watching the sun king use the bathroom -- 4/03/18

Today's selection -- from A Brief History of France by Cecil Jenkins. Louis XIV was the Sun King, the great builder of Versailles and the great unifier of France. When he became king of France, then the largest country in Europe, the nobles of the country were relatively independent of the king's rule, and dissension and rebellion an ongoing threat. Louis forced centralization by having the nobles live at Versailles, and forced their obeisance by having them follow an elaborate system of etiquette centered on attending every aspect of the king's daily life:

"There was Louis [XIV] as Apollo, as the Good Shepherd, as Defender of the Faith, as Protector of the Arts, as the Conqueror of Heresy, as the Miracle-worker curing scrofula, as St Louis or as the Roman Emperor straddling a horse as elaborately accoutred as himself -- not to mention the World Paying Homage to Louis. There seemed to be no past hero, from Augustus or Constantine to Charlemagne or Clovis, who could escape identification with this Sun King, presiding over a glittering resi­dence reminiscent of the Palace of the Sun in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

And then there was the minutely regulated etiquette of the court, the royal liturgy well described by the biographer Petitfils. The king's petit lever, or initial rising ceremony, took place at 7:30a.m., when he was examined by the royal doctors in the presence of close family members and a few specially honoured courtiers. These were then joined by a group of court officials to whom the king gave instructions while he performed his natural functions on the commode and had his wig and beard treated. There followed the grand lever, to which were admitted ambassadors, cardinals and other leading figures of the kingdom. He ate a light breakfast in his dressing gown and then dressed, the garments being handed to him by the dauphin or other family member, after which he prayed.

"Having given orders for the day in the council chamber, he pro­ceeded to the chapel for mass, trooping with his retinue through a Great Gallery thronged with courtiers and important visitors eager to be noticed by him or even, if they had previously obtained permis­sion, to have a word with him. He ate dinner at noon watched by a restricted group of standing courtiers, though often joined at table by his next-in-line brother, known as 'Monsieur', who would hand him his serviette and then be invited to sit down. The evening meal would be an elaborately ceremonial public affair, with the family members eating off gold plate watched by a select group of invited guests, the ladies sitting and the men standing throughout. The arrangements for bedtime were a mirror image of those for the morning, with men of high rank vying for the honour of holding the twin-sconce gilt candlestick. From morning to night, Louis XIV's life, even the nor­mally private part, was a public performance.

"This tightly choreographed ballet mirrored the etiquette of the court, which combined order, precedence and elaborate conventions. To survive at Versailles you had to know a plethora of unwritten rules -- that you removed your hat if the king passed by, that only the princes and princesses could sit in his presence, and so on -- and you also had to know mysterious exceptions to those rules. And these hierarchical differences operated in minute detail right down the social scale. At one level it was reassuring to live in an ordered society that defined your exact social rank and told you what to wear or say on what occa­sion. So enveloping was this prestigious centre of power that many grandees felt that there was no salvation away from the king, that they could neither afford nor bear to be absent from the networking, the lavish entertainments, the amorous encounters and the possibility of a retainer or a rewarding position. At another level, there was the frus­tration of failing to get noticed, the discomfort of living in cramped and smelly conditions under the spying eyes of servants, the jealousy, the bitchiness and the fear of perpetrating some terminal faux pas. Like the rich young officer mentioned by the Comtesse de Boigne, who innocently attended the wrong ball, was brusquely ejected, never survived the ridicule and committed suicide -- or the gentleman who came regularly over ten years to solicit the king and never got selected for an audience. Versailles, as Patrice Leconte illustrates in his styl­ish film Ridicule, was an ongoing fancy-dress party where vices were tolerated but where the slightest gaffe could resonate and kill. For everyone was on show in this grand performance theatre, not only the king."



Cecil Jenkins


A Brief History of France, Revised and Updated


Little, Brown Group


Copyright Cecil Jenkins, 2017


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