Life at Versailles in the Reign of Louis XIV
This assignment comes from my introductory "Modern Europe and U.S. I" course. If the past is a "different country," then life at court in seventeenth-century France is among the most different from the America our students grew up in. The goal is to help them identify some of these differences. We read Madame de Sevigne's account of a 1671 royal visit together in the class leading up to this one. It is more than shocking enough to provoke a range of questions. It is with those in mind that students read Barzun and Saint-Simon. Then they move on to read excerpts from Moliere and La Rochefoucauld.
Students can instantly link to a number of sites that can provide an impression of a particular culture, such as this historic costume site, which helps students gain a visual sense of style at the Louis XIV's court. While at the same time, students can access primary sources on the same subject, such as this text courtesy of Fordham University.
“Old people are fond of giving good advice; it consoles them for no longer being capable of setting a bad example.”
— François, duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613–80)
- Barzun, “The Reign of Etiquette” in From Dawn to Decadence
- Duc de Saint-Simon, account of life at court
It is Sunday, the 26th of April; this letter will not go till Wednesday. It is not really a letter, but an account, which Moreuil has just given me for your benefit, of what happened at Chantilly concerning Vatel. . . .
The promenade, the collation in a spot carpeted with jonquils, all was going to perfection. Supper came; the roast failed at one or two tables on account of a number of unexpected guests. This upset Vatel. He said several times,” My honor is lost; this is a humiliation that I cannot endure.” . . . Monsieur le Prince went up to Vatel in his own room and said to him, “Vatel, all goes well; there never was anything so beautiful as the king’s supper.” He answered, “Monseigneur, your goodness overwhelms me. I know that the roast failed at two tables.” “Nothing of the sort,” said Monsieur le Prince. “Do not disturb yourself, all is well.”
. . . At four o’clock in the morning Vatel is wandering about all over the place. . . . He meets a small purveyor with two loads of fish and asks him, “Is this all?” “Yes, sir.” The man did not know that Vatel had sent to all the seaport towns in France. Vatel waits some time, but the other purveyors do not arrive; he gets excited; he thinks that there will be no more fish. . . .
Then Vatel goes up to his own room, puts his sword against the door, and runs it through his heart, but only at the third thrust, for he gave himself two wounds which were not mortal. He falls dead. Meanwhile the fish is coming in from every side, and people are seeking for Vatel to distribute it. They go to his room, they knock, they burst open the door, they find him lying bathed in his blood. They send for Monsieur le Prince, who is in utter despair. . . .
Monsieur le Prince informed the king, very sadly; they agreed that it all came from Vatel’s having his own code of honor, and they praised his courage highly even while they blamed him. . . . Gourville, however, tried to repair the loss of Vatel, and did repair it. The dinner was excellent; so was the luncheon. They supped, they walked, they played, they hunted. The scent of jonquils was everywhere; it was all enchanting.
October 31: Discussion of life at Versailles. Submit annotations, from Saint-Simon account of life at court which deepen, complicate, and/or confuse the portrait drawn by Barzun.