Showing posts with label Louis XIV. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Louis XIV. Show all posts

02 March 2017

"L'Etat, C'est Moi"


by Eve Fisher

Louis XIV of France.jpg
Louis XIV, in his glory
Years ago, I used to teach a class on the Age of Louis XIV, which basically became a class on the man himself.  He may or may not have said "L'etat, c'est moi" ("I am the state), but he certainly lived it.  He was the first, and greatest, of the absolute monarchs of post-Reformation Europe, and during much of his 72 year reign, if someone - anywhere in Europe, not just France - said something about "the King", it was assumed they meant Louis.

Louis XIV (1638-1715) became king when he was five years old.  Of course, they didn't let him actually rule at that age - he had a minister, Cardinal Mazarin.  (Suspected by some of being his mother's lover and/or husband.  But not by me:  Anne of Austria was a true European aristocrat, who would sooner have eaten merde as have anything physical to do with a jumped-up Italian.)  Mazarin, according to Louis XIV, kept him living in poverty, barely educated.  It could be true.
NOTE:  Children, even royal children, weren't as prized back in the day as they are now. Classic example, Charles Maurice Talleyrand-Perigord, the eldest son of his house, who was put out to nurse in the countryside for his first few years.  He returned lame.  His parents then made his younger brother the heir, and put our boy into the Church, where he became the most dissolute, loose-living, atheistic Bishop of Autun since...  who knows when. (Eventually, he joined the French Revolution, managed to switch sides with such persistent effectiveness that he survived everything, from the Reign of Terror to Napoleon to the Bourbon Restoration...)  
SECOND NOTE:  Louis XIV's only sibling, his younger brother Philippe, who was universally called Monsieur, had a VERY interesting upbringing.  He was deliberately raised to be a homosexual, or at the very least a transvestite; his mother and her ladies encouraged him to dress up in women's clothing, make-up, jewelry and hairstyles.  He was deliberately kept from any formal education other than the 3 r's, and any knowledge of statecraft.  All of these were so that he'd never be a rival for his brother.  The result was a man who was bisexual, surprisingly martial, and through his two marriages, became the "grandfather of Europe", ancestor of every Roman Catholic royal house in Europe.  You never know...
Back to Louis, who would have been infuriated by that digression.  Louis' childhood influenced him in many ways, but it was the Fronde (1648-1653) that created his ruling style.  The Fronde was a multiplicity of rebellions that had no order, rhyme, or reason to any of it.  Of, by, and for the nobility, the Fronde's goal was to return to the good old days when a nobleman could rule his lands and provinces as a petty king, with absolute power.  And there had been no jumped-up clergymen (Richelieu and Mazarin) to try and make them knuckle under to some Bourbon king.
NOTE:  Part of the problem was that in class-ridden pre-modern Europe, the Bourbons weren't that old a family.  One of Louis' mistresses, Madame de Montespan, often bragged to his face that her family, the House of Rochechouart was MUCH older than his, and it was.  Hers went back to the 800s; his only to the 1200s.  
Episode of the Fronde at the Faubourg Saint-Antoine by the Walls of the Bastille.png
Episode of the Fronde at the Faubourg Saint-Antoine by the Walls of the Bastille
(i.e., when the royal family had to flee Paris.  See below)
The Fronde failed, because they really had no goal, no organization, no leadership, and kept bickering.  But Louis would never forget it.  At one point the Fronde made the whole royal family flee Paris, which was probably THE major humiliation of Louis' life.  He decided that the nobility was untrustworthy, Paris was rotten, and came up with the following maxims of government:
  • The nobility will have no role in government at all.
  • All non-military government roles, positions, and titles will be given to the bourgeoisie (that way, Louis can fire them whenever he wants).
  • Parlement's only role will be to rubber-stamp his decisions.
  • Paris can rot.
  • He, Louis XIV, will rule personally, absolutely, with no prime minister, all his life.
Nobody believed any of this.  For one thing, Louis, who was always a master of etiquette, waited politely until after Mazarin's death in 1661 to take the reins of power.  And by then there had been 50 years of Prime Ministers ruling France while the kings played.  Louis played, and he played hard - but he also did exactly what he said he would.

And the key to doing that, successfully, was:
  • to appoint good bourgeois officers (Jean-Baptist Colbert, Comptroller-General; Michel le Tellier, and his son, Louvois, both Ministers of War and Chancellor, among others).  
  • to personally work like a horse, non-stop, day in and day out
  • to distract the nobility with endless perks, entertainment, prizes, all dependent upon HIS favor. 
Welcome to Versailles.  


Versailles was the old hunting lodge of Louis XIII, 12 miles south of Paris.  Louis XIV loved it, despite the fact that it was in the middle of a swamp.  He had it remodeled - in fact, it was being remodeled for his entire reign, and some say that the construction is still on-going - and announced, early on, that Versailles was the seat of government.  If you wanted to be close to the king (and who didn't?) you went to Versailles.  And everyone who could went.

Louis de Rouvroy duc de Saint-Simon.jpg
The Duc de Saint-Simon
It was a desperately uncomfortable place to live.  It was so huge that people could and did get lost in it; only the extremely important people - Louis, his Queen, his mistresses, his endless children, and Monsieur and his wife and children - had beautiful apartments.  Most people were crammed into very small rooms, often without windows.  The Duc de Saint-Simon, the most celebrated diarist of the period, had three small rooms, one looking out the stables (which stank), the other two of which were the size of walk-in closets without have windows.  And these were considered the best suite in Versailles.

But things were different then.  Comfort, so important to us today, was held in contempt.  The mark of a man of quality was "indifference to heat, cold, hunger and thirst."  Magnificence was the order of the day. The nobility lived in chateaus that were drafty, cold, smoky, and reeked of human and animal waste (there was no indoor plumbing).  But the rooms looked beautiful.  The nobility wore velvets and satins and brocades in summer as well as winter, and the clothes always stank because they couldn't be washed, and people generally stank because they didn't bathe, just kept pouring on the perfume.  Louis himself just got rubbed down with scented alcohol every day.  But by God they looked marvelous.

Versailles almost bankrupted Paris.  Louis never went there.  He frowned on any nobility who went there.  When the court needed a change of air, they went to Fontainebleau and Marly.  Paris was ignored.  For decades.  But their revenge would come in 1789...

Versailles almost bankrupted Louis (although he never admitted it, and burned the receipts)...

Versailles bankrupted the nobility.
  • Living at Versailles meant, for one thing, that the country estates (and in France, being noble meant you had a large country estate that supplied you with an income) were managed by someone else, who certainly wasn't going to send you all the money.  
  • The King expected his nobles to be well-dressed, and the velvets, silks, and satins, with gold and silver embroidery did not come cheap.  And he expected to see new outfits for weddings, births, Feast Days, parties, etc.  The Duc de Saint-Simon spent 800 louis d'or for new outfits for himself and his wife for the Duc de Bourgogne's wedding - that was equivalent of $96,000.00 in today's money.  
  • While much of the constant entertainment at Versailles was free (watching Louis was the major entertainment, from his morning rub to his official coucher with the Queen), including hunting, music, plays, concerts, dances, and the usual amount of drink, drugs, and sex (all right, sometimes more than the usual amount) there was also gambling almost every night.  They played vingt-et-un, which is blackjack, as well as roulette and dice.  (The King preferred billiards.  He generally won.) The stakes could run exceedingly high:  Madame de Montespan (of the excellent bloodline) lost 3 million francs in one evening.  
  • You have to have servants, sedans, dogs, horses, hunting equipment, stable rent, bribes, and... let's put it this way, books of the day said that a single man of wealth and nobility should have at least 36 servants, 30 horses, etc....  Of course, if you married, expenses doubled, and if you had children...  
So how did the nobility afford all this?  They went into debt.  And when they were broke, they ran to Louis, who was usually happy to help them out with a little something, enough to keep them in Versailles.  He kept them poor and completely dependent on him and his favor.  And his favor wasn't given to anyone who wasn't regularly at Versailles, waiting on him, watching him, being present.

And Louis was always present.  How he lived his life I do not know.  Louis spent his entire day, from 7:45 a.m. to midnight, in public.  (We know where he was every second of every day, because he followed a time-table as rigid as that of a German railroad.)  He had an iron constitution, an iron will, an iron work ethic, and he was always on stage.  He was never alone, even when he was sleeping, using the toilet or having sex. Not only was someone there, there were a lot of people there, perhaps discreetly looking away. (Probably not.)  This was rule by King as rock star, the first total celebrity, the first reality TV show. To see him, to be seen by him, to watch him eat, drink, dress, dance, walk, ride, hunt, etc., was everyone's obsession.  And it was considered as much of an honor, if not more, to attend him while he was using the bathroom as when he was holding full court.
NOTE:  To show how great the obsession with Louis was - and how tough a bird he was - in 1686, he underwent an operation, without anesthesia, on an anal fistula.  In public.  Amazingly, he survived. Even more amazingly, a huge number of nobles went to the doctor to be checked to see if they had an anal fistula, and those who did boasted about it!  Now THAT's toadying.  
Portrait sculpture of 18th  C.
French peasants, by
artist George S. Stuart
Museum of Ventura County
Louis had a few weaknesses.  Women.  Food.  (He ate like a horse.)  But his chief weakness was the pursuit of personal glory (la gloire) through building (Versailles, Marly), personal magnificence (clothing, furniture, jewels, etc.), his court's constant magnificence, and on war.  Endless war.

In case you're wondering, this was an age in which it was assumed, by everyone, that government had nothing to do with and no obligations towards the common people (peasants and artisans, who made up 95% of the population, along with a smattering of merchants), other than to collect taxes from them.  The wealthy paid no taxes at all.  Neither did the Church.  The peasants paid for everything.  They got nothing.  Any improvements, in roads, bridges, canals, etc., were paid for either by the goodness of the local lord or a whim on the part of the king.  There were no social services, no pensions, no health care, nothing.  Peasants worked until they dropped, and then died. Government was there to support the king, the nobility, the Church, and to wage war.

William of Orange defeating
Louis XIV at Naarden
And war was expensive, then as now.  Louis XIV fought many wars because everyone knew that that was what powerful kings did:  fight and win wars.  The trouble is, none of them were winnable, none of them mattered, and Louis himself was a lousy general.  He didn't get anything out of them except a tremendous load of debt, a couple of minor victories, and a lot of dead soldiers.  He fought three wars alone trying to conquer the Netherlands.  He lost every time, and only succeeded in making William of Orange, the prince of the Netherlands, his enemy for life. When William became king of England in 1689 (William was married to Mary, daughter of James II of England, who was booted out during the Glorious Revolution to make room for her - history is so messy...)  Anyway, when William became King of England, it meant that England and France would be at almost perpetual war (simmering or boiling) for the next 150 years.  Including a couple that involved the American Colonies, The Nine Years War a/k/a King Williams' War (1689-1697), and the War of the Spanish Succession a/k/a Queen Anne's War (1701-1714).

Louis succeeded in what he wanted to do.  He kept the nobility powerless and he kept himself absolute monarch for 72 years.  But he almost destroyed France in the process.  He came to the throne of the most powerful, most populous, most wealthy country in Europe, and left it in debt, surrounded by enemies, crippled by a tax system that, depending as it did entirely on the poor, was so bad that in, 70 years, it would spark a revolution.

Much the same results came from all the absolute monarchs of the 17th and 18th centuries - endless wars, fighting over and over and over again over the same territories, bankrupting entire countries, and leading, finally, to the almost constant revolutions of the late 18th and 19th centuries.  The pursuit of war and glory - by leaders who cannot be told "No" - and its results can be summed up by Thomas Gray:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
                - Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, 1751



21 May 2015

Wolf Hall


by Eve Fisher

Like so many others, I was hooked by Wolf Hall, both the novel and the PBS Series.  I love both. My only quibble with the TV show was that the actors were so much thinner than the (overly?) well-known portraits of Henry VIII, Cromwell, and Wolsey - all of whom were EXTREMELY hefty men. But then, of course, times have changed. In the 16th century, physical weight proved power and privilege; today, thinness proves it, and Wolsey's massive weight would be considered proof of his lower-class origins...

Cardinal Wolsey Christ Church.jpg Cromwell,Thomas(1EEssex)01.jpg 

Well, that's only my first quibble...  my real quibble was with the portrayal of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife.  By the time Anne Boleyn came along, Catherine had had at six pregnancies, five of whom were miscarriages, still births, or died in infancy.  Only Mary survived.  She was, by all accounts, at 45 years of age very stout ("as wide as she is high"), gray-haired, wrinkled, and not nearly as attractive as the lady who portrayed her (see right).  Once again, even historical women can't lose their looks in modern media...

But enough about that, let's get to the real danger:  politics.

Hans Holbein, the Younger - Sir Thomas More - Google Art Project.jpg
Sir Thomas More
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Sir Thomas More, a/k/a St. Thomas More, was everybody's hero, thanks to Robert Bolt's "A Man for all Seasons". In that play More was presented as a married saint, a man of humor, humility, affability, intellect, education, and a keen sense of conscience. Thomas Cromwell was absolute evil, determined to ruin and destroy More - and does.  But then, all the people in power, from King Henry VIII to Cromwell to little Richard Rich, are presented as corrupt, expedient, power-hungry...  Only More is different, which is amazing when you consider that More was a politician from the time he was elected to Parliament at 26 until his resignation as Chancellor two years before his death.  It does raise the question how he, and he alone, managed to remain pure in the midst of all that fraud, double-dealing, dishonesty, unscrupulousness, corruption...

Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger - Portrait of Henry VIII - Google Art Project.jpgAnyway, today we have Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, in which Sir Thomas More is less saintly and Thomas Cromwell less evil.  But there's nothing much you can do about Henry VIII.  The truth is, politics (not to mention marriage! is always a deadly game when you are dealing with an absolute monarch, who can have you killed at any moment, innumerable nobles who are all scrambling for scraps from said monarch's table, and a brewing religious war.  And the irony is that it didn't help that Henry VIII was an enlightened, extremely well-educated monarch:  the true philosopher prince everyone had always dreamed of.   Be careful what you wish for:  all that enlightenment, all that education, all that religious training combined with the divine right of kings meant that Henry thought he was always right about everything.  Especially when he wanted to get a new wife or more money, or be Head of the Church in order to get a new wife and more money.

When Henry made himself Head of the Church of England (with help from Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury), he put everybody in England on the spot:  who were you going to side with, Henry or the Pope?  Most sided with Henry because the Pope was foreign, so the hell with him.  But for many - most famously Thomas More, but also John Fisher, and 137 other priests, friars, and laypeople - it became a matter of conscience, and they were willing to die over it. And did.  Just as, later, Mary I ("Bloody Mary") executed almost 300 Protestants, including Archbishop Cranmer.  There is nothing worse than being in the middle of a religious civil war...
NOTE:  One of the problems with today's Middle East (which has one great big fat religious civil war right in the middle of it) and Middle Eastern politics is that too many Americans think the Sunni-Shiite split is much ado about nothing, and what they're really fighting about is us. (1) We have got to quit flattering ourselves and (2) think back to the Tudors.  Or, better yet, the European Wars of Religion of 1540s-1648.  
Back to Henry VIII:  one fairly unique thing that he did was change the government of England - briefly - when he made Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's son, Lord Chancellor of England.  This was pretty unprecedented.  Yes, there were low-born churchmen from time immemorial, mainly because the Church took everybody and anybody, and it was the one place where you could rise from peasant to Cardinal to even pope.  Pope Sylvester II, the peasant's son.  Thomas Wolsey, the butcher's boy. Thomas Becket, the merchant's son.  But that's the church.  For the real ruling of the kingdom, for office and money and lands and a king's favor, you had to be noble.  Until Cromwell.

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger.jpg
Anne of Cleves
Henry VIII grasped, briefly, the great advantage of having his chief officer be a commoner, not a nobleman.  He made him, he could break him, and in between, he could work him to death, without any complaints.  Meanwhile, the nobility despised Cromwell.  He was a nobody, a peasant, a thing that was beneath them, but now they had to actually speak to him, listen to him, ask him favors. They wanted him dead, and eventually - when Henry VIII was furious at the marriage to Anne of Cleves - they managed to get him charged with a variety of improbable crimes (including plotting to marry Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's daughter) and executed before Henry cooled off.  When he did, he felt awful, awful, AWFUL about it, and never ceased bewailing the loss of the best minister he ever had.  He'd also felt the same about executing Wolsey, after the fact.  "Bureaucracy Can Be Deadly" should be the subtitle of Wolf Hall.  That and/or "Henry VIII:  A Kill for All Seasons."

The young Louis XIV
A hundred years later, Louis XIV made commoners bureaucrats, but as a matter of principle.  Whereas the nobility were Henry VIII's best friends and playmates, Louis XIV never trusted the nobility because, when he was 12 years old, the nobility rose up against the monarchy (The Fronde).  They lost, of course.  Actually, they didn't lose so much as just run out of steam...  But Louis never forgot or forgave them the fact that he - the Sun King! - had had to go on the run.

So, when he came to full age and power, Louis decided that the only purpose of the nobility was to praise and support him, so he took away every shred of power from them.  His cabinet was almost entirely of (often brilliant) bourgeoisie, especially
Colbert mg 8447 cropped.jpg
Colbert

  • Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Finance Minister, who actually managed to keep Louis XIV solvent despite his royal tendency to spend money like water on everything from royal mistresses, royal chateaux, and piss-ant wars.
  • Michel Le Tellier, Chancellor of France, who nationalized the army.  Pity it was for Louis XIV.  
And I have to say, on Louis XIV's behalf, that he never executed any of them.  And yet, he only increased in power: absolute monarchy would remain in France for another 150 years, admittedly limping towards the end.  Meanwhile, by the time Louis XIV came to power in the mid-1600's, the English House of Commons had become the greatest force in the English Parliament and, hence, of the English government - doing everything from passing laws and raising taxes to executing Charles I in 1649 and setting up a Commonwealth. When Charles II was "restored" to the throne in 1660, he walked very, very carefully, doing nothing to upset Parliament.  And, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Bill of Rights of 1689, the monarchs of England were all constitutional monarchs, firmly under Parliament, and not the other way around.

Today, of course, we take it for granted that bureaucracy is done by, of, and for the commons.  But it's still deadly.  Disgruntled office workers lead to regular crime scenes on the national news.  And there's more than one way to skin a cat:  if you don't want to risk murder, there's always slander, and in today's age of cyber-bullying, it's easier than ever to destroy someone's reputation and career.

Anne Boleyn would be smeared in every chat room; Cromwell would be trashed on the Drudge Report or Daily Kos and perhaps both; Cranmer would be the idol of Patheos until he wasn't; the tweets would have been nonstop about Jane Seymour; the cyber-whispering would be constant, and at the heart of it all would be the King, strutting and posturing without pause, even when his footsteps walked through blood.
"Kings are earth's gods; in vice their law's their will."  Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre
— or  —
“You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it's like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you're thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.” Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

29 January 2015

Is Time Money, or is Money Time?


by Eve Fisher

James Wallman
You may or may not know that this last week has been wild, because on January 23rd, a gentleman named James Wallman had an article on the BBC Magazine based on his book, Stuffocation, and mentioned me. (I'm also cited in the book.) The citation was for one of my history lessons, "The $3,500 Shirt", which I gave regularly in my Western Civ and World History classes when it came time for the Industrial Revolution talk. I also shared it with several people, including Mr. Wallman, and here on SleuthSayers on June 6, 2013.

After the citation in BBC Magazine, the article got a few hits. (!!!) It also got a few comments. Some people simply could not (perhaps would not?) believe that clothing could be that expensive. Most of time their quarrel was with my multiplying the time spent making the shirt by current minimum wage, saying that didn't show how little people were paid back then, and so the shirt would be much cheaper. Which, in terms of cash paid out, is absolutely true. BUT not when it comes to the amount of time: time-wise, it was infinitely more expensive. Because for most of history, labor (time) was what counted, more than money:
Father took out a round, big silver half-dollar. He asked, "Almanzo, do you know what this is?" "Half a dollar," Almanzo answered. "Yes. But do you know what half a dollar is? It's work, son… You know how to raise potatoes, Almanzo?… Say you have a seed potato in the spring, what do you do with it?" "You cut it up. … Then you harrow - first you manure the field, and plow it. Then you harrow, and mark the ground. And plant the potatoes and plow them, and hoe them. You plow and hoe them twice… Then you dig them and put them down cellar." "Yes, and then you pick them over all winter, you throw out the little ones and the rotten ones. Come spring, you load them up and haul them here to Malone, and you sell them. And if you get a good price son, how much do you get to show for all that work? How much do you get for a bushel of potatoes?" "Half a dollar," Almanzo said. "Yes," said Father. "That's what's in this half-dollar, Almanzo. The work that raised half a bushel of potatoes is in it." Almanzo looked at the round piece of money that Father held up. It looked small, compared to all that work.
— Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy, pp. 182-184.
Work is important. Work is time. How much a penny or a dollar is worth changes over time; but the number of hours in a day don't. And you don't get the whole 24 hours to do anything you want: you have to sleep, eat., etc. So if you subtract 8-10 hours a day for all those other things (sleep, eating, bathroom, washing, travel to and from work, etc.), what you have left is 14-16 hours a day to work, play, live. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, most of us (at least in the Western world) don't have to spend 12+ hours a day at hard physical labor, so we have a tendency to think in terms of money (how much did it cost?) rather than time (how long did it take?), but, as I say, that wasn't the way people used to think about things.

Here are a couple of ways to look at things:

First, the Shirt, and then I want to move on to such fun things as criminals and celebrities. First off, some weavers and spinners gave me some more exact figures (I under-figured for spinning; over-figured for weaving), so here goes:
Note how long the shirt is.

To make a shirt entirely by hand - and we're going to go with 25 gauge for a decent, but coarse shirt - we start with the spinning. 25 ÷ threads per inch × 36 inches wide × 8 yards (shirts were longer then) = 7200 warp yards, plus about the same for weft = 14,400 yards of thread; divided by 30 yards per hour = 480 hours. The weaving (which I admit I over-estimated in the original) requires about 20 hours including 10 hours minimum for set up – stretching the warp, setting up and threading the loom – and then another 8-10 for weaving. And the sewing, which I still say would take 7 hours, including finishing all the seams. So the new figures are:
Spinning - 480 hours
Weaving - 20 hours
Sewing - 8 hours
Total: 508 hours of labor to make a shirt.
This still doesn't include things like buttons, or the needle and thread to sew the shirt, nor the labor that went into raising/processing the linen, cotton, or wool.

Imagine spending 480 hours to make enough thread to weave a shirt. No wonder Ellen Rollins said "The moaning of the big [spinning] wheel was the saddest sound of my childhood. It was like a low wail from out of the lengthened monotony of the spinner's life." (Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, p. 26) And that would be 480 hours "fitted in", because almost no woman (luckily!) could spend an entire working week (72 hours in pre-Industrial times) doing nothing but weaving. She had chores to do, like cooking, cleaning, dairying, weeding, minding children, etc. No matter what price she got for that yarn, she would undoubtedly have felt like Almanzo - a pretty small sum for that much work.

480 hours: that's 7 weeks' work in pre-Industrial times; 12 weeks' work in today's Western working world. What do you have around your house that costs that much? That costs three months' worth of your time, of your year? A shirt? How many shirts, at that rate, could you actually afford, considering you also have to pay for rent and food? And could get no credit?

Now you have some idea of what most people were up against before the Industrial Revolution. (And why the first thing the industrial revolution produced was cloth, and why the first inventions were spinning machines.)
St-aethelthryth.jpg NOTE: one thing about medieval objects, they were, for the most part extremely well-made. Things lasted. I have read of a hand woven linen sheet lasting 100 years. (Of course, well-cared for linen only gets better – more supple and soft – with successive washings and bleachings.) And they didn't waste anything. Everything was darned, mended, cut down, reused, repurposed, recycled, you name it. (Most of the Victorian poor bought or received their clothing second hand.) But there was cheap stuff, too: the ribbons and gee-gaws that were sold at the annual St. Audrey's Fair in medieval England got cheaper and cheaper until, by the 17th century, "tawdry" had become a synonym for "cheap, gaudy and showy".
Back to hours and time. Today we calculate almost everything in terms of money, how to get it, how to increase it, how to spend it, save it, bank on it… But money is only a symbolic representation of labor, of time. (There isn't any currency, at least in the Western world, that has any intrinsic value.) Perhaps our obsession with money is that it buys us time - or does it?

Not always. Exhibit 1: Criminals.

Quite simply, most criminals don't understand why people work. Why exchange all those hours of hard labor when you can get money so much easier by stealing, conning, forging, robbing, or even killing for it? Much less time, much less effort. Of course criminals ignore the endless mental planning and rehearsing - the obsession - that is their life. They ignore the fact that the $20,000,000 heist is literally one in 20,000,000, and is probably not going to be theirs. They ignore the immense effort and hardship that a life of crime requires. And they most definitely ignore the fact that, if caught (as so, so, so many are), they will give ALL their time for the crime, spending years, if not their entire life, on 24/7 watch with no privacy at all.

Of course no one reading this would give up all their time for something as stupid as crime. So I give you Exhibit 2: Celebrities.

Celebrities - including royalty, athletes, movie stars, rock stars, CEOs, and some politicians - live a lifestyle of fabulous wealth and almost unlimited access to anything the celebrity wants. But, they pay for that with ALL their time. A celebrity is never off-stage. Paparazzi are omnipresent. Phones are tapped. (Ask Rupert Murdoch.) National Enquirer has their hairdressers and stylists on speed-dial. So the exchange is everything for everything. What's left of the person underneath the celebrity? If everything is public, is there any private person there? People have been wondering for centuries if there was anyone under the mask of Louis XIV. What was under Norma Desmond's mask but the hunger for more?

The hunger for more: for more time, more money, more fame, more stuff, more, more, more… Well, we've got the machines, and we've got the stuff, but now everyone complains how they don't have enough time. So what are you willing to spend your time on? What can you afford to spend your time on? What is worth your time?

15 August 2013

Crime and Punishment, Old Style


by Eve Fisher

Whenever people wax nostalgic around me - always a big mistake - I bring up premodern dentistry, medicine, plumbing, pest control, and law enforcement.  Let's not tackle the horrors of the first four, but stick to law and order.  There wasn't a lot of it.  For one thing, of course, there weren't any police per se, before our own Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie became the first Lieutenant General of Police in Paris in 1667.  (The London bobbies were established in 1829.)  This didn't mean that there was a whole police force in Paris:  there were some "police chiefs", constables, archers, and men of the watch, but the main staff was an intricate web of informers who would cheerfully tell anything they heard for money.

M. de la Reynie
God help you if the informers turned you in.  As I mentioned in the last blog post, standard investigative practice until at least the 19th century was to question prisoners under torture.  (In ancient Rome, a slave's testimony was admissible only if it had been extracted by torture, because it was believed that they wouldn't tell the truth otherwise.)  The only exceptions were if you were a member of the nobility or the royal family, in which case...  maybe not.  The other exception was England, which abolished the use of torture in 1640, except for the use of "peine forte et dure", i.e., pressing, for those who refused to answer guilty or not guilty in an attempt to hang on to their estate for their kids.  (They used this during the Salem witch trials.)

Anyway, back in Renaissance and Enlightenment France (say, the 1500 through very late 1700's), most judicial proceedings were presided over by either your seigneur (lord) if you were a peasant, or a judge/panel of judges (if it was a question of a felony), or a chambre ardent (if you were suspected of witchcraft), or the King, if you were sufficiently noble.  Punishments varied:
The Bastille
  1. Banishment, exile, monasteries/convents for the wealthy and the nobility.  (It helped if you could flee the country - like Olympe de Soissons - before they came after you.)
  2. Imprisonment in the Bastille or another old castle with damp, insufficiently lit cellars for the wealthy or too offending nobility (just a reminder:  a noble family could ask the king for a lettre de cachet, which would imprison the recalcitrant relative for life).  Also, the occasional political prisoner - Voltaire was sent to the Bastille three times, twice for his incendiary writings and the last time because he challenged the Chevalier de Rohan to a duel.  Voltaire was a peasant, Rohan was a nobleman, a lettre de cachet was given, and I for one am amazed that he ever got out. 
  3. Burning for witches.
  4. Flogging, branding, more torture and/or hanging for the lower classes.
  5. The galleys (for all classes).
Numbers 3 and 4 were done publicly, and drew big crowds because they were considered entertainment.  A certain Dr. Patin wrote to the father of his pupil that the boy had been doing so well that tomorrow he was taking him - as a treat - to see a man broken on the wheel.  (W. H. Lewis, The Splendid Century, p. 175)  And let us never forget Casanova's account of watching two people having sex while they watched the four hour execution by torture of Damiens, would-be assassin of Louis XV. 

And then there were the galleys.  Today there is a growing issue with privatized prisons (I hope), in which prisons are run for profit and the prisoners are turned into slave labor ($0.25/hour is the norm; $3.25/hour is considered good wages), which could lead to the question:  are people being arrested and convicted because they are really guilty, or because the prison needs to be full?  (After all, standard private prison contracts require a certain level of occupancy, no matter what the actual crime rate is, so even if crime goes down, people still need to be arrested...)   Back in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the question was whether people were condemned to the galleys because they were guilty or because more oarsmen were needed to man the fighting ships of the Mediterranean.  Louis XIV ordered the courts to sentence men to the galleys as often as possible, and, instead of the death penalty, send them to the galleys for life.  And so it was done. 

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The Reale - a galley ship of Louis XIV
As you can see from above, galleys were open boats, that could use sail or oar for the best maneuverability possible.  The reason that they were manned exclusively by convicts was because they'd tried using paid free men in the 14th century, but the paid workers just couldn't get up the speed and endurance.  It took constant application of the whip - and other tortures - to get the men rowing for their lives.  (By the way the Ottoman Turks and the Barbary pirates both used galley slaves, usually captured Europeans.) 

The galley slaves - galériens - were made up of Turks (who really WERE slaves, bought by the French government from the Barbary pirates and other sources), military deserters, salt smugglers, plain criminals (including nobility - the Chevalier de Margaillet, for example, was sent there for raping his niece, who by the way, must have had connections of her own to get a conviction), and Huguenots (i.e., Protestants, which was illegal in 17th and 18th century France).

Galley slaves had nothing.  They were branded GAL for galérien.  Their heads were shaved for lice, and they were given only canvas drawers and a red hat.  They lived in the open because there was literally nowhere else for them to go.  They lived on biscuit and bean soup - and, being France, when they were at sea were given a cup and a half of wine day.  They slept and ate and defecated where they sat (although I suppose if they were the oarsman closest to the side of the boat, they went over the side).  They never washed.  Five men chained to an 18-foot oar, pulling it with all their might - for life.  A Huguenot galérien said that "One would not think it was possible to keep it up for half an hour, and yet [thanks to the whip] I have rowed full out for twenty-four hours without pausing for a single moment."  (Lewis, p. 220)  Such appalling labor only happened during a heated battle - and during a battle anyone who died, or even fainted, was cut loose and flung overboard. 

19th century Marseille
In between battles, things weren't so bad.  In Marseilles or other ports, they got better food, fresh from town.  And in the autumn and winter, when there were no battles, while the galley slaves remained on the boat, life was better.  The officers were billeted ashore, so the slaves had room to spread out.  They were required to practice a trade during the winter months - anything and everything from music to repairing clocks to (for the absolute incompetents) knitting stockings.  (In other words, they had to pay for their own incarceration during the winter.)  And each galley was allowed one week ashore in rotation, when they could wander the port town with their skills and goods, selling, and stealing everything in sight.  Which they got away with.  Because here's the one advantage of being a galérien:  once sentenced, since it was (usually) for life, the French judicial system washed its hands of you.  You could do anything, and you would not be tried again.  Granted, your captain could flog you, mutilate you, kill you - but the courts could and would do nothing more.  No wonder Marseilles had a reputation for being rough:  port life during the centuries of galériens was incredibly dangerous for civilians.  The galleys finally came to an end in the mid-1700's, but the term galérien remained the standard term for a prisoner until well after the French Revolution.  (For one thing, after the end of the galleys as a fighting part of the French navy, convicts were still kept in chains on galleys moored in the harbor of Toulon and other port cities.)

The wheel and the stake, beheadings and burnings were all much more public, but the the two secret hells, the fates worse than death, were the lettre de cachet and sentencing to the galleys.  Either way, you got to live - for a while - but probably spent that life wondering why.  Some great literature has been written around hell, though, and its aftermath:   "The Count of Monte Cristo", "Les Miserables", "A Tale of Two Cities", all tales of escape, all tales of new life - but the Count, Jean Valjean, Dr. Manette are all marked, changed  forever.  But perhaps the book closest to the spirit of the galleys and the dungeons is Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" - where one sentence only leads to another, and when he counts the days of his sentence, he has to add extras for the leap years...

01 August 2013

The Affair of the Poisons


by Eve Fisher

Scandal!  Murder!  Secret poisons!  Death in high places!  Welcome to the 17th century, specifically the reign of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, or, as one of my students once put it, the first king to live as a rock star.

Marquise de Brinvilliers
(after torture, on her way to execution)

The year was 1676, and a middle-aged woman, the Marquise de Brinvilliers, mousy, quiet, of minor nobility and married to same, was arrested for trying to kill her husband.  The investigation concluded that she had poisoned her father, her two brothers, and various strangers in hospitals upon whom she'd experimented with various types of poisons.  She tried to flee the country, but she was arrested in Liege, and tried and tortured.  She was executed (beheaded, and then her body was burnt).  During her trial, supposedly, she talked about how unfair her execution was since everybody did it.

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Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie
And maybe they did.  The chief of police in Paris at the time was Gabriel-Nicolas La Reynie, rich, smart, urbane.  He cleaned up Paris, protected Protestants, and did a better job than most, or at least more of what we'd recognize as a police chief's job.  He'd been warned by a priest that a lot of people were confessing to poisoning their relatives.  The break came, however, at a party when a Madame Bosse got drunk and started talking about selling poison to the quality trade.  Someone reported it, and an undercover officer went to her later, bought a bottle of poison, and then arrested her.  She started squealing, and soon the authorities were arresting every fortuneteller, alchemist, and self-proclaimed witch or seer they could find.  And there were a lot of them.  Interrogations followed, and this is where it gets dicey, because the standard criminal justice procedures of the day called for questioning prisoners under torture.  Subjected to the water torture (16 pints poured down a funnel in the throat for starters), the boot, the rack, thumbscrews, pincers (sometimes red-hot) and other "standard methods", they named names galore.  And one of them was Madame Voison, self-proclaimed witch and fortuneteller to the stars.  (Think Nancy Reagan's astrologer; or Elizabeth I's Dr. Dee...)

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Madame Voison
At this point, La Reynie knew he was playing with very dangerous people, who quite literally could have HIM arrested for investigating them, so he went to Louvois, the Foreign Minister, who in turn went to the King, who agreed to a very private investigation so that they could hush up what needed to be hushed up and arrest those who needed to be arrested.  They created the "chambre ardente" ("burning court" - burning being the punishment for witches and witchcraft) to be the central investigation/court.   And names came tumbling out:  countesses, duchesses, counts and dukes.  Even people in the royal family.  The only one not named was Athenais de Mortemart, Madame de Montespan, either because Athenais didn't do more than have a few spells cast or because Voisin was scared of being charged with treason. 


Why treason?  Simple:  Madame de Montespan, daughter of one of the oldest families in France, was the then official mistress of Louis XIV, by whom she'd had 7 children.  Supposedly, it was La Voison who got M. de Montespan her place in the King's bed, because, despite her undoubted beauty, tremendous lineage, acknowledged wit, and extreme willingness, at first Louis just wasn't that into her.  It might have been that Louis was still besotted with Louise de la Valliere, it might have been that Louis didn't appreciate Athenais' incredibly sharp tongue, it might have been that he liked blondes better (who are we kidding, Louis liked everybody), but in any case, until La Voison (supposedly) arranged a Black Mass for Athenais, complete with blood, blasphemy, and spells - all performed on Athenais' nude body or so the rumor went - Louis didn't look her way.  After that, he was hooked on Athenais for years.

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Madame de Montespan
Now the truth is, there was never any proof of all the poisonings, spells, and witchcraft but the word of a group of tortured prisoners who all claimed to be witches.  (Yes, there were deaths - but people died suddenly and quickly all the time, from bad food, infections, blood poisoning, aneurisms, and everything else under the sun.  Remember, this is a world without antibiotics or vaccinations.)  But at the same time, Athenais did admit to buying love spells for Louis (he was not amused).  And even a love spell could be harmful, because no one was checking out the ingredient list - Louis remembered that he'd had terrible headaches during the time in question, although that could have been a retroactive reaction.  And poison of all sorts was widely available (as late as 1892 our own Lizzie Borden could walk into a store and expect to buy prussic acid over the counter), easy to manufacture, and widely used (arsenic and antimony and belladonna were all used for cosmetic as well as homicidal reasons).  And poison was instantly suspected in any sudden death.  When Louis' brother's wife, Madame (who, incidentally was another of the King's lovers - the man got around) died suddenly at the age of 26 in 1670, even she, as she was dying, believed she'd been poisoned and said so.  (Suspects included two of her husband's lovers; the primitive CSI team of the day performed an autopsy and concluded cholera morbus, a/k/a gastroenteritis; the dispute continues to this day.) 

The results of the Affair of Poisons were:  36 people burned to death after torture, 4 sent to the galleys, 36 banished or fined, 81 imprisoned by lettres de cachet.  A lettre de cachet was an unappealable, unexplained order signed by the king, locking someone away for life - it was frequently used by the nobility to imprison difficult relatives.  One of the ones who vanished was Eustache Dauger de Cavoye, who (like Athenais) had played around with Black Masses (on Good Friday, no less!) and other debauchery.  For a long time, he was believed to be the Man in the Iron Mask - but it's been proved that his family had him locked up in the Prison Saint-Lazare in Paris.   One of the most interesting trials was that of the Duchesse de Bouillon, who arrived in court surrounded by relations and fans, hand in hand with her husband and the lover for whom she was accused of trying to murder the Duc.  She was tart, saucy, pert, and laughed her way through the whole trial.  She was acquitted, but the King banished her anyway.   And there was the Marechal de Luxembourg, who was tried (for 14 months) for using spells to get rid of people, including his wife.  He was also acquitted but his secretary was sent to the galleys.  (More on the galleys next blog.)  The King banished Luxembourg for only a week before recalling him to command the King's armies. 

Basically, all the society people were acquitted, despite admitting that they'd been customers of La Voison - but only, they swore, for spells and love potions.  And then, under torture and threat of burning, Madame de Montespan's name was finally said - all the stuff about the Black Mass and love potions came out - and Louis XIV shut the chambre ardente down.  All those who had even whispered Montespan's name were put, by lettre de cachet, in solitary confinement for life, where they were whipped if they even spoke to their jailers, to prevent the mention even of her name.  Faced with a King who was determined to cover up everything (Louis XIV even burned all the records in his possession), La Reynie implied that he believed the worst when he said "the enormity of their crimes proved their safeguard."  We know as much as we do because La Reynie kept his copies of the records safely locked away until they were rediscovered a few centuries later.

Madame de Montespan - well, Louis forgave her.  At least to the point where he kept her at Versailles for 11 more years, until she finally left in 1691 for the Convent of St. Joseph, with a half a million francs annual pension. 

I'm also happy to tell you that the sale of poison was strictly controlled from then on (official date August 31, 1682).  Private laboratories were abolished, and all occult arts forbidden. 

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Olympe Mancini
But perhaps the most important result of the Affair of the Poisons is linked to another major society woman under suspicion, Comtesse de Soissons, Olympe Mancini.  A warrant was issued for her arrest in 1680, but the King warned her ahead of time that they were coming for her and she fled the country.  He said, later, that he would have to answer to God for that, but she was an old lover of his, and if she wasn't, her sister definitely was (there is no end to former lovers of King Louis XIV), and he had his own notions of gallantry.  She was suspected of killing her husband, and since she fled, people assumed she was guilty.  

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Prince Eugene
Anyway, her son, Prince Eugene of Savoy, never believed that she was guilty, and was so furious at his mother's exile that he renounced his French citizenship and joined the Austrian army under the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I.  This was a disaster for Louis XIV, because the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons were mortal enemies, and Eugene was a military genius.  He served 3 successive HREs, and beat Louis like a gong in every battle in the War of the Spanish Succession.  Even more importantly in terms of European history as a whole, Eugene was a major player in the war to take back Vienna and Eastern Europe from the Ottoman Turks.  His most spectacular victory was the 1691 Battle of Zenta, where his casualties were 2,000 to the Turks' 25,000, as well as capturing the sultan's harem, treasure chest, and Imperial seal.  The peace treaty after that Battle restored Transylvania, Bosnia, and Hungary to the Austrian Empire and, thus, to Europe, and put an end to Ottoman expansion in Europe. 

So.  Poison.  Murder.  Scandal.  And we end up with a free Eastern Europe.   You figure it out.

NOTE:  For further reading, while there are an infinite number of books on Louis XIV, and a variety on the Affair of the Poisons, I recommend Nancy Mitford's, "The Sun King", which captures perfectly the breathless, "Entertainment Tonight!", celebrity-obsessed world of 17th century France.