Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Louis de Rouvroy, the future duc de Saint-Simon, was born to Claude, the first duc de Saint-Simon, in 1675 and in 1693 inherited a decent fortune with the title. He served in the army with no distinction from 1691 till 1697, in 1694 marrying Mlle de Lorges, with whom he would have three children. His Memoirs were composed during the reign of Louis XV, but his early writings around 1691 announced one of his most obsessive themes, bastards in general and, in particular, their “mixed marriages” to persons of legitimate birth. Saint-Simon became a friend of Philippe II, the son of Monsieur, the king’s brother, and when Philippe became a duke upon his father’s death in 1701, Saint-Simon could claim powerful allies at the court. By 1704, Saint-Simon had maneuvered himself into a tiny apartment at Versailles, moving in 1710 to luxury quarters that provided the perfect vantage point for observing the foibles and follies of the court.
Philippe became regent in 1715 and in 1719 allowed Saint-Simon to live in the castle of Meudon. In 1721, Saint-Simon was appointed ambassador extraordinary to Spain, where he negotiated the marriage of the regent’s daughter to the prince of Asturias before coming home in 1722. Upon Louis XV’s attaining the age of majority in 1723, the Upper Council replaced the Regency Council, and Saint-Simon retired to private life after being evicted from Meudon. During his retirement from court life, Saint-Simon wrote several lesser works before composing the Memoirsbetween 1739 and 1749, concluding his account with the death of the regent in December, 1723. When Saint-Simon died in 1755, he had become identified with support for social hierarchies and what Ladurie calls “a purer, more Jansenist religion.”
Ladurie divides his narrative into six chapters on the court system from 1690 till the death of Louis XIV in 1715, and a chapter each on the “liberal” Regency (1715-1718) and the “authoritarian” Regency (1718-1723). The first chapter treats hierarchy and rank at Versailles, from 1690 to 1715, and borrows a table taken from Henri Brocher, A la cour de Louis XIV: Le Rang et l’étiquette sous l’Ancien Régime (1934; at the court of Louis XIV: rank and etiquette under theancien régime), to illustrate the elaborate system of seating that prevailed at the court. In order of rank, the king and queen were followed by the dauphin and the dauphine and other sons and daughters of France; then came the grandsons and granddaughters of France, princesses of the blood, princes of the blood, and cardinals; next came duchesses, foreign princesses, Spanish grandees (female), followed by dukes, foreign princes, Spanish grandees (male), and finally Women of Quality preceding only Men of Quality. For each there was an appropriate seating arrangement. A princess of the blood in the presence of the king or queen, for instance, was entitled to a stool, whereas a prince of the blood had to stand. Cardinals were expected to stand before the king but could use a stool before the queen. Princesses of the blood were allowed a chair with back before grandsons and granddaughters of France, but Men of Quality had to stand. Armchairs were ordinarily the privilege of only the ranking personage. Saint-Simon applauded this emphasis on hierarchy that existed throughout Europe, and he recognized merit as well as rank and birth.
In matters of the sacred and the profane, the sacred took precedence. In observing Communion, the king knelt on the floor, and Ladurie remarks, “Before the obscure sanctuary of Christianity’s central mystery, the Eucharist, knelt the monarchy, the central mystery of the state.” At the top of the secular hierarchy, the king was thus a link between the clergy and the nobility. The intricacies of protocol shine in Ladurie’s description of a mass in the Spanish royal chapel, with the king kneeling before the cardinal but making up for playing second fiddle by occupying a gorgeously upholstered armchair while the cardinal made do with one of plain wood.
Ladurie’s chapter on “The Pure and the Impure” reveals dramatically the French court’s obsession with cleansing their insides with emetics, enemas, and bloodletting. Saint-Simon’sMemoirs betrays an astonishing interest in royal commodes, disclosing, for example, that Louis XIV scheduled monthly jours de médecine (medicine days) on which he was purged. Ladurie relates, “After the king was purged, a mass was said and the royal family visited the sovereign in his bed.” For...
(The entire section is 1857 words.)
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