The Age of Louis XIV
The Affair of the Poisons
No authoritative account of Louis XIV’s reign has been written since Lavisse produced his magisterial work in 1906. This work established a great body of facts, social, economic, and political. From the point of view of the layman, however, for whom all the three books now under review are designed, or even of the educated layman, with whom Professor Goubert specifically professes to be concerned, it is virtually unreadable. It is too long and detailed; in so far as it is inspired by any philosophy, this is the philosophy of a now discarded liberalism; modern scholarship has made it necessary to revise a number of the judgments, and modern preoccupations require that the scope of the inquiry should be broadened in some respects and narrowed in others.
Lavisse’s work was so meticulous, so comprehensive, and so judicious that it discouraged any further attempts on a comparable scale. Professional historians today, in any case, have different kinds of audiences in mind. They make their reputations by analyzing “in depth” certain specific and relatively narrow problems. (Professor Goubert, for example, rose to fame by an analysis of the material conditions and the social structure of Beauvais and the Beauvaisis between 1600 and 1730.) In later life they set themselves up in competition with the amateurs, and attempt to give their knowledge a popular appeal by writing short books without footnotes or other scholarly apparatus.
Hitherto, in common estimation, the writers of historical works have been divided into two categories: the professionals, who usually hold university posts, and the amateurs, who do not. According to popular notions, the amateur has a gift for writing, but is superficial in his approach, arbitrary in his judgments, unskilled in his use of sources, and unreliable in his facts. The professional is supposed to be immune from these vices but is expected to be dull. The ability to write good English, it was once observed, is an unfair advantage which some professional historians have over all the others.
An examination of the works on Louis XIV by Pierre Goubert (an expert) and Pierre Gaxotte (an amateur) is enough to show that these popular notions, though still not devoid of substance, are no longer warranted. They seem, indeed, to be becoming increasingly out of date. In the matter of reliability it is hard to choose between these two authors, since neither provides any footnotes and neither achieves that degree of clarity and coherence, or that impression of judiciousness, which inspires confidence even when evidence is lacking.
When it comes to superficiality and arbitrariness, here too dishonor is divided, even if not equally. Pierre Gaxotte is exasperatingly superficial on a number of matters, particularly economic ones; he attempts to whitewash Louis XIV by means of arguments that no one could be expected to accept. Professor Goubert, too, however, is on occasions arbitrary and superficial. He has an unrivaled knowledge of some of the subjects he discusses, but when, for example, he deals with war and diplomacy, to which he devotes a large part of his work, he can only rehash the old narrative. These are nevertheless matters which, in other contexts, the public is accustomed to seeing analyzed seriously.
When it comes, in fact, to the writing of general history, the difference between the amateur and the professional is no longer necessarily that the one is inaccurate and the other not—the professional is often, and increasingly, very inaccurate by the best standards of seventy years ago. Nor is it necessarily that the one is superficial and the other profound—the professional, when required to cover a large field, commonly deals superficially with questions that are not the subject of current research. Essentially the amateur is distinguished from the professional by the nature of his interests.
The amateur is more interested in the individual than in the group and in the top layer of society than in the bottom layers. He consequently requires little technical equipment if in the age with which he deals (and this is the only kind of age that attracts him) the ruling classes were articulate. The professional, by contrast, is more interested in the group than in the individual, and nowadays, particularly in France, he usually wants to look at society from the bottom. He is concerned with the faceless masses, and in consequence has to master many troublesome techniques, such as the handling of statistics. By training and inclination, and particularly if he is a Frenchman working on the seventeenth or eighteenth century, his medium is the monograph. The writing of general history presents him with great difficulties because though, as Lenin said, politics begin with the masses, they manifestly do not end there.
Professor Goubert is a case in point. He has some interesting things to say (which one might wish he had developed further) about the problems of enforcing discipline on the disorderly French society of the seventeenth century, and the extent to which they were overcome. The layman will, nevertheless, find him most illuminating when he deals with the nature of the French economy and the conditions of peasant life. The peasants, however, before the beginning of the revolutionary disturbances, exercised no direct influence on policy.
Admittedly in a sense they determined the history of France. They worked the land which provided overwhelmingly the greater part of the national income. The primitive peasant economy was reflected in every aspect of the national life, including the court, which was of a kind that only peasant economies produce. Peasant needs and desires were, however, of no account. Policy was made by the ruling groups, and in accordance with ideas so remote from those of the twentieth century that great skill is needed to interpret them.
Professor, Goubert does not see this as his task, and in consequence his attempt to write the history of France under Louis XIV cannot wholly succeed, notwithstanding his many illuminating passages. The purpose of his book, he tells us in the Preface, is “to set Louis XIV in relation to his kingdom and his time, and ultimately to consider yet again the problem of the great man in history.” As the reader proceeds, however, he is increasingly made aware that in the present instance this is not a problem at all.
Louis’s reign of over half a century began gloriously but ended in disaster, and even the glory while it lasted can, on Professor Goubert’s showing, only in small part be attributed to him. His great ministers, who created the French armed forces and reformed the administration, were legacies from Mazarin. His merit was not to have chosen them but to have recognized their abilities—and yet, even so, he often failed to see their point of view or follow their advice. When they died he showed no skill in replacing them.
His policy from 1688 to 1712 was, in Professor Goubert’s words, “one long series of mistakes.” He persistently misread all the signs of the times. He underestimated the strength of England and Holland and failed to see the reasons for it; he considered it beneath his dignity to attempt to understand the problems of government finance, the solution of which, as Colbert repeatedly emphasized, was vital to the French economy and hence to France’s military strength. In an age which was increasingly coming to see the folly of religious persecution he persecuted the Huguenots, who were no menace to him. In so doing he destroyed human and material resources he could ill afford to lose and roused the whole of Protestant Europe to indignation and fear, so that the wars against him were fought in the mood of a crusade.
Though as Professor Goubert describes him he was not devoid of personal merits, particularly courage and dignity in misfortune, he was of only mediocre intelligence and without wisdom or vision. He seems less deserving of the title of “great” than any of the other monarchs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on whom their contemporaries bestowed it.
He nevertheless undeniably presided over a great age in French history, at least during the first twenty-five years of his reign. France found in him an imposing figurehead and necessary center of authority. In the ideology of his time his office was sacrosanct. His own boundless self-complacency allowed him no doubts about his capacity to fill it. At a moment when France dominated Europe in the arts of peace and war, and threatened to dominate the world, he embodied the current ideas of majesty and fulfilled the aspirations of the articulate sections of his people. One must conclude that Professor Goubert’s concern should not have been Louis XIV and his twenty million Frenchmen, but the twenty million Frenchmen and their Louis XIV.
Among these twenty million, however, were several hundred thousand nobles, who included both the old nobility of birth and the new, or newer, nobility of office. These groups stood for different principles but nevertheless intermarried, each accepting, though in different degrees, some of the ideas of the other. From their ranks came the patrons of the arts, the arbiters of taste, the luminaries of the court, the formulators of policy, and the leaders in the church, the army, and the administration.
It is Pierre Gaxotte, not Professor Goubert, who tells us about these people and the ideals which inspired them, and he often does so very well. In Professor Goubert’s pages there is no single Frenchman who emerges as a human being, apart from the king himself, nor is there any indication of what the articulate sections of the population thought. Though he provides, for example, much the better summary of Colbert’s achievements, he dismisses Colbert himself merely by saying that he should be seen as a bureaucrat and a royal servant, not as a bourgeois as used to be supposed. The uninitiated who would like to know what this statement means, and whether it is true, might profitably turn to Pierre Gaxotte.
“The King,” Gaxotte quotes Colbert as saying to his son,
wondered at the messy sketch you sent me, and His Majesty remarked that that piece of rubbish was clearly the work of a schoolboy…. If you wish to get somewhere, you will have to get up between five and six o’clock every morning, immediately go to all the workshops, see if the architects and engineers are there, count the number of workers, check to see if they are able, spend two hours on this visit, listen to all the workers, see what they need, have it supplied to them on the spot, then go to your office, work two or three hours checking over all that has to be done, give orders that all matters be taken care of, look, check, fix prices, make decisions concerning every stage of the work. After dinner, a second visit has to be made, to inspect the work and count the workers. In the evening, all plans have to be considered and worked over; you must recheck your documents, plans, and designs and put them in the order I told you about…. If things continue in this way for one more week… I will get rid of your horses, your coach, and your servants, and you will have a chance to see the difference between a man who does his duty and one who neglects it…. I had had hopes for you and told you my ideas, but at the moment I can see that you are about to ruin yourself…. I tell you that you are a thorough rascal.
Whether or not these words are typical of the bureaucrat, they are surely typical of the successful seventeenth-century bourgeois.
There have been many different types of bourgeois but nevertheless (pace Professor Hexter) it is possible to distinguish, as Sombart did in his classic work on the subject, certain specifically bourgeois attitudes of mind—attitudes which not only differed from those of peasants and urban workers but also (though in varying degrees at different times) from those of aristocrats. These differences were particularly marked in the age of Louis XIV, even though the bourgeois when he rose to power commonly became a bourgeois gentilhomme and accepted many aristocratic preconceptions.
The great achievements of Louis’s early years, as Pierre Gaxotte emphasizes, were the product of thrifty management and hard, methodical work directed to rationally conceived ends—that is, they were the product of what are commonly called the bourgeois virtues. Most of them, however, were later thrown away, and France reduced to destitution, by the triumph of the aristocratic ideals which Louis himself personified—the love of war; the supreme importance attached to physical courage and to “honor,” which as Montesquieu said later was born of the desire to distinguish oneself; an intense religious faith; a sublime indifference to the relationship of material ends and means.
Frances Mossiker has something to contribute to our knowledge of aristocratic attitudes. She, too, is an amateur, though not in the same class as Pierre Gaxotte. Much of her work is concerned with what Professor Goubert describes as “titillating details about the monarch’s private life.” It centers around Louis XIV’s love affairs and the careers of his mistresses, which it describes in the conventionally popular manner, though without the skill which the best popular writers command. It is nevertheless not devoid of historical interest.
The affair of the poisons was a major event in its day. The trials to which it gave rise extended over a period of three years. According to the statistics of La Reynie, the head of the Paris police who was in charge of the investigations, 218 people were taken into custody. Many of them were tortured, and though only thirty-six were condemned to death more would doubtless have been so had Louis not hushed up the affair for the sake of the court’s reputation.
It emerged that various ladies of the court, including Madame de Montespan when she was the king’s mistress, were in habitual contact with members of the Paris underworld, from whom they obtained love potions and, it was alleged, poisons (though Frances Mossiker never makes plain how far the allegations were true) in order to dispose of their rivals, of inconvenient husbands, and even of the king himself. The accused included the greatest in the land and the most abject. Several were self-confessed practitioners of ritual murder and black masses. Among the rich and poor alike there were many who showed an extraordinarily defiant courage in the face of torture and death. The height of magnificence and the depths of squalor were separated by a gap that was easily bridged, as was also the gap between vice and holiness. The king’s mistresses commonly retired to cells in convents and expiated their sins in prayer and hair shirts. The devil occupied a central position in Christian mythology and seems to have been more easily envisageable to many people than the deity.
It is surely significant that such a state of affairs could exist at the center of political life, and equally so that steps were taken to overcome it. La Reynie talked of a “mass hysteria,” but he himself seems to have been immune from it. He was evidently a levelheaded and methodical investigator. In 1682, according to Frances Mossiker, he drew up an ordinance to control the manufacture and sale of poisons which laid the basis of the regulations in force in France today. “The spirit of reason and reasonable doubt,” as Voltaire put it, “began imperceptibly to erode superstition.”
In the first instance, however, it did so only among the ruling classes. (Even as late as 1789 it had made no headway among the peasants.) In any case, what the ruling classes did and thought cannot fail to be significant. We have, nevertheless, remarkably little serious information about them. Their composition, their material circumstances, their attitudes of mind, the standards to which they subscribed, the relationship between the parvenus and the old established families, all need to be studied or studied afresh. It is however doubtful if this task will be undertaken. Every age has its congenial themes and aristocracies today (whatever their admixture of bourgeois blood) are not among them. So long, however, as no one is prepared to consider them seriously, in relation to the rest of the population and the questions of their time, historians will be unable to produce a good history of Louis XIV’s reign. They will be in no better a position to do so than their predecessors who overlooked the problems posed by the rural and urban poor.
It may well be necessary that we reconcile ourselves to this state of affairs. No historian can be blamed if he is unwilling to describe the age of Louis XIV, or any other aristocratic age, because he finds aristocracies uncongenial. What is strange is that, finding aristocracies uncongenial, he should nevertheless be willing to undertake the task. The consequence of these conflicting impulses is apparent in many contemporary textbooks written by authors with left-wing sympathies of one sort or another. These authors summarize the conclusions of their own and their colleagues’ research—that is, the conclusions that interest them or that are in vogue in the academic circles in which they move. For the rest, they arbitrarily omit the other matters of importance, or describe them, as Professor Goubert for example describes Louis XIV’s wars and diplomacy, by the old platitudes. These practices naturally incite the amateurs to attempt more credible explanations of the course of the major events and to describe personalities and dramatic situations which appeal to the popular taste. It seems unlikely, however, that the educated public, which both parties are now wooing, will be satisfied by the works of either.