Paris in the Age of Absolutism: An Essay
This new edition of Orest Ranum's essay on Paris from 1590 to 1715 is a very attractive, slightly larger format book produced in hardback with a pleasing array of key sixteenth- and seventeenth-century illustrations (especially those by Abraham Bosse). From dust jacket to font, this book is beautifully produced and a sheer pleasure to read. Fans of the first edition published in 1968 will be pleased to see a key essay updated and expanded, including a very sensitive — and timely — new chapter entitled 'The First Women Writers'. The primary attraction of this essay is that it focuses on Paris — in itself a source of pleasure. Moreover, the textual lens captures the city from myriad angles: kings, history, civil war(s), religion, architecture, literature, art, theatre, society (all levels), economics and politics. 'A Traveler's View in 1600' sets the scene by depicting the physical city in all its heaving and pungent post-medieval sprawl. Ranum catches the reader's attention by alternating fact with visual detail, such as the open common graves in the Cemetery of the Innocents 'that aroused the morbid curiosity of visitors in 1600'. It shocks the modern visitor to learn that two or three common graves stood open at the same time. This is what Ranum calls the 'medieval burden' borne by Paris in its failed attempts to move towards Modernity. His essay also follows this progressive sweep. A clear historical account of the League, the Civil War factions, and their divisive effect on Parisian society is swiftly followed by a practical review of Paris under Henri IV, 'a builder', who undertakes a programme of construction in the city — both physical and psychological. [End Page 387] Henri IV and Sully together reap praise for innovations in paving, sewers and lighting, perennial problems for the early modern capital. Henri IV focused on the beautification of Paris and, between the Place Dauphine and Place Royale, he began an architectural trend towards structuring and organization in Paris that would lead to comparisons with Rome by the end of Louis XIV's reign. Architectural matters, including interior decoration, are carefully tracked throughout the book, tracing trends, innovations and disasters. Among the praise lavished on Henri IV, he is credited with being the first king to become involved in public–private partnership, controlling construction of buildings funded by private capital. Thus, the Marais, the Île Saint-Louis and the Palais-Royal were devised and built. If Henri IV is the initial hero of this book, later chapters address the complexity of a fiery capital submitting to absolutism, under more specifically topical headings, including the construction aspirations of the nobility, women writers, Parisian 'corporations' (guilds, schools, académies), the Fronde, the concept of the heroic ideal, noble behaviour, religious zeal and, finally, the splendours of Paris under Louis XIV. Most impressive is Ranum's succinct account of the minefield of religious houses, allegiances and factions in the seventeenth century. For this topic alone, this essay is surely a crucial text for any student or aspiring seventeenth-century scholar. For pure pleasure, it is recommended reading for all lovers of Paris.