English sources for early modern French history – part 1: Politics and Government

Students are often wary about studying early modern France, particularly when it comes to research projects and dissertations, because they’re concerned that there’s not enough source material to go on. That’s simply not the case! I’ll be presenting various sources available in English over the next few posts.*

I’ll start with sources that help us to understand the politics and government of early modern France.

Overviews and source collections

There are a number of ‘classic’ source collections which present source extracts with some explanatory context. Ones I use frequently include:

  • J. H. Shennan (ed.), Government and Society in France 1461-1661 (London & New York, 1969) – An extensive introduction explaining the structure of early modern French society and the governmental set up, with followed by 71 translated extracts. The first thirty extracts explore ‘Power and its Limitations’, which is further sub-divided into ‘The Monarchy’ and ‘The Three Estates’ – this includes extracts from well-known theorists like Claude de Seyssel and Charles Loyseau, as well as harder to source items like the Coronation oath of Francis I and extracts from pamphlets produced during the Fronde. The second document section covers ‘The Government of the Kingdom’, made up of ‘The Subjects’ Role’ and ‘The King’s Men’. It includes a good selection of letters showing how government worked, as well as various laws and regulations relating to the running of the country.
    • This is a real treasure trove, although you need to give yourself time to go through it properly, as it’s not particularly user friendly if you’re browsing for sources.
  • Richard Bonney (ed.), Society and Government in France under Richelieu and Mazarin (Basingstoke, 1988) – an extremely useful collection for the early seventeenth century, including lots of letters and documentation relating to the various institutions of early modern France. The collection is divided between ‘The Chief Minister: Policies and Critics’, ‘The Ministerial Team’, ‘Administrative Innovation and the Reaction of the Office Holders’, ‘Aristocratic Grievances and Rebellion’ and ‘Popular Rebellion’.
    • Another really rich collection, with the sources very clearly labelled.
  • Roger Mettam (ed.), Government and Society in Louis XIV’s France (Basingstoke, 1977) – Chronologically, an excellent follow-on to Bonney, with sections on ‘Government at the Centre’, ‘The Intendants’, ‘The Provincial Estates’, ‘Municipal Administration’, ‘Taxation and FInance’, ‘Justice’, ‘Commerce and Industry’, and ‘Revolt’
    • the table of contents subdivides these sections further – this is a really user-friendly collection
  • Margaret Lucille Kekewich (ed.), Princes and Peoples: France and the British Iseles, 1620-1714 (Manchester & New York, 1994) – comparing the situations either side of the channel, with good coverage of cultural issues as well as politics. Each source comes with a useful contextual introduction too.
    • Some overlap in coverage with the previous items, which it borrows from, but a useful collection overall
  • William Beik (ed.), Louis XIV and Absolutism: A Brief Study with Documents (Boston & New York, 2000) – focused yet wide-ranging, this seemingly short yet really packed collection not only packs in the sources, but in lots of cases, the extracts tend to be quite long too.
  • Leah L. Chang and Katherine King (eds.) Portraits of the Queen Mother: Polemics: Panegyrics, Letters (Toronto, 2014) – The Queen Mother in question being Catherine de Medici, this recent collection translates a  number of Catherine’s letters, some of the accounts from the Venetian Ambassadors, extracts from the scurrilous Discourse on Catherine’s life from 1576, and sections of Brantôme’s ‘Second Discourse on the Queen, Mother of Our Kings’.
    • This puts some really valuable items into English for the first time, and the supporting apparatus, in particular the length introduction, isreally useful too.

Seminar Studies 

The ‘Seminar Studies’ volumes by R.J. Knecht on French Renaissance Monarchy and The French Wars of Religion, Alan James on The Origins of French Absolutism 1598-1661 and Peter Campbell on Louis XIV all contain a document section with c.20-40 translated sources relating to issues raised in the main text. These are a good overview, and they do sometimes turn up some otherwise hard to trace items, but they’re a bit more patchy than the collections noted above.

Contemporary political works

Several of the main works of political theory are available in English, including

  • Claude de Seyssel, The Monarchy of France translated by J.H. Hexter, edited by Donald R. Kelley (New Haven & London, 1981)
  • Julian H. Franklin, Constitutionalism and Resistance in the Sixteenth Century: Three Treatises by Hotman, Beza and Mornay – although this doesn’t actually reproduce the entirety of the three Monarchomach works in question, it does cover the vast majority of them, and the supporting materials are very useful.
  • Jean Bodin, The Six Books of the Commonwealth – there are various early modern and modern translations of this important work. Many of the sixteenth and seventeenth century versions will be available via services like Early English Books Online. An extremely useful abridged version edited by Julian H. Franklin and covering Book  I, chapters 8 and 10 and Book II, chapters 1 & 5 is available as On sovereignty (Cambridge, 1992)
  • Charles Loyseau, A Treatise of Orders and Plain Dignities edited by Howell A. Lloyd (Cambridge, 1994) – the first English edition of Loyseau’s influential 1610 treatise
  • Louis XIV, Memoirs for the Instruction of the Dauphin translated and edited by Paul Sonnino (New York, 1970) – more of a group effort than the title suggests, this is nonetheless a valuable insight into how Louis saw his role as King and what he wished to pass on
  • Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, Politics drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture translated and edited by Patrick Riley (Cambridge, 1990) – the classic defence of divine-right monarchy from Louis XIV’s court preacher
  • François de Fénelon, Telemachus, son of Ulysses translated and edited by Patrick Riley (Cambridge, 1994) – widely read when it was published in 1699, and a fascinating counterpoint to Bossuet, Telemachus tells the story of the son of Ulysses and his maturation into a strong ruler – it’s typically seen as a commentary on Louis XIV, and was certainly seen that way at the time.

In future posts, I’ll be covering religion in early modern France, literature and memoirs.

*NB These posts are not meant to be a complete list of the sources available in English, they cover the most readily accessible and ones I’ve found useful. Do contact me if you have suggestions for other things to be added or featured in future posts.



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Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. Interested in all things early modern, European, news & print-culture and higher ed teaching related.

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