The court of Francis I was the largest and most magnificent France had ever seen. During the Renaissance, French culture blossomed and flowered, producing beautiful chateaux, painting and sculpture, and classic writers like Montaigne and Rabelais. But all this was achieved against the background of apparently unending war, which tested the finances of the crown and the loyalty of the people to breaking point. When Henry II died, religious tensions surfaced and France was plunged into a bloody civil war. The economy, which had flourished in the 16th century, declined dramatically, tearing the very fabric of society.
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The Renaissance in France, as elsewhere in Europe, saw glory crowned amidst conflict and squalor. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, France seemed set to become the most powerful nation in Europe, but as the century ebbed so did her fortunes. In between, during a century of more or less permanent combat which murdered the dreams, comforts and relatives of many Frenchmen and saw a soaring economy shot down, some of the greatest building, painting and thinking to come out of the whole European Renaissance was being done. Sixteenth-century France was a colourful, confusing and often downright fatal habitat, and we moderns might profitably look on the complexity of its successes and failures, to which Professor Knecht is a matchlessly illuminating and genial guide.
In 1500, France was by no means a legally, linguistically or culturally united country, yet it was very definitely taking the shape which was to become so recognizable. The turn of the new century saw a sequence of expansionist escapades into Italy and a jockeying for primacy and inheritance at Court. A rare and welcome stability on the land and in trade ushered in a cultural flowering which has left us beautiful chateaux and the literary masterpieces of Rabelais, Montaigne and Ronsard, amongst many other treasures. The court of King Francis I, who ascended the throne in 1515, was larger and more magnificent than its predecessors. But all this was achieved against a background of almost continuous and ever more technologically advanced warfare, chiefly against the Habsburgs, which severely tested the resources of the monarchy. Following the accidental death of Henry II in 1559, France was plunged into a period of civil war propelled in part by religious differences born of the Protestant Reformation – the internecine strife reaching an infamously bloody climax on St Bartholomew's Day 1572. Inevitably, the previously virile economy buckled, crippling noble, merchant and peasant alike and bringing misery to cities, clergy and the Court. Recovery would not come readily.
Drawing on forty years' research into primary and secondary sources, and neatly dovetailing narrative with analysis, R.J. Knecht has successfully combined virtues traditional and modern in retailing events crisply and authoritatively while also reflecting judiciously on their cultural, economic and social contexts. His book is the most comprehensive and balanced anatomy of sixteenth-century France we have; it is indispensable reading for those curious about Renaissance and Reformation Europe and for al students of France – of her past, her culture and her legacy.About the Author:
By R. J. Knecht
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