French History to 1830

A deep sense of the past is very much part of French character. Glorious monuments of that dramatic and creative past are revered treasures, the inheritance of the nation. Because of its respect for the past, France exceeds most other countries in its historic-preservation efforts.

The history of any country, France included, is made up both of important individual events and episodes and long-term changes. Short-term happenings, for example, include the French Revolution of 1789–1799 and the Battle of Waterloo that ended Napoleon's power in 1815. Long-term trends affecting France include broader alterations over extended periods, such as took place during the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. In this chapter, you will get a brief glimpse of both of these kinds of history. In providing that glimpse, it will be necessary to vastly simplify a very long and complex past.


France's cultural heritage extends some 480,000 years back in time. Early Stone Age people inhabited the region, including the “cavemen” who left a record of their existence with marvelous painted caverns such as those of Lascaux. Here, however, our history begins with the Celtic Gauls, peoples conquered by the Romans between 125 and 12 B.C. That conquest was partly under the generalship of Julius Caesar (from 58 to 51 B.C.), and resulted in the deaths of a million Gauls, with a comparable number being enslaved—not to mention Roman casualties.

The Celts spoke languages whose origins probably go back to Central Europe or the Caucasus region. Over time, they came to occupy most of Central and Western Europe outside of Scandinavia. Some 60 independent “tribes,” collectively called the Gauls, dwelt in present-day northwestern Italy, France, Belgium, and parts of Germany and Switzerland. They farmed, kept livestock, practiced crafts, and frequently fought. They practiced Druidic religion, which included human sacrifice. The French speak of “our ancestors, the Gauls.” In fact, the Arvernian Gaulish chief Vercingetorix, who led a brief uprising against the Roman occupation in 52 B.C., is counted as the first French hero—though he was neither French nor notably heroic (he was defeated at Alesia, in Burgundy, and taken in chains to Rome).

We speak of certain things French as being “Gallic,” such as the Gallic cock—the French national symbol, similar to our American eagle. Yet there is very little in French culture other than place names that can be traced to the Gauls. There are, for instance, only about 200 Celtic words in the French language. It is the Romans—whom most French view as having been foreign occupiers rather than ancestors—not the Gauls, to whom France owes most of its “Frenchness.” The Romans were the first to unify the territory that is now France. They introduced good roads as well as their stone architecture. They were responsible for the wide dispersal of vineyards and winemaking.

They also brought the Latin language, from which the French tongue ultimately evolved. In addition, Romans introduced sizable cities, forms of government and law, and the Roman system of surveying. Important as well were Roman military architecture, Roman agricultural methods, and the Roman alphabet. Christianity was another of the many cultural legacies of the great Roman Empire.

Rome's impact was strongest in Provence, whose traditional architecture is so like that of parts of Italy that the one place could pass for the other. The lower Rhone region contains some of the world's best-preserved Roman structures. They include the Pont du Gard aqueduct at Remoulins, the theater and triumphal arch at Orange, the arenas at Arles and Nimes, and the little Maison Carree temple at Nimes (which inspired Thomas Jefferson's design for the Virginia state capitol building).

Despite the occasional rebellion, most Gauls favored Roman occupation, even if grudgingly. It was the Romans who established peace—the pax romana—among the oftenwarring Celtic tribes and afforded protection from the German tribes across the Rhine River. Peace and security, along with improved transportation and the presence of Roman legions, led to great enhancement of Gaul's prosperity.


During the Roman period, many Germans, especially Franks, were allowed to settle in some numbers in Gaul, where they became increasingly Romanized. During the fifth century, more and more Germans and Scandinavians penetrated into Gaul uninvited, plundered there and, in many cases, settled down and established local kingdoms. Rome, too, fell to barbarians, and the end of the Roman Empire in the West is conventionally set at 476 A.D. After that date, both cities and foreign trade declined in Gaul, as elsewhere.

Franks formed a small minority of the post-Roman population, but they successfully conquered and ruled through military force. The Frank Clovis (reign 481–511) established the Merovingian Dynasty, selected Paris to be his capital, and adopted many Roman values, including Catholicism (ca. 496). Clovis's Church-anointed coronation at Reims in 507 A.D. marks the foundation of France as a nation. From 987 on, most of France's later kings were also crowned at Reims. (Interestingly, even though the Franks were Germans, only 520 German words survive in Modern French.)

The Merovingians under Charles Martel ('Hammer') defeated invading Arabs in 732 A.D., near Poitiers, ending the expansion of Islam in Western Europe. The Carolingian Dynasty, which succeeded the Merovingian, expanded under the great but ruthless leader Charlemagne (742–814) and the Franks came to control most of old Gaul plus additional areas. In 800, Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Stephen II. Following Charlemagne's death in 814, the Frankish kingdom was in 843 formally divided into three parts. Although omitting about one-fifth of today's country, the part known as West Francia became the territorial foundation for the future development of the country we know as France.


During the 800s and 900s, France was plagued by raiders such as Muslim Saracens, Hungarian Magyars, and Norse Vikings sweeping into the territory. The latter finally settled around the mouth of the river Seine in 910, evolving into Normans and adopting the emerging French language. The Capetian Dynasty, founded in 987 and lasting until 1328, rescued West Francia from a tendency to break into separate fragments. During their rulership, the Capetians crystallized the concept of “France” as an almost personified political and territorial entity—a perception persisting to the present day.

Hugh Capet (reign 987–996) was the first French-speaking king. This period also saw the rising importance of monastic orders, as Catholic monasteries came to control vast lands and wealth. A Benedictine reform movement began in 909 at Cluny in Burgundy. In 1095, the greatest religious architectural complex the world had seen was consecrated there. Another order, the Cistercian, was founded in France in 1048. Religious pilgrimages grew in importance, including across central and southwestern France on the road to Spain's Santiago (Saint James) de Compostela. From 1095 to 1291, knights and other warriors from France were the most important players in five crusades to recapture the Holy Land for Christendom. The crusades fostered a sense of French national identity. The fairly brief presence of Europeans in Palestine led to the importation of much Eastern knowledge into Europe, including ideas important to geography and architecture. Pointed arches, stained-glass windows, and some other features characteristic of Gothic architecture probably have their sources in the East.

In 1137, Eleanor, daughter of William of Aquitaine (a southwestern province), married France's Capetian crown prince, Louis. Later that year, he became King Louis VII. Eleanor's dowry included what today amounts to the southwestern quarter of France. After being divorced 15 years later by Louis, she later married Henry Plantagenet, duke of Normandy and count of Anjou, who in 1154 became king of England. This resulted in her now-reclaimed lands being added to Henry's,which included not only England, but also present-day France's northwestern quarter.

Half of France now belonged to England, in the so-called Angevin Empire. The situation was further complicated when the scheming Eleanor abandoned Henry and established her own court back on the continent, in Poitou. The resulting situation, intolerable to France, led to 300 years of political and military conflict, including the “First Hundred Years'War” (1159–1299), in which France, under kings Philip Augustus and Louis VIII, regained all but the province of Guyenne.

Despite its often devastating wars and its crusade against religious heretics in the South, during the Capetian Middle Ages France saw rising prosperity, rapid population growth, an increase in the size and importance of towns (bourgs) and their burghers (les bourgeois)—that is, manufacturers and merchants—plus professionals of various kinds, and acquisition of Langedoc. This is attributable, in part, to milder weather, improved agricultural technology and methods, reclamation of wild lands for farming, and the proliferation of water mills and windmills for both graingrinding and manufacturing, plus a general rise in trade. Many new agricultural villages were established, bringing their number close to today's approximately 30,000. Commercial fairs became numerous in the north, and craft, merchant, and professional guilds wielded ever-greater power. A literature in the French language emerged for the first time.

The Capetians, unable to produce a male heir, were succeeded in 1328 by the Valois Dynasty. The glory days of the Capetians were to be followed by troubled times, which included economic slowdown as new reclaimable farmland and military plunder were exhausted and as trade patterns shifted; peasant uprisings occurred (and were viciously suppressed), and there were war and epidemic.

King Edward III of England believed that the reigning French King, Philip VI, held the throne illegitimately. Edward declared himself king of France and invaded. The result was the devastating Hundred Years'War (1345-1453).During the lengthy conflict, the English ultimately were driven from all of France except the Channel port of Calais. Joan of Arc provided one dramatic aspect of the war. The young French peasant girl and religious visionary who had rallied the French forces was captured by the English, who burned her at the stake as a witch (partly because she wore male battle dress).

During the Hundred Years' War, actual fighting occurred during only about a fifth of the years. The long, if intermittent, conflict saw the first use of gunpowder with cannons (Battle of Crecy, 1346), which revolutionized warfare, contributing to the end of knights in armor and to modification and then abandonment of castle building. At the end of the war, many castles were demolished, fostering the rise of kingly control and the decline of seigniorial fiefdoms—small local areas ruled from castles by individual nobles, who both taxed and defended their people. A French standing army was created for the first time. This greatly increased royal power and set the stage for future monarchical control, a decline in the feudal system, and territorial expansionism.

As if war were not enough, in 1348 the Black Death, or bubonic plague, struck Europe. One-third of France's population died during this and later plagues over the next century. Working-class individuals who survived the plague's ravages prospered. Labor shortages caused wages and standards of diet to rise. Much empty farmland was available, leading to a portion of the peasantry becoming independent of the nobles. The European Middle Ages continue to fascinate us. It was a time of opulent excess, violence and cruelty, and vicious exploitation of the people. At the same time, there was piety and religious self-denial, idealistic romantic chivalry, charity, and creativity in the arts. France was at the center of it all.


In Italy during the 1400s, a rediscovery of and renewed appreciation for classical Greek and Roman knowledge and art began. It was fueled in part by the arrival of Byzantine Greeks fleeing Turkish invaders and in part by contacts with Arabs, who had preserved much Greek and Roman knowledge. The beginning of papermaking and printing with movable type in Germany around 1450 spread to France. A French printing shop opened in Paris in 1470. Relatively inexpensive printed books revolutionized learning and the spread of ideas, now within the grasp of “commoners.”

This Renaissance, or 'Rebirth' of classical knowledge, affected France in the late 1400s, slightly later than it did Italy. King Francis I (reign 1515–1547) became enthusiastic about Italy's Renaissance movement and imported it to France. Under the later Valois kings, the population recovered from the plagues, and monarchs continued to centralize power. The feudal system, in which local lords ruled over serfs (farmers tied to their lands) and usually provided little support to the king, declined further. The monarchy became increasingly absolute, and its ties to the church loosened.Display of royal grandeur—large palaces, ornate works of art, pomp and ceremonies, and the like—became ever more elaborate as the kings endeavored to increase their power and prestige.

During the latter half of the 1500s, many Valois kings were young, sickly, or weak. During this period, from 1560 to 1574 the Italian widow of Henry II, Catherine de'Medici, reigned as regent for her underage son. She was one of the few women of the era to possess strong political and economic power. The late 1500s brought many problems to Western Europe. The climate became much colder (an episode called the “Little Ice Age”) and struggles for power increased. Religious tensions also became intense because of the emergence and spread of Protestantism. This movement, begun by Martin Luther in Germany in 1517, was promoted most effectively in France by John Calvin beginning in midcentury.

French Protestants were termed “Huguenots.” Their numbers grew rapidly, threatening the established Catholic Church. The consequence was the savage and devastating Wars of Religion, fought between 1562 and 1598. Henry of Navarre (Henry IV) succeeded to the kingship in 1589 as the first of what became known as the Bourbon Dynasty. Although he had adopted Catholicism in order to secure the throne, he was sympathetic to Protestants. In 1598, his Edict of Nantes granted qualified freedom of worship to Protestants. Meantime, because of almost continuous fighting, both the people and the national economy had suffered severely.


Protestants benefited from the Edict of Nantes for less than 90 years. Henri IV's successor, Louis XIII (reign 1601–1643), showed much less sympathy with Protestants. It was his successor, Louis XIV, however, who was most responsible for returning France to exclusive Catholicism.He was to become France's most powerful and long-reigning king (reign 1643–1715). Because he likened himself to the Greek sun god, Apollo, Louis XIV was referred to as the Sun King. When he assumed the throne in 1643, he came to it as an anti-Protestant. In 1685, Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes, thereby reestablishing Catholicism as the state religion and resuming the persecution of Protestants. As a consequence, a quarter of a million Huguenots fled to England, the Netherlands, Germany, and even the American South. This was a great material loss to France, since many Huguenots were skilled artisans.

The seventeenth century experienced a Catholic Counter-Reformation. It began as a movement to revitalize Christian religious and moral values, but developed into an effort to out-compete Protestantism. One result was the building of many huge and elaborate churches in the new Baroque style.

During this time, the empire of the Germanic Hapsburg Dynasty was expanding. Already claiming Austria, Spain, and the Netherlands, it was beginning to encircle France. From 1618 to 1648, much of Europe was engulfed in the ravaging Thirty Years' War. France entered the conflict in 1635, and the size of its army increased tenfold. During this period, the centralization of power and an already huge bureaucracy increased. France won against Hapsburg Austria and gained considerable territory, including much of Alsace, Rousillon, Artois, and Picardy. Immediately after the war, however, France suffered the “Fronde” (1648–1652). This was a period of state bankruptcy and civil war against centralization and the power of the church through cardinals who served as principal ministers to the king. Ultimately, Louis assumed the role of principal minister himself, thereby completing the centralization of power and gaining ironhanded one-man rule.

Louis's military engineer, the Marquis de Vauban, fortified France's frontiers. The country engaged in three wars between 1667 and 1713, acquiring in the process Flanders, Franche-Comte, and Strasbourg, but the wars were very costly to the economy. During this period, too, the French lost their holdings in French Canada to Britain.

Louis XIV encouraged a cult of the personality by royal display of dazzling magnificence. As a result, the seventeenth century came to be called le grand siecle (“the great century”). Louis also worked to make the French family a microcosm of the state, encouraging male authority and wifely subordination.

He also locked away prostitutes and others with whose lifestyle he disagreed. Yet, in this era of excess and repression, French playwrights and other authors, as well as artists and scholars, flourished. Thus, the Scientific Revolution got under way, creating ways of thinking about the world that increasingly competed with those of the Church.


During the Renaissance, Portugal and then Spain began overseas exploration and conquest. They established huge empires, mainly in the Americas, becoming wealthy and powerful from plunder and mining precious metals. France and England took note and initiated their own quests for empire. France established colonies in Canada, in Louisiana (sold to the United States in 1803), and in the Caribbean. It also gained a foothold in India and established trading stations on the coast of West Africa.

Gaining mineral and luxury manufactured products from these regions was important. So, too, was the commercial production of tropical and subtropical crops. From the colonies came rice and indigo, the dye used to impart a dark blue color to denim (from de Nimes). Denim was used for cowboys' jeans in France's Camargue and later was introduced in America by Levi Strauss. Sugarcane, however, was the most important colonial crop. African slaves were brought into the Caribbean to produce it. The French port of Nantes was prominent in this tragic commerce in human beings.

Growing international trade boosted the importance of port cities such as Nantes, Bordeaux, Brest, and St-Malo. However, France's imperialism increased its friction with the equally ambitious British, inducing the “Second Hundred Years' War” (the third, really) between the two expanding powers.Although foreign possessions went back and forth between the two countries, France ended up the loser. An especially bitter loss was its near-expulsion from India. These wars severely taxed France's economy; but at least they were largely fought at sea and on foreign soil. Despite the wars, the eighteenth century was one of much-improved roads and increases in trade, food production, and population within France, itself.


Although French glory and culture continued to have a huge international influence, the Sun King's successors, Louis XV and Louis XVI, found it increasingly difficult to maintain absolute power. The times, themselves, were against the kings. Social and economic barriers between the landed nobles and the affluent middle class were blurring, and the number of bourgeois grew rapidly. Expensive wars (including aid to the American Revolution) led to higher taxes and declining state solvency, which sparked popular resentment.

Perhaps most importantly, the printing press allowed wide dissemination of information and ideas. Antiroyalist and anticlerical sentiments flourished. So did the philosophies of the Enlightenment, a literary and scientific movement in which writers like Montesquieu and Voltaire spoke the desirability of a more rational, reasonable, and egalitarian (equal) society. These and other French thinkers of the time also had a major influence on the development of democratic ideas in what was to become the United States. In the face of science, religion was on the decline. The rate of literacy climbed dramatically, and people eagerly discussed ideas, including democratic ones. Popular opinion began to exert an ever-greater pressure on royal politics.

Finally, on July 14, 1789, the situation exploded. An angry Parisian mob stormed the Bastille, a political prison by then little used but still a symbol of the repressive royal regime. The French Revolution had begun. The French Revolution was both a triumph of the philosophy of freedom and equality and a time of destructive excesses and mob tyranny. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” as Charles Dickens characterized it, “it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” It certainly ended up changing not only France, but also the world.

Change had actually been going on for some time. The bourgeois-professional class was becoming increasingly important, at the expense of the nobility and clergy. The revolution itself was preceded by population pressure, rising prices, and expensive wars. Following the destruction of the Bastille, rule by the people was established. A Declaration of the Rights of Man appeared, feudalism was abolished, as were the church tithe and sale of public offices. Liberty, equality, and fraternity (brotherhood) were declared, and a red cap that had been the ancient badge of emancipated slaves became a symbol of the revolution. Paris's heraldic red (associated with the republic) and blue (which has Carolingian and Capetian associations) were added to the traditional white of the Bourbons' royal national flag to yield the tricolor, which has remained France's flag to the present day.

The king was not immediately deposed, but was made a constitutional monarch by the new National Assembly. France's traditional provinces, once governed by local nobles, were replaced by a greater number of smaller departments administered by central-government appointees (prefects). High office was opened to all classes, and all property-owning males were accorded the vote. Restrictions on private enterprise in business and other economic activities were lifted. Churchowned real estate—amounting to 6–10% of the cultivatable lands—was confiscated to pay off government debt. Reforms guaranteed freedom of speech and of the press. The metric system was created as well.

Violent opposition soon clouded these promising beginnings. Colonies revolted, as did the conservative Vendee in France's west. Austria and other European powers attacked, fearful of the possible spread of revolution to their countries. At home, extremism was rampant. There were ruthless massacres, followed by executions—including those of King Louis and his queen, Marie Antoinette. The (First) Republic was declared in 1792. Social radicals known as Jacobins seized power in 1793, enforcing populist reforms by means of the “Reign of Terror.” The guillotine was developed to decapitate (behead) political prisoners. Several hundred thousand opponents of the revolution were killed and another 150,000 fled the country. The Reign of Terror saw further centralization of power, the temporary replacement of Catholicism by an invented Cult of the Supreme Being, and brief use of a new calendar. An enormous army also was formed to oppose foreign invasions.

In 1794, the Jacobins were overthrown, but still, things moved from crisis to crisis. Then, in 1799, a military officer from Corsica named Napoleon Buonaparte (later, Bonaparte) engineered a coup d'etat to reestablish stability, and had himself declared absolute consul.


Napoleon was an absolutist. His rule was totally personal and almost as far from democratic as one could imagine. The press was muzzled, political activity restricted, and women's rights reduced. A royal court—his—and aristocratic titles were reinstated. Napoleon did reestablish political stability. He also approved a system of civil law that came to be called la Code Napoleon (the Napoleonic Code, which remains the legal code of Louisiana today).

Napoleon, who in 1804 declared himself emperor, pursued a vigorous program of expansionism on the continent. Soon, as a result of his ambitious conquests, much of Western Europe came under his control.His wars were financed mostly with the spoils of conquest; he depended largely on troops conscripted in the conquered countries. France itself remained peaceful and prosperous until 1810.

Napoleon ultimately found that he had overextended his capacity to conquer and control. Particularly disastrous was his invasion of Russia (1812–1813), in which half a million men were lost. It was British opposition, however, that proved to be his most difficult obstacle. Napoleon was soundly defeated and deposed in 1814. He made a comeback in 1815, however, but was defeated again in the Battle of Waterloo (in Belgium) and was exiled for good. France's boundaries reverted to those of 1792, and the Bourbons were restored, in the form of backward-looking Louis XVIII.

Napoleon was a military genius. Some historians see him as having been an egotistical, war-mongering monster. Others judge him to have been a disseminator of the values of the revolution who, had he not been defeated by the British, might have created a European or even world federation and avoided future world wars. One thing that is indisputable is that Napoleon lost for France most of her first overseas empire.