17th Century France
17th Century France
17th century France is the time and place of the Sun King, Louis XIV. France was the most populous country in Christendom by the 17th century. The absolute monarchy reached its zenith in France under the long reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King.
17th century France had enormous influence over Christendom in politics, economics, and culture. The French language began to be used as the common currency in Christendom, and remained so until the 20th century. France begat the rise of bureaucracies, under Jean Baptiste Colbert.
The Sun King
Louis XIV (1638-1715) is called the Sun King—as was his father, King Louis XIII—because he was the center of power in 17th century France in the same way as the sun is the center of power in our solar system.
Louis XIV was no slouch. He worked every day with his four secretaries of state, and ran his court according to a plan of his own devising that ensured maximum stability.
The Sun King lost his father at age five, and so was reared in a single parent home. His mother, the Queen of France, Anne of Austria, exercised power as his regent while he was yet a boy. She secretly married the Chief Minister of France, Cardinal Mazarin, who was Italian by birth.
The good cardinal Mazarin invested years grooming Louis XIV to become a great king. The king was a manufactured character, whose purpose was to maintain authority by playing a role. Louis would have to contend with ambitious nobles, the 200 lawyers who constituted the Paris Parlement, and the Paris mob.
King Louis XIV
The Sun King Louis XIV played the lead role—and served as the producer and director—in the drama that was his court. He built the palace at Versailles, which became the perfect stage for him. Versailles was 11 miles from Paris and its rebellious intellectuals and restless populace.
Louis had the memory of a politician. He would notice if you were not at court. The Sun King would hand out prizes to keep the peace, such as posts of high honor; titles that afforded privileges; decorations; gifts of land or cash; appointments and promotions within the church and army; and other favors. He also invented new pastimes to keep his people distracted.
King Louis XIV played the royal master of ceremonies. He thought up entertainments without end—rides, balls, masques, ballets, plays, banquets, games. The Sun King made the most of church feast days, receptions of foreign dignitaries, christenings, and birthdays. He sacrificed his own privacy for the good of France. No one ever saw him without his wig though. He had sebaceous cysts on his head.
King Louis XIV used facade to keep minds entranced through the eye as a means of ruling. He was not the kind of leader we see today, who wants to known as Jimmy or Tony—the more inarticulate the more popular. Louis exuded an aura of dignity, power, and grandeur. He only lost his temper in public twice during the entire 72 years he ruled France. Those who attended court dressed up everything, from their bodies to their speech.
The Sun King loved to make love, and to gamble. He greatly enjoyed dice and cards; in particular he was fond of tric-trac (backgammon). Gambling has long been an excellent way to fill time, and provides much excitement without straining the muscles.
Madame De Montespan
King Louis XIV had many mistresses. While he accepted offers from some women, all were obliged to submit if summoned by the Sun King. There was no scandal about this in those days. Rather, his active sex life was viewed as a sign of his virility, befitting for a man in such a lofty position.
The most famous of the Sun King's mistresses was Madame de Montespan. She had seven illegitimate children by King Louis XIV, three of whom he later officially "legitimized." The "reign" of Madame de Montespan as mistress was to last 25 years. What Louis did not know was the highly unorthodox manner in which Madame de Montespan made her way into his bed.
It seems that Madame de Montespan, at the time known as Athenais de Mortemart, had ordered up a little ceremony known as the Black Mass, not long before she won the king over. A priest named Guibourg was hired to officiate. Madame de Montespan lay naked on an altar covered with black cloth in a Christian chapel. A live baby was sacrificed and its heart set aside as a burnt offering.
Madame de Montespan offered up her soul to Satan if he would grant her petition:
"I want the king's affection so that he will do everything I ask for myself and I want him to give up La Valliere [his favorite mistress at the time] and look with favor on my relatives, my servants, and my retainers."
Madame De Maintenon
When King Louis XIV was 45—with 32 years of life ahead of him—he experienced a change of heart. He discarded Madame de Montespan, whom the devil had promoted, and bestowed his favor on Madame de Maintenon (Francoise d'Aubigne), whom God apparently sponsored. Madame de Maintenon was pious, from a good Protestant family, and used no black arts.
Madame de Maintenon was educated in a convent, where she converted to Catholicism. She was gorgeous, peaceful, and very poor. Madame de Maintenon had married a crippled hunchback comic poet 25 years her senior at the age of 17. After her husband's death, nine years later, she became the caregiver to the Sun King's children that he fathered with Madame de Montespan, first in secret, later at court.
King Louis XIV began to spend a lot of time with Madame de Maintenon, discussing religion, politics, and economics. She gained great influence over him and was determined to reform his morals. Madame de Maintenon was 38 when she came to be the king's mistress. Within a few years they were married.
Rules of Etiquette
It was in 17th century France that women made it fashionable to use precise speech, with proper grammar and vocabulary—free of vulgarity—in high society. They also decided what was, and what was not, acceptable deportment and behavior in public. This laid the foundations of the rules of modern social etiquette, and the rules of dining etiquette. In the face of life the goal is composure.
Eventually, the basic conventions of etiquette and manners spread throughout most of European society. Etiquette is a code of civilized behavior. It improved the personalities of all people, rich or poor.
In 17th century France we find that the minuet became quite popular. The minuet is a social dance for two people. Plays also became a popular form of entertainment, but women attended plays in masks to conceal their identities.
To administer large swaths of territory in a systematic, businesslike manner, King Louis XIV began to create bureaucracies. In 1665, Jean Baptiste Colbert was named Finance Minister of France, a post he would hold until his death nineteen years later.
Jean Baptiste Colbert had a plan to reform the entire administration of France with bureaucracies. France was near bankruptcy, government departments kept no records and neglected their missions, bribes were commonplace. To a bourgeois businessman such as Colbert, this was no way to run any business, nonetheless an entire nation.
Jean Baptiste Colbert
Jean Baptiste Colbert put into practice the idea that a nation should be run similarly to a business enterprise—budgets must be made; revenue forecasts created; accounting done. His first move was to slash government spending to increase cash on hand—and reduce government debt, thereby reducing government interest expense owed to bankers.
He worked vigorously to help French businessmen increase exports, and took measures to decrease imports into France—figuring correctly that a healthy economy must have more of the former and less of the latter. This is mercantilism.
Colbert looked over the shoulder of all bureaucracies. He demanded to review all records, receipts, minutes, and audits, so as to gauge results and plan future activities. Nothing could be ordered by any official of the government of France, and no payments made from the treasury without the personal signature of Jean Baptiste Colbert. His plans worked brilliantly. Soon other European nations wanted to copy the bureaucracies of 17th century France.
He took charge of quality control for exported goods from France. He had inspectors who made sure that anything marked "made in France" was of world-class quality. No products were allowed to leave the country unless they measured up to the highest standards.
It was not long before buyers of goods in Europe understood this, and the demand for things made in France exploded: linen, lace, silk, wine, pottery, tapestry, clocks, and other articles made of wood or metal.
Jean Baptiste Colbert was also very concerned about the poor. No, he didn't take away other people's earnings and redistribute them to the poor directly. Colbert drained swamps, knowing that the poor who live near them suffered from diseases related to standing water.
He built miles of canals in poor areas; he spent a ton of money on roads, which the poor benefit from as much as the rich. Colbert also eliminated tolls and levies that he deemed an unfair burden on the less-than-well-to-do.
The bureaucracies worked great for a while. Eventually the number of regulations, inspections, and paperwork generated by the bureaucracies had grown so large that commerce was hampered. It was also noted that the clerks in the bureaucracies became surly and arrogant.
The Huguenots were French Protestants. They were protected in Catholic France by the Edict of Nantes, issued in 1598 by King Henry IV, the grandfather of King Louis XIV. The Sun King revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which made Protestantism illegal again in France. This was a grave error for France.
The Huguenots were now forced to convert to Catholicism, or be massacred. Instead, they fled from France by the hundreds of thousands to England, Holland, and Prussia. The Huguenots were the best artisans in France, and expertly skilled in many trades. They were of industrious habits, and lived respectable lives. The Huguenots and their descendants became prominent in their new homelands, and later in America, in every branch of activity.
Not everyone appreciated the work of Colbert, or the reign of the Sun King. In 1694 Fenelon wrote this letter to King Louis XIV:
"Sire: For thirty years your ministers have violated all the ancient laws of the state so as to enhance your powers. They have increased your revenue and your expenditures to the infinite and impoverished all of France for the sake of your luxury at court. They have made your name odious.
"For twenty years they have made the French nation intolerable to its neighbors by bloody wars. We have no allies because we only wanted slaves. Meanwhile, your people are starving. Sedition is spreading and you are reduced to either letting it spread unpunished or resorting to massacring the people that you have driven to desperation."
17th Century France
The Sun King Louis XIV settled his long running problems with Spain by making his son their king. A Bourbon (Louis' last name) is still king of Spain to this day.
King Louis XIV felt the need to consolidate 17th century France through war, which naturally creates a common enemy and a common cause. He also wanted to scarf up land in all directions to make his kingdom bigger and stronger, as well as to provide a land buffer between France and its possible enemies.
A nation must have a common language and uniform laws to survive in the long run. The people must be proud of their country, feel pride in their common past, and be possessive about their society—not rebellious. This is one reason a nation's flag is important as a concrete symbol of unity. If citizens burn their nation's flag publicly with impunity, something is wrong in that nation.
When the Sun King died, there was neither sorrow nor respect shown for the death of the longest reigning monarch in the history of Christendom. Six courtesans attended his funeral. Most people were not hostile about Louis, simply indifferent. One scribe wrote: "Our eyes were too full of tears during his life to leave us any for his death."
After the death of the King Louis XIV, morals and manners in France plummeted into debauchery, corruption, and slovenliness.
My primary sources for this article are From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun and Europe by Norman Davies.