In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Modern France

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Primary Sources

Atlantic History Early Modern France
Nicolas Lyon-Caen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0201


France is the largest, most populous, and richest country in Europe. Beginning in the Middle Ages, the monarchy tried to build a powerful state by multiplying its agents and reducing the autonomy of the provinces. Therefore, historians have usually focused their attention upon this cultural, social, and political homogenization. This long-term approach still dominates the historiography and literature in the field. More recently, however, scholars have also highlighted the forms of resistance to this centripetal force, the resilience of regional identities, and the peculiarities of local compromises. Although France belatedly began to establish colonies in the Atlantic world during the 17th century, they were not regarded as critical for the history of the colonial metropolis until the 18th century. Nevertheless, the French were not strangers to Atlantic trade. People and goods had been circulating there for a long time, reflecting a tendency to geographical mobility and revealing France’s economic dynamism. Thus, though this article favors the 17th and 18th centuries, it focuses on French social structures rather than on political events.

General Overviews

There are many good books on French history. The most complex and most challenging is Burguière and Revel 1989–1993. For the early modern period specifically, see Goubert and Roche 2000. Many syntheses consider a century (Roche 1995) or a reign, or give a brief presentation of the main features of the Old Regime (Doyle 2001). Two Oxford Bibliographies in Renaissance and Reformation articles provide an excellent overview for the 16th and 17th centuries: “France in the 16th Century” and “France in the 17th Century.”

  • Burguière, André, and Jacques Revel, eds. Histoire de la France. Paris: Le Seuil, 1989–1993.

    Four thematic volumes that give a broad vision of the history of France in the long term.

  • Doyle, William, ed. Old Regime France, 1648–1788. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Quick and very synthetic presentation of Old Regime France. A team of international scholars deals with the economy, society, culture, colonial empire, and the main characteristics of the state, as well as the trends of each reign.

  • Goubert, Pierre, and Daniel Roche. Les Français et l’ancien régime. 3d ed. Paris: Armand Colin, 2000.

    A general survey in two volumes that remains (since its first publication in 1969) a good account of the economy, society, state, and culture of Bourbon France. Its approach gives proper weight to the complexity of this society.

  • Roche, Daniel. La France des Lumières. Paris: Fayard, 1995.

    Broad examination of the social and cultural history of the Enlightenment in France. Unlike others, Roche considers that the Enlightenment didn’t grow out of specific forms of discourse or sociabilities, but rather insists on the social and economic changes that occurred during the 18th century. He particularly stresses the wider circulation of people, things, and ideas. Translated into English as France in the Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

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