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Tax system crucial for royal power of medieval France

By Xiong Fangfang | 2014-11-21 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
A painting by Auguste Couder, a French painter, shows the opening of the Estates-General, a legislative assembly in medieval France that guaranteed the legitimacy of the king’s right to levy tax.
During the Middle Ages, a time when feudalism was the dominant form of social relations, it was generally understood that a king should live a life of self-sufficiency. This meant that kings would draw upon the income from lands they possessed, such as the property, sovereign and judicial revenues. This was called the “normal income” of kings. To medieval people, it was recognized that a well-governed country should not be built on taxes from the populace.
However, starting from the 12th and 13th centuries, traditional sources of income failed to meet the demand created by a constant expansion of military spending and the development of bureaucracy. As a result, kings began to increase taxes on feudal vassals and the common people as a means to fill their coffers.
According to the annals and mythology from the Middle Ages, France was founded on the notion of freedom, and the feudal lords were also free from paying tributes and taxes. So, why did the French people, who considered freedom to be a national virtue, begin to accept that kings were incapable of self-sufficiency? How was the legitimacy of the modern tax system established?
Crown land revenue
Drawing upon the Aristotelian tradition of political and moral philosophy, the political philosophers of the Middle Ages put forth the idea that a happy life was based on self-sufficiency. The king’s role was to set a good example for his people by following this principle. People of that era believed a virtuous king or a lord should live on the revenues made from his own manors without exploiting his people or damaging their interests. The word “should” is used here, indicating that this was a moral ideal. The aim of this moral philosophy was to provide a counterweight to the excess power of kings and lords.
In the 12th and 13th century, the expansion of royal holdings increased royal revenue, making it possible for kings to follow the principle of self-sufficiency. During the reign of Philip II, the total size of royal lands quadrupled. The royal domain of the Capetian dynasty expanded to the north and south, substantially increasing from less than 30,000 square kilometers.
To better manage revenues, Louis IX issued an edict in the year 1256, commanding specially assigned people to conduct an accounting of the crown property. In 1303, during the reign of Philip IV, the Paris Court of Audit was established to oversee crown land revenues and public expenditures. Before the end of the 13th century, the “normal income” gained from crown lands accounted for the majority of royal revenue.
Justifications for taxation
Unlike today, taxation was unpopular in Medieval times. It meant exploiting and plundering the people’s wealth, as shown in the popular 15th century saying, “Heavy taxes are like a rat’s bite, doing good to one’s self but harm to the people.” However, massive spending necessitated by feudal warfare drained the royal treasury. In addition to the “normal income,” kings had to impose a tax on the feudal lords and common people to meet the demands of temporary military expenditure. This justification for taxation became the subject of debate for the political philosophers and jurists.
It was apparent that taxing the people impinged upon the latter’s property rights, requiring kings to clarify the pretext for doing so. As Roman law revived and the ecclesiastical canons developed in the 12th and 13th century, scholars began to discuss relevant principles of taxation. As the 13th century philosopher and priest Thomas Aquinas views, when a king lacks sufficient revenue to fulfill his duties, such as safeguarding state territory or engaging in other reasonably necessary state affairs, it is legitimate that his people should contribute. In this way, the common interest of the king and his people can be ensured.
In 1298, it was proposed that kings could tax their people in times of danger, but after the threat has ended, so should the tax. In later years, political philosophers and jurists put forth two major criteria for judging whether or not taxes were justified—financial necessity and public interest. Therefore, before the 15th century when a normalized tax system was established, kings were only allowed to levy temporary taxes in the event of emergency to raise what was called “special revenue”.
In the 14th century, the kingdom of France was plagued by prolonged warfare, which broadened the framework of tax theory in terms of what was acceptable and the extent of coverage. Pierre Jacob, a legal advisor in Philip IV’s reign pointed out that if the necessity to protect the kingdom or guarantee the public interest does exist, the king can turn to his people for taxes, and in cases of emergency, it can be done without prior permission from the people.
The French Estates-General appeared for the first time in the early 14th century. A legislative assembly consisting of three different classes—the chief lords, clergy, and the representatives of the principal privileged towns—it provided the institutional guarantee for the legitimacy of the king’s right to tax.
During the Hundred Years’ War, the French kings frequently faced times of national crisis, during which the common people yearned for a strong ruler to protect them. As the war began to wind down, supporters of the king’s right to levy taxes at his own discretion gained the upper hand, and the French Estates-General gave up its control over taxation, which was totally handed over to the king. Henceforth, the kings of France had full power to tax at will, laying the foundation for the expansion of royal power in the late Medieval times.
Universal obligation
The financial principle that a king should be self-sufficient emerged as a result of the ideal monarchy in Middle Ages. However, such ideal system was incongruent with the social realities of France in the 14th and 15th century. Starting in the mid-14th century, taxes surpassed the traditional “normal income” to become the mainstay of the royal treasury for the first time. The proportion contributed by “normal income” decreased from 80% in 1202 to less than 2% in 1483, indicating that the king had gone from self-sufficiency to living off his people.
Scotia pointed out that from the mid-15th century onward, the crown land income and tax income had begun to complement each other rather than to be opposing forces as they had been before. The common people had clearly accepted the fact that kings could not merely live on the proceeds from royal land.
With the national tax system established in the modern sense and the crown incrementally increasing in strength, the king of France became more than just the foremost among feudal lords and took on the mantle of the supreme ruler of the kingdom. The growing nationalist sentiment and strong desire for a powerful royal state expressed by the common people was harnessed to legitimize the king’s rights to collect taxes. As it became normalized, the tax system was further improved and paying taxes became a universal obligation.
Xiong Fangfang is from the School of History at Wuhan University.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No.636, August 20, 2014.
Edited and translated by Bai Le
Revised by Justin Ward
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