Background Information on
Life in the 17th Century in France

The Centralized Absolute Power of Louis XIV
Louis XIV was one of the most influential political figures in the history of France and Europe. Just as in England, one of the essential questions had always been whether the nobility or the king had the final authority regarding the political, social and cultural organization of the country. [In England that question had already been solved in 1215, when King John was obliged to sign the Magna Carta limiting royal power and submitting the king to existing laws.]

In France, King Louis XIV inherited the notion of "absolute monarchy by divine right" from Louis XIII, his father, whose reign was dominated by his minister, Richelieu. Together they imposed upon the country the belief that the king derived his power and rights directly from God and was responsible only to God. When Louis XIV declared, "The State is Me", that was not an exaggeration.

Louis XIV, also called the Sun King, had as much influence upon France and indeed upon most of Europe as the sun has on the planet Earth. He diminished the authority of the nobility even further and waged wars against most European countries. He moved the administration to Versailles (at that time a day’s trip away from Paris). There the nobility lived in a golden cage and occupied itself with obtaining privileges from the king and preventing others from obtaining them.

Life at the Court of Versailles
Louis XIV moved his court to Versailles in 1680. He died there in 1715. For 35 years life there became steadily more luxurious and extravagant.

Louis XIV was so dependent on constantly being flattered and admired that everybody’s life at court revolved entirely around the necessity to find occasions to flatter and praise the King. This was equally true for men pursuing political or artistic goals and courtesans pursuing personal goals. Every play (for instance by Moliere) and every piece of music (for instance by Lully) needed approval from the King to be performed more than once.

Life in general and artistic performances in particular were so spectacular because everybody had the goal of outdoing all others in attracting the King’s attention.

The Legacy of Louis XIV
The 17th century marked the high point of French influence in Europe. The splendor of the court of Versailles so impressed other courts in Europe (Prussia, Russia, Austria) that the "elite French way of life" was imitated in other countries for two centuries. French became the international language of all educated people. The classical French architecture of Versailles and classical French art were influential in all European countries.

On the other hand, the centralization of power and authoritarianism verged on despotism. Any notion of democracy was absent from the concept of government until the end of the 18th century. July 14, 1789 marked the beginning of the French Revolution against absolute power.



Website designed and maintained by Barbara Vigano, Prof. emeritus of French, Mt. San Antonio College