Showing posts with label nobility. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nobility. 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.

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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



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.

File:Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie.jpg
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.

File:Francois-Athenais de Rochechouart.jpg
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. 

File:Olympia Mancini by Mignard.png
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.