France in the Middle Ages



IN France at the time of the Reformation the clergy were far more powerful than in England, and the theological contest was much more severe. Toleration began with Henry IV at the moment when Montaigne appeared as the prophet of scepticism. The death of King Henry was not followed by the reaction which might have been expected, and the rule of Richelieu was emphatically political in its motives and secular in its effects. It is curious to see that the Protestants were the illiberal party, while the cardinal remained resolutely liberal.

The difference between the development in France and England is due primarily to the recognition in England of the fact that no country can long remain prosperous or safe in which the people are not gradually extending their power, enlarging their privileges and incorporating themselves with the functions of the state. France, on the other hand, suffered far more from the spirit of protection, which is so dangerous, and yet so plausible, that it forms the most serious obstacle with which advancing civilization has to contend.

The great rebellion in England was a war of classes as well as of factions; on the one side the yeomanry and traders, on the other the nobles and the clergy. The corresponding war of the Fronde in France was not a class war at all; it was political, and in no way social. At bottom the English rebellion was democratic; the leaders of the Fronde were aristocrats, without any democratic leanings.

Thus in France the protective spirit maintained its ascendancy intensified. Literature and science, allied to and patronised by government, suffered demoralisation, and the age of Louis XIV was one of actual decay. After the death of Louis XIV the French discovered England and English literature. Our island, regarded hitherto as barbarous, was visited by nearly every Frenchman of note for the two succeeding generations. Voltaire, in particular, assimilated and disseminated English doctrines.

THE consequent development of the liberal spirit brought literature into collision with the government. Inquiry was opposed to the interests of both nobles and clergy. Nearly every great man of letters in France was a victim of persecution. It might be said that the government deliberately made a personal enemy of every man of intellect in the country. We can only wonder, not that the revolution came, but that it was still so long delayed; but ingrained prejudices prevented the crown from being the first object of attack. The hostility of the men of letters was directed first against the Church and Christianity. Religious scepticism and political emancipation did not advance hand in hand; much that was worst in the actual revolution was due to the fact that the latter lagged behind.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries some progress had been made in the principles of writing history. Like everything else, history suffered from the rule of Louis XIV. Again the advance was inaugurated by Voltaire. His principle is to concentrate on important movements, not on idle details. This was not characteristic of the individual author only, but of the spirit of the age. It is equally present in the works of Montesquieu and Turgot. The defects of Montesquieu are chiefly due to the fact that his materials were intractable, because science had not yet reduced them to order by generalising the laws of their phenomena. In the second half of the eighteenth century the intellectual movement began to be turned directly against the state. Economical and financial inquiries began to absorb popular attention. Rousseau headed the political movement, whereas the government, in its financial straits, turned against the clergy, whose position was already undermined, and against whom Voltaire continued to direct his batteries.

The suppression of the Jesuits meant a revival of Jansenism. Jansenism is Calvinistic, and Calvinism is democratic; but the real concentration of French minds was on material questions. The foundations of religious beliefs had been undermined, and hence arose the painful prevalence of atheism. The period was one of progress in the study of material laws in every field. The national intellect had taken a new bent, and it was one which tended to violent social revolt. The hall of science is the temple of democracy. It was in these conditions that the eyes of Frenchmen were turned to the revolt in the cause of liberty of the American people. The spark was set to an inflammatory mass, and ignited a flame which never ceased its ravages until it had destroyed all that Frenchmen once held dear.





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