Thursday, January 22, 2009

What a Tangled Web...

[HST 327, French Revolution and 19th Century Europe]

So, at this point, we've been going through the build-up to the French Revolution. Stuff that I'd probably gone over before in my learnings, but for some reason, it made a lot more sense to me, and I'll explain farther below. Suffice it to say, I've got quite the outlook on it, now. It's very interesting, too. We haven't quite gotten to the Revolution yet, but the overall picture is still pretty interesting to watch developing. I'll also have to do this from memory, as I'm kinda too lazy to grab my binder.

In class, a lot of the very roots of one cause (not the only one, but one of the primary causes) of the Revolution got explained. This was everything that led up to the Enlightenment idea. It started with the idea that, previous to the Scientific Revolution (and even before) you had a shift in the way that science worked. You had gone through the Scholastic period, where men looked at faith and reason as informing each other.

Slowly but surely, there turned out to be a divide between the two, and eventually a corrosion of trust in the ability of faith to be true, because of the Protestant insurrection in Europe, which eventually split Europe into Catholic and Protestant portions, both of which were warring. Men looked at this, and wondered just how valid faith could be, when it apparently wasn't able to arrive at an undivided answer, and led to violence. Thus, all that was left was reason.

Cue the intellectuals. Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire, etc., etc., etc. You began to see a group of people called "Philosophes", who had sweeping ideas for government, and no way to practically apply them. They were also widely ignored by the government, and everyone else. So, they never actually got much of a chance to get their ideas debated, only to spread hypotheses which were untested. And then, they get wound up in with the Absolutists, which means Austria, Russia, and Prussia. They develop the idea of "Enlightened Absolutism", which is basically their compromise with the only people who will finally listen to them. Enter intellectual superiority complexes for those Absolutists. Followed by a couple of wars.

The rather important thing about these wars is that France got involved. And they happened to get the short end of the deal, even when their side won. End result: they lose their colonies around the world to Britain, and spend lots of money. Pretty poor deal for them. That's not going to help anything when events go south.

Then along comes Louis XIV, the "Sun King". He decides that he's going to be a glorious absolute monarch. He wants to limit the authority of the nobles, and so he comes up with a brilliant plan called "Versailles". See, the power of the nobles is based in the land they own. If they're away from their land, they don't have that power. He keeps them at Versailles, distracted by shiny things, and they comply. He even gets them to fight each other for social standing, sticking them in meaningless intrigue. Very clever of him. He also ends up costing France a pretty penny.

Louis XV doesn't get an easy bit of life either, in some regards. He has to keep all this stuff up, keeping the nobles in check, and his monarchy has a bunch of problems that bleed over to Louis XVI. This includes horrible finances, and some bad bureaucracy. But hold on, this isn't the interesting stuff. Because it's now that the wheels start to turn...

Louis XVI. Poor guy. He gets a France that is really strapped for cash. The American Revolution is also supported by France, which costs them money as well. Not only that, but intellectuals see America as proof that their ideas work. So there's problems there. The immediate problem, though, is that there's a big budget deficit. Enter the Estates-General.

These are the people that the King needs to ask for money, if his personal estates can't furnish it. There's three Estates: the clergy (dominated by the rich bishops, also containing the dirt-poor priests), the nobles, and everyone else. Louis was afraid that the Estates would force demands upon him, so he didn't want to call them into session, also seeing as it had been very many years since they had last come around.

Now here's the tangled politics of the Third Estate, the "everyone else". See, they'd always been outvoted by Estate 1 and Estate 2, because each estate got exactly one vote. So before they all met, the Third Estate was pushing for a vote per person. This would give them dominance, not only because they outnumbered the other two estates, but because the poor priests of the First Estate and the poor nobles of the Second Estate sympathized with the Third Estate. So, already, there was an alliance being formed here.

The Estates also put out surveys, so to speak, before they went into session, collecting grievances against the king, which usually amounted to "We want to own land and not pay as high a rent," from the peasants. And when they finally come into session, WHAM! Louis wants to talk about money, but the Estates General have other ideas.

So he shuts them down, tells them to disperse. The Third Estate and its sympathizers (remember, the poor clergy and the poor nobles) stick around, and form the National Assembly, and start to write a Constitution. Louis goes, "Oh shoot!" and shuts them down. Leading to...the "Tennis Court Oath". Not happy with being shut down, this huge group pledges not to disassemble until they have written a Constitution.

It's not here yet, but already I can see each piece of the puzzle shooting into place, coming together into a devastating conclusion. I'm very interested to watch just how it does happen, and I think it's because I'm really looking at plotting as a writer, now. With my experience in drama and from watching some TV shows, I'm starting to see the idea of how plots come together and gear towards a conclusion, and I love it when I can see that very same thing modeled in real life. Because history really is a story, and can be fascinating when seen as such.

(Sorry, philosophical people. I'll stick more philosophical stuff in, too, but this was really cool)


  1. It is really cool! Nice job writing that up. Very clear, very interesting and...yes, amusing too.

    "He keeps them at Versailles, distracted by shiny things, and they comply"


  2. Ah, but it's true!

    *wonders if the History major will get around to reading this*

  3. Did you ever read the tale of two cities, the Andy?

  4. Certainly have read Tale of Two Cities. I found the mob scenes to be really chilling, even if there wasn't really explicit gore and violence.