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Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

Patricia's Musings



Musical Rhetoric

Transcribed Sources


Katia Béguin, Financing War in the 17th Century.

Financer la guerre au XVIIe siècle (Paris: Champ Vallon, 2012), 386 pages
Madame Béguin had the kindness to send me a copy of her book; in return, I promised to write a comment on it. What follows are the thoughts of a generalist-historian as he faces a remarkably rich, profound and important work. First, some general points.

Katia Béguin (hereafter "KB") beautifully conveys the sense of urgency and the almost jerry-built efforts on the part of the Crown to get money any way it could in times when the size and effectiveness of armies were directly linked to their direct payment in coin. Borrowing, pawning, venal office creating, and rente creating occurred during Henry IV's reconquest of the realm, then again in the late 1620s, and again in the 1630s, 1640s and 1650s, and yet again in the 1670s, after which, for the rest of the century, almost constant large-scale war forced the Monarchy to find new ways to raise money. Deep in debt (except during the Sully and Colbert years), only very late in the century would the Monarchy come up with new devices for raising revenues, for example the capitation (1695) and the dixième (1710). Otherwise, Pomponne de Bellièvre or Sully would have been able quickly to grab the reins of the fiscal administration at almost any point throughout the century. When one looks at accounts or estimates of accounts, say in 1600 and 1700, the rationalized presentation, the "modern," easy-to-read writing, arabic numerals and, most important, the increased specificities of titles, sub-titles and categories in the accounts from post-Colbert decades, gave royal officials increased knowledge of the total fiscal situation of the realm. I do not wish to seem a fanatical Weberian, but rationalization and the phenomena of scale do interlock (e.g., the size of armies and the total annual fiscal revenues), even while the smalltime rente purchaser and the infantrymen remained faced with structurally similar risks across the century.

While KB finds elaboration by the state of the legal framing of rente sales, purchases, exchanges, etc., very important aspects of the "market" remained unregulated. The use of prête-noms continued, not only for smalltime fraud but also for very large-scale purchases, transfers and sales of rentes. the use of fiscal paper en blanc helped foster a secondary "market" about which royal officials had very little precise knowledge, though it certainly involved millions of livres. Rentes en viager constituted a major innovation. These legal instruments were a major part of the arsenal that notaries had at their disposal to meet their clients' requests for investments, dowries, equalization of legacies, etc. KB's table of rente creations (pp. 355-358) shows only 4 creations for sums of a million or more, from 1621 to 1674. But this occurred 53 times from 1674 to August 1715. The dynamic in the new creations was the size and age (sic) of wars: the longer they were fought, the more funds were needed, the more revenue arrears increased, the more interest rates climbed, and the more the capacity to borrow declined. Of course, crying up the coinage would also be ordered, with the inevitable result stated as a law by Gresham. I know that I am going out of KB's purview here, but it is curious to note that, in the years of war against Spain (and Sublet de Noyers changed the coinage), the creation of new rentes totaled only a few hundred thousand, while increases in the taille and other revenues, and the new creations of offices, quite quickly shifted the realm from relative tranquility to revolts, both popular and elite. Was there some méfiance about further rente sales? Or some sort of "market" saturation? Perhaps the famously infamous "milieux financiers" balked. KB informs me that saturation was the main cause. Perhaps the table of creations (Annexe 1) is well known (I do not know), and perhaps simply not complete. KB has defined there theme in ways that will prompt further research on all the other sources of revenue, again and of course beginning with Malet, now that his figures have been edited and interpreted by R. and M. Bonney (Paris, 1993).

In some ways, KB's work confirms the impression that studies of how the state borrows through instruments like rentes, have become a sub-field quite separate from the general field of state finance, especially since the bibliography of works for various European states has become enormous. It is to KB's credit that she not only controls the literature in the field but also integrates her own findings into the larger debates about state-credit formation, forms of government, and modernization.

Note that, of the four creations of over a million livres during the earlier period, only two occurred in 1634, presumably to pay down the debts left from the siege of La Rochelle and the descent into Italy. Or were they a war chest, prior to the declaration of "open" war with Spain in 1635? There were actually 5 creations in 1634, amounting to 13,367,000 livres at a time when pushing royal revenues to the limits could only produce about 36,000,000 livres (but see Bayard for the total picture). KB informs me that "Yes, clearly, Richelieu assumed this goal. Amounts for emissions, in my book, are the annual service of debt. Amounts in capital have to be multiplied by the denier (14 or 16 or 18 or 20)." On October 11, 1639, Bullion wrote Richelieu: "I have about thirty millions for and from the Parlements, provided the merchandise [offices] sells," (Ranum, Richelieu and the Councilors of Louis XIII, p.138) - this in a year when no new rentes were created. KB's work will permit a much more precise study of the fiscal strategies developed to pay for war. Gary B. McCollim's Louis XIV's Assault on Privilege: Nicolas Desmarets and the Tax on Wealth (Rochester, 2012) provides still more context for later in the century that complements Boislisle, the Bonneys, Lynn, Rowland, and yes, always, Clamageran!

One senses that, though numerous and quite powerful, the milieu financier that suffered losses under Sully, was smaller than in the 1660s, when Colbert and a chambre de justice bled a small army that really controlled the royal tax farms and determined the success or failure of floating newly created rentes. Françoise Bayard and Daniel Dessert have discerned a veritable culture of finance, and KB complements their findings not only about rentes but also about the actions of these financial families in the market. She lacked the space to include and index of all the individuals and families she has dug out of the Minutier central. To facilitate the study of this elite milieu, I may append a list of these families, with the notarial étude where they may be found. KB almost expresses surprise when she finds owners of rentes excitedly exchanging and buying rentes, when for example, a decision is expected about paying interest arrears. During moments of debt crises, rentiers did not simply stay put and keep what they had; they seem to have been familiar with their own holdings, buying and selling and exchanging according to their perception of how new rules or sales or payments would affect their holdings. Rumor would run rampant about what had been announced. Certainly, the bigger holders either moved to maximize future income from future payments of back interest, or else they bought heavily discounted paper, knowing that through a relative or a notary, the paper could eventually be "cashed in" closer to par. The current literature of economic historians includes metaphysics over the meaning of the word "market." There never has been, nor will there ever be a perfect market. Wouldn't it be amusing to interview Gourville on this question, as he rushed off to trade up some of the Condé portfolio? And the fact that there are arrérages or interest payments had juridical status as movable goods, whereas the capital of the rente did not, was certainly an important element in the decision to trade. Converting one type of investment into another type involved family strategy and a willingness to take risks.

The ability to use interest payments, and rentes themselves, in order to borrow sometimes huge sums, has led to a hoary debate over the effectiveness of British versus French credit markets, and is a prime example of the limits that prevail when using credit markets as an interpretive tool for political culture in the early-modern centuries. Refined by several generations of scholars, the credit of king and Parliament, versus king and council, is really a question mal posée.

Before turning to some more pointed findings in KB's work, a comment on her sources. In the tiny 2-point type known to all readers of Champ Vallon, there are innumerable references to the arrêts of the Conseil des finances that created, cancelled or in some other way altered the availability of rentes on the market. Hours and hours were spent at the Archives nationales going through series F, K and KK, supplemented by sources on the rentes on the Hôtel de Ville in series H. The general manuscripts of the BnF also yielded mémoires, états, etc. that supplemented what was found in the mines of the Mélanges Colbert and the Cinq Cents Colbert. There are numerous references to notarial acts, and since KB's book does not have an index, it is impossible to dig out these invaluable findings without reading the entire book. The same may be said about the material on Genoese investors.

The classic work by Bernard Schnapper is, of course, relied on; but neither P. Clément's edition of Colbert's letters nor the very strong introductory chapters that Clément put together as a two-volume work, are noted. I suspect that KB found everything that is in Depping by going directly to the archives. Adolphe Vuitry's 1883 book on the "désordre des finances" would seem quaint next to all the more recent works on the subject.

Some time after Earl J. Hamilton published his pioneering work on gold and silver imported from the New World by Spain, he turned to the study of the Regency of Louis XV and spent years and years accumulating material on the fiscal and economic crises in the years of the polysynodie and Law. He had to begin his project by studying Colbert's projects, and after, so there are boxes and boxes of notes on every aspect of the fiscal history of the later seventeenth century in the University of Chicago Library. I mentioned Hamilton to Robert Forster over lunch (Jan. 4, 2013) and he recalled meeting him in the archives in Toulouse back in 1954! I end this excursus with a quotation from Hamilton on Law:

In many respects the political power Law had under an absolute monarch was not good for him. It led him to rely upon force, at the sacrifice of principles, rather than voluntary action in self-interest. For example, he repeatedly stated in early tracts and banking projects that forced circulation would depress rather than raise the value of paper money. Yet he resorted not only to forced circulation but to despotic action against specie, including search and seizure, to combat depreciation.... (American Economic Review, 1967, p. 281).

Dated, of course, terribly dated; but the dynamics affecting confidence in, and prices for rentes in the secondary market are there and shed light on the London Parliament's borrowing powers, versus the powers of the King's Council in Versailles.

More precise points

On page 45 there is a brief summary of the protests over non-payment directed at the Conseil du roi instead of the payeurs and farmers of rentes. It was founded on a historical vision-myth of the innovations of 1637, as evidence of a very well-informed public that objected strongly to the council's decisions. Their idea of rente history had tinges of golden-age myth. Thus the only leap left would be to make the king himself responsible; it was not taken until the late eighteenth century.

On p. 47 there is a brief and clear summary of the decline in the value of rentes according to intrinsic value, that is, their value in grams of silver. From the edict of 1602 down to 1689, a rente for 100 livres would lose a third of its intrinsic value. Values declined more quickly still in the later reign of the Sun King.

After a critique of B. Schnapper's attempt to profile the purchasers of rentes, KB notes that the use of prête-noms and other techniques for concealing ownership would develop strongly across the seventeenth century, making a "global" study of rente purchases virtually impossible. It is evident that the big investors, and perhaps not a few middling ones, were in direct contact with the payeurs, in some sort of cozy relationship. What did the payeurs gain as they facilitated and informed potential rente purchasers? Connections certainly helped when there were insufficient funds to pay the interest due. Could the payeurs buy rentes in their own names? (p. 115) KB informs me: "yes they could."

On p. 124 we learn about some clever financial operations carried out by Particelli d'Hemery (see also Dessert!), making Sully's dealings small potatoes. Many of the savvy investors were robe or financial officials, some of whom sat on princely councils and were in a position to invest for their illustrious clients (Mlle de Guise).

On p. 147 KB recognizes that not all royal arrêts were really and truly enforced, and that the gens avec savoir could probably evade the letter of the law. Between the three great moments of prosecution, just how busy were the courts in prosecuting not just fraud but also evasion?
On p. 155, the status of foreign holders living in France is brought up. I think KB would appreciate Charlotte Wells's Law and Citizenship in Early Modern France (Baltimore, 1995, on naturalization and the droit d'aubaine.

On p. 166 there are illuminating remarks on how the discourse about rentes had to change in the 1660s as a result of brutal cancellations and the chambre de justice.

On p. 173 I am not sure I agree with KB's critique of John Hurt's argument about a possible link between increased gages and reduced robin opposition. KB faults Hurt for not recognizing a much larger démarche that affected many more officials than just those in the Parlement. So be it. But Hurt wrote about the Parlement, not about the ensemble of royal officials. I may have misunderstood KB here.

On pp. 211-214, if there was speed in some market moments, there was slowness in others. Here is a remarkably clear overview of this situation, ending in very crippling conditions for the Crown late in Louis XIV's reign.

P. 211 presents a partial overview of interest rates in Europe. Throughout the century France paid higher rates than some other states! See pp. 256-257.

On p. 280 there is the interesting conclusion that rentes passed largely from generation to generation by women, i.e., widows, because they outnumbered men. I seem to recall that Dupâquier found more widows in some parishes, but not in all; but perhaps more recent research has confirmed the higher number of widows.

There are some fine pages (pp. 292-294) on holders, very modest holders of rentes. KB accepts Claude Michaud's conclusion (Naples) that rising insecurity pulled the very low-income French into purchasing rentes. There could have been other reasons, e.g., simply greater awareness about rentes, turning to notaries for drawing up wills and marriage contracts, etc. The "long sixteenth century" of increased population growth and prosperity did not end well. The decades of civil war, Sully's actions, and bad weather and plague left northern populations pretty insecure by 1620. Of course, the grandes crises of 1693-1695 definitely heightened insecurity for a population raised in relatively favorable conditions. KB informs me (and let us give her the last word): "Among owners, dowries, dowers were more and more with rentes."