Cardinal’s Loot

J.M. Roberts

  • Cardinal Richelieu: Power and the Pursuit of Wealth by Joseph Bergin
    Yale, 341 pp, £20.00, November 1985, ISBN 0 300 03495 4
  • Rich and Poor in Grenoble 1600-1814 by Kathryn Norberg
    California, 366 pp, £31.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 520 05260 9
  • France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counter-Revolution by D.M.G. Sutherland
    Collins/Fontana, 493 pp, £14.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 00 197178 6

Richelieu has long been seen as the founder of the absolute monarchy of France, but has hardly, until now, been studied as a millionaire. Yet Dr Bergin came to his theme almost by accident. While looking for something entirely different in the Paris archives, he noticed in the catalogue a reference to five volumes of materials relating to Richelieu’s affairs. A year later he called them up to begin ‘a short article on Richelieu’s revenues’. Slowly, the magnitude of the task of explaining anything about his subject dawned on him. He was caught, as many historians have been, by his documents. And now we have this remarkable study, the most comprehensive that exists of the personal finances of France’s greatest 17th-century statesman – indeed of any 17th-century notable.

Richelieu’s wealth was legendary, and it was crucial to his power. It was not just that he was ‘the best relative there ever was’, as Saint Simon put it (the remark is quoted in one of Dr Bergin’s footnotes which are to be found – o si sic omnes – at the foot of his pages), but that generosity on his scale bought loyalty and discipline in a pre-modern administrative, military and political apparatus. Something of the importance of his clientèle has already been brought to light by other scholars. What has not been known in detail is the nature of the personal resources in which so much of it was rooted.

Wealth fed power: power fed wealth. Until the 1620s there was nothing very remarkable about Richelieu’s personal assets, though 1619 may be a good date at which to begin to trace a change. In that year he became superintendent of the Queen Mother’s household. Under the umbrella of her administration, Dr Bergin tells us, a private administration of unprecedented size and scope gradually evolved to serve him. This was the armature and guardian of his vast fortune, and also one of the agencies which built it, for good management provided surpluses for investment. But Richelieu never lost his own close interest in its working.

His investments were spread throughout France. Most took the form of land leased to others to exploit. The land was bought not only with royal gifts, but with the fruits of office. Although there is some obscurity about the first promotions he acquired, the likelihood is that he did not pay for them – i.e. invest in them – but owed them to favour. Soon, however, he was selling his grand almonership to finance land purchase – treating it, that is to say, as capital for redeployment. Even when he was the King’s chief minister, the salaries he earned from his various offices could not on their own have financed a fortune on the scale he needed to sustain his position. Income from investment, cash gifts from his royal patrons, and, still more important, their generosity in securing a vast range of governorships, privileges and exemptions, may have been more important.

What did it all, in the most literal sense, add up to? It is not easy to say. Incomings from the Church would cease on Richelieu’s death: his vast collection of pictures, plate, furniture, and the buildings that housed them, are hard to value. His cash reserves must be set against liabilities and his gifts to his family are often hard to categorise. Dr Bergin carefully shows the variety of the qualifications which blur the picture of an estate assessed in simple terms as capital. As for revenue accounts, it seems likely that much does not appear in them: as Dr Bergin remarks, ‘not the least of his achievements was to take secrets of this nature with him to the grave and to ensure that they remained there.’ Why, then, is the matter important – and why is this book likely to be so instructive, not only to scholars, but to anyone interested in Early Modern Europe?

The answer must be that Richelieu’s exceptional financial history provides a unique instance of the way in which office was seen and used under the Ancien Régime. It is startling to see projected on such a scale the preoccupation with family interests which loomed so large in the cardinal-statesman’s thoughts. It is revealing to trace the delicate, but often surprisingly tough filaments of dependence upon royal approval (or even caprice) which lay at the heart of so great an achievement. This book, in short, does what all history, general or particular, should do: it offers an adjustment to our view of a whole past.

Dr Norberg lights up the Ancien Régime from a wholly different angle. Again, the central theme seems, at first sight, a narrow one: the relations of rich and poor in a small provincial city of France – Grenoble was somewhat smaller than Taunton is today – between 1600 and 1814. The story is approached through the study of poor relief, and the result is much less restrictive than might appear. At the outset Dr Norberg remarks that the idea of an ancien régime can easily impose a false homogeneity on two hundred years of history, and her study is a continual elaboration and exemplification of this dictum. What begins as a study of local history reveals changes in attitudes and ideas which give a new precision to our notions of the Counter-Reformation and Enlightenment. Like Puritanism in England, says Dr Norberg, a new religious sensibility prompted new practices in relation to the poor in the 17th century. The Counter-Reformation was, in this respect as in others, a modernising agent, launching processes that outlasted its own existence. In Grenoble this expressed itself in the appearance of new institutions. Among these were confraternities with a specifically devotional emphasis and for a long time dominated by the nobility and the judicial élite. As the decades went by, they showed a capacity to change and adjust their views of the poor. A priori views tended to dissolve when the charitable agencies came into relationship with individual paupers. Notions of sinful responsibility were tempered and obscured by solicitude. Even in respect of such social evils as, for example, abortion, Grenoblois paternalism changed. From the 17th-century obsession with ‘disorder’, Dr Norberg traces an evolution towards attitudes which, ironically, have long been thought of as typical of the Enlightenment, though they were rooted in a profoundly religious outlook. As time passed, their origins were obscured by the rise of new values. One of Dr Norberg’s shortest chapters is also the most telling in its revelation of this process. The Bureau des Ecoles Charitables, for instance, initially dominated by the pedagogy of the Christian Brothers, had by 1789 become almost entirely taken up with practical instruction which to all intents and purposes turned schools into workshops.

Dr Norberg’s book is full of fascinating detail; and her assessment of evidence which is both rich and difficult to handle is highly skilled. (There is a splendid analysis of what can be learnt from a sample of 5000 wills about the attitudes underlying charitable bequests.) The combination of a predominantly narrative exposition with the complex detail of the evidence makes the book a pleasure to read. Cobb-like snapshots give some of it a pointilliste feel: the girls who, in a kind of magic ritual, would process about the church with the Host before depositing it at the altar; the mothers who set up in the business of prostituting their daughters; the tempestuous love-life of a couple of silk-workers who could not restrain themselves even in the workshop. There are any number of things to be learnt about aspects of life under the Ancien Régime which are touched on only in passing. The tendency of the 17th-century regular clergy, for instance, to leave the poor to one side helps to explain, among other things, the vigour of the pious Grenoblois laity in attacking poverty. The vulnerability of women to poverty, especially if they are mothers, is another recurring theme. Then there is the virtually continuous inadequacy of state policy. Royal efforts were ineffective and sporadic: Revolutionary government after 1789 had too much on its hands to do more than wreck many of the existing arrangements for dealing with the poor. By the end of the Empire, Dr Norberg suggests, both patrician charity and state interference had proved inadequate: it was the labouring poor themselves who with their mutual-aid societies pointed the way ahead.

Dr Norberg says of the General Hospital at Grenoble that it was neither destroyed nor in any other way affected by Revolutionary change between 1789 and 1814, but on the contrary experienced in those years a confirmation and acceleration of trends already identifiable earlier in the 18th century. Many scholars have said as much about other institutions in recent years. We no longer see the Revolution as a great, simple divide, whatever novelty or acceleration it brought with it. Dr Sutherland’s book extends this argument into a general discussion of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic years. It is admirably up-to-date and contains much that will be new to those trying to keep up with the rapid developments of Revolutionary history in the past quarter-century. The title is significant. Dr Sutherland’s special interest is counter-revolution, a phenomenon which, as this book shows, was far from unitary or coherent. Its strength always lay in its ability, whatever setbacks it encountered, to draw on popular discontents. Sometimes these were rooted in ancient conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, or in long-standing tensions between urban consumers and rural producers. There was a persisting potential for violence and disorder in these factors. One of the most interesting passages in Dr Sutherland’s book is the account (with which it closes) of the Hundred Days. When Napoleon’s little army approached Grenoble on its march from the coast to Paris it was accompanied by crowds of peasants. Some of them reminded Napoleon of a gathering in the same mountains in 1788, when representatives of the three Orders had solemnly compacted to unite as one body, thus doubling the voting strength of the Third Estate, and to seek fiscal equality between their members (Dr Norberg points out that most of the directors of the General Hospital were present). That had been before the fall of the Bastille. In 1815 the same fears of a tyrannical nobility were still able to mobilise support for Napoleon. Châteaux were attacked, seigneurial pews burnt, much as in 1789. Anti-clericalism revived. A great deal was heard of defending ‘liberty’ and – ominous phrase – of the salut public. The plebiscite which endorsed the restored Imperial regime had its strongest support in the regions where the Revolution had been best supported. Yet royalism, too, could draw on the past. The Hundred Days brought the Chouans out again in Brittany and Normandy, with the result that 20,000 troops who had to be left there could not be at Waterloo, that ‘damned near-run thing’. In the Midi, Protestants were murdered by counter-revolutionaries, and more were to be terrorised and harried after the final defeat.

In the excellent summary with which Dr Sutherland ends his book he speaks of the way in which ‘the vast weight of ancient peasant France imposed itself ... at the expense of many of the ideals of 1789.’ This is far from being the whole of his message, but it is worth stressing because the book’s great merit is to have grounded analysis in the behaviour of the majority, far from homogeneous though it was. Special skills and knowledge have helped Dr Sutherland to explain why, so often, the ‘counter-revolution’ of his title was as important as the mythical ‘Revolution’ from above. Nor is this just a simple matter of recalling historical losers who, it is sometimes suggested, are always liable to be written out of the script. Much of the counter-revolution was about winners, too. It was about the successful defence of advantages gained at particular times, many of which by 1815 were ineradicable. The major impression throughout is of the inability of those in Paris who sought continuing radical change to find powerful and widespread support among Frenchmen at large.

It is a pity that Dr Sutherland’s learning and acuteness are sometimes obscured by weaknesses in his writing. He occasionally takes too much knowledge for granted in his readers (and so do his publishers: one map, untitled, without a scale, with only departments and seven cities identified on it, and no rivers, is not enough for so topographically allusive a text) and his dense exposition is not always easy to follow. Nonetheless, this is an important book, even something of a landmark, which should play a large part in diffusing knowledge of what recent scholarship has done to transform the old view of the Revolution.