For Your Enlightenment: Early modern absolutism for powerful monarchies

A common trope in both fantasy and science fiction is the autocrat with unlimited power. It should be obvious that in real life, no one wields that kind of authority. One source of inspiration for these despots is the legacy of European monarchs. The proper term for the philosophy that kings and queens should have (theoretically) limitless power is absolutism. Let’s examine the reality of how these people ruled, hopefully leading to more believable tyrants.

The sections today are medieval monarchs, the evolution of despotism, and absolutist powers and limitations.

Medieval Monarchs

  • To understand absolute monarchies, we have to start with Medieval ones. Because Medieval kings had very few resources to spend on large bureaucracies, so they managed their lands by giving local nobles a lot of power. These vassals were leashed to the crown, but they had a lot of authority and ability to challenge royal decisions.
  • Almost everyone knows about the other main party to hold power over monarchs—the Catholic Church—but an often-overlooked major player is the cities.. Just as kings had a hard time managing large lands, they had difficulty administering large cities. They solved this problem in the same way, too. Lands were managed by giving powers to nobles as vassals; cities were granted “charters,” documents that essentially allowed the city to govern itself as long as they paid taxes to nobles and royalty.
  • Chartered cities would have bodies of citizens (also called “burghers,” the origin of our word “bourgeoisie”). Medieval citizens aren’t like modern citizens; a minority of city residents were actually citizens. Membership often required being moderately wealthy, or part of a guild. Women were, obviously and unfortunately, not included.
  • Cities were governed by a town council and mayor, both citizens elected by the citizen body. The distribution of power between mayor and council varied from place to place, but usually the council and its myriad committees were really in charge.
  • Let’s return to the monarchs themselves. Most scholars and politicians agreed that the king held monopolies on three key powers: they were the highest judicial power in the land, they alone could dictate the minting of currency, and they alone could declare wars. Control over warfare was more theoretical than actual. Nobles frequently went to war without the king’s consent. Imagine if the US states often fought each other and neighboring countries, and all the President could do is say, “Hey, please don’t.”
  • The core of the matter was that the king was assumed to be in charge of all “public” matters, while other areas of governance were “private” and left for the nobility. The debate, then, was which affairs were actually public; the shifting of this line was what was used to justify the expanding powers of early modern monarchs.

Evolution of Despotism

  • Looking at how absolutism showed up can help worldbuilders make powerful rulers that evolve naturally rather than popping out of nowhere.
  • In early modern Europe, the rise of absolutism was tied to the religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation. These were incredibly violent, both because of the incentives involved (religious and economic; before the industrial revolution, the only way to acquire more resources was to seize more land) and the increasing destructiveness of warfare.
  • These pressures forced governments to become more centralized and bureaucratic. Historian Charles Tilly said, “War made the state and the state made war.”
  • There were three phases of consolidation: defensive, offensive, and enlightened. The defensive phase is what was just described: kings claimed greater authority during the religious wars, ostensibly to improve the government’s ability to wage war. This phase effectively concluded with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which more-or-less created the modern nation-state (by giving countries—and kings—sovereignty over everything that happened in their borders, curtailing the influence of the Catholic Church).
  • Once the religious wars died down (but not war in general, of course), monarchs needed new ways to justify further power grabs. This was the offensive phase, where arguments shifted to safeguarding the public good. It was important that the nation stay unified and strong; since nobles would always advance their own interests, a higher power was needed.
  • The last phase was less about gaining more power and more about using it differently. The enlightened phase was based on the emerging philosophies of the Enlightenment, and saw monarchs using their authority to enact Enlightenment-inspired laws. In the early stages, this earned the respect of Enlightenment thinkers, leading some (like Hobbes) to suggest that absolute monarchies were the best form of government. By the end of the early modern era, the slowly-increasing royal powers alienated the philosophers, leading to the ideals that promoted the American and French Revolutions.

Absolutist Powers and Limitations

  • This is the real meat of the article. Finally, let’s look into what absolutist monarchs could and couldn’t do.
  • While medieval kings had judicial, minting, and warring powers, early modern despots expanded their powers to taxation and legislation. Prior to this period, both were considered to be shared with the nobility or citizens, with the majority of the authority out of the crown’s hands.
  • The justification of this shift was a reclassification of more governmental powers as public instead of private. When this rationale was lacking, these powers were still shared with others. The ability to write laws was considered private in some places, while a few philosophers insisted that taxation relied on the consent of the governed (nobles and citizens; no one cared about serfs).
  • One uncertain area was religious regulation. In some places, ensuring religious unity was considered a matter of public concern, ostensibly because religious conflicts had turned violent in the past. There, the king reserved the right to declare an official religion and “discourage” others, though this obviously created its own violence. When religion was viewed as a private affair of the spirit, the king lacked the power to regulate it.
  • As the throne’s authority grew, other parties became less powerful. The most drastic was the Catholic Church, which obviously suffered a drastic blow with the Reformation. The treaty at Westphalia, as mentioned, relegated the Church’s powers to strongly-worded letters. Meanwhile, both noble and citizen powers were slowly absorbed by the crown, though this was uneven across Europe.
  • At the end of the day, even all this authority was largely theoretical. In practice, compliance often couldn’t be forced due to a lack of bureaucratic institutions. Because of this, all the power and majesty the royals projected could amount to very little outside the crownlands (areas owned by the king instead of nobility).
  • Charles Tilly, the same historian quoted earlier, made an interesting observation. In areas where resources were tied to land, monarchs took power; in places where resources were tied to capital, as in small, trade-oriented nations (e.g. Venice, Dutch Republic), merchants took power. This is one thing to keep in mind, since wealthy and powerful citizens might be able to overpower the traditional aristocracy.
  • There is one interesting phenomenon to consider when looking at absolutist finances. Growing bureaucracies naturally meant employing more bureaucrats. The catch was that underdeveloped governments often couldn’t afford salaries for these new positions. To pay for them, they would require these bureaucrats to pay for their positions, then set them free to earn income however they liked by leveraging their power. Positions like these are called “venal” and naturally encouraged corruption which leads to the modern definition of venal being “susceptible to bribery.”
  • After a time, increasing royal power alienated the Enlightenment philosophers who had earlier supported them. They began theorizing about a world without autocrats, which led to revolutions and modern democracies.

And there we go! Thank you for reading, and I look forward to feedback and suggestions.


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