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Henri IV - An unfinished reign

The economy

In the 16th century, the kingdom of France was not only the most populated country in Europe, it was also one of the wealthiest. We must, however, distinguish between the situation prior to the Wars of Religion, which severely affected production, and the reign of Henri IV, during which the return of peace enabled economic activity to be restarted after 1594.

As 90% of the population lived in rural areas, most of France's wealth was agricultural in nature. Prior to efforts by Henri IV and his entourage, agriculture was primarily subsistence-oriented. Most production was devoted to cereals, but although these were varied (oats, rye, wheat, méteil (wheat and rye sown together), millet, buckwheat, etc.), yields were meagre. Crop rotation (on a three-year basis in the north, and two years in the south) barely gave the soil enough time to rest. The problem was aggravated by strong population growth, which not only meant that new (and often poor) land had to cleared, but that land was divided into increasingly smaller parcels as more children inherited it, leaving plots too small to feed a family.

In addition to cereals, some crops were destined for export, including wine from Bordeaux and elsewhere (Basse-Loire, Beaune, etc.), pastel from Lauragais, olive oil from Provence and salt from the Mediterranean. These were shipped overland and by sea to England, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.

Finally, wealth was generated by various industries, especially textiles. Wool was produced in Normandy, Picardy and Champagne, linen and jute in Brittany, Bresse, Beaujolais and Lyon, and silk production had recently been introduced. Mining and metallurgy were carried out in Normandy, Dauphiné and Forez, which made possible the production of weapons, nails and metal cookware (which was needed for the famous poule au pot).

Related multimedia

Title: Ploughman, with plough pulled by two horses

Ploughman, with plough pulled by two horses
© RMN / Hervé Lewandowski
Ploughman, with plough pulled by two horses, by Jan I Brueghel, drawing, late 16th–early 17th century. Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille

Title: Triumph of Henri IV (detail)

Detail : countryside, fields, pastures
Cliché Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Orléans
Triumph of Henri IV (detail), French School, 17th century. oil on canvas, inv. 358. Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Orléans

Title: Henri among the peasants

Henri among the peasants
Bibliothèque municipale de Pau
Henri among the peasants (Job and L. Bordier), A. Hermant, Le Bon roy Henry, Tours, 1894, cat. no. 426u, Bibliothèque Municipale de Pau, fonds Réserve (reprint)
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