Knowing About Louis XIV:The Historian’s Task

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Last updated: April 12, 2019

Louis XIV, arguably the most renowned European monarch, is not easily known separate from his projected image. His lifelong drive to manifest an ‘absolute’ rule has left a legacy of image, contrivance and ceremony that is not readily distinguished from the man himself. The hyper-ritualistic character of his rule and the prolific images of that rule created in a multitude of media present a seemingly monolithic historical countenance.

Certainly we can know that Louis XIV wished to convey a definitive aspect of magnificence to both his contemporaries and posterity.Indeed, he “claimed to derive his power from God”2 directly. It is this claim that constitutes the flint which may produce a spark of understanding for the historian. Louis XIV, a motivated monarch with a potent historical inheritance, was surrounded by equally motivated individuals who shared his notions of ‘absolutism’. This paper seeks to understand these motivations and in so doing, understand the consonance and dissonance between Louis the ‘absolute monarch’ and Louis the man.The quest for legitimacy, not just as France’s monarch but as a universal monarch, is the principle incentive for Louis’ ‘packaging’. His absolutist pretensions are 1) a decisive reaction to past and future uprisings3 and 2) the attempted fulfillment of the age-old paradigm of the ‘Divine Right of Kings’.

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4 The efforts to represent Louis as an absolute monarch can be seen as a response to “a series of crises”5 and as such the ‘absolutist’ principle was for Louis and ‘his men’ a political imperative. The king’s court had to occupy the center of all governing spheres in the state.The revolutionary actions of the Fronde catalyzed the ‘absolutists’, creating a heavy response of propaganda and courtly protocol. Louis’ public relations team(s) utilized all available media to eradicate the revolutionary impulse and to impress upon the public that their king was virtually omniscient. 6 Louis implemented a stringent set of rules, such as the demand for the regular attendance of aristocrats at court, as a way to cut off the nobility from their local power bases.

7 He created a rigid, ritualized court that demanded time and obeisance from all who were obligated to attend.The diminishing success of the French armed forces in the latter part of the reign also constituted a crisis which was answered with still more projections of Louis as the supreme and capable ruler. The transcendence of emergent media as a tool for state-making had been quickly perceived and utilized. 8 Louis XIV was born and bred to be the king of France.

His early guidance from Mazarin and others instilled in him a bold confidence in his own legitimacy. These courtiers and cardinals transmitted a powerful meme to the young monarch – the inheritance of the office of the “monarque de l’univers”. The image constructors were committed on a deep psychological level to their hope for the establishment of the permanent enlightened rule of an absolute monarch. The meme was the product of an ancient trans-generational paradigm – Divine Right of Kings.

But it had never been easily and faithfully transmitted to the great masses of people who comprised the various kingdoms and principalities of emergent Europe. For the king and those in his orbits Louis XIV’s time was perceived to be the end of the immanence of that paradigm and the beginning of the worldwide adaptation of it. 0 The construction of Louis’ image was intended to appear organic because it had to be believed by all to truly work. Dissimilitude between the public image of the king and the reality that his contemporaries alleged had to be smoothed and erased if possible. 11 Absolute to the ‘absolutists’ meant a seamless display of kingcraft, statecraft and cultural guidance. It was a construction of reality at work. The ancient aristocratic paradigm of Divine vice-regency was perceived to be on the verge of being manifested in its most universal aspect.The rule of Louis was intended, not to represent but, to be the glorious rule of a true king of men.

12 Clearly this notion lent itself to serious criticism on moral and religious grounds13- how could Louis’ role as God’s vice-regent be legitimate without proofs of revelation, after all, he was Louis the “god-given”. 14 The belief in a truly divinely-sanctioned Monarch implies a belief in One Omnipotent Ruler. 15 Here is revealed the inorganic, constructive nature of Louis’s image campaign. 16 The office of Louis XIV was portrayed in deep association with pagan mythos and pantheistic allegory.This observation produces a seminal question to the understanding of Louis XIV – why would a Christian king suppose a consonance between pagan ethos and his own monotheistic religion? If Louis and his image constructors were attempting a worldwide acceptance of his claim to universal monarchy then perhaps classical pagan models were employed as a means to attract as many loyal subjects as possible by appealing to well established classical sensibilities. If these images were disseminated to imprint and attract as many minds as possible then perhaps it was a reaction to the inherent tension of the European heterodoxy.The climate of crisis that characterized the seventeenth century could have provided some kind of ‘smoke-screen’ for these incongruent notions.

Louis’ reign, with its effulgent splendour and its absolutist pretensions, could be perceived as a combatant fully engaged with the emerging paradigm of liberal reason. 17 Nobility and its perceived sacred character was a challenge to the ‘men of reason’ – the only thing that had been separating the nobility from the rest of humanity was the ‘glorious dignity of office’. 8 It may be argued that the time of Louis’ reign was the beachhead for a final conflict of diametrically opposed ideologies. It might also be supposed that if some sense of the finality of this conflict was ascertained by the combatants then every available resource would be utilized even to the point of absurdity as in the “representation of wars in an age without victories”19.

Following this line of inquiry historians find themselves confronting the depth of conviction of Louis and his supporter’s.It is by attempting to measure Louis’ conviction to this ideological conflict that we may find some understanding about Louis the man. It was determined early in Louis’ reign that the idea of impressing upon foreign courts the notion of Louis as a superior and indeed supreme monarch was a political necessity. 20 Louis’ diplomatic methods were constructed meticulously so as to allow the minds of visiting dignitaries and foreign courtiers to come to Louis’ ‘conclusions of grandeur’ relatively unassisted by the less subtle means of direct assertion.Cardinal Mazarin called Louis the “greatest king in the world”21 and this exaggerated phrase was built into the very design of Versailles. As foreign dignitaries made their way to the king’s presence they had to have been struck by the persistent images of Louis’ superiority over all other courts. 22 Whether or not this attention to the images of Louis as the ‘universal monarch’ was efficacious would perhaps depend on who was asked.

Perhaps the artistic propaganda of the ‘Ambassador’s Stairs’ moved some foreign visitors to a state of awe.Perhaps it only served as a challenge of legitimacy. Louis and his ‘departments of glory’ actively sought the artistic talents of foreign artists and historians to catalogue and record his ‘magnificence’. This served the quest for legitimacy well beyond the borders of France.

The cultivation of relations between Versailles and foreign courts could be perceived not as a diplomatic mission but as a preliminary step to the acquisition of clients. 3 Following the logic of Louis’ assertions it appears that he hoped for the implementation of his universal monarchy by way war and the dazzling of his contemporaries with his projected ‘innate glory’. There are some resonances in Louis’ behaviour and image with the Renaissance ideal of ‘nonchalance’, or sprezzatura as coined by Castiglione.As Chapelain pointed out to Colbert the gifts of the king increase in nobility relative to the lack of interest displayed by the king. 24 Louis is portrayed as magnanimous for no other reason as to act in a royal comportment and certainly not for praise. 5 Louis’ praises, so paramount to his agenda, had to have the appearance of spontaneity and as Chapelain explained “to seem spontaneous they have to be printed outside his realms”. 26 Here we return to the unbending focus on foreign public opinion. Legitimacy, although claimed to be directly derived from God, was correctly perceived politically to be derived from the sovereign will of the people.

It could be argued that Louis’ image constructors were not content to limit their machinations to the image of the king but wished to fabricate the expressions of the people’s sovereign will.Through different media Louis’ panegyrists institutionalized the praising of the king and even commemorated commemorations. 27 It could be observed, at least from a twenty-first century perspective, that this unbounded institutionalized flattery belied desperation. Perhaps any desperation residing in the king’s image campaign was a result of the political fear of revolution and deposition. This would cast the ‘fabrication of Louis XIV’ as a defensive posture. Meticulous planning is an aspect of the urge to control a multitude of contingencies and events.

The general crisis of the seventeenth century in Europe must have produced a polarizing effect on the psyches of all who lived in the time; including Louis. His victories in territorial wars could not have completely assuaged the doubts of legitimacy inherent in the construction of his image. Indeed as he revealed in his memoirs “I have loved war too much”. 28 This is revealing as a possible testimony to the fallibility of the great ‘sun king’. Perhaps it is also a testimony to his doubts of legitimacy.To know Louis XIV despite his image was difficult for even his closest contemporaries; the man behind the rituals seems to have rarely made an appearance. To know Louis XIV despite his image is even more difficult for the historian of the twenty-first century.

In the course of analysis an historian is likely to impart psychological assumptions on his/her study of Louis. The task then for the historian is to confidently determine what parameters he/she will put on those assumptions then proceed directly to the ‘fabrication of Louis XIV’.

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