What We Are & What We Aren’t

“L’etat c’est moi,” proclaimed Louis XIV. I am the state—-and how could he not be? He was the Sun King. Everything revolved around him; his grand palace, Versailles, was built for nobles to come far and wide to bask in his glory. Every single thing said that Louis XIV was the state, was the sun with France revolved around—-except, of course, from reality.

That was the true glory of Louis XIV, the mirage of the Sun King, and the splendor of Versailles: it was to mask how very, truly, the King of France was not. The Ancien Régime, which Louis sat proudly atop of, was a barrel full of water that had been shot through a couple hundred times with a machine gun. In other words—-it wasn’t.

History remembers the terrible cruelties suffered under the blind, apathy of an ineffectual king that spawned a bloody revolution that toppled the Ancien Régime. Which is true—-but the truth also is that the Ancien Régime (this great absolute monarchy) was broken long before 1789 came ’round. All the glory that we remember; the gold and glitter of Versailles, is exactly what you’re supposed to remember. Because Versailles was bluff that worked that well.

The Ancien Régime is shorthand for the monarchic-aristocratic-social-political organization that ran France from the 1400s to the late 1700s (i.e.: the French Revolution). This mess of supposed centralized royal power, mixed with feudal clientele and liege-lord systems, and local historic privileges was a direct result of the destruction of medieval France’s political centralization by the Hundred Years’ War and the later Wars of Religion. So with all of these tiny fiefdoms with liege-lords, judges with historic privileges, dukes with their duchies, bishops and dioceses, and royal tax-collectors who came knocking once a year, it’s safe to say if there was one thing that French political power wasn’t, it wasn’t centralized.

Light blue is territory directly under royal control. Everything else is a mess of different players who control their own land within in the kingdom.

And the Kingdom of France needed centralized: they needed it to (a) wage war and (b) pay for everything (including war). So the reigns of Henry IV, Louis XIII, and even Louis XIV—-they were all desperately looking for a way to make “royal power” mean something. Especially out in far reaches of French countryside where nobles ruled like little kings. Because the nobility? Despite being nominally the king’s most fervent supporters, you can bet that if there’s one thing nobles don’t like, it’s someone taking their stuff. Especially if it’s power—even if it is their king!

Which is when Louis XIV stumbled upon a grand idea: a labyrinth. Not literally, no; Versailles—-this massive palace with its own zip code—–was constructed to be the French royal court’s own little playpen. All the politics of the court would be played out here, safely kept from affecting reality behind painted walls, keeping the nobles busy as Louis XIV really ran the kingdom…or at least kept them from causing trouble. To the outside world, it looked like Louis really did hold supreme power over his subjects, even though he couldn’t actually change the French political system. Instead, he got all the main players out of the way while he did what he wanted.

What will be the Palace of Versailles.

Don’t want to play? Don’t want to be trapped in a maze of rules about fashion and jewelry and who has the literal honor of helping the king put on his shoes? Fine. No help from the crown for you. You play or you and yours—-your land, your family, your prestige, your money, your people (if you even care about that sort of thing)—–suffer.

That’s what we’re going to look at here. The glory, the glitter, the gilded cage of Versailles—-the greatest masquerade the world’s ever seen.

So here we are. Welcome to Versailles! Enjoy your stay. You won’t be leaving.

8 thoughts on “What We Are & What We Aren’t

  1. How, specifically, was this masquerade initially constructed and maintained? Also, was there any direct opposition from the nobles with regard to a centralized political power? If so, how was it manifested?

    1. We’ll get into the “how” with a post or two about court life later, but yes there was opposition! The construction of these elaborate court rituals came in opposition to the Fronde, which was a political/military uprising of nobles against the crown that happened when Louis XIV was a kid—because of that, he never trusted nobles and it was the foundation of his campaign for centralization. Opposition was generally manifested by nobles refusing to go and participate in the court life of Versailles, but that then meant the king would refuse the nobles favors, money, military assistance, etc, when the nobles requested help from the crown.

  2. I actually did my passion blog last semester on French History as well, but on a broader scale, so I was intrigued when I saw your topic. You present the information in a easy to comprehend manner, which is often hard to do with an historical topic. I am interested in where else you take your topic.

    1. Oh wow! French court life is extensive, so I’m trying to get a bit of a hodgepodge so if anyone goes to Versailles having read this (which, admittedly, I’ve never been) you should be able to look around and first see yourself living there and second understand what you’re looking at and why it’s so sumptuous.

  3. Hey Izzy, it’s Michael Peagler. Great blog! I really enjoyed your tone and the way you presented the information, and also props on knowing so much about French history. It would have been nice to know all this before I went to France! I could have appreciated everything so much more haha.

    Anyway, like I said, really nice post. This is a great introduction as to what the rest of your blog might be about and you made it very interesting to read. I would suggest possibly clearing up some of the wording in here though; there were parts where I had a hard time following you, but I want to be able to follow you because the information is so interesting! I also really like the layout of your site and your use of pictures. Overall, great job and keep up the good work.

  4. You have a really interesting writing style. I was always pretty disgusted by learning about royal politics, especially in France. People glorify it waaaay too much, so it’s refreshing to hear about the actual structure of it.

    1. Haha, nope! One of the reasons I think that French court life was so interesting was how absolutely messy, petty, and all around disgusting it was—-literally. Most people went to the bathroom standing up because the dresses were so voluminous and by the time of the French Revolution, the French court was antiquated by European standards. Especially for Marie Antoinette! She was horrified by the uncleanliness of the French court, Vienna was much more hygienic (people actually used privies there). Which is really interesting to contrast with the idea of all the infighting and how it brought about the collapse of the Regime, even though it was supposed to save it by distracting all the bickering courtiers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *