Looking for Louis

The Age of Louis XIV

by Pierre Gaxotte, translated by Michael Shaw
Macmillan, 346 pp., $7.95

The Affair of the Poisons

by Frances Mossiker
Knopf, 336 pp., $7.95

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 They seem, indeed, to be becoming increasingly out of date.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 …

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