France Under Mazarin

MR. PERKINS’S two scholarly and handsome volumes1 belong to a rare class of books. Few have the leisure, patience, or opportunity to write standard history ; and, except in the form of text-books of greater or less dignity, perhaps no branch of English literature increases so slowly. Studies of some brief and striking periods, sketches of famous characters, abstracts of manners and customs, broad generalizations respecting race - development in institutions, and the thousand forms in which the modern compiler reissues the old stock of knowledge are sufficiently plentiful ; but a new work depending upon original investigation, and throwing light upon some important era, is not to be met with every day among the announcements of the American press. Mr. Perkins has followed the example of a former literary age in choosing the Old World as his field ; and, as in the case of his predecessors, the result has shown that the historian need be of no country. The period he has selected is a great one in French history; and the first thought among readers might well be that, in telling the careers of the two illustrious cardinals, the author could have no more to do than transfer to English what already existed in French, after the manner of the compilers aforesaid. This, however, is far from being the true state of matters. Since history by the modern method of exhaustive investigation of the sources came in, it is nothing strange to find that in the accepted account of a nation whole chapters have to be rewritten, owing to the discovery of new records; but in the case of the seventeenth century in France, despite the large number of memoirs which have long had a value, the facts of history require a much more careful examination than has been given them even by French writers, with a few very recent exceptions. The manuscripts, which include dispatches and letters of the government and the exceedingly valuable note-books or diaries of Mazarin himself, have been but little used; and the mass of impartial contemporary observation and news, contained in the regular, full, and frequent dispatches of the Venetian ambassadors to their own government, has only lately been copied for the National Library and made accessible to students. Such are some of the new materials on which Mr. Perkins grounds his work, which exhibits throughout research of the most exacting modern standard, thorough, patient, and discriminating. These volumes, consequently, are not only the first extended and particularized account of the administration of Mazarin in English, but, except so far as they are anticipated in their chapters of diplomacy and politics by Cheruel, they may lay claim to a high degree of originality and freshness.

To the English reader the period of the Fronde, to which Mr. Perkins practically devotes his labor, is interesting on one or the other of two accounts: either because of its failure to evolve parliamentary institutions, or because of the striking individuality of the actors in those days of feminine intrigue or courtly treason. Richelieu occupies the stage while he treads it, as a matter of course, and his overpowering personality suppresses doubt in the reader as readily as revolt in the great nobles ; but after he is out of the way, and the reins of power are held by a hated foreigner, of a yielding, procrastinating, and mild disposition, during a long royal minority, one cannot help asking how it was that at the very time when Charles lost his head in London the Parliament of Paris, even when in league with princes of the blood, archbishops, and great nobles, with both the city and Condé upon their side, got no hold on political power, no check on the monarchy, no control over the finances. Mr. Perkins frequently suggests this problem, and offers occasionally a significant word of explanation : but differences of national temperament or of institutions and legal procedure do not solve the question by themselves, though the absence of great constitutional cases in French history is a capital point to notice in studying its parliamentary fiascos. Mr. Perkins’s description of France contains by implication a better statement of the causes of political incapacity in the body of the French nation than he anywhere brings out with fullness. The most remarkable trait of France at the time, in view of the modern conception of what constitutes a nation, was the diversity of one part from another in the character of its people, its prosperity, its administration, its local customs and rights, and its reserved powers, to use the American phrase. The unity of the nation was less advanced then in England, the people were less closely knit together in patriotic sentiment or constitutional practice, the state was much nearer being a conglomeration of hereditary fiefs and conquered provinces than England had been for centuries ; in particular, that concentration of local institutions into national usage, which was the essence of English constitutional development, had never taken place. Hence it followed that the Parliament of Paris represented only itself, not the country at large; and when to that cardinal fact is added the consideration that it was practically a hereditary chamber of lawyers, it is not so strange that the Fronde turned out to be, on the popular side, a Paris-rising against a minister, instead of a movement expressing the nation’s consciousness of its existence apart from royal authority, and enforcing the public will upon the crown as the recognized depositary of its united power. On the side of the nobles, to look at it from the other point of view, the Fronde, as Mr. Perkins repeatedly says, was merely an eddy of personal politics. The great lords were in no sense interested in the people, or stimulated by any patriotic motive. They were eager hunters for the spoils of office, for governments, emoluments, incomes, any of the thousand forms of tribute money which the people paid to the dignitaries whom high birth had made the privileged freebooters of the state The only man in their party who was even by remote resemblance a people’s leader was Cardinal Retz, who enjoyed the happiness of being a demagogue of the most genuine stamp without the burdensome necessity of framing any legislative measures. To the clergy and the aristocracy the Fronde had as little constitutional meaning as to the people. The story of the scramble for place and money, of treason and intrigue and mob warfare, becomes utterly mean and insignificant, so long as one remembers the far-reaching principles and elevated characters of the Puritan rebellion. In the Fronde there was in reality no sign of constitutional effort, in the English sense, and it ceases to seem a contemptible broil only because of the misery it helped to spread through France among the poor, and because of the picturesqueness of the characters engaged in the long and ever-changing contest.

The most of these personages are already firmly outlined to us in the memoirs of the age to which the military glory of Condé, the literary piquancy of Cardinal Retz, the name of Rochefoucauld, and, more than all else, the charm of those women who mingled love and war in company with each passing hero have long lent unusual attraction. Of all these, Condé suffers most in this new delineation of him. He was “ a poor creature,” and one fancies how Carlyle would have sent the light through his moral anatomy, had the famous general come under the lens of his art. Gaston, the chronic traitor; Retz, a Wilkes in a red hat; the golden-haired Bouillon, chief darling of the citizens’ wives; Guise, the Harlequin of romance; Charles of Lorraine, the most bizarre of the troopers even of that time, and many another, keep turning up in these pages with a certain cheerful insolence as of old acquaintances; and all the dames and mademoiselles, though reduced to the unwonted decorum of history, and somewhat retired into the background, are at least present, each with some distinction, from the veteran Madame de Chevreuse to Hortensia Mancini, who refused Charles II. as a husband in his exile, to accept him as a lover when he was on the throne. About all of these there is the traditional halo of the time when the Hôtel de Rambouillet began to be a name, and wit and mind and political purpose became a part of what was fitting in the idea of the French gentlewoman ; and occasionally there is a gleam of true nobleness of nature, as in Turenne and Molé, though there is nothing else in the volume approaching in fineness the letter of Montmorenci to his wife, on the eve of his execution. The figure of Mazarin himself lacks definition ; but our knowledge of him is fuller, and the story of his relation to the queen regent is a curious and most interesting chapter in the Book of Royal Affections. He was more patriotic than the Frenchmen, and seems the only one fit to govern, the only one with a serious sense of overruling state interests, in all the group. The worst that is said of him is that he amassed a great fortune in his later years of power; but it is plain to the most moral of men that in those days the standards of probity, honor, and justice were very different from any now known in civilized countries. To rob the state, as we should now call it, was the essence of the divine right of rulers. The sale of offices being legalized, the revenues being farmed out, and pensions and opportunities for corrupt administration being the usual bribe for unruly princes and dukes, financial honesty in public affairs seems not to have been contemplated ; and if Mazarin profited by being an important factor in the ring, it was no more than every one did who was sufficiently highborn or gifted with the genius to rise in life. Colbert was near at hand to begin a line of national financiers ; but it was the gradual growth of a commercial and industrial civilization, and of the ideals it necessarily developed, that brought the people’s money at last within the province of the meum and tuum of ordinary morality.

That the world is well rid of this gen try of two hundred and fifty years ago will be the natural reflection of one who scrutinizes the public men of the time ; and much more when, coming to the last chapters, he has spread out before him the sight of the people in the provinces, at whose cost the victories were won and the money drawn from the soil. The misery was, like that of the Thirty Years’ War in Germany, scarcely credible. The methods of taxation, the burdens on the soil, the prevalence of privilege in every relation of the state, to a modern mind seem not only monstrous in injustice, but lacking in intelligence, and even under the aristocratic constitution of society merely stupid. Armies that, whether friendly or hostile, never had a commissariat, and every agency of war, contributed to the ruin of the country outside of Paris. Though agrarian history is necessarily obscure, enough remains to paint a very lively picture of terror, suffering, and abject and hopeless want both in peace and war. Mr. Perkins has not overdone this portion of his work, but by the extreme carefulness of his investigation shows so much the more plainly how far back the ancien régime went, how long the French Revolution was in preparing ; even then doctrines, such as that of the consent of the governed, were heard in the provinces. Occasionally, too, he makes a modern comparison, which would be grotesque were it not so just, such as the conjunction of the most sacred names of the nobility with Tweed’s as brothers in plunder, though the latter was little more than a pilferer in the art, if judged by the colossal scale on which those born “nigh the throne” stole. It is as well for an American historian to remind us of these things, and for us to notice them. To the serious all history has a practical lesson ; and this is the easier learned when the volumes breathe a contemporary spirit. We think any one of competent judgment would know that the author of this work writes from an American standpoint. This is not the least virtue of his history, in our eyes, — that it renders an American judgment, and measures the fact by institutions and ideals of democratic origin, though half unconsciously. The literary lustre of the classical age of the French drama and of the controversies of the Port Royal, and the philanthropic ardor of St. Vincent de Paul, are not omitted altogether ; but in the main Mr. Perkins has confined himself to the history of action, with little analysis of the spirit of the age. His work will hold an honorable place in its department as the fullest and most trustworthy record of the times of the minority of Louis XIV.

  1. France under Mazarin, with a Review of the Administration of Richelieu. By JAMES BRECK PERKINS. TWO volumes. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. The Knickerbocker Press. 1886.