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Modern World History: Historical Overview: Absolute Monarchs & Enlightenment
Absolute Monarchs
The formation of modern countries in Europe began with the time of the absolute monarchs in the 1600’s. The term
“absolute monarchs” combines two terms that describe the style of leadership during this time period. The term
“monarch” describes a leader who is a king or queen, who inherited their power to rule over an area of land, called a
kingdom. Monarchy was the traditional style of leadership in Europe going back into the period of the Middle Ages. The
absolute monarchs were different from the traditional monarchs in how they ruled their countries. The term “absolute”
describes these rulers has having complete and total control over the countries they ruled. There was no other person or
group in the country who could challenge the absolute monarchs’ power. This power was summed up by the French King
Louis XIV when he said, “I am the state” meaning he was the government. The absolute monarchs were called
“sovereigns”, which is a term used to describe the person or group having total power over a region.
The absolute monarchs ruled during a period when the kings and queens of European countries consolidated their
power to rule over their countries. Over the long run, the way the absolute monarchs centralized their authority over their
lands helped these countries evolve into unified modern nations. France, Spain and Russia were the three countries most
affected by this type of leader. However, leaders in other countries acted in a similar way, with similar results that lead to
similar national development.
In order to understand the changes that happened in Europe during this period and how this lead to the formation
of modern nations in Europe, it is first important to understand how Europe had been ruled prior before the Absolute
Monarchs, during a period called the Middle Ages. The term the Middle Ages is used to describe a thousand year period
of time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of modern nations. The Middle Ages is generally associated
with knights and castles. This image of the period is appropriate because it was a time of near constant warfare in which
armored warrior knights fought to control lands, which were defended by fortress castles. Society during this time was
self-sufficient because the constant fighting prevented trade. In general, most people were either peasants, working to
grow food and make basic crafts, or nobles, who were warriors.
During this time, Europe was ruled by monarchs, who inherited their power and
were military leaders. However, these monarchs were not very powerful because the cost
of knights (who trained from a young age to fight) and castles (which were large building
projects) were very expensive and the monarchs did not control enough land to directly
support large armies. In order to control enough land to support a large army, monarchs
used an indirect way to control large amounts of land called the feudal system. In the
feudal system, monarchs depended on other nobles, such as counts, dukes and barons, to
supply them with knights and castles. In return, the monarch gave these nobles control
over part of their kingdom. Nobles were able to support groups of armored knights and
build fortress castles because they could force the peasants who lived on their lands to
work for them. The peasants were called serfs and had to do work for the nobles in return
for the protection of living on nobles’ land. The food grown by the peasants and the
castles build by peasants supported the nobles and their armies of armored knights. The
noble’s castles protected the monarch’s lands and nobles’ armored knights would also
fight as part of the monarch’s army when needed.
While a monarch was more powerful than the other nobles, they were dependent on the nobles for their power.
There were many times when the nobles would become so powerful, that they could challenge a monarch for their power.
This could happen when a monarch died and there was a dispute over who should be the next monarch (because the
monarch who died did not have a son or daughter – or the son or daughter was very young). The rise of the Absolute
Monarchs in France and Russia was in response to civil wars where the nobles fought each other for power to be king.
The British philosopher Thomas Hobbes advocated that it was good for a strong centralized government, like an Absolute
Monarch, should have total control over a country to prevent these brutal civil wars.
Changes at the end of the Middle Ages began to change the relationship between the monarchs and the nobles.
The development of guns and cannon reduced the importance of knights and castles. These technologies meant that a
peasant commoner with a gun could kill a highly trained knight and cannons could reduce a castle to rubble. This change
meant that monarchs did not need nobles anymore for their military power. The Absolute Monarchs began to centralize
military power under their command by building professional armies through hiring and equipping trained peasants with
guns and cannon. At the same time, they moved to weaken the power of the nobles in their kingdoms by forcing the
nobles to give up their armies of knights and tear down protective walls around their castles. Without their own source of
military power, the nobles could no longer challenge the monarch.
The process of building and maintain a professional army cost a lot of money and a skilled workforce to make the
equipment. Another change at the end of the Middle Ages that gave the Absolute Monarchs the sources of both money
and a skilled workforce was the development of towns and cities. The people in towns were merchants and craftsmen,
unlike peasants, were commoners with skills useful for managing money and making military equipment. In addition,
these skilled commoners did not have a title or special privileges like the nobles. Similarly to how the Absolute Monarchs
used peasant soldiers to reduce the military need for the nobles, the Absolute Monarchs began to employ skilled
commoners because their organizational and managerial skills were useful to a monarch who wanted to directly control a
kingdom, rather than depend on the indirect rule through nobles.
The absolute monarchs were able to directly control large areas of land through the use of armies that they
commanded and ruling through a government administration that followed orders. The peasants and townspeople who
became the soldiers in the army and the government administrators were loyal and obedient to the monarch because their
power came from the monarch. They were more loyal than the nobles because they did not have a title that protected their
privileges and they could not give their power to their children.
The direct control that the absolute monarchs had over their lands allowed them to collect the tax money needed
to pay for the soldiers and government administrators. The absolute monarchs supported an economic system called
mercantilism in which the government regulated and controlled the way the economy developed so as to increase the
power of the government. The absolute monarchs worked to increase the size of the economy of the countries they ruled
because the wealthier the country became the more the absolute monarch could tax the people which meant that they
could employ a larger army. In the mercantile system the government financially supports the building of industry and
manufacturing, builds roads and canals to promote trade within the country and increases the amount of gold and silver in
the country by exporting more to other countries than it imports from those countries. These mercantilist policies were
focused on benefiting the absolute monarchs and often the people in their countries suffered and became poorer (because
of high taxes) despite the growing economies.
The absolute monarchs also engaged in large building projects that help them increase their power and prestige.
The absolute monarchs hired the best artists and builders to build large palaces, and even cities, which became centers of
culture and art. These displays of wealth were important because they impressed both the absolute monarch’s subjects
and people in other countries and this impression made it less likely that people rebel against the monarchs or want to
attack a country that seemed so powerful. The absolute monarchs used these building projects to further weaken the
nobles by requiring them to live in the monarch’s palace or city so the monarch could keep an eye on them. However,
often the nobles wanted to live in these places because of the glamorous art and culture associated with the absolute
monarchs.
The period of the absolute monarchs is important because the large lands they were able to unite under their direct
control became powerful countries. These lands that were originally tied together by the army, roads and administration
of the absolute monarchs overtime became countries that were connected by common language and culture. These
connections of language and culture slowly became more powerful than the absolute monarchs, and in the long run
became the building blocks for the creation of modern nations.
The Enlightenment
The term “the Enlightenment” has been given to the period of history in the 1700’s when many of the ideas
of the modern world were developed. It was during this period that philosophers and thinkers began to argue that
a society based on the ideas of individual rights, democratic government and freedom of expression, would be a
better society. Before the Enlightenment, people believed that society should be run according to tradition, that
some people (nobles) were superior to other people (commoners and peasants) and authority should not be
questioned. In Europe, this traditional society was based on the nobility having power and religion deciding what
was right and wrong. The Enlightenment philosophers challenged this traditional society through arguing that
society should be guided by rational thought and not tradition. The Enlightenment philosopher Emanuel Kant
summed this up when he wrote, “Have the courage to use your own intelligence! is therefore the motto of the
enlightenment...”
The Enlightenment philosophers were inspired to use rational thought to guide society by the work of early
scientists in the Scientific Revolution. These early scientists used logic and experimentation to challenge the traditional
religious view of the how the universe worked. For centuries, the religious authorities in Europe said that the earth was at
the center of the universe and that everything (pushed by angles) orbited around the earth and that illness and disease were
simply god’s will. The religious authorities said that the forces of nature were mysterious and that people could never
understand how things worked because they were controlled by god. Beginning in the 1500’s, the early scientists used
telescopes, controlled experiments and mathematics to study the starts and show that the sun was really at the center of the
solar system and the earth orbited around the sun. The scientist Isaac Newton developed the mathematics of calculus and
formal experiments of physics to show that the movement of everything in the universe was governed by the same natural
laws. At the same time, other early scientists showed that the human body also worked by systems, such as circulation of
blood through the body. These early scientists organized “scientific societies” to share and publish their work so other
people could learn about these new discoveries. This work was important because it showed that the traditional
authorities were incorrect about how things worked, and that people could use rational thought to study the natural world
to discover the natural laws that worked in the world. The Enlightenment philosophers took the idea of natural laws
governing the natural world and said that there were also natural laws that governed society. The Enlightenment
philosophers believed that a society governed by these natural laws would be a more successful and happier society.
The Enlightenment had a large influence on England because of the events of the English Civil War and the
Glorious Revolution in which the people of England overthrew their monarch and set up a democratic government.
England was different from France which developed into an absolute monarchy under the rule of Louis XIV. During the
Middle Ages, England developed a “limited monarchy” in which a group of leading nobles and common people formed a
Parliament that restricted the power of the monarch. In the 1600’s, the English monarchs began to challenge the right of
Parliament to limit the monarch’s power. The first conflict resulted in the English Civil War in which the king went to
war against Parliament. In this war, Parliament won and executed the king for treason. However, Parliament was not able
to rule the country and, after a period of military dictatorship, the monarchy was restored. However, this did not solve the
conflict over power between the monarchy and Parliament. Thirty years after the restoration of the monarchy, Parliament
overthrew the king again in the Glorious Revolution. This time, the king fled to France and Parliament appointed a new
king and wrote the English Bill of Rights to protect the rights of the people from the power of the king. The development
of a written rule of law that limited the power of the monarch and protected the rights of the people from the monarch was
a crucial development that inspired the Enlightenment philosophers. The English philosopher John Locke, who supported
Parliament in the Glorious Revolution, wrote how the people of a country are justified in overthrowing a government that
does not protect their natural rights to “life, liberty and property”.
The Enlightenment philosophers believed that people had natural rights, which could not be taken away by the
government, and that it was the job of the government to protect people’s rights. These philosophers held that society was
happier and more prosperous if people had their liberty, or freedom, to run their own lives. More importantly, they
thought that a democratic government in which the powers of the government were limited by written law would be the
best at creating the greatest amount of freedom. This idea directly challenged the powers of the absolute monarchs, which
dominated most of Europe at the time – England was the only large country where the power of the monarch was limited
by written law. As a result, many Enlightenment thinkers in other parts of Europe looked to England as a model of an
ideal government. The French philosopher Montesquieu used English government to develop his idea that government
powers should be separated into executive, legislative and judicial branches. One hundred years later, the American
Revolution, in which England’s North American Colonies won their independence and then set up a democratic
government with a written constitution, a bill of rights and no king, became the example of Enlightenment ideals being
put into practice.
The Enlightenment also introduced the idea that all people are equal and possessed the same natural rights. This
was a radical idea at the time when nobles were born with power and privilege over common peasants. However, it
became an important idea in the formation of democracy based on everyone having an vote and equality in law. While at
the time of the Enlightenment the idea of equality was only applied to white European men, over time this idea would be
important in women winning legal equality and bringing about the end of end of slavery.
The Enlightenment philosophers also thought that natural rights also applied to economic issues. They believed
that people had a right to private property – basically, they had freedom to control their property, just like they had
freedom in other parts of their lives. Again, this put the Enlightenment philosophers in conflict with the practice of
mercantilism, in which the government controlled the economy to make the monarch wealthier and more and powerful,
that was used Absolute Monarchs,. The Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith argued that society would be wealthier if
people had the right to control their own property, free from government control. This idea became the centerpiece of the
modern idea of capitalism, which is the dominant economic philosophy in the world today.
Free speech and the free exchange of ideas was a central ideal for the Enlightenment philosophers because they
thought that the more people who understood their ideas, the more people who would support their ideas. They believed
that the logic and reason of their arguments would convince people of the correctness of their ideas. The Enlightenment
philosophers wrote books and newspapers to spread their ideas. The French writer Denis Diderot wrote an Encyclopedia
collected the thoughts and works of Enlightenment thinkers and described them in a way that made them accessible to
average readers. The monarchs across Europe responded to the challenges created by these Enlightenment ideas by
censoring them to prevented the publication of these ideas. For this reason, freedom of speech became an important goal
of the Enlightenment. The French writer Voltaire, who had to flee France because the king opposed his writings, was an
example of this when he said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say
it”.
The Enlightenment has had a long lasting impact on the world. It, along with the example of the Enlightenment
created United States, inspired people around the world to revolt against oppressive governments and form democracies.
More importantly, it established the idea that political and economic systems that were developed through rational thought
would result in happier, wealthier and more successful societies.
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