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Subject History

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405189224.2011.x


Political system in which sovereignty is identified with the person of the monarch who is answerable for his stewardship of the realm solely to God (see also monarchism ). Though it was not until the early nineteenth century that historians used this specific term, discourse about “absolute” rule as a characteristic of a number of states in ancien regime Europe had long been commonplace. Its theoretical justification had been articulated with particular clarity in the French context by Jean Bodin through his Six Books of a Commonweal (1576). He argued that absolute power consisted essentially in the king's ability to make laws for his subjects without their consent. In practice, the exercise of royal authority was often hampered, for example by inefficient administration, powerful nobles, and intermediate bodies such as courts and representative institutions. Bodin was also keen to draw a distinction between absolutist regimes in the West which acknowledged that subjects had rights as well as responsibilities, and autocratic regimes in the East which did not. By identifying the nation, rather than the monarchy, as the source of sovereignty, the french revolution of 1789 raised the most profound challenge to absolute rule. During the nineteenth century Europe witnessed further decline in this mode of governance, as liberalism and democracy gained a generally firmer hold. ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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