Fallen Idols

David A. Bell

  • The Fabrication of Louis XIV by Peter Burke
    Yale, 242 pp, £19.95, May 1992, ISBN 0 300 05153 0

The French, a people normally not plagued by a lack of national pride, revere very few of their past leaders. Consider the following list: Richelieu, Louis XIV, Robespierre, Napoleon, Clemenceau, De Gaulle. Which of them enjoys anything like the adoration from their countrymen that Americans give to the secular canon of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy? Napoleon himself is today remembered as a vainglorious tyrant who squandered his achievements. The last president or king who still excites unstinting positive emotions is Henri IV, assassinated in 1610. Even De Gaulle inspires far more respect than love. Only the English, perhaps, among Western nations, match the French in this lack of hero-worship (consider the similar fates of Churchill and De Gaulle in the immediate post-war period). Both nations do a much better job of idolising their great writers.

French leaders, however, have certainly tried far harder than their English counterparts to win lasting admiration. The efforts of Louis XIV, which Peter Burke chronicles in his new book, were truly staggering, even by the standards of Early Modern monarchy. Images of the King were commissioned, Burke recounts, in paint, bronze, stone, tapestry, pastel, enamel, wood, terracotta and wax. The royal treasury paid for at least three hundred statues and paintings of Louis, and seven hundred engravings. The King sponsored periodicals devoted in large part to his actions, and employed 20 ‘historiographers royal’ to record the events of his reign for posterity. He patronised science and the arts on an unprecedented scale, and, as Burke drily remarks, left the recipients ‘in no doubt of what was expected from them in return’ (he quotes one adviser to the Crown as follows: ‘The King is generous, but he knows what he is doing and he has no wish to appear a fool’). The chateau of Versailles was only the most magnificent of his architectural projects.

Yet as with Napoleon, the monuments have endured while the public images they were built to sustain have cracked and crumbled. The most influential modern biography of the self-styled ‘Louis the Great’, Pierre Goubert’s Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen, presents the King as a man whose thirst for glory led the vast majority of his subjects into a condition of ‘primitive, anarchic wretchedness’. Modern historians like to ‘think themselves into the heads’ of their subjects, but with a man like Louis, who counted the material condition of most of his subjects for so horribly little, the task is almost impossible. Seeing Versailles after reading accounts of the dreadful winter of 1709-10, when the price of bread rose tenfold or more, and millions stood on the brink of starvation while Louis pursued a ruinous war, puts one in mind of Tadeusz Borowski’s comment on the human price paid for the monuments of antiquity: ‘The Egyptian pyramids, the temples and Greek statues – what a hideous crime they were.’

One of the unfortunate consequences of the historical profession’s growing penchant for studying ‘cultural representations’ instead of the lives of common people is that the real horrors of places like 17th-century France are becoming far less palpable to students. New critical studies of Louis are more likely to speak about the way corpses featured in various discourses than about actual corpses, more about ‘representations of famine’ than famine itself. What was once called ‘the new social history’ certainly had its share of problems – notably a tendency to play down the importance of political power (Goubert’s biography was a welcome exception). The newer studies rectify this problem, but all too often at such a rarefied level, and in such impenetrable jargon, that they fail to arouse the emotions that earlier authors did. If history is and is to remain the most accessible of scholarly disciplines (one of my colleagues calls it ‘the last refuge of general education’), this is a want greatly to be deplored.

Peter Burke, a historian best known for a work on popular culture who has now turned to the representation of kings, exemplifies the turn away from social history, but still manages to write absorbing prose. He has also taken on a subject that has intimidated other modern historians: Louis XIV’s public image in every medium, from wax to bronze to print. The result is a generally cogent (and sumptuously illustrated) synthesis. Casting Louis’s public life as a kind of theatre, Burke looks above all at what went on behind the scenes, like an investigative reporter set loose on Saatchi and Saatchi. He has a superb eye for detail. One learns that the equestrian statue on Place Louis-le-Grand was ‘so huge that 20 men could sit down to lunch inside the horse – and in fact did so while the statue was being installed’. The principal complaint from poets celebrating Louis’s victories in the Low Countries came from having to fit ‘barbarous’ Dutch place-names into elegant French verse. It was not merely an offence to turn your back on the King, but to turn your back on his portrait as well. There is also the story of the obsequious poet who managed to cram 58 favourable adjectives for the King – from agréable to zélé – into one sonnet. Barring a few ill-judged excursions into anthropological comparison (is it really useful to think of Boileau as a griot – ‘the term for “bard” in Mali’?), Burke mercifully leaves most of his theoretical apparatus to the footnotes.

Although comparisons between the inefficient states of Early Modern Europe and modern totalitarian societies are generally to be avoided, Burke finds it understandably hard to avoid likening the glorification of Louis XIV to a modern cult of personality. The King’s minions, like those of Stalin or Kim II Sung, constructed an artificial public persona that sometimes seems to have had only incidental points in common with the real ruler. Louis in the flesh was short and balding, but ‘Louis the Great’ was tall and fabulously maned. Louis in the flesh had a distinctly mixed military record, but ‘Louis the Great’ conquered everything that lay before him. During the King’s northern campaign of 1672, the Dutch defenders literally bogged his armies down by opening the dykes and turning their homeland into a sea of mud. One of the official French accounts of the war, however, credited the King with breaking the ‘dykes and barriers’ of his enemies. Louis in the flesh was a hard worker, determined to rule without the help of a Richelieu, but ‘Louis the Great’ was heroically indefatigable, a man who only left his desk for official functions and for war (historians have often failed to recognise the extent to which Louis sedulously promoted the image of his ‘personal rule’).

The Fabrication of Louis XIV certainly avoids the muddied, long-winded prose that all too often typifies the ‘new cultural history’, but it sacrifices too much substance to the cause of brevity and simplicity. Thus the tricky job of comparing Louis XIV to modern political figures takes up a mere handful of paragraphs. A complex argument involving the decline of the ‘correspondence theory of knowledge’, the conflict between the ancients and the moderns, and the resulting shift from allegorical to historical representations of the King, gets seven pages. Burke suggests a link between the rise of the centralising state and the rise of the royal cult, but never pursues the thought. Travelling at this speed, he also cannot avoid the occasional swerve into banality: ‘the myths of Medieval and Renaissance rulers depended to a considerable extent on a traditional world view or mentality.’

Burke dispenses with many of the newer cultural historians’ basic theoretical assumptions as well as their jargon, a strategy that has both its rewards and its pitfalls. Scholars more attuned to Post-Structuralist theory, for instance, would have taken for granted the disjunction between the ‘real’ and the ‘fabricated’ Louis XIV. They might even have dismissed the idea of a ‘real’ Louis as hopelessly naive (a recent French study of Richelieu asks, tongue only partly in check: ‘Did Richelieu – Armand Jean du Plessis – exist? Didn’t the narratives invent him ...?’). We would then have been deprived of Burke’s valuable and entertaining exercise in historical debunking. Yet the book also lacks what Lynn Hunt in particular has brought to bear on what might be called ‘The Fabrication of the French Revolution’: a sophisticated perspective on the way texts and symbols interact with deeply-grounded cultural habits.

A case in point is the short shrift Burke gives to the history of royal ceremonial in France, which provided the backdrop for Louis’s innovations. Marc Bloch pioneered its study with his classic The Royal Touch, which investigated how French and English kings supposedly ‘cured’ scrofula and other skin diseases by a quasi-magical laying on of hands. Subsequent works have illuminated royal funerals and coronations, as well as more arcane ceremonies such as the entrée royale (an elaborate pageant staged when kings entered cities) and the lit de justice (a session of the high court in which kings consulted their magistrates on constitutional issues). Ralph Giesey and his students have shown how these rituals not only glorified the king but graphically demonstrated the central maxims of French government – political theory made visible, so to speak. They have also made clear that in the 17th century, the nature of royal ceremonial changed drastically along with shifting notions of sovereignty and royal power.

In the Renaissance, kings had travelled peripatetically within the kingdom, frequently staging entrées royales to display themselves to the population. The intricate royal funeral ceremonies, which lasted for weeks, demonstrated the distinction between an ‘undying’ royal dignity, which encompassed the principal institutions of government, and the life and death of particular kings (whose powers were limited by certain ‘fundamental laws’). Until the burial, the new king remained out of sight while an effigy of his predecessor, holding the symbols of sovereignty, was waited upon, talked to, and even served meals. Only at the actual burial did the successor reveal himself, and even then, he was not held to possess his full powers until crowned and anointed with holy oil at Reims Cathedral.

In the 17th century, however, the Bourbon monarch abandoned these quasi-magical rites. Instead, they retreated into their royal palaces, where they developed the intricate system of etiquette known to readers of Saint-Simon, to which Burke gives only cursory attention. Royal ceremonial now focused not on grand public occasions but on the most intimate aspects of private life, with the highest nobles acting out the role of household servants to the royal family. Even the acts of dressing and going to bed had strictly-choreographed ceremonies to accompany them. As Norbert Elias observed in his classic study The Court Society, aristocrats pursued the status that came from proper performance in the rituals of court life with the cool rationality of stockbrokers pursuing profit. Louis XIV himself revelled in the system, for in his expert hands it could be manipulated to confer honour or disgrace upon his courtiers.

As the turn away from grand public ceremonial occurred, all pretence of a distinction between particular kings and a larger royal ‘dignity’ evaporated, along with the sense of mutual obligation between monarch and nation that had pervaded the older rituals. The public could still watch part of the performance of royal life (Louis XIV habitually ate dinner in front of an audience), but now they had to come to the palace: the King did not come to them. The kings also ceased their travels and entrées royales. Louis XVI only left the Parisian basin twice in his life, the second time on his ill-fated flight to Varennes. The lit de justice lost its original consultative function. In general, this shift made manifest the Bourbons’ rejection of traditional Medieval restraints upon royal sovereignty. In their increasingly centralised state, the nation would revolve around the king, not vice versa.

Louis XIV, who built Versailles as an appropriately grandiose setting for the new royal ceremonial, was a principal architect of these changes. Peter Burke, however, while showing how the King’s system of etiquette built on the Spanish example, largely disregards its significance as a break with earlier French political culture. He writes that the royal ceremonies of the period ‘followed Medieval French precedent’, which they did only in the loosest sense. Similarly, he quotes Bossuet’s famous description of kings as the ‘living images’ of God, but does not discuss how Bossuet’s theories, which underpinned much of Louis’s self-promotion, departed from earlier French ideas of limited kingship. His book, while providing an excellent case-study in public image-making, therefore seems oddly unmoored from the history of France itself, and the rise of a centralised state.

The Bourbons’ transformation of royal ceremonial deserves more attention, for in one way it casts them as peculiarly modern figures. Unlike that of their Renaissance predecessors, their rule did not depend for its legitimacy on quasi-magical rituals: the utterance of incantations, anointment with holy oil, or even the ability to cure the scrofulous (although this particular rite survived in France as late as 1824 – Burke estimates that Louis XIV touched as many as 350,000 sufferers during his long reign). It depended on a theory. The theory in question – namely, the divine right of kings – was hardly a modern one, but Louis XIV’s reign nonetheless marks a step away from a politics which confounded the natural and the supernatural. Taking this step made the ‘fabrication’ of an inflated public image even more important, of course, for a leader stripped of his supernatural aura needed all the more to be presented as the smartest, strongest and most courageous of men.

The theories have changed, but the attempt to ‘fabricate’ public images remains at the heart of politics in the West. Thanks to modern populism, the nature of the enterprise has changed, and the quality of the images has declined (in an age of election billboards and thirty-second television advertisements, the worst baroque history painting and the most obsequious sonnet would be an improvement). Western leaders need no longer be portrayed as the smartest or strongest of men – indeed, excessive strength or intelligence comes across as somewhat suspicious – but rather as the most sincere and ‘down-to-earth’. The results in American Presidential election campaigns have been particularly nauseating. Still, if one recalls the human price paid for the construction of Louis XIV’s image, one can hardly be too nostalgic about it. And Louis XIV’s efforts at self-glorification, unlike those of even the worst modern rulers, barely bothered to disguise the sufferings of most of his subjects. Burke’s book reproduces many representations of Louis, but none of him surrounded by happy, well-fed peasants. Would the thought have even occurred to the King?