Culture in the Cities: Provincial Academies during the Early Years of Louis XIV's Reign

By Brennan, Katherine Stern | Canadian Journal of History, April 2003 | Go to article overview
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Culture in the Cities: Provincial Academies during the Early Years of Louis XIV's Reign


Brennan, Katherine Stern, Canadian Journal of History


L'interpretatin traditionnelle suggere que l'absolutisme culturel de Louis XIV incluait la creation d'academies provinciales sous la direction de l'Academie francaise. Cet article soutient que des hommes de lettres de Caens, Soissons, Angers, Arles et Nimes ont fonde spontanement des academies independantes pour satisfaire leurs propres interets dans l'erudition. Ces academies donnaient a ses membres une chance d'echanger des idles, de se critiquer les uns les autres et d'avoir des echanges avec des hommes de lettres d'en dehors de leur ville. Les academiciens provinciaux eurent du mai definir leurs institutions de maniere a ce qu'elles leur permettent de combiner le plaisir d'une camaraderie intellectuelle prive avec leur desir de rehausser la valeur sociale de leurs talents dans l'arenepolitique locale. Les hommes de lettres provinciaux partageaient une formation intellectuelle commune a cause de leurs annees d'etudes dans les calleges locaux ou ils avaient etudie les auteurs classiques et developpe le gout de la rhetorique. Ils lancerent un genre culturel provincial qui soutenait une plus grande variete de genres litteraires, adopterent l'usage du latin et continuerent a rechercher une erudition qui faisait contraste aux modeles parisiens d'activite culturelle. Les academiciens provinciaux negocierent selon leurs propres termes, et a differentes periodes de leur histoire, avec la couronne afin de formaliser la place de leurs institutions dans le royaume de Louis XIV.

Over the past several decades, studies of absolutism have created a new model for understanding the politics of the provincial-Parisian relationships in seventeenth-century France. (1) Examining the evolution of monarchy in early modern France, historians no longer depict Louis XIV, ably assisted by his ministers, as an independent agent acting with few restraints to impose his vision of central authority upon the unsuspecting provinces. Instead, David Parker, William Beik, Roger Mettam, and others have created a more refined model emphasizing the exchange between centre and periphery, an exchange essential for governance of a kingdom without a parliamentary institution because it created equilibrium by allowing the desires of those outside the court to be represented. (2) In addition, Orest Ranum and Sharon Kettering have demonstrated how personal power and patronage networks functioned as effective, albeit unofficial, methods of governance during the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV. (3) James B.Collins echoed this departure from the arbitrariness traditionally associated with absolutism when his study of the process by which Louis XIII tried to raise money from his subjects led him to conclude that the system of taxes and the financial arrangements of the time were "as much a compromise as its political system." (4) These, and many other studies of early modern France, have created a more nuanced view of the terms "absolutism" and "absolute monarchy" as they pertain to the exercise of central authority in the provinces.

This new model of compromise, however, has just begun to re-shape the field of cultural history. Robert A. Schneider's work on Toulouse illustrates the interplay between Parisian and provincial cultures in the public life of the city. (5) Daniel Roche's study of the eighteenth-century academies in the provinces, and H. J. Martin, in his work on the book trade in France, offer insights into the tensions between provincial individualism and royal authority. (6) Yet these authors are the exceptions to the rule as the majority of historians still refer to the second half of the seventeenth century in France as a time when the crown imposed a common cultural policy throughout the entire kingdom. The "absolutist" model of Louis XIV's cultural politics also perpetuates, as a necessary corollary, seventeenth-century Parisian derision of provincial patterns of French language and scholarship as inferior and dated. This interpretation masks the efforts made by provincial men of letters to craft an identity that was based on their own desire to enhance their reputations within their communities.

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