Kill and die for the King

Contrary to some popular belief, the king was not all-powerful under the Ancien Régime. In matters of war, military obligation came with many constraints and had to be justified.

With nearly 900 pages, this work is based on the publication of a thesis in the history of law devoted to the study of military obligation under the Ancien Régime. It should be noted that military obligation includes military service but also the duty of defense of the inhabitants “to protect their small country, their village, their home” (p. 8). Paul Chauvin-Hameau, lecturer in the history of law at the University of Tours, analyzes the foundations, the argumentative legitimations as well as the challenges to this obligation under the Ancien Régime. It offers a better understanding of the obligation to die, to risk one’s life or to kill on the orders of the king.

Chronologically, the author focuses mainly on the XVIIe And XVIIIe centuries, where reflections on military obligation developed. Royal legislation and doctrine constitute the two main sources of this research. In order to study the doctrine, the author examines both the principles of public law which are interested in natural law, but also the philosophies and theologies which contribute to producing a science of government. It is this methodological approach which also makes the approach undertaken by the author original, which is ultimately not limited to the sources of jurists nor to the study of normative systems.

Revisiting the historiography of the obligation to die

The author identifies three historiographical traditions dealing with the foundations of military obligation under the Ancien Régime. First of all, that of military historians who work, around Annie Crépin in particular, on the figure of the citizen soldier through the history of conscription. This approach offers more of a history of political ideas around the generalization of military service where Paul Chauvin-Hameau focuses on the development of a history of legal ideas. The second historiographical tradition is that which the author describes as “ pro patria mori » (“(It is sweet and honorable to) die for one’s country”). These are works that link state building and patriotism, particularly around the patronage of Ernst Kantorowicz. In this regard, the author believes that this approach aims more at understanding why one risks one’s life rather than how the State imposes such a sacrifice (p.36). Now it is this last aspect that interests the author. This is why he places his work in a third historiographical tradition: the history of political obligation around the work of Anglo-Saxon philosophers “who seek the foundation of the obedience of citizen members of societies based on consent” ( p.38). Paul Chauvin-Hameau draws on the work of the philosopher Michael Walzer explaining the difficulties in constructing the obligation to die for the State, but which according to the author neglects an equally central question: that of killing for the State. . This historiographical division, although educational, nevertheless seems somewhat artificial to us since the author himself mentions that references to love of the fatherland are central in royal law and in doctrine and make it a moral spring of the military obligation (p. 103): readings in terms of patriotism are therefore not without interest in supporting his thesis.

Does a king have to justify military obligation?

Under the Ancien Régime, the monarch had co-active power to impose military obligation defined by doctrine as: “a means of organizing the defense of subjects by themselves against foreign threats” (p. 59 ), and which does not correspond to a right to decide on the life and death of its subjects. But despite all the powers he has, this book shows us that they are not limitless. Indeed, the king cannot become completely tyrannical by, for example, engaging in unjust wars. He must also strive to convince his subjects by arguing for the necessity of military obligation which is not self-evident in a Christian society. One of the greatest contributions of this work therefore consists of filling a gap in the exposition of the discourses of legitimization of military obligation. Indeed, according to the author, various military historians specializing in the Ancien Régime would have ignored the justifications which frame this obligation, considering that the monarch had no need to justify himself (as Annie Crépin considers) or that obedience would be mechanical given that “society does not constitute a true political community” (as Thomas Hippler believes). We therefore regret that the author’s reflection on the legitimizations of military obligation did not lead him to mobilize the work of Max Weber whose concepts of domination and legitimacy are central to understanding questions relating to military obligation. obedience, especially since the author evokes the work of subjection that the king must undertake to convince his subjects.

The legal and moral foundations of military obligation

It is therefore in the name of the common good that the monarch imposes military obligation on his subjects as demonstrated by Paul Chauvin-Hameau in the first part of the book, who meticulously distinguishes the legal foundations from the moral foundations of military obligation. The legal foundations of this obligation are based on two main ideas: that of the natural duty of collective defense: “the optimal preservation of each person requires the defense of all” (p. 46) and that of the civic obligation of defense of the community . Concerning the moral foundations, they relate to love of the homeland, which is promoted by royal law but also to salvation and glory. On this last aspect, the author wonders to what extent the king can dispense salvation without encroaching on the spiritual domain (p. 129). Which leads him to demonstrate, through his analysis of royal doctrine and legislation, that the king cannot sanctify his own wars nor engage in unjust wars. Furthermore, the king must participate in the war to prove that he has not misused the law of war for personal ends:

Like his subjects, the king cannot act in his sole interest. By fighting, he will provide proof of the collective basis of his action and, in this way, he will justify the exercise of his dangerous power by assuming military obligation himself. His own participation in the combats during which he will share the dangers with his subjects is, in absolute monarchy, the best guarantee of a good exercise and a good execution of coactive power (p. 265).

Here too, we discover to what extent the monarchy is subject to limits and how all the king’s argumentative efforts also aim to neutralize revolts and forms of resistance to this obligation.

Disobedience and conscientious objection to military obligation

Under the Ancien Régime, the population was deeply religious, Catholicism being the religion of the crown. Thus, the coactive power of the king over military obligation clashes with the prohibition of the homicide of innocents in Catholic and Protestant churches, and among pacifists. The author distinguishes two forms of disobedience: one relative (opposing an unjust war), the other absolute (opposing all wars). Far from generalizing, Paul Chauvin-Hameau allows us to understand in detail the differentiated responses of the king to these different types of resistance. Concerning the first form, the king cannot directly oppose relative disobedience because this would amount to denying his subjects their belonging to God. The challenge for the king is therefore to limit disobedience by reinforcing subjection. As for the pacifist heretics, the king considered them foreigners (the Anabaptists, the Quakers) and tolerated them for economic reasons. As such, they are exempt from military obligation. We therefore see a strategy of adaptation rather than repression on the part of the king. Thus, the absolute character of royal power seems paradoxically also subject to constraints:

Absolute monarchy is not a totalitarianism which would absorb law, morality and religion to put them at the service of the State. If she can dispose of the lives of her subjects by ordering them to take risks, she cannot dispose of their souls by ordering them to kill unjustly (p. 370).

Finally, we also understand that conscientious objection has not led to a questioning of military obligation, since the demands of the pacifists “are drowned in the flood of privileges discretionarily granted to foreigners” and that the relativist objectors remain isolated cases which do not call into question the established order (p. 371). Another constraint imposed on the king is that of the fair distribution of military obligation in accordance with the society of orders.

Towards a massively commoner army

The work of Paul Chauvin-Hameau makes it possible to trace the developments which will lead to the universalization of military obligation. This aspect of his work is very innovative, since, to use the author’s words, “the history of the questioning of military obligation in the name of individual desires is not the history of a liberal revolution which would come from the outside to break with the holistic society, but rather that of an internal evolution” (p. 476). The latter is the recognition of a right to cowardice and a moral incapacity of certain subjects. What about this development? The author evokes the principle in force which is that of the fair distribution by the king of the military obligation between his subjects. It is recalled that the king must not subvert the natural order and must thus force individuals to keep their place in society: “The old tripartite division of society between those who pray, those who fight and those who work, has not completely fallen into disuse” (p. 476). Indeed, at the level of the social division of labor, the profession of arms falls to the nobility, which leads to a recognition of the moral incapacity of certain categories to carry out the profession of arms on the basis of an unequal distribution of virtues. Commoners, from whom economic functions are expected, are only very exceptionally called upon to serve after selection into the ban when numbers are insufficient (p. 536). However, this operation which is based on the society of orders will be called into question by the king at XVIIIe century due to military needs, in order to strengthen its pool of fighters by massively recruiting commoners. It’s under Louis XIV that a generalization of militias is observed, whose selection is made by drawing lots (p. 543). In parallel with this internal change, military obligation is also called into question by heterodox absolutist doctrines which harshly criticize the very principle of the sovereign right to force subjects to risk their lives, and generalize the right of individuals to declare themselves incapable or indifferent (p. 708). The author believes that there is here a transformation of natural defense into defense of natural rights (p. 708) and that the king must therefore convince his subjects even more of the interest in fighting.

To conclude, despite certain limitations, this work is a fundamental contribution to the history of legal and even political ideas under the Ancien Régime, which will enlighten generations of students and researchers. Although extremely well documented and detailed, it is regrettable that it does not include any iconography, timeline, or diagram that could be practical and educational tools that greatly facilitate reading. The author’s analysis at the chronological level covers a long period, allowing us to observe the developments and ruptures in the obligation to die on the king’s orders. The sociologist of politics would have liked the analysis to grasp what motivates individuals to kill. This is undoubtedly another research work, which would consist of shedding light on the social springs of the motivations to kill, to die for the State, and to engage in war under the Ancien Régime. But do we have any answers in the archives?