A Comparison of English & French Histories in the 1600S

September 24, 2012 12:27 pm

While just a few miles of the English Channel separate France and England, their respective histories, while similar in some ways have diverged somewhat in others.  Once again, one of the main factors in the equation has been geography, the fact that England is an island and relatively safe from invasion, while France is on the continent and in closer contact with its neighbors, sometimes in hostile ways.

Another factor affecting England has been a longer democratic, or more properly quasi-democratic, tradition compared to that of France, going back at least to the Magna Charta in 1215, although that was drawing upon an earlier charter signed by Henry I around 1100, which itself drew upon older traditions of Saxon liberties.  Together, England’s protected position, but still very close to the continent, and its quasi-democratic roots blessed it with few invasions and more trade. Therefore it had less need for a strong army, giving it a stronger and richer middle class and a less powerful and distinct nobility than in France.  For example, lower nobles  and the upper middle class sat together in the House of Commons as a group known collectively as the gentry.  While titles of nobility could not be bought in England, neither could they be lost, as in France, for the stigma of working to support oneself like the a commoner.

By 1700, England had worked out a constitutional monarchy that was more democratic, giving all freemen certain civil rights, although withholding the vote from all but about 5% of the men.  Two major pillars supported this new order.  One was Protestantism, which sees all believers as (at least spiritually) equal in God’s eyes.  In the early 1600s when one could not separate religion and politics, spiritual equality led the way to political and social equality.  The other pillar was free trade capitalism, versus the quasi-socialistic system of medieval guilds, royal monopolies, and mercantilism.  Running this was the same Protestant middle class gentry that ran Parliament and claimed that God values all jobs equally. In the 1700s the combined dynamics of middle class capitalism and democracy would vault England into global leadership in terms of finance, naval and colonial power, and eventually industrialization.

France’s geography and history took it down a somewhat different path, at least until the 1800s.  Its position on the continent presented more threats of invasion, as well as opportunities for conquest.  Either way, it had a greater need for an army, which is expensive and disruptive to trade when it is actually used in wars.  Therefore, the middle class had less clout and status in France than its counterpart in England, as witnessed by the more prominent role played by Parliament in English history than that played by its French counterpart, the Estates General.  Also, there was no blending of the upper middle class and lower nobles corresponding to the gentry in England.

As a result, France experienced an absolute monarchy that was supported by its religious and economic systems.   One was state enforced Catholicism with the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings, which supported the principle of absolute monarchy.  The economic counterpart to absolute monarchy was mercantilism, which did recognize the importance of nourishing a strong national economy, but did it in an overbearing absolutist manner that stifled initiative and may have done as much harm as good.

However, instead of continuing on diverging paths, France would follow with its own democratic revolution and the triumph of free trade capitalism for two major reasons.  One was political and economic competition from Britain that France had to adapt to in order to survive.  The other was a common cultural and historical heritage going back to ancient Rome, which made France and England much more alike than either of them might want to admit.

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