The Information Master
Jean-Baptiste Colbert's Secret State Intelligence System
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: University of Michigan Press
Historians are often nagged by the suspicion that they could have spent more time studying their subject. The French scholar Prosper Boissonnade noted with no irony that he had studied Jean-Baptiste Colbert for thirty-six years "without overlooking any source of information." He expressed fears that his work was
1. Between Public and Secret Spheres
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In 1698, the Cambridge-trained naturalist and royal physician Martin Lister wrote an account of his trip to Paris. Lister described birds, hedges, flagstones, housing materials, architectural and antiquarian treasures, and French traditions, clothing, and diet. He measured the wheels of carriages, "not above two Foot and a half...
2. Colbert's Cosmos
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The ancien régime was just that: a government born of myriad ancient and often disparate traditions, knotted together like ivy so old it is impossible to discern the original root. The French government had no manual or single written constitution. It was the sum of layers of legal sediment that manifested itself in the stacks of feudal...
3. The Accountant and the Coups d'État
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In another time and place, the Colberts might have been patricians in the mold of the Medicis. Jean-Baptiste Colbert came from a merchant banking family from Reims, the great cathedral and cloth town, and capital of the Champagne region. Seventeenth-century France, however, was not Renaissance Italy, and bourgeois patricians...
4. Royal Accountability
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In 1663, Colbert gained the official title of controller of finances. In this period of peace between 1662 and 1671 Colbert reformed financial administration, increasing state revenue by more than one-third and managing to keep deficits slightly above revenue. He began improving revenue through the royal Chambre de Justice, tax...
5. The Rule of the Informers
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Scholars of the early modern state such as Ernest Lavisse and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie have long painted Colbert as the inventor of a modern type of government in which one minister centrally managed various branches of government. Colbert could order that a massive factory be built in a swamp, and it happened. He could...
6. Managing the System
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In 1670, Colbert sent his eighteen-year-old son, the marquis de Seignelay, to the port of Rochefort. There, alone with his father's cousin, Colbert de Terron, the intendant of the port, Seignelay was to complete an apprenticeship in administering a naval port. Like an intendant, he possessed a set of written orders from his father: work from...
7. From Universal Library to State Encyclopedia
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In 1666 Colbert found a new home for the itinerant and neglected Royal Library. A block from his house on the rue Vivienne, Colbert bought the Hôtel Beautru. It was here that he settled the Royal Library. In the Plan Turgot of 1739, Colbert's house on the corner of the rue de Richelieu and the eponymous rue Colbert is clearly...
8. Jean-Baptiste Colbert's Republic of Letters
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The fact that Colbert mixed the worlds of state administration and scholarship so closely makes it hard to define exactly what he created. Were his intendants and agents bureaucrats in a modern sense? Or were they subservient versions of the humanist secretaries that had filled the ranks of papal and Italian administrations since the late...
9. The Information State in Play
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In 1679, Nicolas-Joseph Foucault, now the intendant of Montauban, went to the town of Pamiers, in the County of Foix on the edge of the Pyrenees in France, to censor the local bishop, François-Étienne Caulet, who had refused to recognize the royal régale. In 1673, Louis XIV had made his declaration of the right of...
10. The System Falls Apart, but the State Remains
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Jean-Baptiste Colbert fell ill on August 20, 1683, in great pain and with a fever, and died September 6. While some rumored that a partial disgrace had led to his illness, his autopsy revealed a "giant stone" in his kidney, blocking his ureter. No one expected him to disappear from the scene so suddenly. Indeed, he himself had not made...
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Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2009
Series Title: Cultures of Knowledge in the Early Moder