In his Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV (originally published in French in 1997) Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie aspires, he says, to provide “a systematic and comprehensive interpretation of Saint-Simon’s thought and work (but not of his writing or style).” The “work” referred to is the Duc de Saint-Simon’s vast and posthumously published Memoirs, and Ladurie wants to insist (for reasons I shall come to later) that the man himself, chronicler of the court of the roi soleil and of the Regency, was an “archaic specimen,” an “archaeological artifact in the most fundamental sense,” “a ruin, ripe for excavation.”

Can one, or ought one even to try to, separate Saint-Simon’s “work” from his “writing or style”? Perhaps it would be possible with some authors, but it seems perilous to attempt with this remarkable work of historical art—one that is more alive for us than Suetonius or Tacitus and that, in important respects, helped to inspire Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. The “style” and the “work” would seem to be one.

But can one separate the “work” from the man? This sounds more hopeful, yet it runs into difficulties too. For one of the great originalities of Saint-Simon’s work is the way in which—by dint of strict rules of relevance and a heroic frankness—he manages to persuade us of the meaningfulness (historical meaningfulness) of his own activities, as privileged observer, sporadic participant, and prophet of the nation’s doom. He knows exactly what people think of him, as an irascible stickler for social rules and social rights, and can measure the limits of his (considerable) influence on the Regent. It is somehow not what one expects of an “archaic specimen” of merely archaeological interest.

The Duc de Saint-Simon joined the Versailles court in 1691, at the age of sixteen; he served briefly in the army, but soon, to the King’s annoyance, resigned; and for the remaining years of Louis’s reign, being offered no post, he lived at court, to all appearances in complete idleness. Appearances were deceptive, for he became a behind-the-scenes adviser to the young Duc de Bourgogne, the heir to the throne, as well as to his own childhood friend Philippe d’Orléans, the future regent. Nevertheless the idleness was real enough, and he filled it, fortunately for us, by a daily foraging for gossip and the developing of a gift, a genius, for observation. All his intellectual interest was in people; but, then, the history of France, insofar as it unfolded at Versailles, was essentially a matter of people, of family and family alliances, rather than of “political” groupings. As soon as Saint-Simon decided to write a history—and this seems to have occurred quite early on—his passion for gossip and grotesque anecdote became far from “idle.”

He had, however, an obsession. This was that the true nobility of France, and its rightful governors, were the ducs-et-pairs (dukes who were also peers of France and entitled to sit in the Parlement), and that Louis XIV was deliberately aiming to deny them their rights and privileges. While still in his teens he managed to rally his fellow ducs-et-pairs against the claim by a famous general, the Maréchal de Luxembourg, to be raised from the eighteenth to the second place among the dukes of France. Much later, in 1714, he was enraged beyond measure by an edict from the King legitimizing the royal bastards and entitling them to succeed to the throne in the absence of any living prince of the blood.

With the coming to power of the Regent in 1715 he briefly saw his cherished idea, that the high nobility should be involved in government, actually put into practice, in the shape of “synody,” or a chain of councils. It was no great success, the dukes being unable to agree about practically anything. But in 1718 he enjoyed what was in his own eyes a supreme triumph. His great enemy the Duc du Maine, the senior of the royal bastards, had been involved in an attempted coup against Orléans, the Regent, and, at Saint-Simon’s instigation, Orléans arranged for the young King Louis XV to hold a Lit de Justice, at which not only would he overrule the political pretensions of Maine’s allies, the Parlement, he would also publicly strip Maine of the title of prince of the blood and of all the privileges belonging to it.

Saint-Simon’s long, dramatic, marvelously detailed account of this scene is astounding. One is struck above all by his objective, quite unapologetic depiction of the tabooed pleasures of hatred, malice, and vengefulness:

…Wholly self-possessed, my eyes searching every face, sitting motionless in my seat, my pose most formal, wrapt in the keenest and most enthralling pleasure, the most delightful fears, in joy so ardently desired, so long awaited, I sweated in a perfect agony of restraint—an agony so intoxicating that I have never, either before or since, experienced anything to equal it. How far inferior are the pleasures of the senses to those of the mind!1

One realizes that, from the very beginning, Saint-Simon has been meaning to make this scene the climax to his history, and we need no better proof of his mastery as an artist.


But let me give another tiny example of his great art. In 1714 the Queen of Spain, first wife of the Bourbon king Philip V, died of scrofula. Philip had been utterly dependent on her, the two never for a moment being out of each other’s sight, not even on their chaises percées. Saint-Simon reports what followed in a tone of wondering irony:

The King of Spain was much moved, but somewhat in the royal manner. They persuaded him to go out hunting and shooting, so as to breathe fresh air. On one of these excursions, he found himself within sight of the procession that bore the Queen’s body to the Escorial. He gazed after it; followed it with his own eyes, and went back to the hunt. Princes, are they human?

Ladurie speaks of Saint-Simon as “archaic” because of Saint-Simon’s outmoded way of thinking about the ordering of society, and of court society in particular. In matters of etiquette, rank, and precedence Saint-Simon was a fanatic and an all-time expert, as his desire to bring down the Duc du Maine shows. Nevertheless Ladurie finds Saint-Simon’s picture of rank ordering at the court confirmed by another observer in Versailles, Louis XIV’s German sister-in-law, known as “Madame”; thus the social system of the court, as they define it, must, Ladurie supposes, have in some sense been an objective phenomenon. Their system of ordering ran thus: at the head of the “hierarchy” was the King; then came the “children of France,” including the Grand Dauphin and the King’s brother; next the “grandsons of France,” i.e., the sons of the Grand Dauphin and of the King’s brother (including Philippe d’Orléans, the future regent); after them the “princes of the blood” (Condé and Conti), below them the King’s bastard sons by Mme. de Montespan, and finally the nonroyal ducs-et-pairs, of whom Saint-Simon was one, ranked in order of seniority.

The etiquette of the court, the rules about what postures, of head, hand, seat, and foot were appropriate to each rank, was of immense complexity, and though supposedly immutable they often in practice led to bitter squabbles. Even Saint-Simon is satirical about the shocking falling-out over the King’s hat:

It was raining, but not enough to prevent the King from going to watch the planting in his gardens. His hat became wet through; another was needed. The Duc d’Aumont was on annual leave; the Duc de Tresmes acted as his deputy. The King’s dresser produced the fresh hat; de Tresmes handed it to the King. M. de La Rochefoucauld was present. It all happened in a moment. Although the Duc de Tresmes was his friend he went perfectly mad; his rights were infringed, his honour was involved, all was lost. There was the greatest difficulty in separating them. Their rank forgotten, they accused one another of all manner of encroachments, no one dared to interrupt them, and all for the sake of a hat everything was in an uproar.

Nonetheless, according to Ladurie, the system was coherent. He writes: “In sum, what was involved in these hierarchies was not a notion of mere social difference but a complex, comprehensive, ‘holistic’ conception of relations between individuals and groups.”

Such is Ladurie’s account of the court in his first chapter, on “Hierarchy and Rank”; and of course one is familiar with this picture from the writings of Roland Mousnier, Pierre Goubert, and others.2 Yet I cannot help thinking that it involves two rather serious fallacies.

The first relates to “hierarchies.” The word “hierarchy,” meaning priestly rule, was originally applied to the descending grades of bishop, priest, and deacon; and, as its etymology suggests, it implies a chain of authority: the bishop had authority over the priest, and the priest over the deacon. In this sense it is quite without problems. There were various chains of authority in Saint-Simon’s day, for instance in the Church or the army, just as there are in our own day, where they also flourish in businesses, hospitals, banks, the civil service, and private associations. Moreover, a person may quite likely belong to more than one chain at the same time, occupying a high position in one and a lower in another.

Difficulties only come in with the notion that, in addition to these hierarchies of authority, there is something called a “social hierarchy,” a ladder of social status, on which each person has a fixed position. God, according to Dinoysius the Pseudo-Areopagite (circa 500), created a “hierarchy” of angels, one below the other: seraphims, cherubims, thrones, dominations, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels. The French monarchy, and after it the English one, arranged its nobles stepwise in the descending order of duke, marquis, and count (or earl). So does it not follow that there must be a similar linear gradation, running right down to humble mortals like ourselves, a rank ordering that one could trace out on paper?


The idea has often seemed appealing, for political reasons, but a moment’s reflection tells us it is absurd and logically impossible. A simple linear order already breaks down when one tries to fit bishop, priest, and deacon into the same sequence as duke, marquis, and count, or into the gradation of the three estates (clergy, nobility, and third estate), let alone how to find rungs for heavyweight boxers or for editors of journals. Indeed Ladurie acknowledges this himself:

Rank was not simply a consequence of a person’s genealogical position in an all-encompassing hierarchy of families. It was rather like the vast blue cloak of the Virgin of Mercy, whose folds were ample enough to accommodate a range of qualities of the most diverse [the French text reads “heterogeneous”] sort.

To depict “ranks” within a society, in this sense, one would have to devise, not a linear sequence, but a three-dimensional model of fantastic complexity. Further, when Ladurie writes that what was “involved in these hierarchies was…a complex, comprehensible, ‘holistic’ conception of relations between individuals and groups,” this seems rather question-begging. For, from a status point of view, one could never actually be able to see a society as a whole, either from inside it or from outside.

Secondly, Ladurie (of course he is not alone in this) seems to identify “hierarchy” with precedence, whereas in certain regards they could almost be said to be opposites. Precedence is not concerned with “position” but with an occurrence—as when, for instance, people are going through a doorway, or being given a seat at table or in church, or a place in a procession. Accordingly, precedence becomes a worry precisely when the relative status or position of people is uncertain. It should be no problem to seat a general, a colonel, and a captain, or a bishop, a priest, or a deacon, around a table, since they are in a single chain of authority. Disputes over precedence only arise, as they continually do, when two or more value systems cross. If you have President Bush, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Queen of Tonga coming to dinner, how will you seat them? A master of ceremonies is always facing such problems. He will be confronted with patches of system interrupted by fissures, which have to be bridged by arbitrary rulings and casuistry. Moreover success in a battle over precedence does not bring with it authority over the loser. Ladurie speaks of “the immutable principle of hierarchy,” as if Saint-Simon’s picture of society as a single status-ladder, though antediluvian, was at least tenable and coherent, whereas in truth it was no more than a dream.

There is no such problem with Ladurie’s helpful chapter on cabals. The environment in which such a political structure as the court of Versailles took shape is so different from today’s, he says, that “the lessons of political science…are of little use.” As regards cabals and camarillas, therefore, he is happy merely to expand and codify Saint-Simon’s own analysis, which certainly is masterly. On the term “cabal” Saint-Simon expresses himself very clearly. By 1709, he says, the court had become more than ever divided. “To speak of cabals is perhaps too much, but without endless hair-splitting I can think of no better term, and I shall therefore use it.” There were, he says, three parties splitting the court, those of Mme. de Maintenon, the Grand Dauphin, and the Duc de Bourgogne:

Very few indeed had only the country’s welfare at heart, although all professed that their sole concern was its precarious state. By far the greater number thought of nothing but their own advantage, with vague ambitions to secure fame, influence and, in the future, power. Some looked for wealth and office, others, more cunning or less fortunately placed, adhered to one or other of the three cabals, forming minor cliques that occasionally gave an impetus to affairs and ever contributed to the war of tongues.

As this quotation indicates, Saint-Simon did not confine himself to identifying the three great cabals. He also, in Ladurie’s words, recorded “the valences of many types that linked this or that member of one cabal to this or that member of another.” He quotes Saint-Simon’s description, wonderful in its wording and excellently translated by Arthur Goldhammer, of his scheme to put together a cabal of his own, to bring about the marriage of one of Orléans’s daughters to the Duc de Berry, the King’s grandson:

Such were the machines and combinations of machines that my friendship for those to whom I was attached, my hatred for Madame la Duchesse [wife of Louis III de Bourbon-Condé], and my alertness to my present and future situation were able to assemble, arrange, and set to work in a precise and disciplined manner with proper adjustment and appropriate tugs on various levers, and which I inaugurated and perfected during the season of Lent. I was kept apprised of the workings of all these machines, of the various obstacles they faced, and of the progress they made, and each day I regulated their clockworks accordingly.

Ladurie has a chapter on “The Sacred and the Profane,” in which he demonstrates very vividly how, at Versailles, distinctions of rank and the minutest prescriptions of social etiquette were observed in celebrating the Mass and in observances such as mourning or a coronation. (“Could a mere maître de chapelle don a black cape and station himself on a stool close to the monarch’s prie-dieu—a status symbol ordinarily reserved for bishops? Who would present the Bible for the king to kiss during the grand mass of the Ordre du Saint-Esprit?”)

The theory seems to be that observances of rank must be pleasing to the Almighty, for he was no egalitarian—had he not created a hierarchy even among the angels? But, as Ladurie notes, the application of this theory to mourning led to “unbelievable disputes over priority”—for which indeed there was plenty of scope, since the exact length of a mourning train, calculated in aunes, was supposed to be determined by one’s rank. To the modern reader this suggests that the theory was not a very sound one. Could such disputes, which kept courtiers so bogged down in worldly considerations, really have been pleasing to God? Ladurie’s own tone is ambivalent. He writes that “the sacred played a dominant role as an invisi-ble structuring and harmonizing influence,” but no doubt he may not be making this remark in propria persona. He does, however, say that Saint-Simon’s account of social etiquette in regard to the Eucharist is “of the utmost importance” and shows that “the sacred took precedence over the semi- or nonsacred.” The modern reader might be tempted to think it proved the opposite.

Ladurie tells us that he has been much influenced by Louis Dumont’s study of the Indian caste system, Homo Hierarchicus. Even its title, he says, “defined a whole program of research.” Dumont refers to individuals who seek to escape from society’s constraints as “renouncers.” “There exists in the society of castes itself, and alongside the caste system,” writes Dumont, “an institution which contradicts it.”

By renunciation, a man can become dead to the social world, escape the strict interdependence which we have described, and become to himself his own end as in the social theory of the West.

Moreover, he adds, “It may be doubted whether the caste system could have existed and endured independently of its contradictory [sic], renunciation.”3

Prompted by this, Ladurie draws on Saint-Simon’s Memoirs for a rich chapter (“Renouncers and Jesuits”) about those who withdrew from Versailles society, usually because of age, scandal, illness, or poverty, but sometimes, and impressively, simply out of earnest concern for their souls. For example,

François Bouthillier de Chavigny, the son of one of Richelieu’s ministers,…began as a worldly court prelate. Although he was an effective administrator of his Troyes diocese, he spent little time there. He gambled large sums, was a favorite of the ladies (who called him le Troyen and chien d’évêque and chien de Troyen—“the Trojan,” “doggy bishop,” and “Trojan dog,” canine appellations that refused to go away after sinking their teeth in, as it were). Before he reached the age of sixty, however, Bouthillier awoke to the unworthiness of his dissipated life and one fine day decided to drop everything and devote himself exclusively to his eternal salvation….

He left the administration of his diocese and the title of bishop of Troyes to his nephew, in whose house he took up residence toward the end of the seventeenth century. There he would remain for many years “in the most scrupulous and uninterrupted retreat,” with occasional excursions to an even more remote Carthusian monastery in Champagne. Although Bouthillier became an authentically devout solitary, at no time did he seem “soft-headed or foolish or disoriented or doddering.”

Dumont’s book is a very seductive one and indeed extremely valuable. It posits that the Hindu caste system is a system of status gradation, or “hierarchy,” based not on power or authority but upon the opposition of the pure to the impure. Dumont writes:

This opposition underlies hierarchy, which is the superiority of the pure to the impure, underlies separation because the pure and the impure must be kept separate, and underlies the division of labour because pure and impure occupations must likewise be kept separate.4

These distinctions serve as the structuring system of the society, and it is important, as Dumont himself insists, not to misinterpret them. Hindu society, just like the European one, contains or has contained in the past all sorts of power struggles and territorial conflicts. It is merely, and this is what utterly distinguishes the Hindu system from the European one, that they are given expression in this particular form—of degrees of purity or impurity—and a resulting hierarchy, running from the Brahmin to the Untouchable. (The ways in which this system works out in everyday life are immeasurably complicated.)

Strangely, however, in his chapter “The Pure and the Impure,” Ladurie tries to make us see Saint-Simon’s France as offering something akin to the Hindu caste system. Were not, he suggests, the members of high society in France continually taking pills and purgatives and being bled, in the cause of inner cleanliness? And was not Saint-Simon prone to speak of bastardy and royal adultery as “filthiness”? Do these, asks Ladurie, not show concerns with purity and impurity comparable to those described by Dumont? But this is completely to misunderstand Dumont, and to fall prey to exactly the sort of confusion against which he warns us. What Ladurie is describing among his French courtiers is merely a habit of mind, not the principle structuring the whole society.

Very oddly, too, in the same connection, he writes that, in Saint-Simon’s period, “meat was supposed to be impure, and a notable feature of the Catholic religion was the ban on eating meat during Lent.” But how could it be a matter of impurity, if meat-eating were acceptable all the rest of the year? Anyway, it goes against a central tenet of Christianity. “There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him,” says Christ in the Gospel of St. Mark (7:15), evidently as a reproach to Judaism and the Levitical prohibitions. “The things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.”

The German sociologist Norbert Elias, in his The Civilizing Process (first published in 1939), has a good deal to say about the court in the age of Louis XIV, and a large part of Ladurie’s purpose in his book is to discredit Elias and his “stifling” influence. He has an appendix explaining why he is ignoring Elias but nonetheless he has already attacked him in his introduction and delivers numerous sharp barbs and diatribes against him in his bibliography.

Here we find the reason why Ladurie wants us to think of Saint-Simon as an “archaic specimen.” Elias traces, or attempts to trace, through the study of courtesy books, a development in what we can loosely call the “civilized,” from the medieval notion of “courtesy,” or courtoisie (meaning the way people behave at court), to civilité (a more inward and ethical concept, first met with in Erasmus’s De civilitate morum puerilium), and then to “civilization” (an active process of “civilizing,” which, when completed in eighteenth-century France, becomes a sort of colonial export). Elias’s emphasis on France relates to a further theory, about the cleavage between worldly French civilisation and idealistic German Kultur:

In German usage, Zivilisation means something which is indeed useful, but nevertheless only a value of the second rank, comprising only the outer appearance of human beings, the surface of human existence. The word through which Germans interpret themselves, which more than any other expresses their pride in their own achievement and their own being, is Kultur.5

The beauty of Elias’s book lies in suggesting how quite intimate psychological phenomena, like the advancing threshold of what is found physically embarrassing or indecent, can be the basis, or the expression, of large political-historical trends. He suggests, in other words, that we may look for the motive force of human change in the relation between what seem quite remote spheres of experience. We may take as an example his disquisition on nose-blowing. He writes that

the fact can be frequently demonstrated that functions [like nose-blowing] are found distasteful and disrespectful in inferiors which superiors are not ashamed of in themselves. This fact takes on special significance with the transformation of society under absolutism, and therefore at absolutist courts, where the upper class, the aristocracy as a whole, has become, with degrees of hierarchy, a subservient and socially dependent class.

Hence, he says, it is no accident that the first “peak of refinement” or “delicacy” in the manner of blowing the nose comes in the time of Louis XIV, when this aristocratic subservience is as its height. Courtesy books now begin to tell you not to blow your nose openly into your handkerchief at table or to look into the handkerchief afterward for the result—whereas the admonition not long before had been not to blow your nose with your fingers or into your sleeve. Louis XIV was the first French monarch to possess a lot of handkerchiefs.

Ladurie, however, ridicules any suggestion by Elias or those influenced by him that there is a forward-looking, “civilizing” process here, or that the stiff-necked, formal, honor-mad style of the court of Louis XIV could have led to the liberal-minded conviviality of the age of Diderot and Mirabeau. His point, in a sense, is obviously a good one; and he is encouraged to find it stated in Daniel Gordon’s Citizens Without Sovereignty.6 There is indeed a weakness in Elias’s theory here. He does not mention the important fact that in Parisian salon society in the earlier seventeenth century there arose an alternative culture to that of the court, a system of conduct claiming, or pretending, to transcend considerations of rank and visible honor and promote an egalitarian freemasonry of honnêtes gens. (In the salons of Mme. de Rambouillet and, a little later, of Mme. de Scudéry, one would adopt a pseudoclassical name and would drop one’s distinguishing “de.”) However, considering that these rival cultures belonged to the same moment, we can presume that one was a reaction against the other and that they were in a dialectical relationship. Thus Elias’s developmental theory, derided by Ladurie, can still hold. Ladurie narrows down his quarrel with Elias so severely, and there are so many brilliant suggestions in Elias’s book that he fails even to mention, that there is, I feel, a lot of life in that ground-breaking book still.

This Issue

November 15, 2001