Version classiqueVersion mobile

Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

a) La quête de l’identité nationale. Les usages politiques du Moyen Âge en France et en Italie, des Lumières au début du XIXe siècle

2) “Nos pères les Germains”: Montesquieu and the origin of French identity

Fabiana Fraulini

Texte intégral

1The final books of the Esprit des lois (1748) are dedicated to the institutions of the kingdom of France in medieval centuries. According to Montesquieu, the study of the Middle Ages is fundamental to addressing the political and institutional issues of contemporary France. Indeed, Montesquieu lived in a time of political and institutional changes. The long-lasting government of Louis XIV led to a far-reaching reform in the constitutional structure of the kingdom. The death of the king and the consequent crisis of absolutism brought about the explosion of latent tensions between different political-social forces. In this context of turmoil, institutional experiments, and political debate, Montesquieu questions himself about the future of France. In his opinion the study of the past is the only way to understand how power should be organized in the kingdom and which constitutional system should be introduced in France.

2In Montesquieu’s view, in order to understand modern French institutions, it is essential to develop a deep knowledge of Germanic peoples’ customs and spirit (defined by the author as “nos pères”). The Franks are in fact Germanic populations, and modern France finds its origins in their uses, customs, and laws. There is therefore continuity between the Germanic world and the Frankish kingdom. Montesquieu identifies the features of Germanic peoples: they are simple and warrior peoples, whose most important characteristic is freedom. Montesquieu, in his description, compares these populations with the Romans. Over the centuries, the Roman Empire became a despotic regime that oppressed its citizens with excessive taxes. Due to this exasperated fiscalism, many Romans took refuge among the Germanic peoples, who ignored the use of taxes. According to Montesquieu, the Roman Empire, in its expansion, tried to subdue even Germanic peoples and to force them to pay tributes. In order to escape the attempts of oppression of the Empire, the Germans—as free and independent people—fled and took refuge in Northern Europe. Here, the tribes which traditionally used to live free in the territories of Germany began to unite and to create leagues, thus giving birth to those nations that would later destroy the Roman empire. It was therefore the Roman empire that, with its despotism, caused the barbarian invasions.

3In this historical reconstruction Montesquieu uses and re-elaborates various medieval sources and chronicles (in particular the Liber historiae Francorum, from the eighth century). However, references to current politics are evident: the subject of taxation was at the center of the political debate in the first half of the eighteenth century. One of the main accusations often addressed to Louis XIV was that of being a despot who oppressed the population with excessive taxes. In the historical reconstruction of Montesquieu, when the Empire entered a phase of weakness, the Germanic peoples invaded it and brought freedom back to Europe. After conquering the territories of the Empire, the Germanic peoples behaved differently towards the defeated people. This caused fundamental differences in the development of the different European kingdoms that resulted from the invasions. Some populations, such as the Visigoths, entering into contact with the Roman world, abandoned the peculiar features of Germanic culture. On the contrary, the Franks succeeded in preserving over the centuries the Germanic spirit, whose main characteristic is the love for freedom. The persistence of the Germanic esprit determined, over the centuries, the development of new, unique and unrepeatable political institutions (as a result of Germanism). According to Montesquieu, the kingdom of the Franks was characterized by a distribution of powers—between the king and the nobility—able to safeguard freedom. Whenever in the course of history a sovereign or an individual has tried to centralize power in his hands and to endanger the freedom of the Franks, the nation has rebelled and succeeded in restoring a balance of powers, so as to safeguard freedom. The main characteristic of the French identity, therefore, is the love for freedom inherited from the Germans, which must be defended and safeguarded. Consequently, according to Montesquieu, France must be a moderate monarchy characterized by a balanced distribution of powers.


4Montesquieu, Esprit


Università degli Studi dell’Insubria

© Publications de l’École française de Rome, 2021

Licence OpenEdition Books

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search