Rethinking the State in Ancien Régime France, Then and Now

AHA Session 71
Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Tabetha Ewing, Bard College
Tabetha Ewing, Bard College

Session Abstract

This session will bring together historical and historiographical reconsiderations of the eighteenth-century French state. In his paper, “Crisis of Historical Legitimacy at the Académie des inscriptions,” Anton Matytsin will examine controversies among academicians regarding the origins of the French and of the French monarchy. The academicians’ studies of ancient and medieval societies served as a provocation and proxy in debates over the origins, nature, and purpose of the French state and of political authority more broadly, and this paper will discuss their role in shaping the historical and political consciousness of Enlightenment France. Adrian O’Connor’s paper, “‘Une veritable question d’état’: controversies over ceremonial robes and corporate citizenship at the University of Paris,” will focus on a dispute over sartorial privileges and corporate governance in the Parisian Faculty of Law during the 1760s and 1770s. Sparked by a controversy over who could and who could not wear honorific red robes on ceremonial occasions, the case would ultimately hinge on competing views of legitimate social hierarchy, institutional organization, and corporate citizenship. It is examined here as a point of entry into the eighteenth-century’s transition from a corporatist to an individualist political paradigm and as a case study in how competing models of civic and political association encountered one another in Ancien Régime institutions. In “The Contradictory Nature of ‘Centralization’ in the Bourbon Patrimonial State,” Gail Bossenga will offer a historiographical complement to these themes, reexamining the process and prospects of political “centralization” under the Bourbon monarchy. Reconsidering the Ancien Régime state as essentially “patrimonial” (rather than “bureaucratic”), her paper will highlight a central and seemingly-intractable problem facing those who aimed to reform and centralize the French monarchy during the eighteenth century: 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 bureaucratized without destroying the nature of that state itself. Together, these three papers will highlight the cultural, intellectual, and institutional dynamics that pushed eighteenth-century commentators to re-think the social and political orders in France as well as the conceptual, political, and practical forces that constrained their efforts. Comments will be offered by Tabetha Ewing, who will also chair the session.
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