SAINT-SIMON AND THE COURT OF LOUIS XIV
By Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie
With the collaboration of Jean-Francois Fitou
Translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer
University of Chicago Press, $35, 448 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY STEPHEN GOODE
Louis, duc de Saint-Simon, was one of the world’s great memoirists. Born in 1675, he pursued without distinction the military career natural to a son of an old and noble family. He was not yet 30 when he began living in a small, one-room flat in the Chateau de Versailles. Then, a few years later, in 1710, he and his wife acquired a spacious five-room apartment in the palace’s northern wing with a kitchen, where he entertained elegantly and often all those men and women of station and power from whom he wanted to hear the lastest news and gossip about Louis XIV’s court.
And listen Saint-Simon did, his eyes and ears always wide open. A man of subtle mind and acute observation, the “Memoires,” in which he wrote about the court of the Sun King and that of the Regency that followed Louis XIV’s death, ultimately took up 2,700 folio pages of mostly miniscule handwriting. Thanks to Saint-Simon, the great king and the aristocrats and others who peopled his court are very much alive today.
It’s that incomparable vein of information and anecdote that the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie taps with great skill to write “Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV.” Mr. Le Roy Ladurie, a professor at the College de France and the author of such well-received histories as “The Beggar and the Professor,” is very much concerned with how people lived from day to day at Versailles rather than with details of Louis XIV’s endless wars or the details of the Sun King’s policies. “We look not at the form but at the substance” of what Saint-Simon wrote, writes Mr. Le Roy Ladurie. “What we propose … is, we hope, a systematic and comprehensive interpretation of Saint-Simon’s thought and work (but not his writing or style).”
Above all, Mr. Le Roy Ladurie is concerned with Saint Simon’s obsession with rank, an obsession that today makes the author of the “Memoires” appear to be an insufferable snob. His aristocratic biases appear on almost every page of that enormous book. “Much of what he wrote will seem incomprehensible to our egalitarian and disenchanted eyes,” warns the historian. Nonetheless, it is this society of ranks and rigid hierarchy so different from our own that the author wants us to come to understand and respect, with the help of Saint-Simon’s great book. For Saint-Simon, hierarchy was a good thing because it imposed order on society, Mr. Le Roy Ladurie points out. Without hierarchy all would be chaos and no man would know what his duty was to the social order.
The “Memoires” provide an inexhaustible resource on hierarchy. According to Mr. Le Roy Ladurie, Saint-Simon “names roughly 10,000 individuals” in his book. Most are French with a smattering of men and women from Germany and England. Almost entirely, like Saint-Simon himself, they come from the elite of their societies. Saint-Simon was very well connected indeed. His father, Claude, the first duc de Saint-Simon, had been prized by Louis XIII. And from childhood, the second duc was close friends with Philippe d’Orleans, who served as regent of France after Louis XIV’s death.
For us today it comes as a surprise that it was very difficult to determine one’s exact rank at Versailles, despite what appears from afar as a clear pecking order. Rank was not simply the result of genealogy, notes Mr. Le Roy Ladurie. As Saint-Simon himself put it, one’s position in society could be established only through a complex calculus that included consideration of many traits: “antiquity, retinue, fiefs, marriages, positions held for some time — all these bestow true grandeur on a family from as far back in time as can be known.”
An exact calculation of true rank could thus be a very difficult thing to do, so it’s not surprising that Saint-Simon was most clear when it came to traits that lowered one’s status. Royal bastards (which the Bourbon kings constantly provided) vexed Saint-Simon no end, particularly when they demanded the high rank that would come naturally to a king’s legitimate heirs. For Saint-Simon, their illegitimacy placed them forever outside the sacred order that society must maintain to remain healthy.
Sometimes, it was multiple faults that caused an individual to fall far below the rank that might otherwise be his. The abbe d’Entrague, for example, was not only a transvestite (the only one mentioned in the “Memoires,” according to Mr. Le Roy Ladurie) but also had a crush on the duc du Maine (one of Louis XIV’s bastard sons) and (“even worse,” says Mr. Le Roy Ladurie) had Protestant inclinations.
But when all the traits proper to high rank met in a single person, Saint-Simon went out of his way to praise. He knew true nobility when he saw it, even if it was impossible to describe precisely. The most moving passage in the whole of the “Memoires” records the death of the widely-admired Louis de France, duc de Bourgogne, Louis XIV’s legitimate grandson who was, so Saint-Simon thought and so have many others, everything that a great and high-born man should be, intelligent, incorruptible, actively and not passively virtuous, and profoundly courageous. “Earth was not worthy of him,” wrote Saint-Simon on his death, “he was ripe already for the joys of Paradise.”
Saint-Simon holds back little from his readers about the daily habits of the aristocrats at Versailles. It’s information Mr. Le Roy Ladurie makes use of to show how the aristocracy constantly made use of cleansing rituals to underline the purity of their rank. “Men and women of quality used emetics to induce vomiting, clysters to administer enemas, and lancets to let blood,” Mr. Le Roy Ladurie observes. “The higher a person’s rank in society, the more frequently he or she was bled and purged. Louis XIII died of such a treatment.”
There were many attitudes held by the aristocracy that strike us as odd and fetishistic, but which they regarded as essential to defining their high position. Thus they regarded execution by decapitation as an honorable means of death “that did not impugn the honor of the executed man’s family.” But putting a man to the wheel “deprived his kin of their good name” and was deemed so onerous that it could prevent marriages into families of equal (or higher) rank for at least three generations, the author notes.
But Mr. Le Roy Ladurie is at his best when he uses the vast information Saint-Simon supplies about Louis XIV’s court to show us how profoundly aristocratic society was changing despite all appearances to the contrary.Through an analysis of upward marriages of women mentioned in the “Memoires,” Mr. Le Roy Ladurie concludes that these women “laid the groundwork for a new type of society, a society that differed from the old … society of ranks. By 1750 that old society had ceased to exist.”
Saint-Simon died in 1755, a snob to the end. In the early 1720s, he’d lost his position at Versailles and retired to his country home. He was not entirely against progress: Mr. Le Roy Ladurie writes that Saint-Simon kept himself abreast of the latest developments in agriculture and applied them to the running of his estate. But he remained convinced that the only good society was one where every person knew his place and played well his part that place demanded of him.
In the author’s well-chosen words, Saint-Simon was the “anti-Rousseau par excellence.” Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a writer more deeply opposed to the egalitarian and democratic ideas of the author of “The Social Contract” and “Emile” than the writer who composes the “Memoires.” Mr. Le Roy Ladurie regrets that Saint-Simon is “neglected outside France” (unlike Rousseau). The “Memoires,” he maintains, are “a vast historical fresco” that “combines the varied talents of Rembrandt, Callot, and Rigaud with a genius for caricature in the manner of Caracci, Hogarth, Rowlandson [and] Toulouse-Lautrec.”
This is true. But Mr. Le Roy Ladurie’s wish that Saint-Simon “find his proper place alongside Goethe and Shakespeare” as a bearer and definer of things French, as they are of German and English culture may be unreasonable. Though undoubtedly a great writer, Saint-Simon has little of the variety of output and subject matter of the other two great writers. Still, Mr. Le Roy Ladurie’s fine book is a great introduction to the author of the “Memoires” and the world of rank, making a time and place that seem very odd to us today both comprehensible and even attractive.
Stephen Goode is a senior writer for Insight magazine.