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Lese Majesty and Absolutism

Ralph E. Giesey

Giesey, Ralph E., Lese Majesty and Absolutism, 1986, en ligne : http://www.regiesey.com/Lectures/Lese_Majesty_and_Absolutism_Lecture_for_WFChurch.pdf

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As Nancy Roelker has suggested, my lecture this evening has special poignancy for the memory of William Farr Church, for it deals with the scholarly endeavor upon which he was engaged when he died. Allow me first to say that it was Nancy herself who conceived the plan, to which Bill agreed, to have Don Kelley and me come to visit Bill in his last days. The details of
Bill’s discourse then on his lese majesty project may largely slip from my memory, but never can be forgotten the equanimity of Bill’s comportment. The harsh realities of his declining health never perturbed the serious talk about his work. To the end of his days he was committed to the life of the mind. For that reason, no more fit way to honor the memory of him could be had than these annual lectures bearing his name.
Much of what I shall deal with this evening would have fallen within the scope of the book Bill intended to write–indeed, he may have chosen for it the very title I have given this lecture, "Lese Majesty and Absolutism". Bill’s purpose was to show the special role played by lese majesty–i.e, simply put, by the Roman Law of treason–in the array of devices included in the policy of "reason of state" that was used by the French kings and their ministers–especially Louis XIII and Richelieu in the 1620s, 30s & 40s– to promote absolute rule by the central royal administration. Reason of state, raison d’état, may have pretended to be a formal theory of rulership, but in fact it was a high-sounding term designed to legitimize tough policy against all
forms of insubordination. The wide reaches of this were shown by Bill Church in his last published major work, Richelieu and Reason of State, in 1972. Lese majesty receives considerable attention there, but Bill had learned a great deal more about the subject than he thought was appropriate for that book. Indeed, he had decided that lese majesty in France during the age of absolutism needed a book of its own.

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