Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV

by Jean-François Fitou, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

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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...

(This entire section contains 1879 words.)

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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 Saint-Simon, the most monstrous impurity was bastardy in the royal family, a blemish associated in his mind with offenses against Christianity. Ladurie points out that Saint-Simon’s metaphors for sexual impurities are excremental (“foul muck,” boue infecte) and those for low birth are “dregs” (lie) or “mire” (bourbe). Homosexuality appeared to Saint-Simon, says Ladurie, as an “aggravating circumstance, magnifying impurity to the utmost degree.” In theMemoirs, there are suggestions that Saint-Simon’s disgust at illicit sex had roots in his lifelong inclination toward the Augustinian teachings of Jansenism.

Saint-Simon’s own analyses provide the substance for a chapter on “Cabals, Linkages, and Power.” The cabals encompass three generations: the Maintenon cabal, named after Louis XIV’s wife; the Monseigneur cabal, named after Louis XIV’s son; and the third-generation cabal named after the duc and duchesse de Bourgogne. Ladurie’s diagram of the relationships between and among these cabal leaders and the extensive casts of bit players will exhaust all but the most determined readers of gossip columns. (“It is all too easy to lose track,” notes Ladurie.) The cabals of Maintenon and Monseigneur, united with the faction of the duc du Maine, bastard of Louis XIV, formed “a flexible, decentralized, yet supreme power structure” that dominated the court and the entire bureaucracy of government. At the top remained “that supreme patrimonialist summit, the royal house.”

The various editions of the Memoirs include dates of birth and death for 1,834 men and 782 women of the approximately 10,000 individuals Saint-Simon names, and these figures provide Ladurie some revealing statistics on demography and marriage patterns. For instance, of the three groups of military officers—high-ranking, middle-ranking, and low-ranking—the life expectancies were 69.8, 61.2, and 50.9 years, respectively. Officers of lower rank obviously could be expected to face greater danger (what Ladurie calls a “manifest” inequality), but there was also a “latent” inequality in that a man’s chances of achieving high rank were directly correlated to his rank in the aristocracy. On another subject, Saint-Simon’s notes on marriages yield figures for endogamy (marrying within one’s own class), female hypergamy (marrying up) and female hypogamy (marrying down). Of 1,366 marriages, 740 were endogamous, 378 hypergamous, 133 hypogamous, and 115 unclassifiable. Not surprisingly, old men frequently sought out young women, sometimes with embarrassing results, as Saint-Simon relates of the eighty-one-year-old duc de Gesvres: “He was punished for it, and his young bride was punished even more: he fouled the bed so badly that both of them had to be scrubbed down and all the linen changed.” Saint-Simon’s preoccupation with rank made him sensitive to all nonendogamous marriages, and he probably meant the verb “punished” seriously.

Ladurie’s chapter on “Renouncers and Jesuits” illuminates the theological enmities of the day, “renouncers” being a term he borrows from the historian Louis Dumont to describe individuals avoiding social constraints. Saint-Simon had strong sympathies for the renouncers, men such as Abbé de Rancé, the superior of a Trappist monastery, and was most influenced by the Jansenist theologian Father Pasquier Quesnel, whose study of the New Testament, Nouveau Testament en français avec des réflexions morales (1692; New Testament in French with thoughts on morality) was read by many and admired by Saint-Simon. The Réflexiones prompted the Unigenitus, Clement XI’s Constitution of 1713 condemning 101 Jansenist-tainted propositions discovered by the authorities. Another renouncer whom Saint-Simon appreciated was Jacques-Joseph Duguet, whose Institution d’un prince (1729; education of a prince) considered the role of renunciation in the affairs of sovereign princes. On the question of Saint-Simon’s attitude toward Jansenism, Ladurie places him in the so-called Catholic third party, those of a “middle way” between “the Augustinian fanatics of grace and the Jesuit apologists of personal merit.”

The “liberal” Regency prevailed from the autumn of 1715 until the summer of 1718, with Saint-Simon on the sidelines as the government moved from Versailles to Paris. Ladurie’s account of this period summarizes the “machinations of cabals.” The cabal around the duc de Bourgogne had withered away, the faction headed by Monseignor collapsed with the death of the Grand Dauphin, and the powerful group dominated by Mme de Maintenon and the duc du Maine was dependent on the strong ministers. Ladurie concludes that despite the shuffling of power after the king’s death, the period from 1715 to 1723 became the “only fully successful royal succession in the whole period from 1559 to 1789.” One of the main conflicts of these years centered on three groups: the parlementaires and princes of the blood joined forces as favorites of the regent; the legitimized bastards struggled to find allies among the nonducal nobility; and the dukes and peers had their own grudges with Parlement. In the end, the dukes lost out, but the bastards benefited from the Edict of Marly (1714) that gave them all the prerogatives of princes of the blood in perpetuity, a blessing that enraged many, including Saint-Simon, who predicted the collapse of civilization. During his first three years, the regent created a government by “polysynody,” or a series of councils, France’s first experiment in representative government. In 1718, however, Orléans abandoned the councils and delegated considerable authority to the shrewd Guillaume Dubois, abbé and later cardinal, who was to mastermind the “authoritarian” regency of 1718-1723.

Dubois’s only rival in government was John Law, the regent’s Scottish-born guide in financial policies whose creation of money led to an inflation that gave ordinary citizens debt relief and eased unemployment. Despite the howls of the creditors, Law built a foundation for a sound currency—or so Ladurie thinks—and did more good than harm. When Law went out of favor in December, 1720, Dubois had a clear space to operate in and promptly finagled a cardinal’s red hat while walking a tightrope between the Jansenists on his “left” and the ultramontane Romans on his “right.” The wily Cardinal Dubois quickly sought more power for men of the cloth, sacked the deadbeats lingering from the old court, destroyed Law’s system, and finagled a prominent role for himself in the Regency Council. Dubois was a relentless schemer who manipulated the system for remarkable personal wealth, but Ladurie’s estimate of his accomplishments is high.

The ghost of the German sociologist Norbert Elias hovers over Ladurie’s reflections on the court, a ghost that Ladurie swipes at impatiently en passant and finally tries to banish for good in an appendix. Ladurie rejects Elias’s thesis that French court society of the seventeenth century derived its manners from the Middle Ages and evolved into modern courtesy. Thus, “Saint-Simon is not the foundation or underpinning of any later edifice; he is a ruin, ripe for excavation.” However, this is a matter best left to the professional students of Ladurie’s absorbing account of a man and his age.

Sources for Further Study

Journal of World History 72 (March, 2000): 212.

The New York Review of Books 48 (November 15, 2001): 50.