In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section France in the 17th Century

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Peasants and the Countryside
  • Violence, Revolt, and Rebellion
  • Women and the Family
  • France in Europe
  • France Overseas
  • The Arts and Intellectual Life

Renaissance and Reformation France in the 17th Century
Darryl Dee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0300


The 17th century occupies a pivotal place in the history of France between the turbulence of the Wars of Religion and the long calm of the Old Regime. On the one hand, it was a period of political, economic, religious, and social crises. On the other hand, it was the “Great Century” (Grand Siècle) that saw the establishment of France’s hegemony in Europe, its expansion overseas, the efflorescence of French classical culture, and the zenith of the absolute monarchy. After Henri IV (r. 1589–1610) ended the great religious civil wars, Cardinal Richelieu, prime minister to Louis XIII (r. 1610–1643), embarked on a policy of strengthening royal authority. In 1635, he committed France into the conflagration of the Thirty Years’ War and a quarter-century-long duel with Spain. France emerged from these wars as Europe’s dominant power. Yet the cost was high. The monarchy’s efforts to increase its authority and to raise the money it needed to pay its armies provoked massive resistance from all levels of French society. There were 232 popular uprisings between 1635 and 1660. Elite opposition to the crown culminated the Fronde, a near-revolution against Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin. After assuming personal rule in 1661, Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) determined to complete the work begun by his predecessors. He reformed the state, secured the obedience of the French elites, expanded his army to the largest in Europe, and encouraged the growth of colonies abroad. He established a glittering court at Versailles and promoted the development of the arts. The Sun King became a model other European rulers strove to emulate. After 1688, however, Louis XIV’s bellicose foreign policy led to a new round of wars that would darken the end of the century. This entry aims to introduce students and researchers to the historical scholarship on this fascinating period. It begins after the reign of Henri IV. For information on France under the first Bourbon monarch, see the entries on the Reformation and Wars of Religion in France and Henri IV.

General Overviews

These works survey the major historical developments of the 17th century. Briggs 1998 is a classic account of political developments. Although somewhat dated, it is still useful for undergraduates. Another classic political account is Tapié 1975, which, as its title indicates, focuses on the age of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu. Kettering 2001 analyzes social structure and social change. The other titles in this section place the 17th century in the broader context of French history. Collins 2009 examines the evolution of the state and argues that the late 17th century saw the emergence of the “mature monarchical state” that would be overthrown by the Revolution of 1789. Beik 2009 surveys social and cultural developments from the 16th to the 18th century. The best introduction to the period for advanced undergraduates and researchers alike is the two volumes of the Short Oxford History of France: Holt 2002 covers the period from the beginning of the 16th century to the death of Louis XIII and Doyle 2001 the reign of Louis XIV to the Revolution. Finally, Jouhaud 2007 provocatively challenges how the French have created and made modern use of the history of the “Great Century.”

  • Beik, William. A Social and Cultural History of Early Modern France. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    A wide-ranging survey of social and cultural developments from the 16th to the 18th century. Twelve chapters explore such topics as population, peasant life, noble power, traditional ideas and attitudes, and the forces of change.

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

    First published in 1977, this readable but somewhat dated survey focuses on political history while also having useful chapters on society, the economy, and beliefs and culture.

  • Collins, James B. The State in Early Modern France. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    Surveys the development of the state from Henri IV to the Revolution. Collins argues that the French monarchical state rapidly developed into a mature form by the end of the 17th century.

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

    Begins with the reign of Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) and ends with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. It comprises nine chapters by experts on such subjects as society, the economy, and France overseas. The work’s scope places the 17th century in the context of the rise and fall of the Old Regime.

  • Holt, Mack, ed. Renaissance and Reformation France. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Covers the period 1500 to 1648. Written by experts, its eight chapters treat political, social, and religious topics. The last two chapters cover religious and political developments during the first half of the 17th century.

  • Jouhaud, Christian. Sauver le Grand Siècle? Présence et transmission du passé. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2007.

    A study of how the French have made and used the history of the Great Century (Grand Siècle). Jouhaud argues in favor of new accounts of the 17th century that are less bellicose, more humane, and less centered on the achievements of the monarchy.

  • Kettering, Sharon. French Society, 1589–1715. London: Routledge, 2001.

    A fine introduction to social structure and social change during the “long 17th century” by one of the foremost social historians of the period.

  • Tapié, Victor-Lucien. France in the Age of Louis XIII and Richelieu. Translated by D. M. Lockie. New York: Praeger, 1975.

    A translation of La France de Louis XIII et de Richelieu (second edition, Paris: Flammarion, 1967). A classic account of political developments during the reign of Louis XIII, focusing on the trials and achievements of the king and his famous prime minister.

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