Enlightened Monarchs: Crash Course European History #19 (2023)


Last time we learned about the Enlightenment, and the philosophers and thinkers whose ideas would shape governance for hundred of years. This week, we're learning how monarchs across Europe were influenced by those ideas. Adoption of Enlightenment ideas across Europe was...uneven, to say the least. In this episode you'll learn about Catherine the Great of Russia, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Maria Theresa of the Habsburg Dynasty, and Joseph II, her successor. We'll also get into the impact the Enlightenment had on a series of Louis in France.


-Elliot, John H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
-Judson, Pieter M. The Habsburg Empire. A New History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.
-Hosking, Geoffrey. Russia: People and Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
-Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadsworth, 2009.
-Vermes, Gábor. Hungarian Culture and Politics in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1711-1848. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2014.

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#CrashCourse #History #Enlightenment


Hi I’m John Green, and this is Crash Course European History.


Last week we discussed the Enlightenment philosophers who challenged the idea that kings and nobles were qualified to be elites simply because of the families into which they were born.


But still, monarchs were also interested in Enlightenment ideals, and also understood they needed to effectively adapt to the Enlightenment, as they had adapted to previous changes in theology and philosophy.

For instance, Catherine, II, (or, Catherine, “the Great”) of Russia corresponded often and enthusiastically with Voltaire, even though he criticized despotic rule.


She also offered to print Diderot’s Encyclopedia in Russia when France censored, it.

We use the term “Enlightened Monarchs” to refer to the rulers who supported and applauded Enlightenment thinkers.


Were they in fact Enlightened, or did they remain absolutist? Despots? The answer will surprise you, unless you have even a passing familiarity with despots.

[Intro] First let’s review, what the philosophes criticized in the practices of rulers and aristocratic leaders., They singled out torture, censorship, and their arrogance and capriciousness.

Like, kings and their nobility could have ordinary people thrown into prison for just about any reason—large or small.


In general, most of the Enlightenment thinkers believed that nobles, and the system that supported them, were despotic from top to bottom.

French theorist Montesquieu, whom we met in the previous episode.

As the author of the satiric Persian Letters, also published The Spirit of Laws in 1748.

In it.

He discussed customs and types of government as they were, influenced by climate, and topography, and other variables.

To him.

There was no God-given standard of divine right.


Instead, Montesquieu focused on three basic types of government: democracies, suitable for very small states; monarchies that ruled mid-sized, kingdoms; and despotic states such as empires that were governed with an iron hand., Voltaire and other philosophes elaborated on these theories: and many preferred Britain’s post-Glorious Revolution type of law-based monarchy, where courts and a parliament were separate from the monarch’s power and a Bill of Rights ensured certain protections to citizens.

All of this--the, enshrining of rights, independent courts, parliamentary representation--meant.

That power was balanced among multiple institutions.


The multiplicity of religions in Britain was seen as another assurance;.

It prevented a despotic religious institution from gaining control of the government.

Now, we’ve, seen from examples like Poland-Lithuania that distributed power and diversity of belief sometimes means internal conflict and political gridlock.

That weakens a state, but in Britain, Enlightenment philosophers saw an example of a state that was strong without being despotic.

And in part, because they had an example to point to.

The Enlightenment philosophers were difficult for those in the upper echelons of government and society to ignore.

Let’s go to the Thought Bubble.


King Frederick, the Great of Prussia was renowned for his love of refinement and his interest in music and design.


Like, his friend Voltaire, Frederick, the Great collected Chinese porcelain.


He also wrote an opera about the Aztec emperor Monteczuma, 4., which praised Monteczuma for religious toleration 5.

and seemed to agree with Enlightenment activists who fought against religious bigotry and torture.


And Frederick also welcomed religious exiles from less tolerant regimes as a way of building the Prussian population.


—again, a policy in line with Enlightenment.

He called himself “a servant of the people.” 8.


All that said, Frederick built a massive standing, army, 9.

increasing the armed forces to 200,000 men from his father’s army of 80,000ish.



He also forced the aristocracy to serve the state, 11., either in the army or in the administration of the kingdom.



While like a good Enlightenment thinker, he lightened the burden of serfs working his own estates, 13.

He also rewarded loyal aristocrats by increasing their control over the serfs living in their territories, 14., further disenfranchising, the most vulnerable of his subjects.


These, increasingly empowered landed, aristocrats, or Junkers to use the German term, that Frederick rewarded 16.

were the very type that Voltaire and other philosophes lambasted in their writings for the aristrocrats’ pride and highhandedness.


Frederick, even blocked talented commoners from achieving high positions in either the bureaucracy or the army, 18.

entrenching aristocratic power, still further.

Thanks, Thought Bubble.

At any rate, as a result of the supposedly enlightened Frederick.

The Great’s policies, men of aristocratic pedigree in Prussia continued to have a major say in politics and the army into World, War, I and even beyond.


Then there was another of Voltaire’s friends.

The aforementioned Catherine, the Great of Russia.

For, someone who disliked absolutism, Voltaire sure was pals with a lot of absolutists.

As Czar, Catherine sought to create standardized codes of laws and regulations, which had an Enlightenment-ish tinge, but was mostly an attempt to ease the struggle between all the groups that wanted to shape royal policy like how new monarchs were selected.

The people who fought over these decisions included clans, factions of the Royal Guard, groups of influential clergy, and cliques among commercial traders and ordinary citizens.

So, Catherine, summoned representatives from all social groups for their input.


She found that each only thought about bettering their own privileges or lot in life—the serfs seemed to have the most need for help, while merchants wanted the right to own serfs, and the nobility wanted more of everything.

Ultimately, Catherine failed in getting representatives to think, first and foremost of the needs of the empire as a whole.

Now, like other enlightened monarchs, her policies did aim to be rational, but this was especially true when it came to consolidating state power, which of course benefited her office.


One could argue.

She was also focused on her interests over those of the empire, but, like other enlightened monarchs and like Peter, the Great before her, Catherine did emphasize education.

She, even founded schools for girls, who were generally seen as not needing an education.

The empress also created the first Russian dictionary and appointed a woman to head the project.

She undertook the building of roads and the fostering of trade to bring economic unity to Russia.

But, like some other Enlightened monarchs, Catherine, also boosted the importance of the aristocracy and she consolidated their privileges.

She, professed to want to improve the status of the serf population, again bowing to the philosophes’ humanitarian concerns, while imposing taxes that affected ordinary people.

The most.

Most of these monarchs wanted a more streamlined and efficient royal administration, but not necessarily for philosophical, reasons.

They benefited from well run armies.

and they really benefited from taxes.


This age of ever-improving weaponry and higher costs for larger standing, armies, taxes needed to be increased and also collected more efficiently.


Other words, governments needed to operate rationally--not according to the whims of fate or individuals, but according to the needs of the state.

In 1770, for instance, Habsburg empress, Maria Theresa, who, despite that portrait, was not twin sisters with Catherine.

The Great, deployed soldiers to renumber the addresses of urban housing and standardize them across culturally diverse groups who didn’t even speak.

The same language.

The soldiers were told to count the empire’s subjects, but also to listen to their individual reports on health and well-being.


This self-reporting served to unify the empire’s wide-range of inhabitants by showing that the state cared enough to count them and ask them about their needs--that might seem minor, today, but consider being an 18th century peasant who rarely, if ever had meaningful contact with the imperial government.

Toleration was an Enlightenment ideal that also served to increase the number of useful citizens in an empire.


When Maria Theresa’s successor, Joseph II of Austria, announced the emancipation of the Jews in the Habsburg Empire during his administration, he decreed that Jews could not use their own language, except in religious services.

Which was a way to better integrate them into the imperial workforce, but the decree also said, “there must be an end to the prejudice and contempt which some subjects, particularly the unintelligent, have shown towards the Jewish nation.” The decree also noted the “deplorable” and even “criminal behavior” towards Jews and called for it to end as a way of strengthening the empire.[1] Joseph II, was probably, like, the most actually enlightened of the enlightenment.

Monarchs, also struck at ancient ideas in other ways, like by diminishing the grip of the aristocracy on serfs.

He encouraged agricultural experimentation, including the creation of a freer agricultural work.


So, under his reforms, serfs, no longer owed personal service to aristocrats, whose lands they worked, and they could even leave an estate to work as an artisan or in trade.

“I have made philosophy the lawmaker of my empire,” Joseph claimed, and in some ways that was true.[2] But, the aristocracy rebelled, and after Joseph’s death, his brother and successor rolled back.

These Enlightenment reforms.

Around the same time that Joseph was ruling Austria, in the French home of Enlightenment, rulers like Louis.

The XV were also listening to the voices of change and attempting to follow them.

but, you know, without losing power.

Then as now.

Everyone wanted change so long as it did not affect them.


So, French rulers tried to reform taxation and streamline government by getting rid of the Parlements, which blocked the monarchy’s attempts at making taxes a bit more equitable., The, Parlements, registered royal decrees and their members could sell their jobs to the highest bidder.

Royal advisors were like, I don’t understand why those funds don’t go to the government and they also questioned whether there needed to be a bunch of people whose job was to register royal decrees.

But the members of the Parlement managed to rouse ordinary people with cries of royal tyranny.

So the king eventually backed down.


Another reforming minister lifted tariffs and regulations on the grain market.

In the name of free trade., But, the flow of food was interrupted, which caused a huge outburst from people.

Reform might be good in theory, but when actually enacted, reform often upset social stability and clashed with vested interests.

Good news for lots of people was still bad news for some people.

Then as now.

Last, but not least, were the Spanish, who, with their vast empire, were especially eager to streamline government and enhance revenue.


This end, the royal administration enacted policy changes known as the Bourbon reforms, which made governmental administration more effective, especially when it came to collecting taxes.

These reforms also allowed people of Spanish descent born in the colonies to rise a bit higher in the colonial bureaucracy and army, but they were still prevented from reaching the very top echelons, as, of course were native people.

Also, because the royal administration saw the Catholic Church in the colonies as competing for local people’s loyalty and siphoning off funds.

The administration outlawed the Jesuits, alleged to be at the head of a corrupt and influential pack of theologians, who were trying to get people to be loyal to Jesus.

Instead of the Spanish king.

All right, the stained glass window is back, which means it must be time for the conclusion.

Enlightenment thought, which was rich and wide-ranging in possibilities for change, wasn’t, universally popular, and all these reforms had their detractors.

At times, urban people objected, as prices rose or as food became scarce because of changes in trade, policies.

And in cases where aristocrats were losing command over serfs or having to pay additional taxes, like in the Habsburg monarchy, aristocrats, often protested.

Enlightenment reforms.

Still, life was on average, getting a lot better for aristocrats.

As, the eighteenth century, progressed, more of them lived in outsized splendor.

That can still impress us today when we visit the many chateaux across Europe that remain from the 17th and 18th centuries.

In many cases they had Chinese porcelain, and lots of other luxury.


They had access to inexpensive labor that provided them with plenty of food, and also the chance to make huge monuments to their luxury and privilege.


Despite the massive destruction of twentieth century wars, many of those monuments survive today.

But little remains of the rising poverty of the 18th century.

That growing poverty occurred alongside growing European, know-how and productivity, and the poor saw that the rich were getting richer, even as they were often eating bread cut with sawdust.

As governments consolidated their administrations and waged an almost unbelievable number of wars.

The poor would approach a breaking point.

And beginning in France.

They would rebel against the aristocracy.

Changes were coming that not even wily monarchs could adapt.


Thanks for watching.

I’ll see you next time.

Thanks for watching Crash Course European History is made in the Jaden Smith studio here in Indianapolis, and is made with the help of all these people.


Animators are Thought.


We have lots more CC available, including our..

________________ [1] T.

C., W., Blanning, Joseph II and Enlightened Despotism (London: Longman, 1970) 142-144.

[2] Quoted in Jackson, J.

Spielvogel, Western, Civilization, 7th, ed., (Belmont, CA:, Thompson, Wadsworth, 2009), 545..


Enlightened Monarchs: Crash Course European History #19? ›

Among the most prominent enlightened despots were Frederick II (the Great), Peter I (the Great), Catherine II (the Great), Maria Theresa, Joseph II, and Leopold II.

Who were Europe's enlightened monarchs? ›

Among the most prominent enlightened despots were Frederick II (the Great), Peter I (the Great), Catherine II (the Great), Maria Theresa, Joseph II, and Leopold II.

Who were 3 examples of enlightened monarchs? ›

Joseph II, along with Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great, have been deemed the three most influential Enlightenment Absolutist monarchs.

What is an enlightened monarch in history? ›

An enlightened absolutist is a non-democratic or authoritarian leader who exercises their political power based upon the principles of the Enlightenment. Enlightened monarchs distinguished themselves from ordinary rulers by claiming to rule for their subjects' well-being.

What were the Enlightenment ideas on monarchs? ›

Enlightened despots held that royal power emanated not from divine right but from a social contract whereby a despot was entrusted with the power to govern in lieu of any other governments. In effect, the monarchs of enlightened absolutism strengthened their authority by improving the lives of their subjects.

Who are 4 of the most important European philosophers from the Enlightenment? ›

Some of the most important writers of the Enlightenment were the Philosophes of France, especially Voltaire and the political philosopher Montesquieu. Other important Philosophes were the compilers of the Encyclopédie, including Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Condorcet.

How did the Enlightenment influence monarchs in Europe? ›

Notably, the Enlightenment was adopted by several absolute monarchs, or monarchs with total power. The absolute monarchs who used Enlightenment philosophy were called enlightened despots and generally supported policies of religious freedom, freedom of speech, education, and art.

Who were 3 important Enlightenment thinkers and their main ideas? ›

These thinkers valued reason, science, religious tolerance, and what they called “natural rights”—life, liberty, and property. Enlightenment philosophers John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all developed theories of government in which some or even all the people would govern.

Who were the three most important Enlightenment thinkers? ›

The American Revolution and the subsequent framework of American government were heavily influenced by John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, and Jean Jacques Rousseau - three Enlightenment philosophers who “developed theories of government in which some or even all the people would govern” (Constitutional Rights Foundation ...

What was the Enlightenment and who were 3 of its most important figures? ›

Using the power of the press, Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Voltaire questioned accepted knowledge and spread new ideas about openness, investigation, and religious tolerance throughout Europe and the Americas.

Who was the most influential monarch in history? ›

Top 10 Most Famous Kings In History
  1. #1: Louis XIV of France. 1638 - 1715.
  2. #2: Henry VIII of England. 1491 - 1547. ...
  3. #3: Alexander III of Macedon. 356 - 23 BC. ...
  4. #4: Cyrus II of Persia. c. ...
  5. #5: Charlemagne. c. ...
  6. #6: Hammurabi. Unknown - c. ...
  7. #7: Peter I of Russia. 1672 - 1725. ...
  8. #8: Tutankhamen. c. ...

Who is the greatest monarch in history? ›

Best Monarchs of All Times
  1. 1 Frederick II of Prussia. ...
  2. 2 Robert I of Scotland.
  3. 3 Pacal I of Palenque.
  4. 4 Gustav II Adolf of Sweden. ...
  5. 5 David of Israel.
  6. 6 Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil.
  7. 7 Constantine the Great.

Why did some European monarchs try to adopt Enlightenment ideals? ›

Expert-Verified Answer. The Answer is: Enlightened despots believed that royal power did not come through divine right but rather from a social compact that granted a despot the authority to rule in place of all other governments. They were motivated by that of the ideas of Enlightenment period.

What were the 4 major Enlightenment ideas? ›

Four themes recur in both European and American Enlightenment texts: modernization, skepticism, reason and liberty.

What were causes of the Enlightenment? ›

The causes of the Enlightenment include the focus on humanism during the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution. These three ideas and events led to new ways of thinking and gave the Enlightenment the momentum needed to influence individuals worldwide.

What is one European ruler who was an enlightened despot? ›

The enlightened despots were were Frederick the Great, Catherine II, Maria Theresa, and Joseph II. They are called enlightened despots because they tried to integrate the ideals of Enlightenment into their absolute monarchies.

Who was the most famous European monarch? ›

Louis XIV of France 1638 - 1715

Known as “The Sun King” or “the Great”, Louis is remembered as the apogee of the absolute monarch, a style of rule whereby the king (or queen) has total power invested in them.

Who started the Enlightenment in Europe? ›

The Enlightenment's important 17th-century precursors included the Englishmen Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, the Frenchman René Descartes and the key natural philosophers of the Scientific Revolution, including Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

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