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Research questions

Any study of the fiscal origins of the French Revolution has still to overcome the material and structural problems which have long prevented historians from putting together a broad picture of fiscal issues, and which have made it difficult to examine the political tensions generated within the body politic

Primary sources

Destruction of archives

The destruction of a large portion of the monarchy's central archives during wars and revolutions has deprived historians of crucial evidence. At present, historians do not have access to a coherent and homogeneous set of annual revenues and expenses of the French monarchy. Although this problem has been successfully addressed by Bonney (1993) for the 17th century, gaps for the 18th century still need to be filled to assess the structure, evolution and performance of the fiscal and economic system, and refine comparisons with other European states first broached by Mathias and O'Brien (1976), and Meyer (1983).

Old and new themes

In addition, previous scholarship has privileged specific themes, in particular the social incidence of direct taxation and economic policy, at the expense of other equally fundamental issues like credit and money supply. Scholarship has also concentrated on the early part of Louis XIV's long reign (1641-1715), neglecting the last two critical decades, which saw France's humiliation as a great power (Rowlands, 2012). Similarly, the pre-revolutionary fiscal crisis has put the emphasis on Louis XVI's reign (1774-1792), creating a fictitious gap in the history of the Old Regime's problems and setting outside its scope the crucial period of fiscal reconstruction that followed the death of Louis XIV and the collapse of John Law's financial scheme (1720). Yet exploration of economic and fiscal policy under cardinal de Fleury's premiership (1726-1743) is essential: if we are to understand the fiscal crisis that led to the Revolution it is crucial to examine the politics operative during his premiership as they formed the backbone of the system of State finance which remained largely in place until 1789 and came under permanent attack by would-be reformers from the mid-1740s onwards.

Research themes

My proposed project will make use of the quantitative data and quantitative collected to explore the five central themes in fiscal history:

  1. Revenue and expenditure
  2. Credit
  3. Financial Control and accounting
  4. Economic policy
  5. Monetary policy

These themes will provide a coherent framework to discuss key research questions about the long-term fiscal structures of the Absolute monarchy:

  1. How did French revenue and expenditure evolve from 1661 to 1789?
  2. How expensive were wars and what was revenue spent on? What was the impact of war on the economy?
  3. How did the French GDP, external trade and money supply evolve between 1688 and 1789, especially in comparison with Britain and other European states?
  4. How did kings raise additional resources? How far was the private market tapped? Who were the intermediaries and the lenders? What were the various forms of borrowing? What was the cost of borrowing?
  5. What was the impact of borrowing on the volume and service of debt?
  6. What was the economic impact of defaults and what solutions were envisaged to maintain France's credit?

Quantitative data

To assess the relative efficiency of French structures, quantitative data will be analysed in conjunction with P. Dickson's concept of the Financial Revolution (1967), R. Bonney's work on European fiscal systems (1995, 1999), M. Ormord's and R. Bonney's modelling of the evolution of the fiscal State (1999), J. Brewer's concept of the Fiscal Military State (1990), P. O'Brien's concept of British exceptional fiscal state (1988) and D. North's research in the field of institutional economics (1989, 1990). Emphasis will be put on Louis XIV's wars in order to address the following research questions:

  1. What key problems did France encounter when trying to fund long wars?
  2. How sustainable was Louis XIV's fiscal, monetary and debt policy?
  3. What solutions were proposed to Louis XIV and what keys decisions were made to sustain the war effort?
  4. How successful were the Regent's (1715-1723) and cardinal Fleury's (1725-1743) policies in trying to tackle Louis XIV's fiscal legacy?
  5. To what extent did reforms introduced under Louis XV's minority improve French fiscal and economic efficiency?
  6. If change was introduced, what was the nature of the reforms and what problems remained still unresolved when the Franco-British conflict resumed in the 1740s?

Qualitative data

Qualitative data (ministerial correspondence, memoranda on fiscal issues, economic literature) will be used to analyse the ways in which fiscal problems intertwined with politics and contributed to the fall of the Ancien Regime:

  1. What was the impact of 18th century economic development on long-term fiscal issues?
  2. To what extent did the mid-century wars give birth to new reforming ideas?
  3. Did the government alter the ways in which advice was sought, decisions made and fiscal policies implemented?
  4. Was resistance to ministerial reform stronger under Louis XV or Louis XVI than at the time of Louis XIV?
  5. How influential were philosophers and economists in shaping public opinion about fiscal reforms and institutional change?
  6. Is it possible to identify different fiscal strategies to solve the French financial crisis? To what extent were the French equipped to understand fiscal issues? How far did they agree on reforms and action plans to implement change?