Arthur Chevallier – What France could learn from Charles V


Ldoes France deserve its reputation? This country where insolence is not a joke, but a strategy, where betrayals pass for proof of our independence, which cultivates its loneliness without being isolated, generates its power from the satisfaction it derives from provoking stronger than him. This country, the only one in Europe with England, where the ideas of Machiavelli and Clausewitz have neither outlets nor echoes. Is this singularity part of a collective reverie? Nourished and stimulated by masterpieces of literature, an official and strict historiography, a national novel never deconstructed?

With his new book, The Shattered Dream of Charles V, Guillaume Frantzwa demonstrates that being interested in others sometimes amounts to being interested in oneself. His brilliant reading of the reign of Charles V gives him the opportunity to tell François Ier from the point of view of its best enemy, in what way this book is both the antithesis and the mirror of the brilliant Disaster of Pavia by Jean Giono. The hero of the Habsburg dynasty is the last head of state to have managed to reconstitute, or almost, a Western empire. This expression, which apparently means nothing, refers to a fantasy full of charm, that of the continuity of the Roman world, rebuilt and brought together by the unity of Christians, and of which the pope would be the rallying symbol, all in peace. The historian demonstrates to those who had forgotten that the ambition of Charles V had, like all forms of imperialism, a raison d’être, a method, only peaceful. The winner of Pavia tried everything to reunite Europe through diplomacy, betting on the well-understood interest of each state, with one watchword: why go to war when you could make money? And, basically, it worked pretty well. With one exception: Francis Ier.

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The King of France, who had not been elected to head the Holy Roman Empire, never allowed the Habsburgs to fulfill their destiny. The thing is all the more extravagant since after the battle of Pavia, the kingdom will never be able, either militarily or economically, to compete with the empire. Cunning, lies, reversals of alliances, provocation were used to hinder the imperial march of Charles V. The turn of events is sometimes hilarious, and very French. Imprisoned in Madrid, Francis Ier promises to behave, swears to have nothing but admiration for his conqueror, begs, bows. The case succeeds: he is released. The border barely crossed, he lets Charles V know that he will have nothing! Francis Ier had the merry perjury. And the quarrel resumes with renewed vigor.

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The King of France himself believed in the unity of the Christian world, but on condition of being its leader. Pride, honor and facetiousness drove him to behave like a spoilsport whose genius was to be unbearable, unpredictable, but determined. In the name of the independence and the greatness of the kingdom, the king will, as we know, ally himself, more or less convincingly, with the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman the Magnificent, and break the alliance Christian. The winner of Marignan wanted to hear about the Pope, the Church and even Catholicism, but on condition that he did not sacrifice the idea he had of himself, which, within the framework of a monarchy, returns to that which he had from France. The vices of our provinces are transformed, under the effect of history, into virtues.

A born administrator

Following the work of Didier Le Fur, Guillaume Frantzwa evokes the barbarism and superstition of an era, the Renaissance, which is summed up in Italian painters, enchanting palaces and humanist writers. In 1534, to be satisfied with one example among others, Dutch migrants of Anabaptist faith took the city of Münster because they were convinced that it was one of the cities of the Apocalypse. This millenarian utopia, therefore stupid, leads to beheadings and the establishment of polygamy. “The capital of this kingdom of the New Time of God therefore takes on the appearance of an infernal parody of the heavenly Jerusalem in the eyes of the neighboring principalities. It took more than a year and a half to see calm return and the Anabaptists purged… And one wonders if the border between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance exists.

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Charles V was like Charlemagne, a born administrator, calm, pragmatic, diplomatic, obviously capable of winning a war, but whose way of exercising power indicates that they considered confrontation to be the opposite of power. Francis Ier was a knight, a swordsman with sometimes archaic values, who served France by galloping from one end of the kingdom to the other, solving as many problems as he posed, and who, probably, did all this because he was amused by this apparent frivolity. Seriousness has its share of comedy; reason has its limits; the style sometimes achieves its ends by influencing the content. When an empire roars, France bursts out laughing.

book reference

Guillaume Frantzwa, The Shattered Dream of Charles VParis, Perrin, 2022.

John Giono, The Pavia DisasterParis, Gallimard, 1963.


Arthur Chevallier – What France could learn from Charles V