After the Middle Ages, treated in the first three volumes of the collection, the PUF offers a "personal history" of the Ancien Régime, written by the modernist historian Jean-Marie Le Gall. An introduction to the 16th and 17th centuries which brings together in a short volume the Renaissance, the Wars of Religion and the reign of Louis XIV. Like the other volumes in this series, is the bet successful?
What are the modern times?
In his introduction, Jean-Marie Le Gall (professor of modern history at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) insists that the term “Ancien Régime” is not contemporary with those who lived through this period (it actually dates back to of the Revolution), but that the latter were aware, from the second half of the fifteenth century that "their era emerged from a Middle Ages, from an intermediate age between Antiquity, which had passed, and the deployed to bring it back to life in the 16th century, in what was later called the Renaissance ”.
Another important clarification of the author, since this will be one of the strengths of the book, his desire "to include this history of France in its European and global environment since the 16th century saw a global opening up".
The work opens logically with the Renaissance. From his introduction, the historian specifies the origins of the term “Renaissance” and qualifies the fracture that the 16th century would have been, particularly in the “rediscovery” of Antiquity. Indeed, it had never been forgotten by the people of the Middle Ages. And even if there exists, in the XVIth century, a "feeling of living an exit from the dark ages", Jean-Marie Le Gall shows that "a certain number of new facts which occur in the Renaissance are indeed the result of dynamics engendered in the Middle Ages ”.
In an original way, the author begins his part with “the oceanic adventure”, an approach that must be welcomed, so rare is it in books popularizing the history of France. This oceanic adventure is indeed very little known to the general public, and even if this chapter is short, we want to go further.
Then come the wars in Italy, which had been mentioned in the previous volume. A chapter which also allows to address a little known part of history, in particular the two kings who preceded François I: Charles VIII and Louis XII.
We then enter more precisely in the French Renaissance for the last chapter.
"Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century"
It is interesting to note that Jean-Marie Le Gall did not title his second part "The Wars of Religion". Indeed, it deals with subjects much vaster than conflicts, in three chapters: the first devoted entirely to the Reformation; the second centered on the Wars of Religion and their complexity (civil war, but also international); the last on royal power in this context, ending with "the myth of Henri IV", a theme just discussed.
Here too, the historian insists on the international aspect of these questions.
"Richelieu and Mazarin: the cardinal years"
This third part is original because it is not centered on the reign of Louis XIII or the beginning of that of Louis XIV, but is more specifically interested in the role of their famous ministers: Richelieu and Mazarin.
However, the main theme of this period is war. If Henri IV had achieved a fragile peace, his death opens what Jean-Marie Le Gall calls "the iron century". Once again international wars, notably the Thirty Years' War, the War of Religion and the European war. A religion still present in the context of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
"The reign of Louis XIV"
The last part is entirely devoted to the long reign of Louis XIV. A period famous, as the author explains, first by the longevity of the reign, then by “the patrimonial heritage” (Versailles), finally by “the black legend” of this “absolute king, tyrannical, persecutor of Protestants ”, and which never leaves you indifferent.
To deal with this rich subject, Jean-Marie Le Gall develops three dense chapters. The first, "Louis XIV and glory", is particularly interested in the "warrior king" and the "builder king", as well as his relationship to God. The second chapter deals with "the means of power". Finally, the historian draws up "the assessment of a long reign", to say the least mixed, and which has the seeds of the future difficulties of the monarchy ("emergence of liberalism", "tax grab", growing importance of the bourgeoisie) .
In his conclusion, Jean-Marie Le Gall believes that “the Counter-Reformation increased the Church's control over religious practices”, but that “an autonomous political space of religious people has developed, where the royal power asserts its absolute character ”. War is also one of the major characteristics of this period, as we have also seen in the work of Hervé Drévillon (Belin). Finally, even if France failed against Spain and Portugal, it opened up to the open sea, and even more to the idea of progress, which will be decisive for the period to come: the Enlightenment.
This new volume of "the personal history of France" confirms the strengths of this collection, in particular great clarity (including the maps and chronology still present), and the desire to make people want to go further (the bibliography) . Obviously, it is impossible to be exhaustive in less than 200 pages, but it is probably more interesting today to propose new angles of approach (in particular by the "global") than to claim a futile exhaustiveness.
J-M. Le Gall, The old regime, PUF, 2013, 198 p.