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The Nobility Under Louis XIV

In considering the customs and modes of life of the classes which were raised above the necessity of manual labor, the nobility naturally first attract our attention. The body of the nobles was a very large one, and it was estimated that it contained in all as many as four hundred thousand persons. In Poitou alone the superintendent reported there were fifteen hundred gentlemen, and with their families there must have been several thousand of gentle blood in this small province. Not only were all members of noble families noble, but nobility had been profusely granted to officials of many classes. Many also assumed the rank without being entitled to it, in order to obtain social position and to enjoy exemption from taxation. Frequent investigations were ordered as to the real status of such offenders, but they were usually abandoned.

The first problem which confronted Louis XIV when he assumed the government was a financial one. The condition of finances of the state were in extreme confusion. The credit of the state was very low. It could borrow money only at extravagant rates, twenty-five per cent or more. It seems an absurd method of raising money to sell the right to the salaried offices of the state - even the hereditary right to them - and especially to create new and unnecessary offices for the sake of selling them. And yet the evidence seems to indicate that the money which was raised by the sale of these offices cost the state less, in the seventeenth century at least, than the loans which it made or the annuities which it sold. On this side also corruption helped to increase the difficulties of the government.

An aristocracy must be rich in order to hold its position and influence, and the incomes of many of the nobles were large for the period. Except for a few great nobles, and for those whose connection with the Court led them to an absurd extravagance, living was relatively cheaper then than now. The wages of servants were low, and many modern sources of expense had not been discovered. Persons of good position could live with comfort on sums which would now be utterly inadequate. A little later, in 1678, Mme. de Maintenon estimated the sum upon which a family of good position could live, keeping ten servants and four horses, at twelve thousand livres-about one thousand pounds, or five thousand dollars. A family could not live now in any great city and support such an establishment for five times that amount. The manner in which this sum was to be divided shows the difference in modes of life. One thousand livres went for rent, one thousand for servants, and one thousand for the dress of madame. Six thousand livres was allowed for the table, and three thousand for the dress, expenses, and magnificence of monsieur. In 1657, five or six thousand livres was considered a good income on which to marry.' A century later Arthur Young said that for eight thousand livres, a gentleman could live in the country and keep four servants and three horses.

It is impossible to give the average incomes of so large a body as the nobility. In Poitou, in 1664, many are reported with incomes of twenty or thirty thousand livres (forty or sixty thousand francs). Many others had as little as eight or ten thousand livres. Some, it was said, in Lorraine had incomes of less than two thousand livres, but they were usually those who had fraudulently assumed the rank of nobility. There were fewer nobles then, than a century later, who had for their patrimony only their titles and their pride. Many received enormous incomes, partly from their lands, and partly from the offices and pensions bestowed on them by the king. In 1650 the incomes of the Princes of Conde and Conti and of the Duke of Longueville amounted altogether to nearly two million livres.

But these large sums were drawn from the treasury by nobles who spent a great portion of their time at the Court. Life there was growing more expensive, and the extravagance of the courtiers was excessive. A nobleman complained that they would all be better off without any pensions, for the country gentleman, who lived quietly at home with one valet, came up to Paris in the hope of obtaining a pension, and there had his squire, two gentlemen in attendance, and many pages, was covered with plumes and gold lace, and consumed his whole income in two or three months.1 Those of still higher position lived in great splendor, and usually spent more than they received. A few thrifty nobles like the Prince of Condd accumulated great fortunes, but the majority of them disdained to save their money. Most of it came easily and was spent recklessly.

The result of extravagant living was often an enormous indebtedness. Bassompierre owed 1,600,000 livres and had no money with which to pay his creditors.1 It had been incurred by lavish expenditure, keeping a great establishment, dressing in the pink of fashion, and entertaining with magnificence. The queen gave Mme. de Chevreuse over 200,000 livres to pay her debts. Pont de Courlay, Richelieu's nephew, ran in debt 400,000 livres in ten years by his profuse mode of living. The Fronde in Guienne was unable to raise money because the noblemen who supported it were already greatly in debt, and as their reputation for paying what they owed was very poor, no one was willing to advance money upon their credit.

The dress of the time was very different from our own, and that worn by people of fashion was very expensive. While the dresses of the ladies were often costly, the greatest expenditure was on the clothes of the men. Society was still in the condition where the male seeks lustre from a gorgeous habiliment. Many edicts were issued against this extravagance. These declared that the French were consuming their estates in an excessive passion for luxury and dress. Gentlemen were sometimes arrested and the unlawful finery taken from them.' But the edicts had no effect in checking such customs. A cloak adorned with gold lace cost 800 francs or $160. The dress of a gentleman of good fashion would cost 3,000 or 4,000 francs, and that worn on great occasions would cost 10,000 francs, or more.

Masques were often worn by ladies. Introduced at the end of the sixteenth century, they came gradually into use, and became very common during the Fronde. In theory they shielded the face from the intense gaze of inferiors, and in practice they were often convenient for ladies devoted to politics and gallantry. The usage was confined to the upper classes. Politeness required that the masque should be raised in the presence of one of superior rank. Loret tells us that the ladies wore masques when driving on the Cours la Reine, but when the king passed, five hundred beautiful faces exposed their charms. In 1664, Mme. de SeVign6 speaks of going masked to watch her frfend Fouquet, when he was taken to the arsenal. The custom, however, disappeared in the latter part of the reign of Louis XIV. For a man to keep on his hat was still the privilege and the practice of the nobles. They wore them even when they ate and when they danced.

As serious employment could not be allowed, amusements were largely sought. Game was abundant in the great forests which covered a considerable part of France. Deer, wolves, and wild boars were hunted on horseback, and birds of various sorts were chased by falcons. Hunting was forbidden to the roturiers, and it was exclusively the sport of gentlemen.

But a very different and far more pernicious amusement occupied a large portion of the time, and the taste for it extended somewhat to other social classes. Gambling was universal among the aristocracy, and fabulous amounts were lost at play. At Court there were tables for cards both day and night, and ladies as well as gentlemen played for high stakes. Ancre lost 80,000 pistoles in one night. Orleans, Tubeuf and Cardinal Mazarin lost over half a million at a sitting. Gourville won 110,000 francs of the Duke of Richelieu in a few minutes. The duke sold a piece of land and paid the amount. M. de Crequi lost 600,000 francs, and it was charged that he only paid half the debt. Madame de Roquilaure lost 30,000. Her husband paid the money and told her to play no more.

Duelling was somewhat checked by Richelieu, but the practice still continued. Nothing could be more frivolous than the grounds for these meetings, and nothing more ferocious than the encounters. One gentleman praised the memory of another. The latter said a good memory implied small judgment, and he insisted on a duel to avenge this affront.1 The seconds must fight also, but gentlemen were reckless of life, and an invitation to act as a second was regarded as a favor. No less than twelve took part in one encounter, five seconds on each side.' Pontis says, that during the eight years of the regency of Anne of Austria, 935 gentlemen were known to have been killed in duels." Even this was an improvement on the condition of affairs twenty years before, and during the reign of Louis XIV. this absurd and pernicious practice was largely checked. One brave but cruel gentlemen, Richelieu said, had killed seventeen men in duels.' To be a gallant man was the great desire of a French nobleman, and the fear of forfeiting this title led him to many absurdities.

The same spirit made the bravery of the gentlemen in battle often become mere foolhardiness. The Marquis of Seneterre invited his friends to dine with him in the trenches of a city they were besieging. They dined there in the open air, finding a zest in the cannon balls that flew about them. Before the dinner was over a ball struck the marquis, and he was killed at table in the midst of his guests. Such exploits, which would now excite contempt, then aroused admiration. The brave man was not he who met danger when it was required, but who sought peril when it was useless. The young cavaliers committed innumerable acts of reckless bravado which often interfered with the discipline of the army, but gained for them a reputation for daring. The French sought death, it was said, as if the resurrection were tomorrow.

Education among the upper classes was often very superficial. From thirteen to sixteen the young noble usually began his military service. Before that, the two things which he studied most and understood best were riding and dancing. It was necessary that a soldier should ride well, and equally necessary that a courtier should dance well; and in these two accomplishments it was said the French masters exceeded those of all other nations. "Without dancing a gentleman can do nothing," said the professor in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme. "There is nothing so necessary as dancing." His statement was hardly exaggerated.

An aristocracy that was idle, and of which a large portion was unfitted for any active work except war, gradually lost its influence in the nation. Its members were lazy, agreeable, well-bred, and useless. In the sixteenth century the gentleman lived less at Court, and his estate was usually sufficient for the expenses which he incurred. But in the seventeenth century the life of the courtier had become expensive. Commerce and trade were forbidden. The lucrative offices were largely held by those of inferior birth, and except by pensions from the crown, it was impossible to replace the fortunes spent in extravagance. The nobility continued to hold privileges which had become odious, without rendering services that should compensate for them, and without possessing the ability with which to protect them.

They felt the unconcern of children at political events, because they comprehended them no more than children. But they possessed also the breeding which enables one to meet the vicissitudes of life and the overthrow of fortune without change of countenance. They witnessed their own ruin with as much indifference of manner as they had witnessed the ruin of others.

However much such a life may have unfitted the nobility for being of use in the world, it doubtless perfected their manners. It is doubtful if the charm of manner and conversation which then existed in the best society of France can now be found in any class. The changed conditions of a world, where all are so nearly equal, has rubbed off a certain ineffable grace. Talleyrand said that only those who had lived before 1789 knew the charm of life.




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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:58:18 ZULU