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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

“Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV”, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, with the Collaboration of Jean-François Fitou, Translated by Arthur Goldhammer

448 pages, University Of Chicago Press, ISBN-13: 978-0226473208

While the English title for this book by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Jean-François Fitou may be Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV, the French title translates as Saint-Simon and the Court System; neither title is correct, for the authors have in fact written two books: the first six chapters is a discussion of social hierarchy as interpreted by the duc de Saint-Simon looking at the court of Louis XIV; the last two chapters are a history of the Regency (1715-23). The first chapters contain no narrative history except for a biography of Saint-Simon and the last two contain no social analysis but are a discussion of the political history of the Regency.
Saint-Simon lived at the court of Louis XIV starting in 1691 until the king’s death in 1715 when his friend, the duc d’Orléans, became Regent for the 5-year-old Louis XV; thus Saint-Simon had an insider’s view of court politics until his Orléans’ death in 1723. Shortly thereafter Saint-Simon was told to leave the court, a has-been at age 48 (or, more precisely, a never-was). His most important job had been as Ambassador to Spain to negotiate a marriage between Louis XV and a Spanish princess, a marriage that never took place.

Some fifteen years after leaving court Saint-Simon began writing his memoirs and in them he proves himself to have been an aristocratic prig, a puritanical gossip who believed that, as a duke and a peer of France, his class of people deserved the highest honors and positions within French politics after the royal family and its relatives. He described people of lesser social origin as vile nobodies, people from nowhere, and people who did not deserve their positions. He refused to believe that talent could or should allow people to rise in society. He dismissed immorality and corruption, believed illegitimate children were immoral because they were the products of immorality, detested the Jesuits, and despised Louis XIV because the king never granted Saint-Simon his “due”. The king in one of only three conversations he had with the little duke told Saint-Simon that he had to learn to hold his tongue. Louis XIV could not abide people who chattered incessantly, criticized others openly, or talked about people behind their backs. The king would never pick someone for a position who had so little self-control.
Saint-Simon’s memoirs are filled with the names of over 10,000 people. They are like an extended phone book with long descriptions of this person or that while the plot takes a back seat. Saint-Simon was an intellectual aristocrat who knew lots of people and, like the Bourbons; he learned nothing and forgot nothing. His memoirs are his revenge for every slight, real or imagined; yet, in some ways they are the only published source for a lot of the history of this forgotten period of French history. The authors, however, ignores the history of France from 1691 until 1715 and then gives us eighty pages of political history for the Regency. The authors seem mesmerized by Saint-Simon’s discussion of cabals at court in 1709 (not only did Le Roy Ladurie write an article on this section of the memoirs over 25 years ago, he also repeated his analysis in a series of lectures at Johns Hopkins a few years later). Simply put, by 1709, according to Saint-Simon, Louis XIV’s court had three groupings: the king’s courtiers; his son’s courtiers; and his adult grandson’s courtiers. Yet, like Saint-Simon, Le Roy Ladurie goes into overtime explaining this person’s relation to that one, and how the whole mess worked. The fact that people gathered around the heir to the throne or the heir’s heir is not news; it was normal behavior in a monarchical system. Le Roy Ladurie makes the mistake to think that the snapshot given in 1709 has an existence that extended into the Regency. Thus, these groups seem like political parties with a life of their own. Louis XIV had the misfortune to survive both his son (who died in 1711) and his grandson (who died in 1712); in addition, some of the major personalities in these factions also died. Yet, Le Roy Ladurie goes on about this cabal and that having to be placated by the Regent with no evidence from Saint-Simon to support the claim that these groups maintained any cohesion after 1709 much less sfter the deaths of their leaders.
This book is filled with typos as well as mistakes by the author. For example, he discusses the first known writing of Saint-Simon coming from the death of Louis XIV’s daughter-in-law in 1689, except that she died in 1690. He has people living for years after they had died and repeats in the text what he has said in the footnotes previously. While this book has some value it is not an exciting read, except for those of us who have an interest in this period of French history, in which case the authors have made a significant contribution.

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