The Essence of Nobility
Written by the Duc de Saint- Simon, The Memoirs of the Duc de Saint- Simon provide an understanding as to what everyday life was like at the court of Versailles, by labeling class ranking and superiority the two factors that aided as glue in holding the structure of the Ancien Regime together. The Duc de Saint-Simon resided at Versailles for many years, and while living at the palace, he had the opportunity to observe first hand life at the court. His memoirs display an abundance of information regarding noble culture at the French court. At the time, a large percent of the court’s members consisted of Nobility. Guests were given seemingly informal access to the monarchy, and were provided with the latest news and gossip. All were either consecrated with the privilege to partake in these amenities, or were given the right through royal decree. There was a nous that as a noble, one was equipped with great intelligence and deserving of the best life had to offer. Noble culture at the court of Versailles was a crucial element in reinforcing and defining class identity amongst the nobility, as illustrated in the memoirs of the Duc de Saint- Simon. Here, the encouraged participation of the court’s members at given rituals, and the importance of flattery, praise, and glorification towards King Louis XVI are emphasized, showcasing how social status and class ranking was determined.
The prestige of ones position at the court was heavily determined by the strength of an individuals recognition, and the amount in which one chose to defend their social etiquette. Personal feelings seized to be irrelevant, seeing that presence at dinners, card games, and parties proved to hold a symbolic meaning for members of the court. The attention and reputation a person received steamed from their interactions with others. This particular hierarchy was measured through etiquette. Life at the court of Versailles was centered around conversational skill and interpersonal exchanges. The decision to annihilate oneself from organized rituals often resulted in negative effects. Behaviors of these sorts commonly left the king distraught. He had expected continual attendance at the court, and swiftly took note of the courtiers who were missing. The king freed himself for the mundane festivities at Versailles, and trips to other places, checking to see which members were diligent in their attendance. Anyone who routinely lived at court, and made the decision to eradicate themself, owed the king an explanation. Those who showed themselves merely when convenient were to have provided the king with reasoning for their vacancy. Members of the court who rarely made an appearance were certain to cause him displeasure. At any given time, the request to grant favors for absentees typically left him mocking the existence of these individuals, as he would make comments suggesting he shared no sort of affiliation with them (Norton). The king communicated his frustration with inattentive members in public settings, such as the gardens of Versailles. While strolling through the manicured grounds with his most trusted successors, he saw everybody. It was here that he casted a displeased face upon those whom he felt had wronged him. He knew that in a common place like the gardens, one had absolutely no way of escaping him. Nothing coast the courtiers more than their silence and dissimulation.
King Louis XIV desired to have all of the luxurious, beautiful, and magnificent things that life had to offer, and he encouraged similar tastes within in his court. The glorification of ones own appearance and possessions served as elements of sophistication and greatness. At all times, courtiers were to be as formal as possible (Love). From the way that the ladies of the court dressed, all the way down to the daily topics that were discussed, all things were to be tastefully executed by nature. It was clear that expensive habits were a fashion for those who desired to remain relevant. Carrying out elaborate lifestyles during the time increasingly became a trend. “The king had compelled his courtiers to live beyond their income, and gradually reduced them to depend on his bounty for the means of subsistence (Norton).” Money was often spent carelessly at events and shows, with the intention of arousing the king. Gaining his favor meant that one could potentially have the opportunity to converse with him. Members of the court were manipulated, by the king, to believe that their status was based off of folly and ostentation. With the hope of maintaining grand images, they valued royal protocol and rituals. Vanities lead to honorable entitlements.
Individuals who closely associated themselves with the king filled the highest ranks in the court, and the higher the rank, the greater ones precedence stood. It was widely known that nothing had a greater effect on the king, then him hearing the sound of his own praises. His constant longing for immeasurable amounts of admiration and affection was certainly his most obvious flaw. “There was nothing he liked so much as flattery, or, to put it more plainly, adulation; the coarser and clumsier it was, the more he relished it. That was the only way to approach him; if he ever took a liking to a man it was invariably due to some lucky stroke of flattery in the first instance, and to indefatigable perseverance in the same line afterwards”(Norton). Members of the court all took note of the fact that the only way to their king’s heart was through adulatory. Because of this, courtiers were always on the tips of their toes, anxiously coming up with new ways to please him. They spoiled him rotten, and showered him with mimicry and obedience, because they saw that levels of influences and opportunity came directly from the monarch. In order to reach the kings maximum amount of satisfaction, it was more than likely that one would hide, pretend, and falsely celebrate their true views of him (Malcolm). Those whose company the king enjoyed most, surely had to be providing him with endless amounts of flattery. Worship pleased this ruler in such a profound way, that the harshest of men were accepted, and the evilest were appreciated.
The prospect of social status and class ranking at the court of Versailles is what seemingly drove nobility and culture forward in France during the reign of King Louis XVI (1774-1792). Identities were collectively formed from these elements, and together, they were what enabled the Ancien Regime to thrive. The king’s court at Versailles was made up of some of the most brilliant individuals in all of the land. The Memoir of the Duc de Saint-Simon provides audiences with an overview of two key aspects that were seen as detrimental in defining an individual’s significance at the time. It was vital for members of the court to shown themselves at rituals. Those who did not, upset the king. Members who dared to dishonor the ruler in such a way were labeled as nonexistent, and the monarch would knowingly hurt their chances to flourish in the long run. Subduing the king with complimentary behaviors also managed to be important. It was one of the only ways to capture his attention. This was imperative, because he held all of the power, and the courtier’s fates always rested in his hands.
Norton, Lucy. Historical Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon, Volume II: 1710-1715.
McGraw- Hill Book Company. London.1968.
Love, Ronald S. “Rituals Of Majesty: France, Siam, And Court Spectacle In Royal
Image-Building At Versailles.” Canadian Journal Of History 31.2 (1996): 171-1
Malcolm, Candy “Life at Versailles, Nobility and Etiquette.” Tripod. Web. 21 June 2012.
The Memoirs of the Duc de Saint- Simon
The Memoir of the Duc de Saint-Simon was written in France, by the Duc de Saint- Simon. This memoir was produced to give detailed examples of what everyday life was like for members of the court, as it was a large indicator of how their ranking and influence were expressed at the time. This primary source also gives information about the character King Louis XVI. In the excerpt below, one gets a sense for how important the monarch was in deciding a courtiers significance. Audiences are easily able to infer that the king was depicted in a negative light, and that the blindness of the court often played in his advantage. His constant need for praise and obedience shows how willing the nobles were to turn their heads, seeing that they were more concerned with their status then calling out his injustices.
"To spend money freely on equipages and buildings, on feasting and at cards, was a sure way to gain the kings favour, perhaps to obtain the honour of a word from him. Motives of policy had something to do with this; by making expensive habits the fashion, and, for people in a certain position, a necessity, he compelled his courtiers to live beyond their income, and gradually reduced them to depend on his bounty for the means of subsistence."