In This Article Louis XIV, King of France

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • The Minority of Louis XIV and the Fronde
  • The Debate on Absolutism
  • Representations of Kingship
  • The Court
  • The Central Government and the King’s Ministers
  • Finances
  • War and the Military
  • Foreign Policy and Diplomacy
  • The Provinces
  • Nobles and Peasants
  • The Towns and Urban Society
  • Religion
  • Arts and Intellectual Life

Renaissance and Reformation Louis XIV, King of France
by
Darryl Dee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0182

Introduction

Louis XIV (b. 1638–d. 1715) was the longest reigning king in French history. His seventy-two years on the throne were a period of dramatic political, social, and cultural development as well as extraordinary turbulence. Coming to the throne at the age of five, Louis XIV was placed under the Regency of his mother, Anne of Austria, and his first minister, Cardinal Mazarin. As a boy-king, he lived through the last decades of the Thirty Years War and the chaotic civil wars called the Fronde. After deciding to rule personally in 1661, he greatly strengthened the authority of the absolute monarchy, embarked on a quest to increase his personal greatness (gloire, grandeur), made France the dominant power in Europe, and, as the self-proclaimed Sun King (Roi-Soleil), presided over the efflorescence of classical French culture from his glittering court at Versailles. His last three decades were darkened by great wars, religious controversy, famine, state bankruptcy, and economic stagnation. Ever since, historians have grappled with the meaning and significance of his reign. For Voltaire, the age of Louis XIV was an era of cultural achievement equal to Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, and Renaissance Italy. The partisans of the French Revolution condemned him as the chief architect of royal despotism. French historians of the 19th century, strongly influenced by contemporary currents of liberalism and nationalism, portrayed him as a great state-builder who laid the foundations of the modern state. This interpretation was largely adopted by the English-speaking historians who studied Louis XIV in ever-greater numbers over the course of the 20th century. In the 1980s, a lively debate broke out on the nature of Louis XIV’s absolute monarchy. Challenging the traditional view of the Sun King as a modernizing state builder, revisionist historians have argued that his rule in fact depended on collaboration with existing elites and aimed at the defense of a traditional society. The absolutism debate has transformed the study of Louis XIV, showing no signs of abating. This article is intended as an introductory guide to the scholarship on Louis XIV, a rich and constantly growing body of work full of color, contention, and controversy.

General Overviews

These general overviews place the reign of Louis XIV in the broader context of French history from the 16th century to the end of the 18th century. Briggs 1998 begins with the outbreak of the Wars of Religion and concludes with Louis XIV’s death. Bercé 1996 examines developments from the accession of Henri IV (r. 1589–1610), the first Bourbon king of France, to the beginning of Louis XIV’s personal rule in 1661. Cornette 2012 and Doyle 2001 both place the reign at the center of the history of the French Old Regime; the latter employs a thematic rather than chronological approach. Jones 2002 surveys the history of 18th-century France from the starting point of Louis XIV’s reign. Another excellent survey is Collins 2005, cited under the Debate on Absolutism.

  • Bercé, Yves-Marie. The Birth of Absolutism: A History of France, 1598–1661. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    A translation of La naissance dramatique de l’absolutisme, 1598–1661 (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1992), this survey traces the Bourbon kings from Henry IV to Louis XIV’s assumption of personal power in 1661. As its title suggests, it links the rise of the Bourbons to the growth of royal power.

  • Briggs, Robin. Early Modern France 1560–1715. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    First published in 1977, this survey focuses on political history while also having useful chapters on society, the economy, and beliefs and culture. It hews to the traditional interpretation of the reign of Louis XIV as the culmination of absolute monarchy.

  • Cornette, Joël. Absolutisme et lumières, 1652–1783. 5th ed. Paris: Hachette, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    The best overview in French on the period, this survey places the reign of Louis XIV in a broader perspective. In addition, the author updates this work every two years to reflect the latest historiography in French, English, and other languages. It is thus particularly useful for graduate students.

  • Doyle, William, ed. Old Regime France. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    The best introduction to the subject for undergraduates. This study is comprised of nine thematic chapters by experts on such subjects as society, the economy, and France overseas. One chapter focuses on Louis XIV. The work’s scope places his reign in the context of the Old Regime’s rise and fall.

  • Jones, Colin. The Great Nation: France from Louis XIV to Napoleon, 1715–1799. London: Penguin, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    This readable survey of the 18th century, aimed as much at a general audience as a scholarly one, begins with a wide-ranging discussion of the legacy that Louis XIV left France in 1715. It argues persuasively that Louis XIV largely set the tone politically for his successors.

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