Masters or Servants

Conrad Russell

  • The Young Richelieu: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Leadership by Elizabeth Wirth Marvick
    Chicago, 276 pp, £27.20, December 1983, ISBN 0 226 50904 4
  • Richelieu and Olivares by J.H. Elliott
    Cambridge, 189 pp, £17.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 521 26205 4

Cardinal Richelieu’s sister did not dare sit down, because she believed she was made of glass. Facts such as this cry out for psychological explanation, and an attempt to provide it has been made by Elizabeth Wirth Marvick, in The Young Richelieu. The attempt is bravely made, and it rests on solid archival research in the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Archives, the British Library and other places. Yet, though the attempt to provide a psychological explanation of Richelieu and his family circle is well and honestly made, it is again necessary to express doubts about the documentary base for this type of work. In understanding the psychological make-up of our contemporaries, we rely heavily on aural and visual evidence: we listen carefully to them, and in so doing, learn to recognise the places where they protest too much, to perceive the vital distinction between the things they say because they mean them and the things they say because they do not mean them. Such evidence is inaccessible to the historian. In the 19th century, in the age which, in their different ways, Freud and Peter Gay have made their own, sheer bulk of documents may to some extent compensate for this difficulty. In the 17th century, the problem of psychological interpretation is altogether more intractable. That 17th-century characters had psychologies, as much as any later characters, may be instantly conceded. Yet it is hard not to respond to attempts to discover them with a hesitant ‘well, maybe’.

Professor Elliott, in his Richelieu and Olivares, is constantly aware that a psychological dimension exists, yet his concern is much more with political history widely interpreted. His interest is in a comparative study of the two great gladiatorial opponents of the early 17th century. The basis for comparison is a sound one, and the exercise is extremely fruitful. The two men’s periods of power were almost identical, and a large amount of their time and energy was spent on the long-running duel they conducted with each other. A comparison, then, comes to include a great deal more than just the men themselves. It includes the resources they were able to devote to combat with each other, and thus the political and financial systems of their countries, their relations with their monarchs, their struggles with would-be domestic rivals, and the political traditions on which they were able to draw. The study of these two men turns into a study of the development of the powers of the state in Early Modern Europe, and affords insights which can be used towards the understanding not only of France and Spain but of other countries such as England. The work, in fact, is of the quality we are used to expecting of Professor Elliott. He has been, over the past thirty years, the source of many of the best new ideas in his field, and there are more here.

One of the most interesting lines of investigation turns out to be the comparison of the countries the two men governed. For the present generation, there has been much historical mileage to be gained out of the rejection of previous conclusions based on hindsight, and the rivalry of France and Spain turns out to be an excellent case-study. To generations brought up on ‘the decline of Spain’, the contest appeared to be a very unequal one. France, the unified nation-state governed by an ‘absolute monarchy’ guided by ‘reason of state’, appeared to be the power on the side of the future, and Spain, the unwieldy multinational colossus driven by an outdated devot mentality, a power whose great days were already in the past. When Velasquez painted the fall of Breda, in 1625, it did not appear that simple.

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