Louis XIV. And His Court
AN adequate reason for giving France the first place in the order of treatment is found in the central position maintained by that country in European affairs throughout the present period. The long reign of Louis XIV., covering seventy-two years, during fifty-four of which he assumed the more direct control, was the Solomonic era of the French monarchy. It was more brilliant by far than any other reign in the history of the French kingdom, and a parallel can scarcely be found in the history of the kingdoms of Europe. We meet here a whole constellation of names to which a wide and lasting celebrity has been assigned, -names adorning every great department of effort in State and Church and the realm of letters.
It was the era of French nationality. No outside authority exercised any controlling influence. The Papacy was scarcely more than a subservient ally of the government. Orders from Versailles told at Rome for quite as much as orders from Rome at Versailles. A sort of ecclesiastical primacy went along with the political. Prosperity within and prestige abroad conspired to raise national pride and ambition to a high point. The confidence of the general body reacted to inspirit the individual; and since the French people, before the repressive measures in the latter part of the reign, enjoyed a larger measure of intellectual freedom than most European nations, the fruits of genius and learning were naturally ripened in unusual abundance.
In some measure by virtue of his own talents, but quite as much by inheritance, Louis XIV. was made the centre of this brilliant era. He received the full benefit of what Richelieu had done for the royal power under his predecessor; and the abortive attempts of anti-royalist factions at the beginning of his reign- the war of the Fronde - only increased his opportunities for absolute rule. Hie claim to renown lies more in the diligence and tireless ambition with which he improved favoring circumstances, than in the creation of great results out of small means by force of personal genius and energy. It is also a limiting factor in our estimate of Louis, that he exercised no care to husband the resources of his kingdom, and sacrificed to thirst for present display and glory the chances of future prosperity. This imposing and brilliant reign left France exhausted, and harboring within herself the germs of violent revolution.
Louis XIV. was, in theory and in practice, an absolute ruler. His famous saying, "L’état, c’est moi," was not designed by him to be taken as a mere hyperbole. More extended utterances show that he regarded himself as by far the greater part of the State, embodying in himself all the sovereignty, and, in the higher sense, all the property right of the realm. In an instruction to his son we find him declaring, "Everything that is found in the extent of our states, of whatever nature it may be, belongs to us. The moneys which are in our coffers, those which remain in the hands of our treasurers, and those which we leave in the commerce of our people, should be alike managed by us. Kings are absolute lords, and have naturally the full and free disposal of all the goods possessed as well by churchmen as by laymen, to use them at all times according to the general need of their State."
One of the means employed by Louis in his attempt to realize his ideal of a sovereign was the exaltation of court life. He saw no better means of increasing his own pre-eminence than the merging of rival establishments into his own. "He resolved to bring the higher nobility wholly within his grasp, by constraining it, on the one band, to establish itself at court and surround the King with a permanent retinue, and, on the other, to serve regularly in the army under conditions quite contrary to its habits, prejudices, and pretensions. . . . Louis had no occasion to use compulsion in order to succeed. It sufficed for him to make it clearly understood that all favors, whether useful or honorary, were for those who lived at court and served the King; but this was not the only motive at his disposal; the inexpressible attraction exercised by his court was more powerful than interest itself. When one had once tasted this life so brilliant, so animated, so varied, he could no longer quit it to return to his native manor without dying of languor and ennui; everything seemed cold and dead away from this place of enchantment, which appeared to town and province as the very ideal of human life." 1 Henri Martin, History of France, Age of Louis XIV., i. 139-141, English translation.
This ambition for an extensive and splendid court was naturally accompanied by a passion for magnificent building operations. Immense sums were consumed on palaces and pleasure grounds. An unsightly district was transformed into the glory of Versailles, at an expense, it is estimated, of more than four hundred millions of francs at the present rate.
Among the sharers in this courtly magnificence were those whose prominence was their shame and the shame of their sovereign. As if his personal exaltation robbed seduction and adultery of their infamy, the "Very Christian King" unblushingly played the Mohammedan in his domestic policy, or rather by hie effrontery eclipsed Mohammedan precedent, in that his harem was open to the eyes of Europe.
2 "Le roi, par le sentiment excessif de sa divinité païenne, arrivait à cette conclusion: ‘qu’il était comme monarque audessus des lois ordinaires et que dans l’Olympe où les poëtes et les artistes l’avaient placé, comme le Jupiter d’Homère, il pouvait, se transformer pour ses plaisirs et honorer la terre de ses amours.’" (Capefigne, Mademoiselle de la Vallière et les Favorites des trois Ages de Louis XIV.)Different mistresses were made successively, and in part simultaneously, the rivals of his queen in the honors which were lavished upon them. The husband of the most influential was driven into banishment for no other reason than the desire of the royal paramour to have full liberty for his guilty passion. Not less than ten children were born through this habitual violation of wedlock. These, to the mingled credit and discredit of Louis, were not merely owned by him as his progeny, but were raised to a position above that of the ordinary nobility, and ranked next to the legitimate princes. The improvement in domestic morals which was exhibited in his later years was probably due less to a quickened conscience than to the sobering effect of years, and the powerful influence of a remarkable woman, Madame de Maintenon, granddaughter of the distinguished Huguenot Agrippa d' Aubigné. Early training in the Protestant faith of persecuted parents, orphanage, conversion to Romanism, a marriage with the poet Scarron, in which station she found a measure of honor and consideration, and an introduction to court, as preceptress of some of the King's children, formed the path by which she came to the attention of Louis. Gradually, and by force of character quite as much as by outward charms, she won the attachment of the monarch. Her position never ceased to be somewhat equivocal in the eyes of the world; but it is the verdict of most historians that her intimate companionship with the King was sanctioned to her conscience by a private marriage. 1 Capefigue concludes differently, mainly from the lack of any existing documentary reference to the fact. The price of her elevation was an unremitting exertion of her talents to please the exacting autocrat. This rôle she undoubtedly played with marked success. Some have supposed that she exerted much influence upon the administration of the State; but it is certain that she had little ability or courage to turn Louis aside from any declared preference. If she was able to direct important affairs in any noteworthy degree, it must have been by practising with the royal counselors.
The mingled light and shade of Louis's unrivalled establishment reached over a much broader area than the suburbs of Paris. While French manners became another name for superior polish and politeness in the different capitals of Europe, not a few princes aped the profligacy quite as much as the splendor of the French monarch.
Closely associated with the court, but far from being a mere attachment to the same, a distinguished group is presented, favorites of the Muses, whom France ever since has deemed worthy of the laurel wreath. For the age of Louis XIV. was the bloom period of her poetry. It was in this respect to France what the Elizabethan age was to England. Leading the train appears the great tragic poet Corneille. His grand distinction lies in the vigorous portrayal of forceful characters and lofty ideals. He was not the equal of Shakespeare in the facile gift of holding the mirror up to nature; he did not possess the same vividness and subtlety of imagination, the same faculty of dealing with all varieties of subjects; but in genius for painting the heroic he stood at a height which has rarely been attained. Molière followed as a master of comedy, commanding appreciation by the strength of his verse, his skillful management of dialogue, the fullness of his wit, and the naturalness of his characters. "Tartuffe" and "The Misanthrope" show how graphically he could portray the passions and the peculiarities of men. Boileau possessed but moderately the creative imagination and the sensibility needed in dramatic poetry. His genius was best suited to the didactic style. In accuracy and propriety of expression he supplied a very eminent model. Racine joined with the correctness of Boileau an inspiration which gave to his works an impression of life-like reality and warmth. His "Athalie" was pronounced by Voltaire the masterpiece of dramatic writing. 1 Siècle de Louis XIV., chap. xxxii., Œuvres, tome xxi., édition 1784. The judgment of Hallam is scarcely less favorable than that of the French critic, and he places Racine next to Shakespeare in the list of modern tragedians. Introduction to the Literature of Europe, iv. 265. La Fontaine excelled in the lighter and more unstudied species of poetry. In him we find also a sympathy with nature that was quite foreign to the age of Louis XIV.