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‘The most difficult financial matter that has ever presented itself’: paper money and the financing of warfare under Louis XIV

  • Joël Félix (a1)
Abstract

Based on an extensive survey of French primary sources and a discussion of the recent literature on fiscal policy in France and Europe during Louis XIV's wars, this article revisits the rationale behind the first experiment with paper money undertaken by finance minister Michel Chamillart, comparing it to other belligerents’ strategies, in particular England's, to adjust their monetary regime to the challenges of funding long wars of attrition. The article shows how concerns about economic activity, coinage and the need to finance the war deficit led to a series of debasements of the French currency, the establishment of a bank in the form of a Caisse des emprunts and the introduction of mint bills, which became legal tender and caused the first experience of fiat money inflation in history. Whereas Chamillart's personal shortcomings have been recently suggested as the cause of Louis XIV's humbling in the War of the Spanish Succession, I argue on the contrary that the introduction of paper money in 1704 was key to the capacity of France to sustain its military effort, but that a succession of military defeats against a more powerful coalition led to inflation. I also argue that the introduction of paper money saved the Caisse des emprunts and its bonds which helped sustain the war effort up until the peace. By situating the use of paper money within the broader question of the exercise of power in the absolute monarchy, this article examines the formation of fiscal policy, paying attention to the ways in which government sought advice from experts. It concludes by calling for further studies on policy- and decision-making under Louis XIV.

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Corresponding author
J. Felix, Department of History, University of Reading, Whiteknights, PO Box 217, Reading, Berks., rg6 6ah, UK; email: j.m.felix@reading.ac.uk.
Footnotes
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I wish to express my thanks to the ESRC whose funding made this research possible (ES/K010654). I should also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.

Footnotes
References
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Financial History Review
  • ISSN: 0968-5650
  • EISSN: 1474-0052
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