Over the past year I have read extensively about the 17th century. ?The Age of Louis XIV? is the best book which I have found on the period. Volume VII of Will and Ariel Durant?s multi-volume ?Story of Civilization?, this book documents more detail of the era than any others which I have read.
The book begins with sections on France and England. The next section is ?The Periphery? dealing with Russia, Poland, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, and Iberia. After the geographically oriented sections, the reader is treated to sections organized along intellectual topics, such as science, philosophy, and faith and reason, which contain chapters dealing with specific philosophers or scientists. The conclusion wraps it all up with the denouement of Louis XIV.
This book makes the 17th century understandable. The premier character of the era was Louis XIV, the Sun King of France. During his reign, the policies of he and his ministers established France?s day in the sun. Absolute ruler of the most populous and powerful kingdom in Western Europe, Louis made France the center of Western Civilization. On these pages we learn about the Fronde, the revolt by the nobility at the rising of his Sun, from which Louis acquired his life long aversion to Paris, Louis? aggressive support of Catholicism, while at the same time maintaining illicit personal relationships, and his generous support for the arts. This era, rich in French literature and theatre, as represented in Moliere, is revealed.
The forces threatening to rend the Catholic Church further asunder, as well as the relationship between King and Pope, are dealt with in detail. I was surprised to learn that Louis exercised a power over the Church in France similar to that which Henry VIII had previously established over the Church in England.
England, meanwhile, endured Cromwell, The Stuart Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution, while spawning Milton, Dryden, Swift and other literary giants.
Interesting contrasts are illustrated. Whereas in France the monarchy was strengthened into absolutism, England was making hesitating steps toward democracy. Whereas Louis excluded much of the nobility from government and military service, essentially forcing them into the role of idle rich, the English nobility gradually gained power and responsibility for the governance of their country. We can see how these trends may have encouraged the resentment of the aristocrats on the part of the French peasantry, which may have contributed to the intensity of feeling during The Terror of the French Revolution. By contrast, the empowerment of the English nobility may have helped solidify the tradition of peaceful political maturation.
On the Periphery, Charles XII brought Sweden to the zenith of its international power, while Peter the great modernized Russia. Germany survived the onslaught of the Turks, while Italy and Iberia, the ?Old Europe? of the day, slid through an era of decline.
Intellectually the era was one of giants. Many of the names with which we are familiar come alive as we read of Isaac Newton, Thomas Hobbes, John Lock, Spinoza, Leibniz and others.
The conclusion of the era was the sunset of the Sun King. Having exhausted his country with dynastic war, bled it with unequal taxation and incurred the enmity of the world, Louis negotiated a peace which left his kingdom a shattered hulk of its former greatness.
For anyone desiring an introduction to the history of the 17th century, this is a great place to start. It has me ready for other books in the Durants? ?Story of Civilization?.