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Great places to visit for someone with a passion for pre-Revolutionary France?

Hello all,

My roommate and I will be spending around two and a half weeks in France during the summer. Does anyone have any suggestions for must-see places which may interest someone who loves early/mid 18th Century French history/culture? We're definitely visitng Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte for the candlelit evening, along with a four day trip to the Loire Valley.

Thanks for any suggestions you may have!

-Caitlin

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10344 posts

Pre-Revolutionary France: Of course there's Versailles. And the whole Loire Valley Italian chateau architecture is pre-Revolutionary.

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Thanks for the reply Kent.

I'm definitely interested in anything post-Renaissance, but I have a special love for anything pertaining to the 18th century!

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10344 posts

So pre-revolutionary but still 18th century?

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Yes exactly! I know I'm getting pretty specific here, so honestly I'd be happy with anything related to the 17th or 18th Century.

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Versailles was built in the 17th century but of course was a symbol of what led to the Revolution. Marie Antoinette's Trianon and Hameau (her pretend farm), on the grounds, would be exactly what you're looking for. You can buy a "passport" ticket covering them all. or a separate ticket covering just the Grand and Petit Trianons + Hameau.

The Louvre would be another place to look. I don't know that period very well, but I'm thinking Fragonard, Watteau and such -- weren't they mid-18th century or thereabouts?

St-Denis Basilica, a few Metro stops north of Paris, is where the kings and queens were buried. I believe the 18th-century tombs are intact though the remains were removed in the Revolution. You might also be interested in the exhibit in the Cluny Museum of the heads from Notre Dame statues, which the revolutionaries took off, thinking they were kings, although they were actually saints. It's a pretty evocative sight in a fascinating museum of medieval art.

The Carnavalet Museum in the Marais is all about Paris history, should have material about the pre-Revolutionary period as well as the Revolution.

Most of the Loire chateaux date back to the Renaissance and are set up more or less as museums of that period, as far as I know. But Cheverny is still occupied, and full of furniture, art, and other things from many periods. That might be a good place to look for 18th century, or at least explore the website.

Pure speculation on my part, but it might be harder to find things from the 18th century, especially those associated with the kings or the church, precisely because the revolutionaries would have targeted them for destruction. They may not have hated the earlier kings as much as they hated the Louis crowd. What do others think?

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Hi,

I assume you are referring to France under the Ancien Regime. In that case Versailles and Fontainebleau are essential along with Chambord. These two are older than Versailles in terms of chronology. Versailles epitomizes the Ancien Regime and Fontainebleau post Revolutionary era.

I suggest also Chantilly, the chateau of the Great Condé, the victor of the decisive Battle of Rocroi. The painting of that battle you can see at Versailles in the Battle Gallerie.

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Thanks for the responses Dick and Fred, your insight is incredibly helpful.

Dick- I couldn't agree more with your comment regarding the difficulty of finding many places tied to Louis the 15th and 16th (besides Versailles) considering the revolutionaries would have targeted them. And thank you for your suggestions, I've been wondering about Cherveny for a while so I'm glad it comes highly recommended!

Fred- Chantilly and Chambord also sound absolutely perfect , thank you so much for these suggestions!

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@ Caitlin....You're welcome. See if this fits into your schedule: The night time light show at Versailles with the music is supposed to reflect the splendor of France as La Grande Nation during the Ancien Regime. I've yet to see it. The closest event I saw which had any resemblance was the night time light show in Strasbourg.

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449 posts

Caitlin:

You might want to check out Chateau de Vincennes:

http://en.chateau-vincennes.fr/

This was the summer home of the French kings and queens before Versailles was built. It is more like a fighting castle. It is located on the east side of Paris near the last stop of the east-west RER.

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Fred- Thanks for the great tip! I've always wanted to go to a special event type of thing at Versailles and a light show sounds incredible.

Geor- Thank you so much for the Vincennes link! I haven't heard too much about this Château and it looks beautiful on their website!

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1684 posts

Château de Champs-sur-Marne along the RER line to Disneyland Paris, Diderot and Voltaire seemed to visit it often, still on my list, but I think lovely and worth a visit.
Panthéon with Voltaires and Jean-Jacques Rousseaus tombs in Paris
Place Stanislas in Nancy.

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Thanks for the great suggestions Wil! I'll be sure to research those places and include them on my itinerary!

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A place where Voltaire stayed for a while was Château de Cirey hidden away on the countryside some 80km east of Troyes. With Emilie du Chatelet it was an important scientific center, she proved with experiments there the formula E=mv². Tried to visit it, but was unluckely closed, however on the way I could visit Brienne-le-Chateau. There is a little Musée Napoleon, not directly spectacular, nevertheless nice to visit. Here Napoleon attended the local militairy school before going to the military school (also 18th century) in Paris.

http://www.visitvoltaire.com/

You can make a detour to Charles de Gaulles village Colombey-les-deux-Églises, not so 18th century ofcourse. His mansion La Boisserie is to my opinion worth a visit.

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Dick - I like your interest. I think it´s not directly hating more as Louis the 16th was not capable to handle the situation for a number of reasons. The Ancien Regime lost it´s grip on society as a whole in that period not being aware enough that the position of the middle class became stronger and stronger and eventually seized power. It´s quite a complex process and not so easy to explain in a few words, nevertheless interesting to talk about.

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I couldn't agree more Wil. My passion for 18th cent. French culture and history stems from a lot of what you're mentioning. There are so many misconceptions about some of the factors which lead to the Revolution, and Louis XVI tends to take the blame for issues which had been going on for over a hundred years prior to his reign. History books tend to focus on the build-up to the Revolution and the rise of the Enlightenment, so many of the cultural and artistic developments of the early/mid 18th Century are often (unfairly, IMO) overlooked.

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Caitlin - The way you look to this period interests me. I think you have a lot of knowledge and an opinion, what is a good base for a conversation. Actually talking about all the ins and outs would go more easily than a discussion on a forum to my opinion. But we have to use the means we have now.

My passion is to get a more theoritical insight about history and culture as a whole, what is the base for the talks/discussions with others I have. My knowledge of the 18th century is somewhat limited, but I know France was in that period one of the leading nations in Europe about science, art, philosophy etc. You are absolutely right that it deserves to be interested in that too.

You can see the cultural and artistic developments seperate from the process/events leading to the French Revolution, but not completely to my opinion. I think that´s an interesting subject/starting point for a talk if it would happen and I like to learn what you know about the 18th century.

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@ Caitlin...One can certainly argue historically that Louis XVI gets too much of the blame for the Revolution. He was the wrong man for the wrong time for the wrong job.

I suggest you read the classic work by the French historian, Georges Lefebvre "The Coming of the French Revolution" and any works on the subject by the renown US historian, RR Palmer. Not only in the course of the 18th century prior to 1789 we witness the rising economic strength of the French middle class along with political aspirations but what produces a clash, ie, the events of 1789 is at the same time a political resurgence by the aristocracy, which had held in check by Louis XIV. That was the main purpose of building Versailles. Louis XVI chose the wrong side...les aristos.

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You will of course want to visit Basilica St. Denis near Paris. You can see our snapshots here:
https://janettravels.wordpress.com/2010/10/26/confronting-mortality-at-st-denis/
This is a really interesting church -- not only the fabulous tombs of the kings of France but it is also the first gothic church in Europe. The Cathedral in Senlis is where Hugh Capet was installed as king -- of course this is a very long time pre-revolutionary.

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Wil- I appreciate your very thoughtful and insightful comments. I feel the same way about wanting a broad knowledge of history and culture. The more I study history, the more I'm convinced of the old saying, "History isn't made of singular events. History is formed by the countless perceptions of those events." I'm paraphrasing here but I hope you get my meaning. That's such a big part of why I feel so passionately about the culture/society of 18th Century France. I feel like many people (even historians) often group the entire aristocracy together, condemning them as selfish, greedy and shallow people. While of course this was certainly true of some of them, it was not true for all of the French aristocracy. Many of them actually supported the movement for a constitutional monarchy in the early phases of the Revolution. So to see them clumped together as a ruthlessly selfish group feels very unjust to me. Sorry if I'm going on too much, but this is actually part of my thesis that I'm working on in graduate school!

Fred- Thank you for the great book recommendations! I just googled RR Palmer and ordered "The Age of the Democratic Revolution" on Amazon.

Jane- Thank you so much for the recommendations and for sharing your beautiful photos. I'll have to be sure to read your other blog posts as well!

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Caitlin - I totally agree with you to avoid getting a too much simplistic opinion about this subject and appreciate you want to broaden your knowledge and attempt to find the balance. I think it´s important to understand that every person is a product of it´s own background. But if things go out of control feelings get hurt and if lifes are at stake, there will always be very understandable reasons to blame each other, but also inexplicable ones. To keep these two apart a more profound knowledge of history is needed. Maybe the next can be of further help. As I said before it is not easy to explain everything in a few words, but it shows as good as possible however not complete how I look to the proces leading to the revolution and send this already to Dick in a PM.

To understand the cause of the French Revolution we have to go back to medieval times and how society was organized then. It was ruled by nobility and the church, the mass had to obey and lived actually in submission. Happy or not but everybody supported the system and worked together, an important key element.
That changed with the arrival of The Renaissance, people became more and more aware of their own life and possibilities. First an elite, but it started to grow more and more, more widely spread through society. Later The Enlightment was more the terrain of the middle class and made it self aware of there possibilities and very important there political influence.

Main development was that society started to split into two main streams who did eventually not cooperate anymore at the longrun. Aristocracy maintaining their traditional life, tried to keep there dominant position on one side. The mass gaining influence capable of producing and formost educating talented people constantly in greater numbers on the other side.
Because of the principal of succession, the aristocracy being a very small part of society was not able to do that. The whole development, living isolated in extreme luxury and ignorance of the real needs of the people, was completely misunderstand by them. The middle class became fed up to finance that and once strong enough it was just waiting for a confrontation. Triggered by a crisis, The French Revolution was born, there was no room for successful negotiations anymore, way too late to my opinion.

I think that Marie-Antoinette* being also a foreigner (always easy to blame) was just an easy target for propaganda against the Ancien Regime, she couldn´t stop that political downslide on her own to my opinion. The revolution caused a period of huge social/political instability and in the chaos opportunist Napoleon could seize power with al the consequences most know.

*Fred - And think the same for Louis XVI too as you described.

The main idea is that changes going on in society stimulated by The Renaissance and The Enlightment were completely new and basically not on the radar and not in line with the principles of Aristocracy, especially in France. They totally didn´t see the increasing influence what started as an undercurrent, unstoppable working his way up. At the end the development leading to the revolution took them by surprise. In that respect they where victims how bizarre it is. But one thing they were certainly to blame and responsible for was their arrogance, ignorance and total lack of empathy for the common people pushing everything beyond the limit.

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Wil- I agree with the factors you mentioned which ultimately led to the Revolution, and I also agree with the idea that an entitled aristocracy vs. a starving and suffering lower class is of course going to lead to revolution. My only point of disagreement is with your statement: "But one thing they were certainly to blame and responsible for was their arrogance, ignorance and total lack of empathy for the common people." This idea is exactly what I'm working to disprove in my studies. While I of course agree that the establishment of the aristocracy created unfair advantages which led to inequality, I believe it is the foundation of the aristocracy within government which was to blame, not necessarily the individual aristocrats themselves. While yes, there were certainly some who were greedy, arrogant, ignorant and lacked empathy for the struggling masses, this was not true of all aristocrats. There were many who wanted more freedom and rights for the citizens of France, but had little power to enforce change in a system which had been in place since after the Dark Ages. And often ignored are the cultural and social developments these aristocratic individuals helped bring about. The Enlightenment's philosophers and writers were often frequent visitors at the salons of aristocratic women for example. I believe the way the monarchy was set up, which created the inequality between the aristocracy and the lower classes, is to blame - not necessarily all of the individuals of the aristocracy themselves. We may just have different opinions on this, but that's my take.

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Caitlin – I understand your critique about my statement, it´s not so well placed in context, distracts unnecessarily. I support too and take your opinion serious that part of aristocracy was willing to make a deal, like supporting the movement for a constitutional monarchy. I think too that there must have been discussion between members how to deal with the crisis they were facing. There must be still exchange of letters in libraries, private collections and archives that will show the way they were thinking. Interesting for me is not if they did it, but how and if I´m correct that is what you want to show proving that they did it.

What interests me is the question if they were fully aware of the fundamental change in the history of humankind, the upcome of democracy that was going on in their society in that period with the huge consequences, pointing to how our complex society based on her principles is functioning now in the present.
Or saw they the coming crisis more as a practical problem that had to be solved and the discussion likely more how to make a deal. Surely opinions among members were different and preparing to make a deal shows certainly good intentions, common sense, not necessarily greed and arrogance like those stuck to the Ancien Regime and obstructing that. I think too it´s absolutely worth to have a closer look to it and base your thesis on that. And show the variety of opinions and reasons they were coping with, interesting to make somehow visible and give a more balanced way of looking to that period.

One of the icons of Enlightenment Voltaire, representing middle class visited often the salons of aristocratic women like the relationship with Emilie du Chatelet (books by David Bodanis) shows. But actually it still were meetings between elite of higher middle class and aristocracy. To my opinion Voltaire had double standards, on one hand he liked to revolt against aristocracy but on the other hand he liked to be among them. I think despite not being aristocratic he still had that hierarchical attitude and I question if he really was able to see his fellow humans as equal, one of the fundamental principles that makes democracy possible. And also showing if he really despite his talent fully understood what was going on and I think that was the mentality in general of the middle class elite.

Saying this to my opinion society as a whole had to make a serious change of mindset, if done in an earlier stage enough could have avoided the revolution, but that´s in theory, reallity is always different.

I think too there is some difference in points of view, but it´s more a matter to my opinion how to connect them and see how they can fit. Being busy with that I realise how much work this is, talking would be way much easier. However not being the case I´m curious how your thesis will be, showing your insight about this subject.

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@ Wil... good points made. I would also suggest that when discussing or denigrating the aristocracy as a class, the French aristocracy unlike their counterparts in England did not allow themselves to be taxed. This paramount factor and the wars of the 18th century (dynastic warfare in the Age of Reason), one of which benefited us Americans at Yorktown, kept France in an economic crisis throughout the 18th century. RR Palmer stresses that these "revolutions" in the 18th century had basically a "democratic" trait to them, that they originated as middle class events led by middle class personalities. What is called the "Tennis Court" Oath in English (this event isn't called the same in French) shows the upper middle class were not going to accept their subservient role vis-a vis the aristocracy in 1789.

True, certain members of the nobility favoured "enlightened despotism" or constitutional monarchy, as were those dead set against any change in way the Ancien Regime functioned, ie the emigres.

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@ Catlin...what is your thesis in graduate school? One more point on what has been mentioned above. True, the events of 1789 display the moderate aims of the middle class with regard to the monarchy. Their aims did not include the abolition of the monarchy. Look when the monarchy as an institution is finally abolished. How long was that after the Bastille? The question is at what point or what event (internal and external) is the proximate cause for the Revolution moving into its radical phase, ie lopping off heads, etc.

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Fred – Interesting to make the comparison with England. Despite the differences aristocracy in England (however GB still has a class system till today) cooperated better with middle class then in France and were more willing to make a deal if a crisis arose, most of the time when everything was at stake. Didn´t avoid all crisises, but never so extreme as the French Revolution, the proces leading to democracy was therefore less troublesome.

The Magna Carta of 1215 is the earliest written sign of democracy in England, can be seen as a contract and shows a longer tradition of negotiation between people and so more a sence of equality and unity among the English.

Middle class in England despite the class system played a more independant role and was therefore less directly linked with aristocracy, les elite. Thinkers like Locke, Hobbe and others represent better the liberal, way of thinking that leaded for instance to the foundation of the American political, business style system. But have to say that at this point my knowledge is limited, you must have more understanding how the relation with all ins and outs between America and England was before (and after) the Declaration of Independance, but happened in the same period as we talk about now.

Certainly I like to learn more about that too, but have to say if doing that we not tend starting to overlook the subject Caitlin wants to discuss with us.

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@ Wil...Good point in mentioning Locke, who certainly can be classified as a liberal or even radical thinker of the Enlightenment. I say radical because of his philosophy contained in the Declaration of Independence, justifying revolution against one's king under certain circumstances, ie, to effect a political break from rule by a monarch, which was regarded in the context of the 18th century as part of the natural order. The only other political thinker of the Enlightenment more radical than Locke given the context of the 18th century, is Rousseau, his idea on nobility, on war insofar as defending one's country that leads to the democratization of war by the French Revolutionaries, the total opposite of the limited dynastic warfare in Europe under the Ancien Regime.

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Fred and Dick - I have the idea we can talk about history endless, learn a lot, how fantastic is that! But to keep the conversation somehow “under control” we have to limit it sooner or later, you know it´s a travel forum after all, however interest in history is a good reason to travel. But as long as the webmaster turns a blind eye......

I know John Locke from a few books I have about philosophy, till so far as a more theoritical person. But thanks to this forum I start to see the role he played in your history, for that reason he comes more alive and therefore interesting and worth to have a closer look. And if I´m not wrong that he still influences the world view the USA in general has nowadays. Must be the same for Rousseau for the French too I guess however according to me the spirit of the Ancien Régime is not completely gone there.

Absolutely interesting to compare the American/English approach with the French as there is surely a difference.

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341 posts

Ina Caro has written a pair of books you may find interesting:

"The Road from the Past: Traveling through History in France"
"Paris to the Past: Traveling through French History by Train"

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Yes, Caitlin, those Ina Caro books are organized by sites -- chateaux, cathedrals, etc. -- associated with particular people and events. I haven't checked lately, but she probably has chapters about places connected with your pre-Revolutionary period. Plus she's a vivid and entertaining writer.

Wii -- If you asked Americans who John Locke was and what his ideas were, I doubt if 10% could tell you. But many of the ideas about equality and human rights are absolutely part of our cultural and political fabric (even if we don't always live up to them). But you're right, this is a travel thread. Hope Caitlin is still with us! ;-)

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Yes, still here! I've been having a busy week so I haven't had the time to post, so I'm sorry for the delay. But I have enjoyed reading the fantastic discussion going on here! It's great to know there are still other people who feel so passionately about history. And thank you so much for the book suggestions Bill G. and Dick, her books sound perfect - exactly what I'm interested in. I'll be sure to find them on Amazon!

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Hi,

A superb, extremely readable (and thin) survey I heartily suggest is one by the British historian Felix Markham "Wagram and the Awakening of Europe." Extremely readable vs ploughing through the book. The pertinent part focusing on your specific interest is his lucid, concise discussion on France prior to 1789, sociologically, politically, and the effects of the French Revolution on Europe. The rest of the book deals with the political effects of the battle of Wagram (1809), located outside of Vienna which is accessible by taking the S-Bahn to see the place and the museum.

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Dick and Caitlin, please post what you think about those books if you have a chance to read them. I just got them a few weeks ago after stumbling across a reference to them and they haven't made it to the top of my reading stack yet. They do sound intriguing, though; I like to have an understanding of the history of an area before I visit so these are background material to help me plan a future trip to France.

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Caitlin, glad you are still here! Today I had a few things to do too and little time to get focussed and prepair a decent response, but will post it tomorrow or at least within a few days.

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I guess some of you people aren't retired! ;-)

Bill G, I read "Paris to the Past" and liked it a lot, probably best taken in small bites instead of all at once. I haven't read her other book. FYI Ina Caro is the wife of Robert Caro, whose multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson has won many awards (another volume to come). She wrote at least one of the chapters about Texas. One reason it's taken so long for the LBJ books to appear is that they go to France every summer for a month or more. For awhile they were driving to places in chronological order, not geographical -- which made for a lot of road miles. I doubt if they're still doing that. More than you wanted to know, I guess!

Caitlin, as a serious historian you may not care for historical fiction the way some of us amateurs do, but one excellent novel about the period is "City of Darkness, City of Light" by Marge Piercy. Here's a link to her website, it's the third novel down the list. The pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary periods are told through 8-10 characters, most if not all real people.

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Dick – Referring to your earlier post, a pity that so less people nowadays are interested in history, but that´s the way it is.

Sorry if I´m contradicting myself about ending this thread sooner or later, like to add a few extra words...................................have tried to keep it short :-).

Part 1:

As said before comparing the aristocracy in France and England/Great Britain with each other is still interesting to my opinion.

Why aristocracy in England survived and in France not? Still keeping in mind what aristocracy in the latter during the pre-Revolutanary period had to cope with. Important is that both countries have two different mentalities, Northern European vs. Latin and I like to speak more specific in Europe everything influenced by the Mediterranean on one side, the northern Atlantic Ocean / North Sea on the other side, however use the labels NE and Latin to keep it simple.

Till The Renaissance Europe as a whole was strongly influenced by the Mediterranean, most obvious reflected in the all-embracing dominant presence of the Roman Catholic Church for instance, a legacy of the Roman Empire. During Renaissance that influence started to change dramatically. The whole economic and cultural center of gravity shifted in quite a short period of time from the Mediterranean to Northern Europe and unveiled a significant difference between the two blocks. In that period Northern Europe liberated itself not without struggle from that southern influence, you can see in this respect Protestantism for instance as a move to religious independance, but also the Dutch Revolt, our Eighty Years’ War against Spain.

As a whole you can see two types of people appear, Latin more hierarchical, familial, collectivistic versus NE being more equal, independent, individualistic and important one can see a more emotional, visible way of thinking and acting against a more rational, abstract way of thinking and acting. With visible I mean for instance with power that you show it like macho behaviour in person or in combination with material things like Versailles shows so well. These characteristics are deeply embedded in peoples character, having a profound influence on the course of history.

During The Renaissance Europe started exploring the world and started later world colonization as well. With that we exported not only our conflicts and competition, but among other things also our mentality, the hughe difference between USA/Canada and Latin America makes that clear so well and for instance more specific the relationship between the USA and Cuba, being so close located but so different. The official argument is capitalism versus communism, but to my opinion the basic disagreement is collectivism versus individualism, more broadly seen Northern Europe versus Latin, a clash between fundamentally different social values / attitudes and also economics.

With Castro Cuba has a “strong” leader (if that´s the case can always be discussed) but anyway he is the typical Latin macho, an omnipresent father figure liking to seize and also show power (like his notorious speeches) and how did it happen?......the revolutionary way, pushing away the former macho Batista. Not an isolated case as it characterizes as a whole Latin American political history being a playground for dictators and revolutionares.
With this the situation of pre-Revolutionary France is to my opinion very well to compare if not seen too symplistic. There are also people, surely the intellectual elite in Cuba who want to get rid of the regime and certainly they discuss that, wisely not in public, but what can they do? With another revolution getting a new dictator? Or with reason and negotiation, but does it really work, being possible? Risk to be put in prison or worse? Does the mindset of the people of the nation as a whole allow and support that? Well enough? Keep enough distance to that mentality were they are so much intertwined with?

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Part 2:

So to enforce a fundamental change to a more liberal system you have to cope with that. And I guess members of aristocracy in France in the pre-Revolutinary period had to face the same problem, to take more or less the same hurdle. That cocoon proved to strong, it didn´t work, the crisis came in the hands of revolutionare characters and for that I think a revolution was unavoidable and the well-willing amongst aristocracy were certainly victim. So the mentality playes an important role. It don´t have to be always that crisises lead to revolution, but there is just a higher risk it will go that way if the mentality is sensitive for that. So to my opinion the French still tend to act rebellious if things don´t go the way they like, for instance striking nowadays is way more accepted as a means of negotiation, for making a deal, it’s part of the nation’s character. In the USA I think way less obvious. The streets of Paris are specially made wide in the 19th century to better oversee and control the streetfights with rebellious groups.

Due to another, that Northern European mentality aristocracy in England had not really to cope with that. I think thanks to that mentality of consesus or at least willing enough to act according they could if necessary made a deal and for that reason they managed to survive till today with their class society and (like btw we have in the Netherlands too) a constitutional monarchy. The British can be in some cases hooligans but very unlikely revolutionares. The same applies in general to the other Northern European countries.

In short: there is to my opinion not only a historical aspect to study, but a cultural aspect as well.

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Wil, interesting hypothesis there, but don't forget Britain was coming out of two centuries of being one of Europe's most politically unstable countries. Several large rebellions, civil wars, the execution of one king and the deposition of another, the deposition of a dynasty, the creation of a state that looked vulnerable from the start. It also helped the move to parliamentary government that the new dynasty, the Hanoverians, could not speak English so had to rely on political managers. On the other hand France was politically very stable at the same time.

The constitutional development in Britain as opposed to France was not really a N v S Europe issue, more of a dance over power that both political sides wanted to avoid going back to the disastrous days of the 1640s. In those centuries the London mob was as bad or worse than the Paris mob.

Because of this instability, power was decentralised from the monarchy in away it was not elsewhere, but in away which allowed it to spread the share of power a little bit further each time, so that unlike France there was not the immediate and ruthless jockeying for power with each step. Whereas France power got centralised in the monarchy under Louis XIV in a system which needed a ruthless head or a CEO to operate, which Louis XVI was neither, in a way like Nicholas II in Russia more suitable to being constitutional monarch than the autocrat the system asked them to be.

It should be remembered none of these revolutions were democratic, they were about extending power to some, not all. The some being the revolutionary leadership. Democracy as we know it now would have horrified most of the revolutionaries in the US and France, and part of the gradual revolution in the UK was to avoid democracy, which meant the worst excesses of the First Republic in France, and meant that from 1789 to 1848 the voting qualifications went up and down on a regular basis.

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10344 posts

This thread wins the prize for the most scholarly discussion thread here.
I'm glad these kind of discussions can be had here.
I've noticed the in-depth knowledge that some of our forum contributors have, and have read these with interest.

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MC - Thank you for contributing. Both nations reached the point of democracy, both had their struggles, but both differ in the way and the result. For one aristocracy didn´t survive, for the other it did.

The reason why one survived is still to my opinion that element of consensus. The Magna Carta of 1215 (based on the Charter of Liberties of Hendrik I) shows clearly in detail the deal between the king, citizens and the church with that important unique regulation that the first very unusual those days accepted a limitation of his power for the common cause, national interest, the reason why it deserves it´s place on the UNESCO-list, read their motivation. Only if there is enough consensus you can make a settlement like this successful as you can for instance also control crisis better and so improving stability and life for everybody in general. Showing that consensus and a certain extend of equality is part of the English / British traditional character.

Based on that mentality aristocracy* and middle class despite all the painfull struggle, instability, periods of weak consensus the parties were eventually able to talk with each other and could come to a deal in the form of the constitutional monarchy, so both survived beyond the point of installation of democracy as a result. Doesn´t mean that everybody is 100% happy, but you can go further together under better circumstances.

So France differ in that never having that tradition of consensus or at least not strong enough to have influence enough in the relationship between aristocracy*, citizens and church, being more based on obedience. Because of that parties lived too much isolated. Aristocracy as a whole playing constantly topdog, lacking that consensus the only option was revolution once society started to change fundamentally and a crisis triggered the confrontation. France reached the point of democracy also but without aristocracy as a result.

Likely the tentions and struggles between classes were spread over a longer period in England/Great Britain but thanks to that element of consensus, equality, willing to cooperate it never came to the point of cultural cleansing the aristocracy like in France and more usual in countries with a revolutionary, dictatorial tradition.

I agree with you that the struggles were unnecessary but apparently unavoidable bumps on the way to democracy.

*Meaning included with royalty.

Fred - pm asap.

Posted by
5265 posts

Caitlin, where do I apply for college credit for reading this thread?

Wil and MC, fascinating discussion. I hadn't thought about the Hanoverians' lack of English as empowering their ministers and Parliament, but of course it makes sense.

Also, Wil, you may already know that Washington, D.C. was laid out by Pierre L'Enfant, who designed wide boulevards linked by circles in order to help the government control the mob if necessary. Now we driving mobsters curse him as we navigate his circles, but bless his hypotenuses that get us through the street grid!

Posted by
1345 posts

Wil, it is interesting that you mention the Magna Carta. Few people know what it is about in the UK, but it has influenced constitutional development in England and then the UK since 1215.

It was also of its time. And this links back over to France. When Duke William came over in 1066 he took over one of the best run states in medieval Europe. Indeed, better run than Normandy which was also one of the best run states in medieval Europe. And indeed that is part of the difference. Normandy was a separate state to France in the early medieval period.

The dukes of Normandy were generally more secure in their power than the kings of France to whom they owed allegiance, although the early years of Duke William were very rough. The Norman lords who were superimposed into England started to see things in the Anglo Saxon system they inherited they liked, such as the Witan which gave the land lords some say. It did not really matter under William I, Henry I, who were competent at their job, Henry II and Richard I who were not here. It mattered under Stephen (the Cadfael novels) and under John, who lost the Angevin empire in France.

So Magna Carta was possibly a product of its time. I find it sweet that the Magna Carta is enshrined in certain state laws, most of it has been revoked in England and then the UK. But it was the product of a unitary state France did not have until the revolution

There were customs barriers between the provinces up to the revolution in France reminiscent of pre unification Germany or Italy, something the centralised power in England managed to avoid it. It is almost as if Louis XIV forgot that major piece of centralisation that the republic instituted in the 1790s and then kept.

However, your comment on the consensus of rule is interesting. The monarchies of Europe which have survived, the UK, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, are ones where the power has been shared and shared quite early to the extent our monarchs have little real power but a lot of hidden power. Spain is slightly different but one of the great things Juan Carlos did was lead Spain into a parliamentary system based on the northern European model, which possibly saved the Spanish monarchy. 11-F helped him.

Dick, it is interesting the language of the royal family in the UK from 1714 until WW1 was German. They were Germans to their core, Victoria's diaries have English words spelled as if they were in German. George I and George II could not speak English comfortably. The first of that dynasty who could, George III, was the one who found the constitution had changed around him at least in the UK that constitutional, parliamentary monarchy was a given.

Posted by
13004 posts

We should keep in mind the England and France experienced different revolutions. With William and Mary accepting the invitation from Parliament to ascend the throne, that was a polltically motivated event, to preclude a Catholic dynasty since the unpopular (by his own doing) James II now had a heir with his new born son. William also accepts a year later the rules that render his rule as that of a constitutional monarch. The coming of the House of Hannover in 1714 reaffirms this with the Georges, that of a constitutional monarch and parliamentary supremacy.

France is entirely different with the personality of Louis XIV. There are two contending bodies vying for power in France,.. 1, the aristocracy, 2) the monarch. Under absolutism as envisioned by Louis, he is determined not only to reign but also to rule. He is correct in seeing the aristocracy as his political foes. In the English Civil War royal absolutism under Charles I had been defeated by Parliament. That result ensures parliamentary supremacy against any royalist resurgence, especially a Catholic one.

Unlike in England the occurrence of the French Revolution is not merely a political event to remove the absolutism of the king, when the moderates in this first stage of the revolution were satisfied having Louis XVI as a constitutional monarch before he makes the fateful decision to escape, (See that movie "La Nuit de Varennes" on his escape), but also the radicals had also seen the ideological aspect as a goal, ie to export to monarchial Europe the ideals of the Revolution by the sword. (aux armes, citoyens )

This meant invading Belgium together with the lower Rhine, the same war aims as Louis XIV, with the same result: England can be counted as one the enemies of France with the goal overthrowing the French Revolutionaries. Historical continuity here.

Posted by
10344 posts

"The two nations set off in different directions. England headed towards liberty, France towards absolutism."
(Alistaire Horne quoting Ernest Lavisse, Histoire de France)
This is from Horne's The Seven Ages of France, the 13th century chapter.

Posted by
1684 posts

I´m going to cut some corners to keep my posts manageable, so not reply to everything in detail.

Kent – Voilà, you hit the nail on the head! Thank you to summarize in one sentence and to point to the 13th century!

Dick - I know that Washington, D.C.´s street layout was designed by a Frenchman but no more than that. Seems L´Enfant was born in Paris so he knew quite well what the mob was like..... :-)

MC - So Magna Carta was possibly a product of its time. Yes with that how modern the legislation was. Regarding the remark of Kent and the reference to the 13th century shows that the idea´s of Magna Carta were already widely supported (necessary to enforce it, otherwise it´s just a piece of paper) and step by step, but not without struggle liberalism (again consensus) found his way in England and matured. Later in independent USA it got more it´s final form, however not a guarantee it functions perfect.

Good to remark that also other Northern Europeans states have become constitutional monarchies and that assuming Juan Carlos I listed very well to his colleagues he ended the period of dictatorship in Spain in an exemplary diplomatic way.

Fred – I already answered in a pm.

That Louis XVI tried to escape, but captured soon made the crisis even worse. It´s hard to say what would have happened if he didn´t...... It is possible that this is one of the missed game changes for the good, to get to know that exactly must be researched profoundly, can be ofcourse discussed. But lacking enough “liberalism” in France it remains to my opinion that it likely not really mattered what he did, I think the crisis was already in the state beyond control. Also it remains possible how close they were finding a solution, however the situation was to my opinion too vulnerable and for that too easily felled in revolutionares hands, a bit like Murphy´s law: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong".

Your remark in your pm about the move to Absolutism by Louis XIV is interesting. I´m not quoting the complete reply as my posts become so enterily lengthy....so in short: Instead of strengthen his position he made it to my opinion more extreme and isolated, making the gap between him and the rest bigger and actually behind the scenes the Ancien Régime started to de-stabilize, despite the splendor. Nobility lost against their liking influence this way and interesting is to know the impact on their opinion, especially later during the pre-Revolution period. It didn´t help anyway his descendant. So Caitlin we are back to your question.

Posted by
1345 posts

Wil, interesting points as usual. By of its time for the Magna Carta there are a few things I may need to clarify. Back in 1066 William I had conquered England, one of the most 'modern' states in Europe, and had come from one of the others, Normandy. It meant that the king had central power, but was less threatened, something he needed to be to hold together Anglo-Normandy. His son, Henry I, was also an able administrator who improved the taxes.

Then it went wrong. His heir, Matilda, was not accepted by the barons who placed Stephen of Blois on the throne, result was 20 years of on and off civil war, the time 'Christ and All His Angels Slept' sometimes referred to as The Anarchy. The agreed settlement placed Matilda's son, Henry II, on the throne. By his inheritance he took England, Normandy, Anjou, and was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Who ruled half the rest of France. This Angevin Empire needed to be kept together, so he moved around a lot. This meant the various lands had to administer themselves much more. He died in 1189 and was succeeded by Richard I, the Lionheart. Henry and Eleanor's children were known as The Devil's Brood, they seemed to be permanently fighting each other. Richard promptly spent 6 months of his reign in England, fighting either the Crusades, his brothers or the French.

Then in 1199 he died and was succeeded by John. Who promptly lost the Angevin inheritance in France, and the Barons with lands in England and in France had to choose. They were not happy, a) they suddenly had a king at home rather than in the Loire taking their lands, b) the bargains between the Barons and the crown over power were broken, and c) John had cost his barons a lot of money by losing their lands in France. John was also not that good an administrator, he was capricious, vicious, well, a Bond villain. But his position was weak. What the barons did was organise, look at the Witan from before 1066 and hold John's feet to the fire when John was being the weakest link of the Plantagenet dynasty. However what it did was give a precedent for whenever there was a political crisis.

Switching back to France, it is interesting Louis XIV looked at French history, looked across the Channel and decided to avoid the crisis England had had a few decades previously by tightening control. What he created was a system so rigid and in need of a powerful figure to control, that when it reached a crisis point in 1789, it could not survive or evolve. Louis XIV did give France that stability in comparison, but with no room for his heirs if they were not up to the job, whereas the crises that rocked the English monarchy in the same century gave it the wriggle room required for long term survival.

Posted by
1684 posts

MC – Thank you for your detailed description. I think too that England was already well organized in that period. Being an island it was to my opinion less prone to invading powers and could focus more on internal struggles, disagreements and having this way an advantage in settling problems and became compared to other nations earlier political (relative) mature, giving more room on the longrun to liberty.

What made William´s 1066 invasion of England from Normandy succesful and so unique that it was so extremely well organized, looks quite modern. Maybe the pictures of the Bayeux Tapestry looks primitive and cute, reality was totally different if looking further. Normandy was much influenced by the “Northman” (man from the north) as it was once a Viking colony and set them actually with their different mentality apart from the rest of France. Despite most people think that Vikings were only a bunch of barbarians, savages and certainly their raids haven given that notorious reputation, but actually they were well organized and very capable sailors and their ships well engineered. William I "the Conqueror", being a direct descendant of the Norwegian Viking king Rollo, this background likely has played part in the success of the operation.

For those more interested in the Northern European "abstract" and "consensus" mentality and many things in modern life that can be traced back to Medieval times here I can recommend Michael Pye´s book: The Edge of the World / How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are.

http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21627555-how-modern-world-arose-north-sea-making-waves (that windmill is in Fleshingen and close at my home)

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/05/the-edge-of-the-world-north-sea-michael-pye-review

Still about the French Revolution, we can keep talking if it was a result of a weak link (Louis XVI) in the chain of events or do we talk about “system failure” , the chain as a whole has been weakened through time and just waiting that a (relative?) weak link gives way. To my opinion this is discussed already extensively, and speaking for myself coming to the point that I can´t add much more to it and I think the thread risks losing it´s overview. And so I like to think about ending my contribution to this otherwise for me so intriguing thread. Maybe to summerize the opinions in a coming post, but........that will be it.

Posted by
1345 posts

Wil, interesting points again, and thank you for your points, and interestingly I have that 'How the North Sea Made Us' book, currently being worked through on the Kindle. It is interesting you mentioned that the Conquest was 'modern' in that Normandy and England were amongst the best administered states in northern Europe at the time, one of the reasons England was such a lure to William in the first place.

Back to France, my opinion was a system failure in the run up to 1789. France and what became the UK had had a couple of difficult centuries in the early modern period, were fierce rivals, with England then GB being the weaker partner. Religious convulsions swept both, and the Civil War erupted.

That the parliamentary forces won in Great Britain meant absolutism was never back on the table after that, power was going to have to be shared. Charles II got away with it, James VII/II did not. He was not the despot propagandists tried to paint but was the wrong religion less than 40 years after his father lost a Civil War as much about religion and power. If he had been CofE then the Stuart dynasty may have survived.

Louis XIV saw the chaos this had wrought and pulled power to himself, but in such away it meant local or different focuses of power were dissapaited. Unfortunately as the Romanovs found out in 1917, the system is only as strong as its head, as soon as a weak/non ruthless ruler comes to power, the dynasty is vulnerable. Regimes that spread power and responsibility have a greater strenght because the blaim can be spread as much as the credit.

My opinion is France, the French monarchy, in the 1780s was systemically weak. The system needed a stronger leader than Louis XVI to make it work properly in good times, which advisors doing their jobs properly following a famine, well the results were almost inevitable. Louis XVI paid the mistake of Louis XIV taking the wrong lesson, as would Charles X in 1830. Power shared is power retained, power hoarded is power lost.

Posted by
13004 posts

In the 1780s the French monarchy was deeply in debt, made more acute by helping the Americans in their revolutionary war against England. The French monarchy was in debt after it role in the Seven Years' War, still it decided to help the Americans by 1777. Two of Louis VVI financial advisors had urged him to tax the nobles, both came up with that as a solution to France's financial problems. Both were in turn dismissed. Both had done independent research into this problem , both had arrived at the same conclusion.

Charles II made it, survived because he was wise enough not to alienate Parliament as had his father and James II would do the same alienation with Parliament. Charles II was popular in the Restoration. The Stuarts after James II never returned because they were defeated in battle, thereby ending any hope of a Stuart restoration. True, one can compare James II with Charles X, shortsighted, doctrinaire, extreme. .