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Making Money in Sixteenth-Century FranceCurrency, Culture, and the State$

Jotham Parsons

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780801451591

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801451591.001.0001

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The Court and the Queen

(p.282) Conclusion
Making Money in Sixteenth-Century France

Jotham Parsons

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter states that currency in early modern Europe was not just a technology by which authorities sought to govern populations or render them amenable to government, but also the element of governance most consistently demanded by the population at large. Money was not simply a matter of economic pragmatism, it served as a favored site of governmental intervention to order and regulate social relations. Although money might be a profoundly dangerous technology that promoted “the individual's worst instincts and dissolved the sacred bonds of society”, it also powerfully represented the possibility of collective political action to produce harmony, stability, and justice.

Keywords:   currency, authorities, social relations, political action, populations, harmony, stability, justice, money

The life of my king was the guide of this work: When his death occurred, that checked its course. This too-sudden tragedy stole my courage, And ended my plans with the end of his days.

—Béroalde de Verville

The abrupt and tragic end of the Voyages of the Fortunate Princes was one that contemporaries could have easily understood.1 May 16, 1610, was meant to be an exceptional day in the ceremonial history of the French monarchy. And so it was, though not at all as its architects had intended. Queen Marie de Médicis, King Henri IV’s wife since 1600, had just been formally crowned in Rheims. She was to enter Paris and be presented to the people not just as the king’s wife and the dauphin’s mother but as the future regent of the kingdom during Henri’s anticipated campaign against the Spanish Netherlands. Coronations and the formal entries associated with them were crucial symbolic supports of Renaissance monarchy, and this one was especially important given the political dangers of foreign campaigns and regencies. The aftermath of the Battle of Pavia (1525), which left François I a Spanish captive and his mother, Louise of Savoy, struggling to hold the kingdom together, was still vivid in the public memory.2 On the afternoon (p.283) of May 13, the Cour des Monnaies had suspended business so that the Palais de Justice could be prepared for the coming ceremonies. Most of its members had assembled in a courtyard before attending a ceremonial dinner at the Hôtel de Ville. As they were waiting, they “were told that a wicked man had appeared in the rue de la Ferronerie, near the [cemetery of the] Holy Innocents, where the king was in his carriage, accompanied by the ducs d’Epernon and Monbasson and some others, and had struck the lord king in the side with a knife; for which reason the court arose, afflicted by hearing such news.”3

The assassination of Henri IV caused almost as brutal and radical a rupture in French politics as the king’s servitors claimed that it did in their emotional lives.4 In the immediate term, it may have appeared to some in the Cour des Monnaies a kind of reprieve, if not in the form they would have chosen. The new regency government had little interest in pursuing Sully’s projects for the currency or supporting his attempted takeover of monetary policy; indeed, the man himself promptly fell from grace and retired to become one of the first statesmen to devote his later years to polishing acerbic memoirs. And in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, the sovereign courts rose to a political and ceremonial prominence they had seldom achieved under the old regime. The boy king Louis XIII and his mother met with the Parlement of Paris in a famous lit de justice (at the convent of the Augustins, since the Parlement’s chambers in the Palais de Justice were still occupied by the trappings of the abortive royal entry) to install a regency government—the Monnaies carefully noted this incident in its registers. The court itself played no such constitutional role, nor did it have the power of the magnates who quickly met with the king and queen mother to demonstrate their support, but it was called on to join the second rank of shows of support, and “the court deputed two of its presidents accompanied by eight counselor-generals and the solicitor (p.284) and attorney general to go the next day, Sunday the sixteenth of the month, to greet the queen regent and make the submissions required and customary in such cases.”

They were kept waiting only briefly when they arrived at the Louvre, after which “the deputies entered the room and found only the queen (since the king had gone to vespers at the Feuillants) accompanied by several princes and lords,” presumably those who had offered their support in the wake of the assassination, “who were standing, and on either side were the Constable [Montmorency-Damville] and the Chancellor [Brûlart de Sillery].” President Regin proceeded to give a brief speech.

Madam: having heard tell of the cruel and horrible death of that great prince, our king, we knew not what to say. We still had our eyes only to cry, voices to bemoan our lot, and emotions to feel our sorrow. It would have seemed as though misfortune and envy had chosen us to serve as a target for all their effects if we had not lightened the regret we bore from this with the certainty we feel that by means of Your Majesty’s discreet and careful regency, capable of supporting the weight of affairs, the state will be conserved in its original splendor; and for that reason the Cour des Monnaies comes now to prostrate itself at your feet and offer you the humility of its good wishes, the respect of its affections, and the fidelity of its service, seeking no other happiness in this world than to remain forever Your Majesty’s very humble, faithful, and obedient servants and subjects.

And when they finished, the queen said “stand up,” and when they had stood, said these words: “Sirs, I thank you. Be faithful to the king my son, and keep for him the same fidelity that you always bore to the late king my husband, and he will be a good king to you.”5

This is the only ceremonial occasion from the period recorded in any detail in the court’s registers.

The court recorded this ceremony in such unusual detail for at least two reasons, I suspect, both of which say something important about how the (p.285) governance of the moneys functioned at that particular moment. The first and more evident was the ceremonial intimacy it enacted between the court and the Crown. Hearing of the assassination while assembled to participate in the a royal ceremony long designed to highlight the importance of the sovereign courts—and it is worth remembering that the Monnaies had had to fight to maintain its place with those courts and ahead of the city fathers in royal processions—was a powerful reminder of its place within the state. Certainly, anyone looking back through the court’s archives might have felt some satisfaction comparing its honorable treatment in 1610 with that in 1559, when it had been provided with only enough cloth to dress half the court in mourning for Henri II. The Monnaies had been moved to complain to the chancellor that “though our company is great in authority, being sole and sovereign in the realm in its cognizance of something as important as the moneys, it is nevertheless so small in the number of its officers that cutting off half of it could not bring our lord much savings, while the other half would hardly suffice for the honor and service that we ought and wish to do for his majesty in such a public act.”6 And in the 1570s, it was still disputing precedence with the officers of the city of Paris.7 This solidification of the court’s ceremonial position was not something trivial: it indicated the greater role that money and its control now played in French government. In a world (p.286) where the ceremonial alternately reflected and constituted the political order, this was of no small importance.8

At the same time, though, this series of events and interactions can be understood within a much broader set of affective tropes and structures that played an enormous role in early modern European society. Regin’s words to the Queen Mother, for example, with their contrast between the sorrow induced by a sovereign’s death and the comfort brought be a successor, were on well-trodden rhetorical ground. Just a few years earlier, an English pamphleteer had greeted the accession of James I in a similar vein:

The highnesse of his Emperiall place, greatnesse of his blood, mightinesse of his alliance, but most, his constancie in the true profession of Religion, even amid my sorrowes, … fill me with joyes: when I consider how a number that gaped for our destruction, have their mouths shut close, yet emptie where they thought to eate the sweetes of our painefull sweate: but God be praised, as I saide before, her Highnesse that ruled us many yeeres in peace, left us, in her death, more secure, by committing us to our lawfull Prince, matcht to a royal fruitfull Lady, that hath borne him such hopefull issue, that the dayes we lately feared, I trust are as farre off, as this instant is, from the end of all earthly times.9

Many of the same elements appear: fear of disorder joined with personal sorrow at the death of a prince and the reassurance not only of dynastic continuity but of fecundity and of paternal and maternal care.10 A transition from a queen to an adult king was different from the transition from an adult king to a regent queen, so some polarities were reversed, but the two men spoke the same language.

(p.287) This was not merely a set of linguistic conventions. For men like the officers of the Monnaies, who worked closely with the monarchy and drew much of their own identity from that association—but even for the much larger reading and ceremonial public, and the scholars, artists, and hacks who served it—this was doubtless a site of genuine emotional engagement, and that engagement had real social and political effects. It has been suggested that the outpouring of elegies on Elizabeth like the one quoted above played a significant role in stabilizing the new Stuart regime.11 Marie expected that a highly personal encounter with her while she was surrounded by the magnates and the great officers of the Crown (one of whom had in the past caused the Monnaies no little trouble but was now dramatically rallied to the cause of stability), would both reassure the court and confirm it in its loyalty, and there is no reason to believe that she was disappointed. While important recent work has shed a good deal of light on early modern affective life, our understanding is still tenuous.12 Still, we know that early modern politics at all levels depended heavily on this kind of formalized intimacy and on the satisfaction it brought to all parties. And if the cash nexus was indeed on the verge of tearing asunder these motley but powerful ties, there were as yet few signs of this even at the heart of the currency.

True, money was widely understood as highly technical, impersonal, and at least partially autonomous in ways that had roots at least as far back as Aristotle while they foreshadowed the discourses of political economy and modern economics. The Cour des Monnaies, like other actors within and outside the government (if more consistently than any others), derived much of its power and prestige from claims that it had mastered those technical mysteries, or at least had discerned the boundaries of possible mastery more precisely than others. This was the domain of the “rational” as Max Weber understood it, subject to mathematical calculation, bureaucratic routine, long-term institutionalization, and dedication to the welfare of impersonal abstractions: the nation, the state, the firm, and that long run in which we are all dead. Indeed, the experts of the moneys promised to protect their society from some of the evils of passion and self-interest that money might encourage or enable. Proper economic regulation would make money an instrument of public prosperity, even opulence, rather than of private avarice and political dislocation (p.288) or civil war. Monetary policy would guard the coinage from speculators and peculators who threatened its value. Repression of coining, if conducted with due expertise and vigor, would produce more orderly social relations and thwart criminals whose disregard for social norms extended well beyond gold and silver. All of this was the domain of that most modern of institutions, the bureaucratic state, in ways that were broadly accepted through society and that could contribute substantially to the process of legitimizing that state.

And even so, this technocratic ideal, though arguably growing in importance, played a distinctly secondary role in the period. Much more clearly than today, Renaissance Europeans thought of money as a technology of social relations and a tool for the impulses and aspirations that drove them. These impulses did not, for the most part, attach to objects—the consumer revolution was still in its very earliest stages—but (after the necessities of life) to status, rank, and position. That is why money so easily became a model or a metaphor for so many aspects of social life, from adornment to office to marriage to literary reputation. By the same token, to control and regulate money was to control and regulate the necessary but potentially destructive social passions, the ambition and the avarice, of the entire population. So, particularly given the somewhat surprising paucity of religious discourse around money at this time, it is equally natural that so much of the control of currency orbited around the project of infusing it with the awe, respect, and love that ought to emanate from the sovereign persons of the monarch and the royal family.13 The royal image and arms, the sovereign prerogative of giving law to the moneys, the processes of the courts, and the images that made gold royal and royalty golden all operated in that same direction. The ceremonial compact that bound the boy king and the Cour des Monnaies together in sorrow, love, and filial piety represented the human ties and virtues that should, to the early modern mind, lead to order and stability in the currency, the state, and society. For a moment, in 1610, the moneys fit comfortably into that that cultural place. They had arrived there after a long and difficult journey, though, and their position was radically unstable. It would have to be reconquered time and time again, as it still must be in our own day.


(1.) Béroalde de Verville, L’Histoire veritable ou le voyage des princes fortunés (Albi: Passage du nordœust, 2005), 685: “La vie de mon roi conduisait cet ouvrage,/Lorsque sa mort advint, elle en rompit le cours./Ce trop soudain malheur m’emporta le courage,/Et finit mes desseins à la fin de ses jours.”

(2.) On royal entries, see Lawrence M. Bryant, The King and the City in the Royal Entrance Ceremony: Politics, Ritual, and Art in the Renaissance (Geneva: Droz, 1986); on coronations, Richard Jackson, Vive le Roi! A History of the French Coronation from Charles V to Charles X (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984); and Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “Franks, Burgundians, and Aquitaniansand the Royal Coronation Ceremony in France (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1992). On the aftermath of Pavia, see R. J. Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron: The Reign of Francis I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 216-48. Louise de Savoye had had particular difficulty with the Parlement of Paris, and thus Henri IV might well have felt a particular need to remind the sovereign courts of their obligations to the queen.

(3.) AN, Z1B 76, fol. 200r, 13 May 1610: “fut adverty que ung meschant homme sestant rencontre en la Rue de la feronnerye pres saint innocens ou estoit le roy dans son Carrosse accompganie de Mn le ducz despernon et Monbasson et quelques autres avoict frappe ledict seignieur Roy dun coup de cousteau au coste qui avoit este cause de ladicte cour se seroict levee affligee douir telles nouvelles.”

(4.) The classic account is Roland Mousnier, L’assassinat d’Henri IV (Paris: N.R.F./Gallimard, 1964). Mousnier begins his book with the Parlement’s counterpart to the narrative found in the registers of the Cour des Monnaies.

(5.) AN, Z1B 76, fol. 200v: “par la cour deppute deux presidens dicelle accompaignez de huict conseillers generaulx et du procureur & advocat general et greffier pour au lendain dimanche seiziesme dudict mois aller salluer le roy et la royne comme regente & faire les submissions en telle cas requises et accoustumees.” Fol. 201r–v: “lesdictes depputez entroit dans le cabinet ne trouveroit que la royne, le roy estant a vespres aux feuillans, ladicte royne accompagnee de plusieurs princes, & seigneurs, estant debout et aux deux costez estoient Mons. le Connestable et Chancellier. … Madame La cruelle et effroyable mort entendue de ce grand prince nostre roy nous ne scaurions que dire nous n’avions plus des yeux que pour pleurer des voix que pour nous plaindre et des sentimens que pour ressentir notre doleur [?]. Il sembloit desja que le malheur et lenvie nous eussent esleu pour servir de retraicte a tout ce quilz produissent sy nous neussent allege le regret que nous en portions de lasseurance que nous avons que par le moien de la regence discrette & soigneuse de vostre majeste, cappable de supporter le fais des affaires, lestat se conservera en sa premiere splendeur, et pource la cour des monnoyes ce viennant maintenant prosterner a vos pieds pour vous offrir lhumilite de ses veoux, le respect de ses affections, et la fidellite de son service [?] cherchant point dautre heur en ce monde que demeurer tousjours les treshumbles, tresfidelles, & tresobeissants serviteurs & subjects de vostre Majeste, et ayant finy la royne leur dict levez vous et estant levez leur dict ces parolles: Messieurs je vous remercie soiez fidelles au roy mon filz et conservez luy la mesme fidelite quavez porte tousjours au roy deffunct son pere mon mary et il vous sera bon roy.”

(6.) AN, Z1B 370, piece dated 27 July 1559 (Cour des Monnaies to the chancellor, minute): “nostre compagnye bien quelle soyt grande en auctorite comme estant souverayne et seule en son Royaulme pour congoistre dung faict tant important comme est le faict de ses monnoyes, toutesfoys elle est si petite en nombre dofficiers que le retranchement de la moytye ne scauroyt aporter grande espargne audict sieur, et lautre moytye ne seroyt gueres suffisant pour faire lhonneur et service que nous debvons et desirons faire a sa majeste en tel acte publicque.” The court considered this letter significant enough to be copied into its registers: AN, Z1B 65, fol. 137.

(7.) See AN, Z1B 375, piece dated 14 September 1573 (lettre de cachet), on a round it won; and Z1B 376, piece dated 10 January 1577 (letter of the court to absent members, minute), where it was excluded from a ceremony that the other sovereign courts and the Paris Hôtel de Ville attended. It was still nibbling at the dispute in 1584: AN, Z1B 380, piece dated 27 August 1584 (petition to the Comptes for relevant documents).

(8.) The literature on this phenomenon is vast. For a few important theoretical statements see, in addition to the works cited above, Ernst Kantorwicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957); Ralph Giesey, The Royal Funeral Ceremony in Renaissance France (Geneva: Droz, 1960); and Edward Muir, Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).

(9.) Henry Chettle, Englands Mourning Garment: Worne Heere by Plaine Shepheards, in Memorie of Their Sacred Mistresse, Elizabeth; Queene of Vertue While She Lived, and Theame of Sorrow Being Dead, 2nd ed. (London: Thomas Millington, 1603), sig. B4r.

(10.) There is a plentiful literature on the language and theory of patriarchy in early modern European monarchy. For our purposes, the best starting place is probably the (controversial) article of Sarah Hanley, “Engendering the State: Family Formation and State Building in Early Modern France,” French Historical Studies 16 (1989): 4–27. If one accepts Hanley’s argument for a pact between the monarchy and the French elites, especially the robe, whereby a strengthened, patriarchal state strengthened patriarchal power within families, the comforting solidarity of this encounter between the widowed queen and the fatherless court appears in even stronger relief.

(11.) See Catherine Loomis, The Death of Elizabeth I: Remembering and Reconstructing the Virgin Queen (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), 47–82.

(12.) On the current state of this field, see Barbara H. Rosenwein, “Worrying about Emotions in History,” American Historical Review 107 (2002): 821–45; and Ute Frevert, Emotions in History: Lost and Found (New York: Central European University Press, 2011).

(13.) There was of course a substantial debate around the question of usury, which, however, seems to have been of mainly academic interest. See R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1926), and the massive literature derived from it.