Venom

Robin Briggs

At the end of a work comparing the first three Bourbon kings, the duc de Saint-Simon invites us to make a final judgment between them, and to be persuaded that the precise truth has guided every stroke of his pen. With characteristic dexterity, he couples this nuanced claim to objectivity with the suggestion that it has only been achieved by subordinating his feelings of ‘just gratitude’ towards Louis XIII. It was that king who had raised the memorialist’s father, his personal favourite for some ten years, to the rank of duke and peer, so we should not be wholly surprised to find Saint-Simon challenging conventional opinion by rating him higher as both person and king than either Henri IV or Louis XIV.

The transparent and half-avowed bias of this assessment must be balanced, however, against the intelligence of the historical analysis used to support it, far superior to anything to be found in the official histories of the time. The Parallèle des trois premiers rois Bourbons remains a work every historian of the French 17th century needs to read, and not just because it contains a series of brilliantly apt vignettes backing up its arguments. Some of these came from the first duke, who was already 68 when his heir was born in 1675, yet lived on until 1693, a relic of the time when Versailles was just a favoured royal hunting lodge. There is some irony in the fact that the belated marriage which produced Saint-Simon was with a member of the L’Aubespine family, descended from a 16th-century secretary of state and predecessor of that vile bourgeoisie of royal ministers excoriated by le petit duc.

Despite his protestations, ambiguity and unreliability permeate Saint-Simon’s enormous oeuvre, as they did his political opinions and actions. Not without cause, his outstanding modern editor, Yves Coirault, entitled his collection of essays Dans la forêt Saint-Simonienne, evoking images of luxuriant growth and meandering pathways. Many historians have been led astray by this wickedly persuasive writer, launching deadly shafts against his enemies out of thick cover. Less obviously egotistical than his great predecessor in the genre, the Cardinal de Retz, he has made it even more difficult to keep an open mind on the events and personalities he describes with such verve and venom. If we can’t begin to write the history of Louis XIV’s later years and the Regency without him, it seems almost impossible to do so safely with him.

More broadly, a whole interpretation of the Ancien Régime has been built on his work, depicting Versailles as the keystone in a plan to domesticate the great aristocracy and deprive them of their traditional independence. Over recent years, the numerous fallacies in this view have been repeatedly exposed, yet like many attractive simplifications it has proved remarkably hard to kill. Many of us have paid exaggerated respect to Norbert Elias’s The Court Society (published in 1969 but essentially dating from the Twenties), whose apparent sophistication only thinly masks a simplistic argument, with a good deal of anachronism thrown in.

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie had begun to write about Saint-Simon and the Court when the Annales style of history of which he has been such a distinguished exponent was in full bloom. He has now returned to the theme with a substantial book, written in collaboration with Jean-François Fitou, who is the main author of one chapter. In many ways this is a characteristic Ladurie work – lively, discursive, engaging, sometimes a little rapid or allusive. Passages where he seems to be coasting along, relying on his enviable stylistic facility and sense for the telling detail, are suddenly interrupted by sharp original comments. He is particularly good at picking up the repeated contradictions in Saint-Simon’s own thought, while avoiding any condescension at his expense. He good-humouredly points out that the Duke was more reasonable than he might at first appear about matters of inherited rank. He may have subscribed to the conventional views which identified the Frankish invaders with the original nobility, but unlike his fellow adviser to the Regent, the comte de Boulainvilliers, he did not turn them into a system. The more ancient the lineage the better, of course, but to him a family’s status depended as much on good marriages, great offices held and the possession of fiefs and estates.

Personal merit plays a considerable part in his assessments, although when it suits him he turns matters round and treats birth as constituting merit in itself. Ladurie identifies many instances of unfairness and misrepresentation on his part – the qualities of perfectly competent ministers or generals are ignored, relatively modest origins grossly exaggerated. It becomes plain that these attacks are highly selective, relating to the Duke’s numerous violent aversions – bastards, homosexuals and Jesuits all well to the fore. There are also cases where the motivation is more political, relating to membership of the various factions which divided the Court; here there may be rather more to the matter than Ladurie suggests, because there are reasons to think that Saint-Simon uses a lot of subtle shading to tilt the balance in line with his own sympathies, on a more systematic basis than emerges here.

In fact, I find the book’s title puzzling, when it is more in the style of a collection of overlapping yet distinct studies; if there is a system of the Court presented it is a distinctly elusive one – the elements of a future synthesis rather than the thing itself: the single vision is rather lacking. Perhaps that is no bad thing, given the character of Saint-Simon’s writing; most Anglophone readers are unlikely to complain when offered an intelligent eclecticism, properly respectful of a complex text, rather than ponderous theorising. There are still two awkward jumps to be negotiated. One is into Fitou’s chapter, primarily a very clear and careful analysis of marriage patterns, and secondarily a more puzzling one of death rates. An important if predictable conclusion from the data is that realism prevailed over dogma where marriage alliances were concerned; the ministerial families so often badmouthed by Saint-Simon and others enjoyed the same effective status as ducal ones in the marriage market. A second shift comes with the last two chapters, virtually a short history of the Regency, in which Saint-Simon is mostly relegated to the background. While there is plenty of interest in this section, it is not really about the Court as such, when it would have been helpful to have some specific assessment of what the old king’s death meant for the ‘Court society’ when Versailles itself was temporarily abandoned.

It may well be that the whole notion of ‘systems’ is inappropriate in this context. Clearly there were certain rules and patterns in the Court, operating within formal structures which can be laboriously reconstructed, but it is less clear that these can tell us very much about any underlying reality. What was ‘really’ there looks more like an untidy mass of overlapping circles and groups, whose members were often none too sure of their allegiances, still less of how far they could trust others. Moreover, the Court was never a truly closed community, despite the tendency for exclusivity to become its guiding principle; virtually all its members had much wider connections and activities, as emerges repeatedly from Saint-Simon. Nor could Court and government ever be clearly separated; in this respect Louis XIV’s heroic attempts to build and maintain internal boundaries might best be seen as exercises in damage limitation. Saint-Simon himself uses the image of a watch or clock, so often associated with the new science of his era, to describe the Court, suggesting that there was a machinery which experts like himself understood, while at the same time emphasising its ephemeral nature. His own lists of those belonging to specific groups underline the point, for once they go beyond a few key members the links are often avowedly speculative. Ladurie makes an interesting attempt to depict Court faction around the year 1709 visually, in a diagram whose complexity and small scale makes it difficult to follow, and within which there are a number of ‘floaters’ as well as personal connections across the main boundaries. Even this is just a snapshot taken at one moment in time, before a series of unexpected deaths scrambled the whole picture.

The use of ceremonial itself can be made to seem systematic; Saint-Simon is inclined to treat it in this fashion, portraying Louis XIV as the great manipulator who stood outside the system and used it to enhance his own power. This became a key concept for Elias, and it appears to find support in various comments made by the King himself. I am inclined to believe that much of this is ex post facto rationalisation, and that most of the key decisions were taken ad hoc. All sensible monarchs saw the need to hold the balance between different factions and to arbitrate competing claims shrewdly; Louis was unusual merely in the unrelenting zeal with which he performed the role, and in the restraints he usually imposed on himself. His use of ministers from humbler origins was as unoriginal as virtually every other aspect of his government, having been the practice of French kings at least back to Philip Augustus. His promotion of the ministerial dynasties, far from excluding the grandees from power, opened the way for them to exercise greater influence than they had for many years, not least through the mésalliances Saint-Simon hates so much. On this issue the Duke’s own obsessions blind him to trends for which his writing provides extensive evidence.

It is ultimately much easier to construct a pattern for Saint-Simon himself than it is for the Court or government of France, even if he repeatedly deviates from his own rules. Like virtually all his contemporaries, he sees order and hierarchy as effectively synonymous, requiring the constant patrolling of boundaries in a society with many gradations. He distrusts and fears sexual instincts as a source of pollution and disorder, whether in the form of degrading marriages, bastard children or homosexuality. As Ladurie shrewdly notes, he is drawn into a logical yet slightly crazy synthesis between the principles of hierarchical purity and those of Christian morality. In his eyes, one disorder is always liable to lead to another, as with Cardinal de Bouillon, a sodomite who finally turned traitor, had strong links with the Jesuits, and got the great érudit Baluze in hot water for validating some of his genealogical claims. It was all the pleasanter to heap opprobrium on such a multiple reprobate when he came from one of those families of princes étrangers whose high position in the pecking order is such a constant irritation to the Duke – he never misses a chance to recall the ambitions and duplicities of the house of Lorraine, while even the great Turenne (a La Tour d’Auvergne like the Cardinal de Bouillon) is systematically denigrated. Behind all this there lies the ultimate betrayal of proper values by Louis XIV himself, guilty of double adultery, then of a morganatic marriage, whose anxiety to push his bastard children into the royal family proper was responsible for so many of France’s woes. Was it not the King’s attempt to palm off one illegitimate daughter on William of Orange that had created the animosity from which a whole sequence of disasters followed?

Here, as so often, Saint-Simon rewrites history in his own idiom, either imputing to others the motives which might have dominated his own behaviour or demonising his enemies. He is probably right to see the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-97) as a disastrous error, yet his account of Louvois as a Machiavellian schemer seeking to ensure a prolonged general war topples over into absurdity. His account of the religious divisions which plagued the French Church throughout his lifetime is often equally biased. The Duke himself belonged, appropriately enough, to the puritanical Augustinian tendency within Catholicism; he associated moderate Jansenism with honesty and virtue, and thought it was often used to smear godly individuals with the false suspicion of heresy. It is no surprise to find him so ready to indulge in conspiracy theories about the Jesuits, anticipating a powerful trend which would contribute to the temporary destruction of the Company in the 1760s. Bishops who share his opinions are treated leniently, like the Archbishop of Reims, praised for the good management of his diocese while his affairs with women are passed over. Augustinian sympathies do not extend, however, to those hardline Jansenists whom Saint-Simon regards as fanatics, and whose obdurate refusal to compromise he deplores.

Such opinions set him far apart from another would-be reformer and leading aristocrat, Archbishop Fénelon of Cambrai. Ladurie comments on the Duke’s ambivalence towards Fénelon, wondering if he may have been unfair to this partial ally. Since fairness is just about the last quality one would attribute to Saint-Simon, this seems likely enough, yet the implicitly favourable judgment on the Archbishop leaves me wondering. Am I alone in seeing Fénelon as a man embittered (not unreasonably) by his disgrace of the 1690s, whose subsequent protestations of respectful obedience were a sham, and whose desire for revenge made him a prime mover behind the disastrous Papal Bull Unigenitus of 1713? Both he and Saint-Simon also advocated a system of regional assemblies as a means of breaking ministerial tyranny; although this aristocratic constitutionalism had its positive side, it was associated with many more reactionary elements, which cast grave doubt on both its practicality and its potential consequences.

The arrival of his childhood friend Philippe d’Orléans as Regent in 1715 opened up huge possibilities for Saint-Simon, who saw some of his ideas put into effect, as a system of aristocratic councils nominally replaced the hated ministers. He proved a shrinking violet where real political power was concerned, however, refusing to accept any serious position; even in retrospect he was still offering futile excuses for his pusillanimity, and it seems that his ideal was to be everyone’s trusted adviser without taking any responsibility. Some of his advice was quite bold, as when he advocated a state bankruptcy and the calling of the Estates-General. Here Ladurie plausibly suggests that he betrays his visceral hostility to the Parlement of Paris, then involved in a bitter precedence dispute with the peers; the Regent sensibly preferred to strike a deal with the Parlement, while calling in the Scottish expert John Law to operate a less painful rearrangement of the huge debts left by the war. In foreign policy Saint-Simon remained a traditionalist, unable to understand why Orléans sought alliances with the maritime and Northern powers. He would always insist on the folly of appeasing the English by destroying the fortifications of Mardyck, when in truth these were unimportant, and the English alliance, far from proving fatal to French overseas trade, had actually facilitated a boom. As Ladurie remarks, it is more understandable that he should have been obstinate on this issue than that generations of subsequent historians should have repeated his absurd claims. Much the same could be said of Saint-Simon’s unfair treatment of the skilful chief minister Cardinal Dubois, whom he had once been ready enough to flatter, only to blacken his reputation permanently with a wickedly suggestive image of slipperiness and venality.

In his decades at Court, Saint-Simon showed as little aptitude or enthusiasm for the exercise of power as he had for the military career for which his rank would have qualified him. It was in his long retirement that he found his métier, to wield a more insidious power through his pen. We still don’t know how far he was writing merely to please himself, or whether he appreciated quite how devastatingly he had settled his score with his many real or imagined enemies. In this posthumous revenge he has been helped by the besetting tendency of historians to patronise their subjects, which has often led them to follow his waspish judgments quite uncritically. One great virtue of Le Roy Ladurie’s recent work has been a much more detached attitude to the rulers and statesmen of the Ancien Régime, who are seen as fallible human beings doing their best in difficult circumstances, rather than as monsters of greed and egotism. This clever and attractive work treats Saint-Simon with indulgence, yet is never prepared to take him on trust. At the end we still don’t quite know whether the Court had a system or not, but we are left with little excuse for allowing the wool to be pulled over our eyes about its denizens, even by so expert a practitioner of the deceptive arts as le petit duc.