The Setting of the Sun King; French Culture’s Traumas

by bria4123 on November 25, 2011


Maybe Louis XIV should have prayed to Ganesha too (you can learn about Ganesha at Elephants Are Rainclouds? India’s Religious Imagination in Full Flight). But the only things from India he wanted were diamonds.

But when Louis XIV’s finance minister, Colbert, died in 1683, he lost a lot of connections with good sense.

The good living that France pioneered became more of a fantasy for elites playing dress-up while most of the country suffered. Louis XIV’s Versailles increasingly lost contact with reality while the Sun King committed one blunder after another in his suit of diamonds. You can find out about what Louis XIV’s early reign had built in A Parisian Miracle; The Origins of Living Well.

1. He entered one costly war after another. Wars in the Spanish Netherlands (1672) and the German Palatinate (1689) were pricier than the Hall of Mirrors. And the artillery bursts weren’t as pretty. Worse wars were to come.

2. Intolerance. Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had allowed Protestants to live in Catholic France. France lost 400,000 of her most productive subjects. Silk-makers fled to England, glass-makers went to Denmark, and 600 army officers joined France’s enemies.

The Minister of War, the Marquis de Louvois, massacred and tortured Protestant dissenters in the provinces.

3. Excessive centralization. The wealthy had to hang around Versailles and take part in its rituals. The Sun King thus controlled his mightiest subjects, but he created a system of absentee landlordism. English landlords were improving their farming methods, but French lands were more often managed by people who didn’t own them. They did less to improve agriculture, or peasants’ lives. English travelers in the 18th century were appalled by squalid living conditions in the country.

4. Meanwhile back at the palace, the glamor became stilted. The state revolved around Louis XIV, and every little routine became a huge ritual, from getting up to going to bed–courtiers even praised him when he had bowel movements. The palace glittered, but it was freezing in the winter. But anyone important had to linger there, where any faux pas could ruin a reputation.

5. The culture at Versailles went from stilted to dour. Louis XIV’s was a lusty youth, but he became priggish and censorious. He spurned his early favorite, La Montespan, and replaced her with an older teacher named Maintenon. She was three years older than he was, and beyond child bearing years. But she was pious in a cold and rigid way. They censored Parisian theater.

The court had lost some of its earlier cultural luminaries. The play writer Moliere, and the opera composer Lully had died. Versailles became so stuffy that even Maintenon complained about its suffocating symmetry.

At the same time, some circles in freer Paris reacted and became blatantly pagan. One man, Vendome, would let his dogs mate on his bed, and he would eat rotten fish and vomit into a bowl in front of his guests. Many people were either becoming too formal or too gross, without Moliere to provide a balanced perspective by lampooning human folly.

6. But a good war can always break the monotony. To be fair, Louis XIV didn’t spark the Spanish War of Succession. A relative of his inherited the Spanish throne, and other European countries ganged up on him because they didn’t want an even more powerful Louis. The English defeated him at the Battle of Blenheim, and the Allies almost took Paris. The Sun King had to melt down his gold plate to finance the war.

7. A horrendous cold spell hit France in 1709. The temperature in Paris plunged below -21F. 24,000 Parisians died that winter, and mobs headed for Versailles–there were rumors that Maintenon was buying up wheat.

8. Louis XIV’s son died, and the Dauphin and his wife soon caught measles and followed him to the grave. In despair, the Sun King wrote, “God punishes me, and I deserve it.”

Louis XIV resembles Joseph Kennedy, an obsessively ambitious man who developed an empire but had to live to see it crumble as his three most accomplished sons perished (he didn’t live to see Ted become a senator who spearheaded over 200 laws). Louis XIV told his five-year-old great-grandson that he loved war too much, and spent too much money.

Would French culture succumb to these traumas or recover? We’ll find out in the next post.

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