effective power of the nobility by causing nobles to become reliant upon the largesses of the monarch for their livelihoods.

There is a considerable variety of opinion by historians on the extent of absolutism among European monarchs. Some, such as Perry Anderson, argue that quite a few monarchs achieved levels of absolutist control over their states, while historians such as Roger Mettam dispute the very concept of absolutism.[3] In general, historians who disagree with the appellation of absolutism argue that most monarchs labeled as absolutist exerted no greater power over their subjects than any other non-absolutist rulers, and these historians tend to emphasize the differences between the absolutist rhetoric of monarchs and the realities of the effective use of power by these absolute monarchs. Renaissance historian William Bouwsma summed up this contradiction:

Nothing so clearly indicates the limits of royal power as the fact that governments were perennially in financial trouble, unable to tap the wealth of those most able to pay, and likely to stir up a costly revolt whenever they attempted to develop an adequate income.[4]

William Bouwsma

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