Conference Report: France and the Mediterranean World in the Reign of Louis XIV by Marc Jaffré


France and the Mediterranean World in the Reign of Louis XIV, 10 May 2014, University of St Andrews, organized by John Condren (University of St Andrews), in association with The St Andrews Centre for French History and Culture, sponsored by the Society for the Study of French History and the School of History of the University of St Andrews

This workshop, hosted by the University of St Andrews, brought together a diverse group of historians from across Europe and the United States to discuss France’s relationship to the Mediterranean.

The first session concentrated on the relationship between France and the Ottoman Empire. Dr Philip McCluskey (University of Sheffield) discussed crusading rhetoric and latent Turkophobia in the context of France’s battles with the Ottomans at Djidjelli, St Gothard and Candia between 1664 and 1669. An analysis of general Coligny’s rhetoric suggested that crusading language was used as a tool to spur commanders and their armies on by playing on their Christian consciences. However, increasing contact on the battlefield with the Ottomans and the failure of the siege of Vienna in 1683 dispelled the fear of the ‘Turk’, weakening the resonance of the crusading ideal. Dr. Michael Talbot’s (University of St Andrews) stimulating intervention explored the Franco- Ottoman relationship from the other side of the Mediterranean, by examining the Ottoman response to English privateering in the eastern Mediterranean. He usefully reminded the audience of the importance of French freighting to the Ottoman subsistence economy, and the damage the capture of French ships by English pirates caused. The Ottomans responded with a series of capitulation treaties from 1699 to 1707 which gave them the legal tools to prosecute the capture of French ships. In a coup, Dr. Talbot showed how the capitulation treaties were countersigned by the French ambassadors, thereby bringing into focus the involvement of the French diplomatic machine in the development of the Ottoman response.

The second panel moved the stage to the Italian theatre. Sherrod Brandon Marshall (Syracuse University) analyzed the collecting activities of the Bishop of Beziers, France’s ambassador to Venice, and France’s predatory attitude towards Venetian art and craftsmanship. In particular, the purchase of Veronese’s Feast in the House of Simon was the cause of much diplomatic haggling, only for Louis XIV to publically denigrate the painting in order to promote French art by comparison. Mr. Marshall further underlined Beziers’s role in the recruiting of famous Venetian lace and glass workers to train French craftsmen. Once their crafts were acquired, further purchases of lace and glass were banned in France. In his intervention, John Condren (University of St Andrews) focused on Franco- Tuscan diplomatic relations in the context of the lead-up to the Franco-Dutch war. He demonstrated that the French saw the Tuscan state as a tool to counteract Spanish influence in central Italy and that France was already trying to hurt Spain long before war with Spain actually broke out in 1673. A combination of marriage alliances, intimidation and the recruitment of Tuscan families into the French army was used to this end. This policy was ultimately unsuccessful as the Medici resented the cavalier attitude the French displayed towards Tuscan interests.

Professor Junko Takeda (Syracuse University) concentrated on the port city of Marseille in order to examine French mercantilism in the early modern Mediterranean. She used her study of Marseille to question our understanding of dirigisme and to emphasize the importance of locals’ cooperation for the success of France’s strategy in the Mediterranean. Colbert’s two-pronged strategy of welcoming immigrants and their technologies on the one hand and creating a Compagnie du Levant on the other ran into persistent opposition from Marseille’s chamber of commerce. After two failures, a Compagnie de la Méditerranée was finally set up with the support of local bankers, but Louis XIV’s unending wars harmed the company despite his patronage. Professor Takeda further underlined that the state was a latecomer to Mediterranean trade and therefore had to compete with pre-established local interests. Benjamin Darnell (New College, University of Oxford) gave an important talk on the finance of Louis XIV’s Mediterranean fleet. Despite the strategic importance of the Mediterranean for intimidating the Barbary States and in the Spanish war of succession, structural problems with how the navy was built and how the navy was funded ensured that from 1707 onwards the English had dominion over the Mediterranean. In particular, Mr. Darnell showed how the naval base of Toulon’s supply routes spanned over 600 kilometers and how important parts of the naval base at Toulon, despite its strategic importance, were still incomplete as late as 1703. The treasurer’s dual role as comptroller and banker for the navy caused important disruptions as administrative duty and private interest were increasingly conflated in the treasurer’s office. Further, compensation did not adequately reimburse the treasurer leading to an emphasis on paying back old debts at the expense of forward-looking finance.

In his plenary speech, Dr. David Parrott (New College, University of Oxford) examined Richelieu and Mazarin’s attitude towards the war in Italy between 1635 and 1659. Traditionally, historians have explained the French failures in Italy by arguing that Italy was a low priority, but Dr. Parrott reminded the audience that it was not clear from the outset that France’s ventures in Italy were doomed to failure. Further, the Italian states were influential actors in sovereign politics and the legacy of the Valois’s wars in Italy loomed large in Richelieu’s, Louis XIII’s and Mazarin’s thinking. Additionally, the Mantuan crisis had revealed that Spain’s control over Italy, though extensive, was weak. Dr. Parrott argued that part of the reason for French failures was bad luck: badly- timed regencies and the Fronde made it difficult to exploit victories. Logistics were of course also part of the picture. Nonetheless, Dr. Parrott effectively demonstrated that these reasons alone are not sufficient to explain the French failures in Italy. Contrary to the traditional emphasis on logistics, Dr. Parrott stressed that other armies, such as the Swedish armies in Germany, were successful, despite being similarly plagued with logistical problems. He demonstrated that Richelieu and Mazarin fell victim to the view they had nurtured that the Italian states would welcome French intervention as liberation from Spanish oppression. In reality, only the cardinal ministers believed this rhetoric and attempts to bring together an alliance of Italian princes heavily restrained France’s military ability to maneuver. The Italian princes were risk averse and their interests were mutable. Their suspicion of each other was as great as their suspicion of France and Spain. France’s inability to understand this played an important part in the failure of France’s ambitions in Italy.

The conference ended with a round-table discussion led by a panel composed of Dr. Michael Talbot (University of St Andrews), Professor Junko Takeda (Syracuse University), Dr. Guy Rowlands (University of St Andrews) and Dr. Alistair Malcolm (University of Limerick). The panel discussed themes such as the conflict between state interests, local interests and private interests, the resilience of the French state in the face of failure and the oceanic turn for understanding the French relationship to the Mediterranean.

With the intent of fostering a greater understanding of France’s ties to the Mediterranean, the conference brought to light many important avenues for studying a state’s relationship with a region. Cultural warfare, appropriation of technology, diplomacy, trade and war were all tools that states used to vie for prominence in the Mediterranean theatre. However, the competitive environment of the Mediterranean also spawned conflict at a local level with individuals and corporations clashing with both the state’s interests and other local interests. In other words, an early-modern trans-regional history needs to be more than just a history of states’ relations to each other; it must assess the interplay between the local, regional and global web of motivations that fuelled trans-regional interactions.

Marc Jaffre

Marc Jaffre studied Modern European History at Merton College (University of Oxford) where he graduated in 2010 with a master’s thesis on the court of Henri IV of France (1589-1610). He is currently preparing a history PhD at the University of St Andrews. His project examines the surprisingly neglected courts of the first two Bourbon monarchs of France: the importance of faction; ministers and favorites; court ceremonial; the royal chapel; and the impact of the court’s military excursions on the nature of household service and on the bond between monarch and leading subjects.


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