The Contradictory Nature of “Centralization” in the Bourbon Patrimonial State

Friday, January 5, 2018: 9:10 AM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton)
Gail Bossenga, Elizabethtown College
Although it is a commonplace to assert that “centralization” characterized the development of the Bourbon state, historians have often criticized the notion. Nonetheless, this idea does not easily go away because it seems, however vaguely, to explain certain fundamental features of the state. The proposed paper will revisit the question of centralization from the perspective of the “patrimonial” state. Frequently upbraided for viewing the state as a bureaucratic entity, Max Weber actually argued that Bourbon France was patrimonial, not bureaucratic, in nature. According to Weber’s “ideal type,” a patrimonial polity has no firm lines between public and private spheres. The state grows out of the personal role of the king as sovereign, the succession of members of the royal family, the king’s household (the royal court), and its extensive patron-client networks. In terms of this perspective, centralization begins by codifying and routinizing these relationships, but not by replacing them. Hence, in the case of France, although it looked as if the French state was simply becoming more bureaucratic as networks of officials developed, it actually was becoming more contradictory in its institutional development. The core of the patrimonial state—personal royal sovereignty, the court with all its hangers-on, and its patronage networks—remained as powerful as ever and could not be fundamentally reformed or eliminated without destroying the nature of that state itself. When reforming ministers, particularly after 1750, tried to reform the state by attacking court-based vested interests and other privileged entities, they came up against a seemingly unsolvable problem: they had to pit the state against itself.
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