Friday, December 28, 2012


{This group of posts pertains to my Christmas vacation in which my family came to visit me. The posts are based on notes I took during the trip and then wrote up after returning. They are post-dated to reflect the proper sequence of events. This is Part 10. Almost done I swear.}

Versailles! What to say about Versailles...For me, this was a second go around, and so a second look at what was already familiar. You'll excuse me, but I'm going to assume you are faintly familiar with what Versailles is. If not, the short answer is that it is a giant ornate castle built by Louis XIV and later inhabited by  Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette who you may remember as being the ones who got their heads cut off during the French Revolution. I could go into details of how impressive the rooms are and how beautiful the furnishings are, but instead I think I'll give you a history lesson. You've been getting a lot of history lessons recently if you've been reading my posts, but you're not being forced.

Versailles, Palace of the Sun King

Let me give you a little background on Louis XIV. Before he was "Louis the Great" or "The Sun King", he was the miracle baby of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. Anne had suffered not 1, not 2, not 3, but 4 count em 4 still born babies. You can imagine her joy when she finally had a healthy living child, but this would be nothing compared to the ecstasy of her husband who finally had an heir. They had already been married for 23 years at that point and he was old. She was nearly 37, but she actually had a second son as well. The King died in 1643 and the Queen became regent for her son Louis XIV, against the wishes of her husband's will. Louis XIII married a treacherous woman and he knew it; he never really trusted her and her continuous political intrigues didn't help.

 However, Anne then gave over the majority of the responsibility to Cardinal Mazarin, a protege of Cardinal Richelieu who had died not long before Louis XIII. Cardinal Mazarin basically followed all the same old policies: protect the state at all cost, enlarge the country's power and influence, and keep the nobles down. Well, a lot of the aristocracy was not pleased by this and started a civil war. Things got ugly, riots started all over Paris, and then suddenly mobs came to the palace demanding to see the king. They actually broke in, ran into his bedroom and calmed down after they saw he was asleep. He was only ten years old then!

For the next several years the aristocracy continued to fight, either through subtle intrigues or through actual spats of battle, claiming to act in the interests of the king, against his mother and the cardinal. To be fair, his mother and the cardinal exerted a lot of influence over him and were very controlling. Even after he officially came of age (at the wise old age of 13) they continued to dominate him and it wasn't until Mazarin died when  the king was 23 that Louis was finally able to rule on his own.

So this is the world this guy grew up in: lots of fighting among the nobles, political unrest, a mother and advisor who gave him absolutely no political power when he was raised to believe that he had a God-given right to absolute power. Confusing? Frustrating? Frightening? I would think so.

Thus, Versailles starts to make sense. He moved out of Paris to the countryside, because he felt trapped in Paris. In Paris, if the people got restless they could just shut the gates and the king would be their prisoner. He built a huge palace where he could have literally the entire court in one place (every single last noble and their family) where he could keep an eye on all of them. He got rid of many of the old corrupt courtiers and consolidated the government. He simplified the tax system and made it more efficient, so that more of his money actually came to him instead of disappearing into bureaucracy. He pulled in high quality manufacturers and artisans from all over Europe so that he/France wouldn't be dependent on foreign imports. He was a heavy patron of the arts too. He also reformed the French military and wrote a comprehensive legal code for the country to replace the old patchwork legal system. {Side note: Code Louis was basically the precursor to Code Napoleon on which many modern legal codes are based.} Looking at Versailles, it is easy to think that its creator was a vain, lazy, extravagant man, but looks can be deceiving. He was actually a good king, and remarkably popular.

The Beautiful Parks of Versailles 

However, he also created the world of the French royal court. His plan to keep the nobles under his thumb went beyond moving them all to Versailles. He created a world that revolved around him and French court etiquette became a maze of small maneuvers to gain favor with the king. He kept a very tight schedule and his whole life became a performance which allowed him to see and hear everything that went on in court. Every morning he would wake up for real, move into his grand bedroom, and then welcome in his doctor and his childhood nurse. After that, the members of his immediate family would come in to greet him (his mother by the way retired to convent). Next up, those highest in his favor followed by the rest of the court. Then he would go about his day, constantly watched, paying close attention to who was and wasn't sucking up enough. His life was a self-made trap, but it worked. He kept everyone right where they needed to be. He reigned for 72 years before dying of gangrene.

The Hall of Mirrors

Fast forward to Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. They both lived in the crazy court life that his grandfather created, but neither of them had his intelligence or dominance of will. Louis XVI was weak and stupid, and his wife was a beautiful, but thoughtless, party girl. Neither had been educated on how to rule a country. They were taught what you needed to know to be a good socialite: etiquette, style, cards, dancing, hunting for him, music for her, and gossip. It's sort of sad really because Marie Antoinette's mother, Maria Theresa of the Habsburgs, was Empress of the Holy Roman Empire (think Austria and all the little countries next to it) and darn good at it. You would think she might have passed on some wisdom. At any rate, the two of them were very well trained in the art of the French court, not at all educated in the realm of politics or governing. They were also trapped in that life with no escape. Please remember that every second of their lives was on display. People watched them when they got up, when they went to bed, when they ate, when they played cards, when they attended balls. Everything. High members of the court even came to watch them bath, which is still a major invasion of privacy. {Side note: Louis XVI was known at the time as something of hygiene fanatic. He actually bathed regularly and brushed his teeth!} Worse, so many people came to watch Marie Antoinette give birth to her first child that they broke the barrister holding the crowd back. If she was crazy, and I kind of think she was, there was a reason.

Marie Antoinette's bedroom

Why do I think she was crazy? Lots of things, but the best example is this:

Marie Antoinette's Hamlet

Marie Antoinette and Louis often escaped the insanity of Versailles to the smaller estates of the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon. She also had her own personal lands nearby where she had them build a country hamlet. It's like Disneyworld for her. We go to Disneyworld to make believe we're princesses and princes; she wanted to pretend she was a simple peasant girl. These aren't small play houses either. They are full-sized buildings, and include a house, a mill, a bakery, etc. She even had a little "farm" where she used cute little pink garden tools. The woman was bonkers. When the real world peasants saw this they must have really hated her guts because it is of course perfect. Perfect well manicured walkways, well maintained picturesque buildings and planned landscapes. However, in hindsight, I can kind of see why this was her fantasy. She lived her whole life surrounded by fake flattery and veiled jealousies, and was never allowed to actually do anything. The freedom from etiquette and schedules, and the realness of everyday life as a peasant would have seemed appealing. She didn't know their struggles or hardships, but she can't be blamed for that. No one ever told her anything about the real world. I for one pity her. She was stupid and thoughtless, but not evil. The French Revolutionaries were the rightfully angry, but she was the wrongly accused.

So moral of the story: Go easy on the French royalty; they had a lot more on their plates besides food.

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