Henshall, Nicolas. The Myth of Absolutism; Change and Continuity in Early Modern European Monarchy. New York: Longman Group, 1992.

Absolutism encroaches on liberties, functions without political dialogue, employs independent bureaucracies and is distinctly un-English. All of these ideas, says Henshall, are part of the myth of absolutism. Henshall says that in trying to explain and demonstrate the concept of absolutism to his students, he came to believe it had no real explanatory power; hence, the book.

Formerly Marxist scholars had argued that the absolutism was yet another instance in which peasants were oppressed by landed nobility; however, says Henshall, most scholars now know that purchasers of offices were on-noble bourgeoisie. Neither was absolutism a theory invented by philsophes, bishops and lawers; more often, rulers acted first and justified (theoretized) the actions afterwards. The most current opinion argues that the military revolution required a strongly rationalized fiscal infrastructure, one unhampered by traditional taxation methods. Another view includes in the reforming tendencies of absolutist rulers - money was needed to better serve the public good.

What Henshall argues, in a nutshell, is that rulers of the Enlightenment respected a separation of powers. In the sphere of foreign policy, they were unabashedly absolutist. With regard to taxation and law, they were restricted. Their citizens had traditional rights bound within a complicated governing civil structure. These governing bodies were, in fact, consulted.

Absolutist and constitutional are nineteenth-century terms which created nothing but confusion when related to early modern political ideas. There was … one type of legitimate kingship: monarchy; and two negations of it: despotism and republicanism. Monarchy degenerated into despotism when it monopolized the powers it was supposed to share, and veered towards republicanism when it shared the powers it was supposed to monopolise. (144)

Rulers who were more skilled at setting one group against another usually expanded their scope of powers within the realm traditionally governed by civil structure. Rulers who were inept lost powers in their own realm. Most rulers did add a national level of regulation to taxation systems that had been local or happenstance.

Comparing the case of England and France, England had developed a national representative body. The English developed a fiscal-military state without being called "absolutist" although in fact, English kings in some cases exercised more power than the French kings were able to. English MPs were just as "kin-and-clan" focused as their French counterparts. A real difference was the English excisemen, who were far more organized, and far more effective than French intendants. French intendants, by contrast, could not operate without local support and regularly complained of their helplessness in their official reports. Moreover, Louis XVI had a peculiar and particular genius for symbolism and manipulation. Crowding the political field with players was his ordinary mode of operation, but not a mode that could be managed by someone less talented than himself. Louis XV and XVI inherited a political system that had been made so personal as to be unworkable by anyone else. In the case of France, it lacked a (truly?) national representative body, and so when French kings attempted to negotiate, they failed, and the separation of spheres broke down as well. Their differing fates are read backwards into their history, but their policies were more similar than different.

Royal prerogatives were challenged by the disgruntled, not the visionary. Most Parliaments did not want to run the government. Perhaps at the highest level, the French grandees desired to direct foreign policy when kings displayed incompetence; but the lower levels had no intention of taking on such authority. Why were kings in need of re-asserting authority? Henshall answers: "the 'general crisis' of the 1640s and 1650s… war-induced financial exhaustion and European-wide harvest failures combined with royal minorities, government incompetence and loss of nerve to produce rebellion at roughly the same time in different places. As monarchs in these states re-established their prerogatives, the illusion of an 'age of absolutism' was created. But this was not the creation of autocracy - merely the restoration of normal monarchy.…This time, however, there was a new and seductive accompaniment - baroque propaganda. The novelty was not absolute authority but its media coverage." (168)

The absolutist myth was a child of the French political media in the 1820s, formed at a time when French conservatives needed to mend fences with liberals and so coined the term "absolutisme" to vilify Ferdinand VII of Spain. Absolutism was a modern caricature of a complicated past, used to justify a present course of action.

Henshall makes a bid for the right attention to the right elements. Taking a swipe at Robert Darnton and other "popular historians," he argues that kings, ministers and nobles exercise more power, and have more effect on the nation, than an apprentice with a cat. (OK, I really like Darnton, but he's got a point.) Taking up Henshall's point about the new 'media' - that idea sounds suspiciously modern, although there's evidence enough of display. Was the 'media' coverage effective beyond the court? Did it need to be?