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The absolutist origin of capitalism

Primitive accumulation and rent in France (14th–17th centuries)
L’origine absolutiste du capitalisme : accumulation primitive et rente en France (xive-xviie siècle)
El origen absolutista del capitalismo: acumulación primitiva y rentas en Francia (siglos XIV-XVII)
Nicolas Pinsard


L’article s’inscrit dans la littérature sur la transition du féodalisme au capitalisme en Europe de l’Ouest. Il centre l’analyse sur le processus d'accumulation primitive à l’œuvre durant l’absolutisme entre le XIVe et XVIIe siècle en France. En s’appuyant sur un cadre théorique à la croisée de la théorie de la régulation et du marxisme, et à l’aide d’un travail d’archives, l’article met en évidence que la France et l’Angleterre ont suivi des voies différentes dans leur trajectoire menant au capitalisme. En raison de la structure prémoderne de l’État et de l’accumulation politique de celui-ci, une petite fraction de la bourgeoisie d’État s’est enrichie via la guerre et la perception d’impôts. Les officiers pouvaient en effet extraire un surtravail provenant principalement de la paysannerie. Le passage à une économie de marché, devenue une étape obligatoire pour le paiement de l'impôt et non plus une simple opportunité d’enrichissement, et la résurgence de l’État instaurent un régime rentier reposant sur des rapports d’exploitation indirecte et collective. En France, l’État et les finances publiques ont joué un rôle central dans la séparation de la paysannerie de sa terre et de ses moyens de production. Cet article apporte ainsi un éclairage nouveau dans l’historiographie marxiste. L’absolutisme, en tant que formation sociale distincte du féodalisme, ouvre la voie à la transition vers le capitalisme en prolétarisant une partie de la paysannerie française.

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I would like to express my gratitude to Benjamin Bürbaumer, Alexis Jeamet, Sterenn Lebayle, Yamina Tadjeddine, Bruno Tinel, and Emma Tyrou for their stimulating remarks and invaluable advice. I would also like to extend my gratitude to the two anonymous reviewers for dedicating their time to reading and providing insightful comments. Additionally, I would like to thank the members of the editorial board of the Revue de la régulation for their support and guidance.


1The “reorient turn” of economic history propelled by an influential body of work from the Californian School (Frank, 1998; Pomeranz, 2000) has offered new insights on the rise of capitalism and has challenged the Eurocentric view in the academic literature on the “great divergence”. Other scholars, while recognizing significant breakthroughs with this turn, still stress that the Malthusian ceiling ceased to be a limit in Western countries and that the structuring of an uneven global economic and political world was driven by these countries (Pinsard, 2024; Vries, 2010). In parallel with these debates, in the literature the distinction between economic history and development economics is becoming blurred, as one of these fields incorporates notions from the other, in particular in matters of taxation and the state (Schefold & Labrousse, 2010; Temin, 2014). This cross-field dynamic nonetheless has dramatic political implications, at least analytical pitfalls, whether the Western trajectory is considered as a path model that other countries should take to develop themselves in a linear fashion. Indeed, international organizations base their recommendations and implement their structural adjustment programs for Global South countries on such considerations, while even the Western countries’ trajectory is rather diverse than monolithic, as will be demonstrated in the following pages.

2Numerous reports published by the World Bank have cited studies from the state capacity approach to justify reforms that they deem necessary for the Global South (Khemani, 2019; Levy & Kpundeh, 2004). The concept of state capacity shares theoretical similarities with the property rights school of thought proposed by New Institutional Economics (Alchian & Demsetz, 1973; North, 1990; Johnson & Koyama, 2017). This school of thought recommends a “strong but limited government” to set economies on the path to growth (Bardhan, 2016). Its proponents often cite the Glorious Revolution as the moment that the English state became modern, establishing ”credible commitments” in terms of public finances (North, Wallis & Weingast, 2009). The French case has also been studied, specifically on the practice of selling judicial offices (Crettez et al., 2020). However, the state capacity approach has faced criticism for its ahistorical vision of public goods (Vahabi, 2016). Scholars have also questioned the true impact of the Glorious Revolution in terms of securing property rights and stimulating economic growth in England (Allen, 2009; Hodgson, 2017).

3Other approaches consider the transition from one economic system to another with regard to developments in property ownership. According to Piketty (2019), the Ancien Régime was defined first and foremost by its three-estate structure—a “ternary regime”—which the French Revolution replaced with a “proprietary regime”. However, this distinction is debatable (O’Sullivan, 2022). As I will show, the Ancien Régime was in fact already characterized by the significance of property ownership in determining the social hierarchy. Political Marxism (Brenner, 1976; Wood, 2002; Teschke, 2009), meanwhile, emphasizes the importance of social property relations to understanding the dynamics of exploitation which underpin socioeconomic realities.

  • 1 Although a comprehensive study on the rise of capitalism should be global and transcend ‘national’ (...)

4This paper contributes to the literature focusing on this process of transition in France by exploring “why still the West” through the internal features of the rise of capitalism.1 By examining public finances from the conceptual perspective of the “fiscal-financial regime” (FFR) (Théret, 1992), and studying the structure of property under absolutism in France, this article offers fresh insights into the Marxist historiography concerning the transition from the feudal mode of production—characterized by serfdom—to the capitalist mode of production—defined by wage labour. Anderson (2013) considers absolutism to be nothing less than the redeployment of feudal domination into the state. Combining aspects of Marxist and Regulation Theory, I demonstrate that, while political accumulation also operates by means of war and territorial expansion, absolutism is defined by exploitative relations which are very different from those that prevail under feudalism. I also argue that primitive accumulation took shape differently in France than in England. The state and its fiscal agents—drawn from the bourgeoisie—played a decisive role in the transition from an economy based essentially on subsistence to a predominantly monetary economy, but still one that is agrarian. In this latter economy, the nature of markets has changed from being an opportunity, such as medieval fairs, to a compulsory stage because of tax levying. The immediate consequences were the expulsion of peasants from their land and the creation of a labour force forming the essence of the proletariat, a necessary condition for the emergence of capitalism. As such, while sharing some theoretical considerations, I depart from recent Political Marxist contributions, which conceive the emergence of capitalism in France within the industrial sector as being driven by big companies, in the second part of the 19th century (Lafrance, 2019; Lafrance & Miller, 2023).

5In terms of methodology, this article adopts an inductive approach and makes use of digitized material from the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, namely Colbert’s memoirs and correspondence, and the Code de l’Hôpital Général de Paris.

6The first section of the article focuses on the principal fiscal and financial organizations of the French state between the 14th and 17th centuries. I thus illustrate the premodern nature of the state in this period. I then proceed to analyze the public finances of early 17th-century France and demonstrate that these were war-driven. The third section is devoted to the interactions between relations of production and the system of taxation, underpinning the FFR, the relations of exploitation, and the process of primitive accumulation in France.

1. Premodern Fiscal-Financial Organizations: Money, Property and Centralization

7Money, delegation, property and centralization form the backbone of the fiscal and financial system, in a crucial period of transition under the aegis of absolutism. This transition is shared by Western European economies at the time of the decline of serfdom in the 14th century (Brenner, 1976).

8I shall endeavor to demonstrate that the absolutist state was not a modern state as defined by Weber (2001), since the agents responsible for its organization were not appointed on criteria dictated by reason, but instead because they were able to buy their positions. The state was thus poised between the decentralization of power associated with feudalism and the modernity of capitalism. Closer analysis of the tax system reveals that its agents were divided into different organizational categories, each overseeing a particular type of revenue for the crown: indirect taxes were levied by tax farmers (1.1); direct taxes were raised by officeholders (1.2); and, finally, extraordinary taxes were levied by traitants (1.3). I offer an overview of the principal components of the French state in this period, the material foundations which allowed the state to reproduce itself and to evolve under absolutist rule.

1.1. Tax Farmers and Indirect Taxation

9The gabelle, aides, and traites were the three types of indirect taxes levied in money by the crown. Effective as of the royal decree of 5 December 1360—establishing a permanent indirect tax to pay the ransom demanded by England for the liberation of the king John II (1350–1364)—the gabelle was a tax on salt, while aides were charged on the sale of goods (Henneman, 1999). However, the gabelle was not applied at a uniform rate: there were six geographical zones with different rates (cf. Appendix). Finally, because of the fragmentation of the kingdom into various provinces, customs duties—or traites—were charged on goods moving from one province to another.

  • 2 In France and other European countries, tax farming was widely used as a means of delegating power (...)
  • 3 This yield was calculated by dividing the monetary gains made by the purchase value of the tax far (...)
  • 4 Especially since, in times of war, the sums actually levied by tax farmers tended to decrease, as (...)

10Although these three types of indirect tax were levied from different sources, what united them was tax farming.2 This practice involved the crown entering into contracts with private agents—or farmers—specifying “the rights and duties of the contracting parties” pertaining to the collection of indirect taxes (Bayard, 1988, p. 104). Farmers purchased royal authorization to levy a certain type of indirect tax on the king’s behalf. Upon purchasing their license, farmers committed to paying an annual sum to the crown, which in theory corresponded to the fiscal capacity of the taxpayers. In reality, there was almost inevitably a difference between the theoretical sum demanded by the crown and the sums actually levied by tax farmers. If the real total was greater than the amount requested by the crown, the tax farmer could pocket the difference and thus make monetary gains; on the other hand, if the collected amount proved to be lower, the farmer would have to make up the shortfall. Tax farming was thus a potentially lucrative activity, whose success was largely dependent on their capacity to levy the indirect taxes entrusted to their care. Dessert (1984) estimates the rate of return of tax farms between 8 and 14% in 1700.3 From the king’s perspective, the advantage of tax farming was that it ensured a steady flow of revenue, since the amount was decided by the royal authorities. As such the uncertainty resulting from regular episodes of armed conflict was mitigated, contributing to the long-term stability of the state and its tax system.4

11In addition to levying indirect taxes, tax farmers lent money to the crown. The foremost level of tax farmers’ wealth allowed them to buy their position of fiscal agent and to weave financial links with the crown. These fiscal and financial activities permitted regular streams of income—indirect taxes and lending—for the crown. The frequency of such revenues represented an important feature for funding the state’s goals and its development. For the tax farmers’ sake, the financial part induced by this position constituted an opportunity for them to enrich themselves and the risks of bankruptcy—which occurred relatively frequently—from the crown were mitigated by their capacity to levy indirect taxes and to increase the fiscal burden on taxpayers. Hoffman (1994) even characterizes this arrangement as a form of collateral for the tax farmers, set off against their credit with the crown.

  • 5 Tax farming companies, although they were collective entities devoted to monetary gain, did not co (...)

12Once the contract was signed, the tax farmers were free to organize tax collection as they saw fit. This freedom of organization led to the recruitment of sub-farmers as subordinate staff. It also gave tax farmers the opportunity to join forces and create companies. When tax farmers came together to form a company—as they often did—they would establish a collectively owned farm, with the monetary gains made from tax collection split between members in accordance with their respective shareholdings in the company.5 Since their shares could be subdivided and traded, a genuine market for shares in tax farms took shape in the 17th century (Bayard, 1988; Dessert, 1984). When a tax farmer died, his heirs inherited his shares at their market price.

  • 6 Ferrer (2018) counts 21,888 persons employed by such brigades in 1774. These brigadiers were sons (...)

13The delegation of tax farming was therefore a system which suited the interests of both the crown and the tax farmers. Hence the state’s willingness to authorize tax farmers and sub-farmers to use gens d’armes (armed officers) when collecting taxes. These private police, which accounted for the majority of the personnel involved in tax collection, were divided into brigades dotted around the kingdom (Robisheaux, 1973; Ferrer, 2018).6 The use of physical coercion became increasingly common from the reign of Henry III (1574-1589) onward (Frémy, 1911), a time when the state was cementing its power in the later stages of the Wars of Religion (1562–1598). A good example comes from a gabelle contract signed by Jean de Moisset in 1604, with Article 28 explicitly stating that farmers and sub-farmers “may be accompanied by archers in order to prevent the illicit trading of salt and shall be aided in this by the local police. The same contract, like the majority of such documents, authorizes tax farmers to bear all sorts of offensive and defensive weaponry” (Bayard, 1988, p. 118). It thus becomes clear that taxpayers’ compliance with tax demands was dependent upon the more or less implicit threat of physical violence also used by other royal agents—in this case officeholders—when collecting taxes, indicative of the state’s systemic use of violence to satisfy its own material needs.

1.2. Officeholders and Direct Taxation

  • 7 Historically, ‘finances’ was taken to mean the circulation of money within the state.
  • 8 A tax was a form of revenue levied from subjects by financial officeholders; sums levied by judici (...)
  • 9 I will not go into detail about the differences between the real taille and the personal taille.

14Offices were an essential feature of the royal government in various sectors of central importance to the running of the state: justice, the royal estates, the armed forces and the public finances.7 Officeholders were remunerated by the crown—gages—and from the king’s subjects—in the form of épices or taxes.8 Officeholders also played a major role in collecting direct taxes. The most emblematic direct tax of the absolutist fiscal regime, the taille, was established in 1384, during the reign of Charles VI (1380-1422), initially as a temporary measure which later became permanent in 1439 under Charles VII (1422-1461). Virtually from the outset, in 1388, the nobility was granted the privilege of being exempt from the taille, on condition that they lived in a noble manner and fulfilled their duty to provide military service, as was their role in the three-estate model (Henneman, 1983). The clergy and certain sections of the bourgeoisie, including some officeholders, were among the other social groups exempted from paying the taille. In reality, the burden of this tax was shouldered almost entirely by the peasantry. The taille targeted individuals and lands which did not enjoy the privilege of exemption but did nonetheless possess metal coins to pay this direct tax.9

15Beyond the paying of taxes, the growing importance of property ownership and money in France’s fiscal framework can be gauged by the evolution of office holding over the centuries. Since Hugh Capet’s accession to the throne in 987, the king had been free to choose his officeholders. This royal prerogative also entitled the king to strip them of their functions as he saw fit. The distribution of offices was thus originally a relation of gifts and counter-gifts, wherein the officeholder was personally dependent upon the king. This model was defined by the king’s “liberality,” i.e., his grandeur is closely correlated with his capacity for generosity (Guéry, 1984).

16However, the appropriation of offices was an increasingly important phenomenon from the 15th century onward, fundamentally altering the distribution of offices. By a legislative act—a letters patent—issued on 21 October 1467, Louis XI (1461-1483) introduced the principle whereby offices became the property of their holders for as long as they lived. The edict of la Paulette of 1604 reinforced the heritage character of offices by establishing a new legal framework based on private property (Pinsard & Tadjeddine, 2021). This framework made it possible to use offices as collateral against debt obligations, while also entrenching the principle whereby they were automatically passed down to the heirs of officeholders upon their death. The emergence of private property meant the disappearance of the king’s liberality logic. Officeholders could no longer be stripped of their duties and were thus partly liberated from their dependency on the king.

17The private ownership of offices paved the way for their transferability, either by inheritance or by sale, opening up another opportunity for officeholders to make money. The crown was keen to get in on the action too, and from 1523 parties casuelles—a royal organization—were created to auction off vacant or newly created offices.

  • 10 The predecessor of the budget forecast issued at the start of the financial year.
  • 11 Real accounts are prepared at the end of the year, showing the actual totals for income and expend (...)
  • 12 In pays d’élection, these généralités spanned multiple, smaller administrative districts: élection (...)

18As money and property ownership gained increasing significance in direct taxation, the structure of taxation underwent considerable change between the 14th and 17th centuries, marked by a growing centralization of command and control. In 1523, during the reign of Francis I (1515-1547), the Trésor de l’Épargne became the kingdom’s central treasury. That same year, responsibility for producing provisional accounts,10 real accounts11 and overseeing revenue and expenditure was taken out of the hands of officeholders and entrusted to the King’s Council: the king thus gained greater control over his income and expenditure. In 1551 the Edict of Blois created 17 Trésoriers Généraux de France, each responsible for administering one of the kingdom’s seventeen généralités.12 A subsequent edict in July 1557 established the Bureau des Finances, a new collective entity to oversee the généralités. The introduction of the Bureau des Finances laid the foundations for a collective and hierarchical organizational structure used by the King’s Council to levy direct taxes. Starting from 1557, the Council annually set a theoretical total that officeholders were expected to raise from their généralités, with the help of subordinates—commis—recruited for this purpose. Similar to the arrangement reached with tax farmers, if the total collected exceeded the king’s demand, officeholders could make monetary gains. Just as with the tax farmers, fiscal officeholders were entitled to use coercive measures to levy the taxes.

Year 1515 1610 1665
Number of officeholders 4,141 25,000 46,047
Variation (base year 1515 = 100) 100 603.72 1,111.98

Sources: Le Roy Ladurie (1987) and Chaunu (1993).

  • 13 Richelieu also known as Cardinal Richelieu was the prime minister of France under Louis XIII’s rei (...)

19Table 1 illustrates the growing prominence of officeholders across all sectors in the kingdom, including the fiscal and financial system. Chaunu (1993) characterizes royal power in the time of Richelieu13 as a “state founded upon offices,” (État d’offices) emphasizing the inseparable connection between the exercise of power and these offices. This form of power distinguishes itself from other kingdoms, such as Castile and England. According to Michon (2015), the total number of agents under the Castilian crown barely reached 20,000 during the 17th century, and while venality for judicial offices is legal in France, it is prohibited on the other side of the Pyrenees. In the English kingdom, the administrative density, measured by the number of agents working for the state, is almost negligible. The English crown engaged barely 1,000 people in the early 17th century. Even when it includes volunteer agents (sheriffs, justices of the peace), the English administration numbered 3,000 people at the beginning of the 17th century and 5,000 by the end. These numbers reinforce the idea of studying the French state as the most developed state regarding its administrative density compared to other Western European kingdoms.

  • 14 Rather than relying on a banking system, as was the case in England in the same period (Desmedt, 2 (...)

20The increase in the number of offices can be attributed to the development of the tax system, on the one hand, and on the other to the fact that the Bureau des Finances as a “state lender” represented an important source of income for the crown, particularly when there were wars to be funded (Bien, 1988; Caillou, 2005, p. 609).14 These factors drove the spectacular increase in the number of offices in existence, creating a systemic effect whereby the offices increased the income of the state by developing fiscal and financial systems, which were mutually dependent. Nonetheless, the boom in offices cannot be fully understood without addressing another key element of the system: the traitants.

1.3. Traitants and Extraordinary Revenue

21Under the Ancien Régime, the public accounts incorporated a distinction between ordinary and extraordinary finances. Ordinary expenditure and revenue were regular and long-term matters. For example, when the gabelle and the taille became permanent taxes, they were regarded as components of the crown’s ordinary revenues. Extraordinary finances were defined by their exceptional nature, exceeding the bounds of the ordinary finances. Although war was a regular occurrence and a key means of expansion for the states of Western Europe (Tilly, 1990), it was regarded as a form of extraordinary expenditure, since it was assumed to be “unforeseeable.” Extraordinary finances were thus directly associated with warfare. The creation of new offices and new taxes, the issue of annuities, and additional borrowing were all potential sources of new revenue, included in the extraordinary category (Guéry, 1978).

22Given the great strategic importance of extraordinary revenue, the state called upon traitants to ensure its needs were met. Traitants were private agents, so called because they entered into contracts known as traités with the king. Although these contracts dealt with all revenue categorized as extraordinary, the majority of these traités involved the crown creating new offices and selling them to traitants, to secure a stable revenue stream in a relatively short space of time. These contracts contain details of the decisions taken by the crown in terms of the number of offices created, their financial value, and the terms of the payments to be made to the royal treasury by traitants, as well as the rights of both parties with regard to financial arrangements (Félix, 2015). The traités thus specify the sums allotted to traitants by the royal authorities. During the War of the League of Augsburg (1689–1697), Félix estimates that traitants received commission equivalent to between 20 and 26% of the total sums raised for the crown.

23Traitants thus acted as financial intermediaries between the crown and private agents, acquiring a large number of offices in bulk, then selling them to individuals. In this context, traitants were also called partisans because such a financial operation was known as “mettre les offices en parti,” giving rise to the term of “partisans” (Descimon, 1991). As financial intermediaries, they could join forces and establish companies whose capital was jointly held by their members. These companies were then able to buy even more offices from the royal authorities and make further monetary gains when they were sold on.

24For the crown, the advantage of traités was that they made it possible to raise more money in the short-term as opposed to the method of selling offices off one-by-one; moreover, as with all tax farming arrangements, contracts like this reduced the uncertainty surrounding tax revenue. This system reached its apogee in the seventeenth century, with the state largely outsourcing the task of finding buyers for all the new offices it created.

25In the next section of this paper, I will focus on the structure of revenue and expenditure in the seventeenth century, illustrating the central role of extraordinary revenue, traitants, and offices.

2. Changes in Revenue and Expenditure: the Role of War

26Having described the main fiscal and financial organizations in place throughout this period of transition in France, the second section of this paper will focus on analyzing the evolution and nature of royal expenditure (2.1) and revenue (2.2). Drawing inspiration from the method proposed by Delorme and André (1983), this analysis of different forms of state intervention will shine a light on the forces driving the development of the public finances. I also derive from this analysis a number of conclusions regarding the determining factors which shaped the trajectory of France’s economic development.

2.1. Expenditure

27Looking closely at the progression of state expenditure in the 17th century—deflated using an index for the average annual price of wheat at the Halles de Paris, used as a form of price index—we can identify three main periods (cf. Figure 1). The first corresponds to the stagnation of state expenditure in the period 1600-1618, remaining at around 26,000,000 livres tournois (l.t.) on average. Expenditure never exceeded 32,250,000 l.t. in this period, except in 1610 and 1616, and only once dropped below 20 million. During the second period, between 1618 and 1631, expenditure grew erratically but relatively slowly to reach a mean annual total of 36,500,000 l.t. In the third period, 1631-1653, the upward trend in government expenditure accelerated considerably. Expenditure was multiplied by a factor of almost 9.5 between 1631 and 1635—the year in which France entered the Thirty Years’ War by declaring war on the Habsburgs—from 22 to 208 million l.t. Total deflated expenditure averaged 79 million l.t. per annum in this third period, more than double the mean value observed in the second period. While the war was certainly a significant factor in the sharp increase in state expenditure, the Peace of Westphalia—which put an end to the war in 1648—did not bring it down to levels close to those seen in earlier decades. Total expenditure remained higher than it had been before the war, suggesting the presence of a ratchet effect.

Figure . Variation in state expenditure, values deflated using the average annual wheat price at the Halles de Paris as a price index, 1599–1653, in livres tournois.

Sources: Bayard (1988) and Poynder (1999).

  • 15 Bayard (1988) does not include investment in communication channels and infrastructure, particular (...)

28If we break down expenditure into three main categories—namely the cost of running the royal court, spending on foreign policy, and expenditure called “comptant”—we can identify which of these categories is driving the upward trend.15 Figure 2 plots the trajectory of these three categories.

Figure . Structure of deflated state expenditure within total expenditure 1599–1653.

Figure . Structure of deflated state expenditure within total expenditure 1599–1653.

Sources: Bayard (1988) and Poynder (1999).

  • 16 This category includes ‘all spending on services pertaining to the royal palace and the king’s per (...)

29The cost of running the royal court16 represented a relatively small portion of total expenditure—never more than 48% of the total—and its importance as a proportion of overall spending declined significantly between the beginning and the middle of the 17th century. Meanwhile, the two other categories of expenditure accounted for a greater proportion of total outgoings, emerging as the real drivers of rising state spending. Foreign policy spending includes all sums spent on warfare and diplomacy; “comptant” includes “pensions granted to allies, repayment of loans and advances, rebates granted to traitants and partisans.” (Bayard, 1988, p. 34). Comptant and spending on foreign policy were both forms of spending which served to expand the influence of France’s absolutist state, by diplomatic means as well as warfare. The political accumulation practiced by the state (Théret, 1992) was thus reflected in this period by the growing proportional significance of comptant and foreign policy spending.

  • 17 The reason for wars between the European states is territorial conquest either within or beyond Eu (...)

30Furthermore, the fact that comptant came to outstrip other forms of spending offers some insight into the central role played by traitants in the evolution of the public finances. The use of traitants suggests an urgent need for additional revenue, dictated by the imperatives of military campaigns. War thus contributed to the increase in public expenditure, particularly after 1635, when France officially entered the Thirty Years’ War. These results thus corroborate the theory that war was a decisive factor in the formation of nation states in Western Europe (Tilly, 1990).17

2.2. Revenue

31In order to meet its financial needs, the state established various fiscal and financial organizations. This plurality is reflected in the different types of revenue raised, each following its own trajectory, as shown in Figure 3 below. Using the data compiled by Bayard (1988), a distinction is made between ordinary revenue and the revenue raised by tax farms. As such, it is possible to determine whether the variation in ordinary revenue is driven more by indirect taxes (farms) or direct taxation (offices). The same principle was applied to extraordinary revenue, clearly identifying the sums raised from parties casuelles—i.e., the sale of new offices by the crown.

Figure . Variation in state revenue, values deflated using the average annual wheat price at the Halles de Paris as a price index, 1599-1653, in livres tournois.

Figure . Variation in state revenue, values deflated using the average annual wheat price at the Halles de Paris as a price index, 1599-1653, in livres tournois.

32Ordinary revenue remained relatively stable between 1600 and 1630, and thus did not directly contribute to the increase in the crown’s total revenues. In the first decade of the 17th century, total revenue grew as a result of the increase in extraordinary revenue. Thereafter, and until the 1630s, total revenue remained relatively stable. From the 1630s onward, however, this income grew significantly thanks to the simultaneous upswing in both ordinary and extraordinary revenue. In proportional terms, the latter assumed greater significance in this period. Extraordinary revenue saw a significant spike in 1635, the year in which France entered the Thirty Years’ War. As for ordinary revenue, the upward trend can be attributed to Richelieu’s (1624-1642) policy of increasing the direct tax burden, by raising the taille, from the 1630s onward (Chaunu, 1993; Le Roy Ladurie, 1993). Between 1628 and 1633, the tax burden effectively tripled (Bercé, 1991), a development which was met with considerable resistance, particularly in the form of popular revolts known as jacqueries. In spite of the fierce opposition encountered from the peasantry and certain sections of the bourgeoisie, a ratchet effect took hold and ensured that the crown’s revenues, driven largely by the explosion of extraordinary revenue, would never again fall back to their previous levels.

33The importance of comptant and traitants as a crucial source of revenue for the crown is attested by the growing prominence of extraordinary revenue as a proportion of total revenue, as shown in Figure 4. Although its relative importance waned, revenue raised through direct taxation and handled by officeholders of the crown remained an essential element of the fiscal and financial system.

Figure . Structure of deflated state revenue and total revenues, 1593-1653.

Figure . Structure of deflated state revenue and total revenues, 1593-1653.

Sources: Bayard (1988) and Poynder (1999).

  • 18 Officeholders accounted for between 3 and 3.5 % of the kingdom’s total population in the 17th cent (...)

34Moreover, the number of offices in existence grew massively between the 14th and 17th centuries,18 as shown in Table 1 and Figure 3, illustrated by the growing importance of income from parties casuelles as a proportion of total revenues. The price of these offices also increased considerably, as shown in Figure 5. The graph displays that an increase in the price of offices easily outstripped the growth of the price index estimator—the recorded price of wheat—and a comparable financial asset—the price of real estate in Paris—reflecting the upward trend of the market for royal offices (Descimon, 2006). This inflation in the price of offices meant more revenue for the crown, since every time an office changed hands the government charged a resignation tax equivalent to one eighth of the estimated value of the office, if the Paulette tax had already been paid.

Figure . Variation in the price index for the office of Councillor of the Paris Parliament compared with the price indices for wheat and real estate in Paris, base 1597, 1597–1637.

Figure . Variation in the price index for the office of Councillor of the Paris Parliament compared with the price indices for wheat and real estate in Paris, base 1597, 1597–1637.

Sources: d’Avenel (1894), Friggit (2008), Mousnier (1979) and Poynder (1999).

  • 19 His full name is Maximilien de Béthune, duke of Sully (1560-1641). He was one of the main architec (...)

35Comparing the growth of total expenditure and total revenue, using Figure 6 below, one can see that in the early 17th century expenditure virtually always exceeded revenue, except for the period in which Sully19 served as Superintendent of Finances. Another interesting point is that revenue tends to follow the same trajectory as expenditure. This would appear to suggest that revenue adapted to match the level set by expenditure. This phenomenon can be understood as a consequence of the institutional configuration of this period, whereby the king had sovereign authority to dictate the level of spending and revenue. On the one hand, ordinary revenue was effectively decided by the King’s Council at the start of each year, with officeholders and tax farmers charged with raising the stipulated amount. On the other hand, extraordinary revenue was determined by political decisions taken at the highest level, particularly the creation of new offices in coordination with traitants, abetted by the existence of a genuine demand for offices, which drove price inflation.

Figure . Comparative evolution of total expenditure and total revenue, in livres tournois, over the first half of the 17th century.

Figure . Comparative evolution of total expenditure and total revenue, in livres tournois, over the first half of the 17th century.

Source: Bayard (1988)

36Considering that expenditure was largely determined by spending on war, state revenues were then also dictated by the needs of warfare, underscoring the central role of conflict in the processes of state-building and political accumulation. War had systemic consequences, shaping the developmental path followed by the French state, as by other European states, in this phase of transition. Le Roy Ladurie (1993) defines royal power in this era as a “military-financial complex,” highlighting the organic connection between war and the fiscal-financial system in the construction of the state. Although it was certainly a crucial element, it may be reductive to define the fiscal and financial system of France’s absolute monarchy purely with reference to the demands of war (Teschke, 2009). We must also explore the way in which this system fed the financial demands of the crown, the root of political accumulation. In the next section, I propose to analyze the effects of the fiscal and financial system on economic production, and the relations of exploitation it entailed. Defining absolutism as a social formation requires us to examine the proprietary social relations which bound the direct producers—the peasantry—to their lands and to the agent-proprietors of the state—its officeholders, tax farmers, and traitants.

3. Taxation, Exploitation and Primitive Accumulation

37The final section of this paper is devoted to an analysis of the social relations contained within the fiscal system. This analysis reveals that absolutism in France is a social formation historically situated between feudalism and capitalism, and that the political accumulation of the state involved the expropriation of the land previously held by peasants. This process of separating the direct producers from their means of production can be interpreted as a necessary condition for the emergence of capitalism, corresponding to the Marxist definition of primitive accumulation (Marx, 2014, p. 805; Mohajer & Yazdani, 2020). As such, absolutism represents a period of transition on the road to the capitalist mode of production, in which the expropriation of land played a key role. In fact, this process was essential to the creation of the proletariat. However, in contrast to the English path where enclosure, overseen by feudal lords, opened the march toward the capitalist mode of production (Brenner, 1976; Wood, 2002), in France this process was abetted by the structure of the public finances under absolutism.

38I thus propose to combine Regulation Theory’s concept of the “fiscal-financial regime” (FFR) (Théret, 1992) with Marxist concepts, which entails first a brief discussion of Théret and Anderson’s (2013) definitions of absolutism, then the theoretical proposal to closely link production and tax structure in order to better understand social relations during this period (3.1). Finally, I define FFR and identify its role, and that of officeholders, in the process of primitive accumulation (3.2).

3.1. Taxation and Indirect and Collective Exploitation

39The state was a constantly evolving institution between the 14th and 17th centuries, but it nonetheless perpetuated itself with a certain sense of regularity and order. The concept of FFR can help us to identify the continuities formed in terms of expenditure, revenue, and indebtedness. Stressing the systemic importance of war in the public finances between the 14th century and 1792, Théret (1992) describes the FFR as “insolvent” (“banqueroutier”) on account of the jarring consequences of default incidents. The Chambre de Justice was a royal organization which sat occasionally to rule on cases involving financiers who, in the opinion of royal power, have enriched themselves too much through their involvement in public finances. This was a means of reducing the crown’s debt. Théret (1992, p. 217) regards the Chambres de Justice as being of “central importance,” and essential to the definition of FFR.

40Nevertheless, defining FFR exclusively in relation to this organization is insufficient, however important it may have been. In fact, from the 14th century through to the 18th century, the Chambre de Justice only sat 14 times (Hoffman, 1994), too rarely to be considered an essential structure of the FFR. By way of comparison, the Conseil des Finances—revived by Colbert in 1661—met twice-weekly to discuss the state’s most pressing economic issues, such as the distribution of the taille within each généralité.

41At a more fundamental level, Théret (1992) tends to define FFR on the basis of the organizational and institutional levels. However, according to the same author (Théret, 1993), in order to accurately define a fiscal system, one needs to look beyond its institutional forms. He thus extends the historical approach to Regulation Theory, which holds that identification of the forms taken by social relations—institutions—should not be allowed to obscure the need for detailed analysis of the social relations themselves (Aglietta, 1997). Otherwise, the analysis runs the risk of missing the transformations at work, in this case: transformations in land ownership.

42The 17th century is the culmination of a long trend toward the appropriation of land by tenants that had been underway since the decline of feudalism. Under the Ancien Régime, there was no single property right, but rather a superposition of property rights over land. Both lords and tenants held land, but each with a relatively well-defined portion. Tenants, whether peasantry or any other non-lordly social category, held the utility part of land, known as mouvance. The portion of land belonging to the lord was called the “eminent property” (Béaur, 2015). In return for holding mouvance, tenants had to comply with certain obligations, such as paying rent, redevance, or doing forced labour, corvées. However, these obligations fell apart over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries and became mostly symbolic. Corvées were seldom performed. Regarding redevance, the amount was low compared to what English landlords reclaimed. The difference regarding the amount lies in the length of the contracts. In England, the duration of contracts tended to shorten over time, allowing landlords to renegotiate the rent price, whereas in France they were in fact perpetual, although they were legally held under an emphyteutic contract, i.e., one lasting between 18 and 99 years. French tenants therefore considered themselves to be the true owners of land, which was confirmed institutionally in the 18th century by the French state with a tax, le vingtième, based on land income that tenants had to pay as the true owners of land (Béaur, 2000). Accordingly, a genuine market for leases dawned in England, operating on economic and nascent-capitalist principles upon which tenants compete with each other and were compelled to be more specialized and productive (Wood, 2002). Unlike its English counterpart, the French aristocracy did not derive its main income from redevance but rather from a tax, lods et ventes, levied when tenants transferred their mouvance, which could be freely alienated by the 17th and 18th centuries. This tax on land transfers was used to fund the French aristocracy’s spending in line with the logic of court society and its ostentatious consumption, which was the structural occupation of the French aristocracy at that time, especially from Louis XIV’s reign onward (Elias, 2005). French kings granted privileges to certain nobles to carry out economic activities related to court society, such as transporting people and commodities between Versailles and Paris (Lemaigre-Gaffier, 2022). The French nobility was then not excluded from any economic activity, but its impact on the future of the agrarian economy was limited. To discover the causes of primitive accumulation in France, I still advocate analyzing relationships in land ownership, consistent with the approach of Political Marxism (Teschke, 2009), but focusing on the link between peasants and officeholders.

  • 20 Only after the French Revolution did indirect taxes surpass direct taxes.
  • 21 As they were generally based in cities, craftsmen and merchant-bankers often benefited from the fa (...)
  • 22 According to Hoffman (1994), 73 % of the French population was agricultural workers in 1500, decli (...)

43From this perspective, studying the social relations between producer-taxpayers and the tax collectors is required to define the FRR. French society in this period was structured by a system of privileges—the principal beneficiaries of which were the clergy, the nobility, and the bourgeoisie—while peasants and craftsmen formed the two social classes responsible for bearing virtually the entire tax burden, with lesser contributions from merchant-bankers. Unlike the British system, where taxation was largely indirect, the French crown derived most of its ordinary revenue from direct taxes (O’Brien, 1988).20 This meant that the majority of France’s fiscal resources came from the peasantry—hence the rural origins of the revolts called jacqueries—since craftsmen and merchant-bankers contributed to indirect taxes by producing and selling goods.21 The peasantry, as a social class, thus constituted a fiscal resource from which tax collectors could extract monetary gain in an economy which remained primarily agrarian.22

  • 23 It again confirms the pertinence of combining Marxist and Régulation Theory frameworks.

44Applying a Marxist theoretical framework, the social relationship between the peasantry and tax collectors can be defined as the extraction of the peasants’ surplus labour through taxation. The mechanism used to extract this surplus labour differed from the model that prevailed under feudalism, since monetary and market relationships had now been changed and the state had been introduced. Markets did exist during feudalism, such as the Champagne fairs that flourished in the 11th and 12th centuries, but their social role was different from that of absolutist markets. Under feudalism, markets represented a commercial and financial opportunity mainly for merchant-bankers, and to a lesser extent for peasants and craftsmen (Braudel, 1979). Under absolutism, on the other hand, markets were less an opportunity than a compulsory stage for peasantry and all social classes subject to tax duty, in order to obtain the money they needed to fulfill their tax obligations. It is because of this compulsory feature that markets changed their social role, leading to profound social mutations and the rise of a new social relation based on the extraction of the peasants’ surplus labour through taxation. The meaning of this new relation as one of surplus labour extraction is also backed by Théret (1991, p. 132)23: “[…] the state is inextricably tied up with the economic appropriation of this surplus (through taxation) and a political relation of domination over individuals” (my emphasis).

45To be more precise, the social relation is one of exploitation, since the tax collectors are appropriating a part of the labour performed by the peasantry, while the peasants are compelled to provide more work than is required for their own social and material reproduction (Marx, 2014). In order to pay their taxes, peasants were obliged to acquire the means of payment by selling part of their output on the market. This is the basis of the theory which holds that taxation contributed to the monetarization of the economy (Elias, 2003; Knapp, 1924; Tinel, 2015). The relation of exploitation is thus mediated by market and monetary relationships but is also conducted by the state as an institution. To put it another way, the social relationship which underpins the fiscal system is a relationship of indirect and collective exploitation (Croix, 1989; Marx, 2002), which forms the core and basis of the FFR of this period.

46Absolutism was therefore an intermediate social formation between feudalism and capitalism because of the transformations in the dynamics of exploitation, which can no longer be defined as serfdom and not yet as wage labour. Under feudalism, serfs are directly bound to their lords in a direct relationship of exploitation and required to provide payment in kind. In the capitalist mode of production, although the relationship of exploitation between wage labourers and capitalists remains direct, rent plays only a secondary role by extracting a part of the surplus value already realized in production. I must therefore disagree with Anderson (2013) when he suggests that absolutism represents the redeployment of feudal domination at a higher level, namely the level of the state.

47Contrary to the English path (Marx, 2014, p. 808), in France the prodigious transformations which paved the way for capitalism were driven not by the major feudal lords but rather by the state bourgeoisie (officeholders, tax farmers and traitants), precisely because of the crucial position they occupied within the relations of production. Absolutism in France was not, as Anderson (2013, p. 18) argues, an extension of feudalism where the economically and politically dominant class would still be the feudal aristocracy, supported by the crown. In fact, the French state-building process was made possible by the creation of a fiscal system which was in direct competition with the feudal aristocracy, since its income was derived from the rent paid by the peasantry (Bois, 1976). While warfare continued to act as a catalyst to political accumulation under absolutism, traitants—with extraordinary revenue—and officeholders and tax farmers—collecting direct and indirect taxes—benefited significantly from their positions and actually have an interest in the state’s enduring wars. As the cost of military campaigns continued to spiral, and expenditure increased accordingly, officeholders and tax farmers increased the fiscal burden and the resulting monetary gains. Financiers—traitants, officeholders and tax farmers—thus saw their positions reinforced, as they leapfrogged the feudal nobility to become the dominant social class in absolutist France. The trajectory of France is thus different from that observed across the English Channel. This needs to be borne in mind when one seeks to define the FFR, as I endeavor to do in the next section.

3.2. Rent-Exploitation Regime and Primitive Accumulation

  • 24 While merchant-bankers received part of the surplus labour of the peasantry when handling the sale (...)

48By selling part of the fruits of their labour to pay their taxes, peasants now found themselves exposed to the social validation of the market. If the cost of production exceeded the price at which their goods could be sold, then ultimately the peasants would be unable to pay their taxes, since their production would not be cost-effective. On the other hand, if sales prices exceeded production costs, then peasants would make monetary gains which would allow them to pay their direct and indirect taxes. In the latter case, officeholders and tax farmers would appropriate part of the peasants’ monetary gains (surplus labour) as a form of rent, via taxation.24 Herein lies the defining characteristic of the FFR as it existed in the 14th-17th centuries: it was a regime of rent-exploitation as it combined relations of exploitation whose concrete manifestation was the payment of rent. This regime was one of the main driving forces behind the socioeconomic transformations which defined this period.

  • 25 Over the course of the 17th century, the structure of the system in place for collecting ordinary (...)

49Studying Colbert’s memoirs and correspondence makes it clear that the FFR had direct consequences for both economic production and the distribution of land ownership. In several letters addressed to tax collectors, Colbert insists upon taxpayers’ obligation to pay their dues, or else face punishment. In a letter dated 1 June 1680, Colbert (1863, p. 133) mentions prisoners who have been arrested for failure to pay their taille or indirect taxes. In several letters exchanged with tax collectors of the crown, as in the letter dated 31 December 1679 and addressed to the royal intendant25 in Orléans, he reminds them that they have the power to seize livestock as indemnity if taxes are unpaid:

Dear Sir, I am surprised that you should ask whether a tax collector might seize the cattle of a taxpayer required to pay the taille; as I made clear in my last letter, a certain sense of public approval often causes you to stray beyond the bounds which you ought to respect. Allow me to clarify the matter succinctly: taxpayers may be compelled, by all of the laws, decrees and regulations of the kingdom, through the seizure of all their belongings. That is a fact of common and ordinary law, which applies without exceptions’ (Colbert, 1863, p. 120) (my emphasis)

50The creation of a legal framework which allowed for physical or legal coercion had immediate consequences for taxpayers required to pay the taille—i.e., peasants—whose assets could potentially be confiscated by officeholders if they were unable to pay their taxes. Officeholders could thus seize either livestock—one of the most important means of production in this period—or peasants’ land holdings. Jacquart (1990, p. 30) presents evidence of this phenomenon in action in the areas around Paris, where the power of officeholders and merchants accompanied a process of concentration of land ownership that was fairly similar to that observed on the “great silt-soil plateaus of the north of France.” As Le Roy Ladurie (1993, p. 790) puts it, officeholders “bought up land hand over fist in the first half of the 17th century.” The regime of rent-exploitation thus brought about a concentration in land ownership, contradicting the assumption that England was the only country in Western Europe to see such a phenomenon in the 17th century (Brenner, 1976). This regime also led to the expropriation of a certain section of the peasantry, those who struggled financially and thus were unable to pay their taxes, in favor of the bourgeoisie.

51A multi-layered system of indebtedness took shape as well, binding the different organizations and social classes which made up the Kingdom of France, as illustrated in Diagram 1 below. In order to avoid the expropriation of their livestock or land, peasants were forced to contract debts, including with the officeholders, who granted loans secured against the borrower’s assets. If they were unable to repay these loans, their heirs would often forego their inheritance so as to avoid taking on the financial burden (Fontaine, 2012), thus allowing ownership of the land to revert to the officeholders. During the 17th century, the peasantry suffered from endemic indebtedness (Dontenwill, 2007), due to the multiple subsistence crises that marked the century and to the fiscal extraction of FFR. The rent-based nature of this FFR was then accentuated by the fact that taxation drove the peasantry into debt; in parallel, the rentier nature of taxation and the indebtedness it fueled led to a concentration of land ownership in the hands of the bourgeoisie in this transitional period. This constitutes the key components of primitive accumulation in France.

Diagram . The internal economic circuit of the rent-exploitation regime which characterized French absolutism.

Diagram . The internal economic circuit of the rent-exploitation regime which characterized French absolutism.

Comments: The full arrows represent the economic circuit that leads to primitive accumulation. Court society should be understood as the nobility and royal power bound by a relationship that has no direct impact on primitive accumulation.

Source: Author.

  • 26 These means of payment were imported by merchant-bankers who controlled the transport and, to a le (...)

52With regard to the role of the crown within this rent-exploitation regime, tax and indebtedness were also closely connected. By contracting debts with officeholders and tax farmers, the crown could allocate part of its tax revenue—to be collected by its creditors—to repay those debts. Meanwhile, for peasants and (to a lesser extent) craftsmen, the realities of the FFR compelled them to monetize a growing proportion of their output to obtain the means of payment26 required to cover their tax obligations and the forced appropriation of their surplus labour. In many cases they were also obliged to contract debts with those same officeholders to meet their tax obligations. The consequences of this system for the relations of production were twofold. First, it led to the transition from an economy that was mostly reliant on subsistence to a widespread use and transformation of markets, becoming a compulsory stage to pay taxes. Second, another consequence was the dispossession of peasants, as land ownership was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie. This process persisted as long as France’s absolutist state continued to entrench its fiscal system in order to finance its wars. For instance, in Dontenwill’s (2007) work on peasant communities in central south-east France, a very rural area, at the time of Louis XIV (1638-1715), it is attested that just slightly less than half of landowners who leased their parcels are officeholders or merchants, with a higher share for the former. Moreover, Béaur (2000) shows that in the 18th century, before the French Revolution, Flandre-Maritime, an area in north-west France, was a territory subjected to primitive accumulation, with 75 % of the population being proletarian. The substantial number of landless peasants lived where the share of land held by the bourgeoisie was one of the highest in the kingdom, and therefore where the peasantry share was one of the lowest. This eighteenth-century number is the direct consequence of an older movement, which has its root in the preceding centuries, when primitive accumulation began.

53It should therefore come as no surprise that this period gave rise to a series of laws intended to solve the “problem” of beggary and vagrancy, stemming largely from the expulsion of peasants from their lands. The edict of 1656 establishing the Hôpital Général de Paris, followed by the edict of 1662 establishing Hôpitaux Généraux in all the major provincial cities, are indicative of the “charitable” approach adopted for this new phenomenon. Both of these laws sought to put an end to vagrancy and beggary, regarded as “social ills” (Ryckebusch, 2014). With begging made illegal, landless peasants could rapidly find themselves confined in one of the new hôpitaux généraux. These hospitals were even equipped with their own private armies, ensuring the execution of the royal edicts. Foucault (2007) described the repressive turn taken in Western Europe during this period as the “great confinement.” Once they had been locked up, these former peasants constituted a labour force for the manufacturing associated with the hôpitaux généraux, as stipulated in the Code de l’Hôpital Général de Paris:

Louis XIV, concerned like his father before him by the evils of mendacity, orders that all poor beggars in Paris, cripples and able-bodied, of both sexes, should be confined to the Hospital hereby established, and employed in manufacturing work & other tasks assigned to them. (France, 1786, p. 699).

54Charity was thus synonymous with forced labour, and contributed to the formation of the proletariat, which was a key feature of primitive accumulation.

55In the French trajectory, in addition to colonial expansion and the associated expropriation of resources (Bihr, 2019), primitive accumulation was driven by the state and its tax system, specifically the rent-based regime of exploitation which was imposed within the kingdom.


56Money and property represent the foundations of the absolutist state. This state was premodern and situated, therefore, between the decentralized structures of feudal power and the modernity of capitalism. Close analysis of the public finances makes it clear that royal expenditure and revenue were driven upward by wars. The formation of a market economy and the political accumulation of the absolutist state drove France to pursue a different path from England in the transition to capitalism.

57By combining the Regulation Theory’s concept of FFR with other concepts derived from Marxist theory, I have defined this regime as a system of exploitation based on the payment of rent, taking the form of taxation and debt, and serving to extract the surplus labour provided primarily by the peasant class. This exploitation was indirect and collective, mediated by monetary and market relations and implemented through the state as an institution. I propose to define it as a regime of rent-exploitation, reflecting the socioeconomic dynamics which underpin absolutism, particularly the distribution of land ownership in an economy which remained largely agrarian.

  • 27 I would like to thank Benjamin Bürbaumer for bringing this passage in Luxemburg’s book to my atten (...)

58This regime of rent-exploitation was characterized by a system of credit based not on banks, but instead on taxation. Another key feature of this regime was the expropriation of land by the bourgeoisie and officeholders, resulting in the expulsion of peasants from their land through the mediating forces of monetary relationships and taxation. As Luxemburg has noted (2019, p. 487), the development of the state-imposed fiscal system fostered the emergence of market relations which were essential to the major transformations required for capitalism to take shape:27

In reality, the modern tax system was largely responsible for the imposition of the market economy upon the peasantry. Fiscal pressure obliged peasants to convert an ever-growing proportion of their output into commodities, while also forcing them to buy more; it thrust the products of the peasant economy into market circulation and forced the peasants themselves to become buyers of capitalist commodities.

59This phenomenon was a key part of the broader economic history of this period in Western Europe, which saw a substantial number of peasants driven from their lands to join the new proletarian class, which would be essential to the advent of the industrial age. The process of primitive accumulation at work in this regime of rent-exploitation represents the “French path to agrarian capitalism” (Le Roy Ladurie, 1993, p. 792), mirroring the advent of agrarian capitalism across the English Channel (Brenner, 1976; Wood, 2002). A logical extension to this paper would involve exploring the implications of primitive accumulation for the territorial expansion of the French state. Are there discernible links between primitive accumulation and colonization? If such a connection exists, how does it manifest?

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Annexe 1. Carte des Gabelles

Annexe 1. Carte des Gabelles

Source : Gallica

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1 Although a comprehensive study on the rise of capitalism should be global and transcend ‘national’ boundaries (Parron, 2022), the limitations of this paper prevent me from integrating internal and external features through a global lens. Pinsard (2024) offers a contribution in this vein.

2 In France and other European countries, tax farming was widely used as a means of delegating power in a manner conducive to the material reproduction of the state. Unlike their French counterparts, the English were quick to abandon this method in favor of centralized tax collection driven by a state bureaucracy, particularly during the Restoration and following the Glorious Revolution (Kiser & Kane, 2001). England became a modern state before France.

3 This yield was calculated by dividing the monetary gains made by the purchase value of the tax farm.

4 Especially since, in times of war, the sums actually levied by tax farmers tended to decrease, as indirect taxes were largely dependent on the circulation of goods, partly stymied by conflicts (Bonney, 1979).

5 Tax farming companies, although they were collective entities devoted to monetary gain, did not constitute a distinct form of legal entity, as would later be the case with limited companies.

6 Ferrer (2018) counts 21,888 persons employed by such brigades in 1774. These brigadiers were sons of ‘poor peasants, manual labourers, lumberjacks, coalmen and rural craftsmen’, coming from the lower rungs of society. They were moved to join the brigades by the promise of social mobility associated with this violent profession, often at the expense of people from similar backgrounds.

7 Historically, ‘finances’ was taken to mean the circulation of money within the state.

8 A tax was a form of revenue levied from subjects by financial officeholders; sums levied by judicial officeholders were known as épices.

9 I will not go into detail about the differences between the real taille and the personal taille.

10 The predecessor of the budget forecast issued at the start of the financial year.

11 Real accounts are prepared at the end of the year, showing the actual totals for income and expenditure over the past year.

12 In pays d’élection, these généralités spanned multiple, smaller administrative districts: élections were themselves composed of parishes.

13 Richelieu also known as Cardinal Richelieu was the prime minister of France under Louis XIII’s reign (1610-1643).

14 Rather than relying on a banking system, as was the case in England in the same period (Desmedt, 2007).

15 Bayard (1988) does not include investment in communication channels and infrastructure, particularly bridges and roads, since such spending accounted for just a small fraction of total expenditure. For example, in 1623 this category of expenditure accounted for 60,087 l.t. in a total budget of 36 million l.t. The Bureaux des Finances were partly responsible for overseeing such expenditure.

16 This category includes ‘all spending on services pertaining to the royal palace and the king’s person, as well as pensions paid to royal court staff, gages paid to officeholders, and all other forms of gifts and grants.’ (Bayard, 1988, p. 32).

17 The reason for wars between the European states is territorial conquest either within or beyond Europe. The 18th century will be witness to more conflicts and wars due to colonial considerations. The Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) is the emblematic war of the ongoing tensions between European states over their willingness to extend their influence overseas by formally ruling new territories. The strategies relying on the formal ruling of territories will fade away for France in the first three-quarters of the 19th century, with the exception of Algeria in 1830, before experiencing a revival from the 3rd French Republic onward (Todd, 2022).

18 Officeholders accounted for between 3 and 3.5 % of the kingdom’s total population in the 17th century. For the purposes of comparison, in 2015 the French state employed 3.57 % of the French population as civil servants.

19 His full name is Maximilien de Béthune, duke of Sully (1560-1641). He was one of the main architects of the centralization of power in the hands of the French state.

20 Only after the French Revolution did indirect taxes surpass direct taxes.

21 As they were generally based in cities, craftsmen and merchant-bankers often benefited from the fact that city corporations had been granted royal privileges, e.g., those enjoyed by the city of Bordeaux (Mousnier, 1979).

22 According to Hoffman (1994), 73 % of the French population was agricultural workers in 1500, declining to 69 % in 1600 and 63 % in 1700. This sets France apart from some of its larger neighbors: in 1700, 55 % of the English population worked in this sector of the economy, while the figure in Holland was just 40 %.

23 It again confirms the pertinence of combining Marxist and Régulation Theory frameworks.

24 While merchant-bankers received part of the surplus labour of the peasantry when handling the sale of agricultural produce, they were then subject to taxation by tax farmers, who thus recuperated part of that surplus. Merchant-bankers were essentially just intermediaries, facilitating the appropriation of the surplus labour of the peasantry. The ultimate beneficiaries of this system were the officeholders and tax farmers.

25 Over the course of the 17th century, the structure of the system in place for collecting ordinary taxes changed. The influence of the Bureaux de Finance waned at the expense of crown-appointed intendants. Space constraints forbid further discussion here, but readers keen to learn more about this subject are advised to refer to Caillou (2005) and Mousnier (1979).

26 These means of payment were imported by merchant-bankers who controlled the transport and, to a lesser extent, the mining of precious metals, particularly in the Americas.

27 I would like to thank Benjamin Bürbaumer for bringing this passage in Luxemburg’s book to my attention.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure . Structure of deflated state expenditure within total expenditure 1599–1653.
Crédits Sources: Bayard (1988) and Poynder (1999).
Fichier image/png, 42k
Titre Figure . Variation in state revenue, values deflated using the average annual wheat price at the Halles de Paris as a price index, 1599-1653, in livres tournois.
Fichier image/png, 62k
Titre Figure . Structure of deflated state revenue and total revenues, 1593-1653.
Crédits Sources: Bayard (1988) and Poynder (1999).
Fichier image/png, 55k
Titre Figure . Variation in the price index for the office of Councillor of the Paris Parliament compared with the price indices for wheat and real estate in Paris, base 1597, 1597–1637.
Crédits Sources: d’Avenel (1894), Friggit (2008), Mousnier (1979) and Poynder (1999).
Fichier image/png, 26k
Titre Figure . Comparative evolution of total expenditure and total revenue, in livres tournois, over the first half of the 17th century.
Crédits Source: Bayard (1988)
Fichier image/png, 68k
Titre Diagram . The internal economic circuit of the rent-exploitation regime which characterized French absolutism.
Légende Comments: The full arrows represent the economic circuit that leads to primitive accumulation. Court society should be understood as the nobility and royal power bound by a relationship that has no direct impact on primitive accumulation.
Crédits Source: Author.
Fichier image/png, 77k
Titre Annexe 1. Carte des Gabelles
Crédits Source : Gallica
Fichier image/png, 3,1M
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Nicolas Pinsard, « The absolutist origin of capitalism »Revue de la régulation [En ligne], 36 | 1er semestre|Spring 2024, mis en ligne le 24 juin 2024, consulté le 20 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nicolas Pinsard

Assistant Professor (Maître de conférences) in Economics, Clersé (CNRS UMR 8019), University of Lille, Bureau 109 SH2, Place Emile Durkheim 59650 Villeneuve d’Ascq, Orcid : 0000-0003-0120-9191

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