Ten thousand persons lived at Versailles in the days of Louis XIV. Nobles living away from Paris wanted to be noticed by Louis XIV. However, Louis could not house his country cousins who had difficulty finding lodging in Paris, which hasn’t changed. If they had a fortune, aristocrats owned a fine home in Paris as well as a horse and carriage. Blaise Pascal helped poorer courtiers by introducing the chaise à porteurs. It was the first public transit system. The chaises à porteurs were like taxis. One paid a fee.
As for the not so wealthy, they sometimes spent years courting Louis in the hope of living at Versailles. Louis could not help courtiers significantly because of the cost of Versailles. Louis XIV wanted the King of France to live in as grand a castle as Fouquet‘s Vaux-le-Vicomte, but Versailles cost a fortune.
Hundreds of country cousins praised Louis in the hope of being given a room at Versailles. Therefore, what Molière wrote about “hangers-on” is true. In his remarkable Splendid Century, W. H. Lewis writes the following:
So a new courtier has arrived at Versailles. Not of course to live in the château, for many weary years will have to pass before he is even considered for a vacant attic; unless some lucky accident befall him such as happened to the Marquis de Dangeau when impromptu verse making was in fashion. The King one day jokingly offered him a room if he could fill in a set of verses on the spot; Dangeau did so, and Louis, who never broke a promise, gave him the coveted room.
The Splendid Century by W. H. Lewis (New York: Double Day Anchor Books, 1957) p. 38.
W. H. Lewis also tells about the cherchemidis, courtiers who searched for a place to dine. Dinner was at noon (midi), and the evening meal was supper, le souper.
If he had no luck in town there was always his patron’s table to fall back on, or he may insinuate himself into a seat at that of the King’s gentleman-servitors, who were among the five-hundred-odd people who ate at Versailles daily at the King’s expense, and for whom he kept a special kitchen, the cuisine de commun.
The Splendid Century by W. H. Lewis (New York: Double Day Anchor Books, 1957) p. 49.
W. H. Lewis was a soldier and an historian. However, he was also C. S. Lewis‘ brother, the author of fantasy literature, such as The Chronicles of Narnia. Both were fine writers, but C. S. Lewis’ fantasy books were so popular that he needed help and found a colleague in his brother, W. H. Lewis. They lived at Oxford.
The Splendid Century is an Internet Archive publication. The book was first published by William Sloane Associates, in 1953.
Le Ballet comique de la Reine(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Molière (15 January 1622 – 17 February 1673), born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, spent several years performing outside Paris. His first troupe, l’Illustre Théâtre, established in 1643, went bankrupt and, in 1645, Molière was imprisoned. He had to leave for the provinces.
Les Précieuses ridicules, a one-act play which premièred on 18 November 1659, was Molière’s first Parisian success and he would produce several other plays, about thirty-four, eleven of which were comédies-ballets, ten with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully and one, with music by Charpentier. However, preceding the comédie-ballet, was the ballet de cour.
Louise was married to Henri III of France, a son a Henri II and Catherine de’ Medici, who was assassinated by Jacques Clément, a Catholic fanatic. As for Anne de Joyeuse (1561 – 1687), he perished at the hands of French Calvinist Protestants, called Huguenots, 800 of whom he had slaughtered. In fact, the French wars of religion are the backdrop to the creation of the ballet de cour.
Daniel Rabel: the “grotesque” in the ballet de cour
Daniel Rabel (1578 – 3 January 1637) was a man of many talents. Wikipedia describes Rabel as “a Renaissance French painter, engraver, miniaturist, botanist and natural history illustrator.” As a painter, Rabel produced grotesque depictions of ballet, but beginning in 1617 until his death in 1637, Rabel was a set designer for theatres and for ballets de cour.
In our context the term grotesque (from grotto) is not pejorative. The ‘grotesque’ is an aesthetics as is the ‘baroque.’ Medieval gargoyles and misericords are acceptably ‘grotesques.’ Beverly Minster, a 12th-century cathedral, has a fine collection of grotesque misericords. In the 19th century, Hugo would revive the grotesque. His 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris features Quasimodo, a hunchback. The “grotesque” is associated with the Middle Ages and the 19th century.
Le Roi danse
“Les Fées de la forêt de Saint-Germain” was danced at the Louvre in February 1625, with Louis XIII himself in the role of a “valiant fighter.” (See Daniel Rabel, Wikipedia.) Louis XIII also danced in the ballet he composed, the Ballet de la Merlaison.
You may remember that Louis XIII, the Sun-King’s father, wrote the Ballet de la Merlaison. Louis XIII was a composer and he composed a ballet. Consequently, the creation of ballet is associated with both Louis XIII and his son, Louis XIV. However, Louis XIII’s Ballet de la Merlaison is a ballet de cour as had been Circé ou le Balet Comique de la Royne. As noted above, Louis XIII performed in the ballet he composed.
Other ballets de cour were performed before 1661, when Molière created Les Fâcheux, (the Bores), to music byLully. King Louis XIII, the Sun-King’s father (Louis XIV), was a composer and, as noted above, he played a role in “Les Fées de la forêt de Saint-Germain.” Louis XIII composed the Ballet delaMerlaison, a ballet de cour.
Le Ballet de la Merlaison by Maurice Leloir, in Dumas père’s The Three Musketeers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Le Bourgeois gentilhomme: comédie ballet and “play-within-a-play”
For a long time, little attention was given Molière’s contribution to ballet, and my book, if ever it is published, will not improve matters as I will discuss only one comédie-ballet: George Dandin (1668). However, one cannot ignore Le Bourgeois gentihomme (14 November 1670), where the ballet is both entertainment and a play-within-a play. Monsieur Jourdain is deceived into marrying his daughter Lucile to Cléonte who has disguised himself into the son of the Mufti, le grand Turc. This is a case of comedy rescuing comedy.
Molière wrote the text of his comédies-ballets, and the text may be read independently of the divertissements, for which he also wrote the text. However, these ballets inject laughter into Molière’s comedies several of which are somber works. The ballets are, to a large extent, part of the comic text.
Except for The Imaginary Invalid (1673), the music of Molière’s comédies-ballets was composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully, born Giovanni Battista Lulli. Pierre Beauchamp (30 October 1631 – February 1705) was Molière’s choreographer.
All three, Molière (playwright), Lully (composer and dancer) and Pierre Beauchamp (choreographer), are major figures in their respective profession and Molière’s comédie-ballet a significant step in the creation of ballet. Lully was named director of AcadémieRoyale deMusique in 1669 and worked with Philippe Quinault, his librettist. The AcadémieRoyale de Musique developed into the Paris Opéra and the smaller Opéra Garnier. Since 1989, performances have been held at the 2700-seat theatre Opéra Bastille.
Several ballets de cour and the related comédies-ballets were staged. It would seem that VoltaireLa Princesse de Navarre (1745) is that last comédie-ballet. It was performed to music by Jean-Philippe Rameau (25 September 1683 – 12 September 1764). (See Comédie-ballet, Wikipedia.)
We close with Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, which was not an opera but a turning-point in the history of ballet in the galant style. Specialists were now developing ballet.
Les Fâcheux (The Bores) the first comédie-ballet (1661)
Molière wrote eleven comédies-ballets, the first of which was Les Fâcheux (The Bores), created by Molière and Lully and performed at Vaux-le-Vicomte, Nicolas Fouquet’s magnificent castle. Fouquet invited a newly-crowned king Louis XIV to a lavish feast at Vaux, which took place on 17 August 1661, but Louis grew jealous. We have read that story. Louis XIV used ballets to cultivate the image of the Sun-King. Therefore, to a certain extent, ballet was put into the service of absolutism.
Laila and Majnun at School, Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami, Calligrapher: Ja’far Baisunghuri (active first half 15th century), Author: Nizami (Ilyas Abu Muhammad Nizam al-Din of Ganja) (probably 1141–1217), Folio from an illustrated manuscript, Date: A.H. 835/ A.D. 1431–32 (Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)
Quebec’s Premier, Dr Philippe Couillard, worked for four years in Saudi Arabia. He is a neurosurgeon who founded or co-founded a hospital in Saudi Arabia. Some members of the opposition in Quebec have therefore been throwing stones in his direction. One could suggest that, as members of the opposition, it is in these politicians best interest to find fault with the Premier, but what about Mr Badawi?
La Rochefoucauld (15 September 1613 – 17 March 1680) wrote a large number of Maximes according to which humans act out of “self-interest.” He is quite right, but the fact remains that many human beings do not act out of self-interest, at least not in the narrowest acceptation of the term. Moreover, although some individuals are rewarded for the good they have done, the good they have done remains good.
A radio personality stated that Premier Couillard would have collaborated with Hitler, which is provocation. That person has since apologized, and apologies were accepted. We are closing this door.
But yesterday, I saw disparaging comments on Twitter with respect to Dr Couillard, the Premier of Quebec. My response was that Dr Couillard knew the territory and was in a good position to help Mr Badawi.
No one has tapped Premier Couillard’s telephone, so we do not know what he may have said to Saudi officials, if he phoned Saudi officials. Premier Couillard’s telephone bill may show that he has phoned the royal family, but we would not know what he said. It would be imprudent on the part of Premier Couillard to provide details concerning a private telephone conversation. He may antagonize Saudi officials, if there was a conversation.
Protest is necessary, but throwing stones is not be a good approach. We know, for instance, that upon appeal, Mr Badawi’s sentence grew from 7 years in prison to 10 years, and from 600 lashes to 1,000. Mr Badawi’s story reminds me of Nicolas Fouquet’s demise. This is a story I have told (see RELATED ARTICLES).
I will note, however, that when Nicolas Fouquet appealed his sentence, which was banishment, Louis XIV, an absolute monarch, sentenced him to life imprisonment. In both Fouquet’s and Raif Badawi’s cases, we are dealing with absolute monarchs, which should be taken into consideration.
Mr Badawi was not flogged on 16 January 2015, nor was he flogged on 23 January. In fact, he may not be flogged again. This is reassuring. He has yet to be sent to Canada, but we should not assume he will not be released.
The above image is a book cover of an edition of Mme de Sévigné’s Letters. (Photo credit: Google images)
Born Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the Marquise de Sévigné‘s (5 February 1626 – 17 April 1696) wrote a considerable number of letters to her daughter Françoise, comtesse de Grignan (1646 – 1705). These letters now belong to the world of literature and they constitute a vivid chronicle of life under Louis XIV. One of Madame de Sévigné’s letters is about François Vatel (born Fritz Karl Watel; 1631 – 24 April 1671), a famous majordomo or maître d’hôtel.
François Vatel at Vaux-le-Vicomte
François Vatel‘s (1631 – April 24, 1671) story takes us back to Vaux-le Vicomte, Nicolas Fouquet‘s castle. In an earlier article, posted on 20 August 2013 (see Related Article), Nicolas Fouquet’s rise and fall was discussed. Fouquet had been France’s Superintendent of Finances since 1653 and had a magnificent castle built. Its inauguration took place on 17 August 1661.
As majordomo or maître d’hôtel, François Vatel was responsible for Vaux-le-Vicomte’s splendid inauguration, a festivity in honour of Louis XIV. That celebration is one of the two or three most spectacular festivities in the history of France and it has remained fresh in our memory because the day Nicolas Fouquet was host to some 2,000 guests, the culmination of a dream, was the first day of his demise. He did not know he was under any kind of suspicion. However his fall from grace was planned beginning in April 1661.
No, this was not une fête galante, nor was it unefête champêtre. People visitedthe gardens and the orangerie, but a fête champêtre was a more intimate event. Nicolas Fouquet (27 January 1615 – 23 March 1680), Louis XIV’s Superintendent of Finances, had invited 2,000 guests, including the 22-year-old Louis XIV. Molière‘s troupe performed Les Fâcheux and there were divertissements (entertainment) of all kinds, including magnificent fireworks. The inauguration of Vaux-le-Vicomte is considered one of the three or four most sumptuous celebrations in the history of France, but it was a public event and Vatel proved an excellent maître d’hôtel.
The splendour of Vaux-le-Vicomte intrigued the young king. Could it be, for instance, that Nicolas Fouquet, who was the king’s Superintendent of Finances, had embezzled money? Jules Mazarin (14 July 1602 – 9 March 1661), who had been the “chief minister” of France from 1642 until 1661, had no doubt embezzled funds. As well, Fouquet expected to be Minister of Finance, but so did Colbert. There was opposition to Fouquet (also spelled Foucquet).
Be that as it may, Louis XIV had Fouquet arrested by d’Artagnan, whom Alexandre Dumas, père transformed into a fictional hero in The Three Musketeers (serialized as of 1844). Fouquet was tried, convicted and imprisoned for life at Pignerol, in the very jail that held the prisoner known as “the man in the iron mask.”
Fouquet had been a generous patron of the arts. Consequently, fabulist Jean de La Fontaine (8 July 1621 – 13 April 1695) a protégé of Fouquet, pleaded for leniency. He wrote to Louis XIV, but although La Fontaine was a superb writer, second only to Victor Hugo in the history of French literature, and recognized as a great author in his own days, he was not appointed to the French Académie, founded in 1635, until 1684. That was his punishment. La Fontaine’s first volume of Fables was published in 1668 (twelve books). The second was published in 1678 (eleven books) and the third, one book, in 1694.
Versailles: Louis copies Nicolas Fouquet
Louis XIV (5 September 1638 – 1 September 1715) was mercyless. When Nicolas Fouquet started serving his life sentence, Louis was busy recruiting the men who had designed Vaux-le-Vicomte: Louis Le Vau, Charles Le Brun, and landscape architect André Le Nôtre. Moreover, architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, who had built a superb orangerie at Vaux-le-Vicomte, was directed to provide Versailles with an even better one.
Louis was quite anxious to host as magnificent a feast as the inauguration of Vaux-le-Vicomte and attempted to do so in 1664. This seems an early date in the construction of Versailles. Louis XIV’s Les Plaisirs de l’Isle enchantée was a six-day feast. Its title suggests a fairy tale: l’Isle enchantée. It was lavish entertainment. Molière, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622 – 1673), contributed his first version of Le Tartuffe to the event.[I] Moreover, Molière worked with composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (28 November 1632 – 22 March 1687) because the divertissement would include music and dance. Louis XIV was a dancer. Louis’ Plaisirs de l’Isle enchantée was a lesser fête than Nicolas Fouquet’s inauguration of Vaux-le-Vicomte.
Château de Chantilly (Photo credit: Google images)
François Vatel at Chantilly
Madame de Sévigné’s account of François Vatel’s suicide is eloquent, but mine is a mere summary. However, this one story tells in a nutshell about life under Louis XIV. It was a constant ceremonial. Vatel did not feel he could disappoint Louis XIV. Nor could he disappoint le Grand Condé, a military hero, a prince of the blood, i.e. a possible heir to the thrown of France, and his employer.
For the original text, in French, go to Chapter 47, p. 121, online. (Lettres de Mme de Sévigné; Gutenberg project [EBook 43901]FR). But there is an English translation at Internet Archives: Letters of Mme de Sévigné, 45 & 46. I did not find the translation soon enough. The Internet Archives‘ English translation has been appended to this post and so has the French-language text.
Lettre à Françoise de Grignan, 26 April 1771
This is an incomplete excerpt from Chapter 47, p. 121, of Mme de Sévigné’s Lettres (Lettres de Mme de Sévigné: [EBook 43901]FR). The Prince is le Grand Condé: Louis II de Bourbon, Duc de Condé et d’Enghien, the highest ranking aristocrat after Louis XIV. At first, he was feared by Louis XIV because of his involvement in the Fronde(literally a sling). The Fronde was a seventeenth-century revolt (c. 1648-1652) against the increased power of a growingly centralized government that nearly excluded the participation of the higher nobility, including princes of the blood, in governing France. The people also revolted. There were two Frondes.
My abridged excerpt
Vatel said he hadn’t slept for twelve nights and that his head was turning around. There had not been enough roast and now only two loads of fish (or “fruits de mer,” [seafood]) had been delivered. Vatel, who performed his duties most diligently, was very distraught…
“…They had dinner, but there wasn’t enough roast. Vatel felt he had disgraced himself… Gourville [probably Jean Hérault de Gourville, a memorialist] went to see the prince [Condé]. …The prince walked to Vatel’s room and said: “All is well; nothing was more beautiful than the King’s supper.” Vatel answered: “Your Highness, your kindness overwhelms me. I know that roast was missing at two tables.” “Don’t get angry: all is going well,” said the prince, somewhat mockingly.
At midnight, time came for the fireworks. The display was not successful. A cloud blinded the sight; it had cost 16,000 francs! At four in the morning, Vatel started wandering everywhere. Everybody was asleep. He met a young purveyor bringing in two loads of fish [or seafood]. Vatel asked: “Is that all?” The purveyor did not know Vatel had ordered fish from every port. Vatel waited, but other purveyors were not coming … Vatel’s head was getting hot: he thought there would be no more tides. He found Gourville and told him: “Sir I will not survive this affront.” Gourville made fun of him. Vatel went up to his room, attached his sword to a door and ran it through his body three times before he died, which is the very moment the fish started arriving.Everyone was looking for Vatel so the fish could be distributed. They went to his room, knocked on the door and then forced it open, only to find Vatel drowning in his own blood. They ran to the prince who was desperate. The duke [Condé] wept. The success of his trip to Burgundy depended on Vatel. The prince told the king sadly that this had happened because of Vatel’s idea of honour. Vatel was praised, but his courage was blamed.”
Louis XIV went on to say that he had waited five years before travelling to Chantilly. He was afraid there would be too much of a fuss. From then on, tables were to be limited to two, not twenty-five. But, alas, this new policy could not revive Vatel. Two thousand guests were in attendance.
This story is an exceptional example of irony, at every level, and from every angle. It is a devastating testimonial. Vatel’s death did not affect the celebration. It continued as though nothing had happened. Yet, a good man had died who had every reason to fear the king and the duke. Fouquet was serving a life sentence and lawyers are still investigating the case. For a while, Fouquet’s manservant at Pignerol, now located in Italy, was “the man in the iron mask,” except that, in all likelihood, he was wearing a velvet mask. The man has a name, Eustache Dauger, but he has yet to be identified. These were fearful days.
Supper was served, but there was no roast meat at one or two of the tables, on account of Vatel’s having been obliged to provide several dinners more
MADAME DE GRIGNAN. 45
than were expected. This affected his spirits, and he was heard to say, several times: “I have lost my honor! I can not bear this disgrace.” My head is quite bewildered,” said he to Gourville.” I have not had a wink of sleep these twelve nights; I wish you would assist me in giving orders.” Gourville did all he could to coinfort [sic] and assist him; but the failure of the roast meat (which, however, did not happen at the king’s table, but at some of the other twenty-five), was always uppermost with him. Gourville mentioned it to the prince, who went directly to Vatel’s apartment, and said to him: “Every thing is extremely well conducted, Vatel; nothing could be more admirable than his majesty’s supper.” “Your highness’s goodness,” replied he, “overwhelms me; I am sensible that there was a deficiency of roast meat at two tables.” “Not at all,” said the prince; “do not perplex yourself, and all will go well.” Midnight came: the fireworks did not succeed, they were covered with a thick cloud; they cost sixteen thousand francs. At four o’clock in the morning Vatel went round and found every body asleep; he met one of the under-purveyors, who was just come in with only two loads of fish.” “What!” said he, “is this all?” “Yes, sir,” said the man, not knowing that Vatel had dispatched other people to all the sea-ports around. Vatel waited for some time; the other purveyors did not arrive; his head grew distracted; he thought there was no more fish to be had. He flew to Gourville: “Sir,” said he, “I can not outlive this disgrace.” Gourville laughed at him. Vatel, however, went to his apartment, and setting the hilt of his sword against the door, after two ineffectual attempts, succeeded in the third, in forcing his sword through his heart. At that instant the carriers arrived with the fish; Vatel was inquired after to distribute it. They ran to his apartment, knocked at the door, but received no answer, upon which they broke it open, and found him weltering in his blood. A messenger was immediately dispatched to acquaint the prince with what had happened, who was like a man in de-
46 LETTERS TO
spair. The duke wept, for his Burgundy journey depended upon Vatel. The prince related the whole affair to his majesty with an expression of great concern; it was considered as the consequence of too nice a sense of honor; some blamed, others praised him for his courage. The king said he had put off this excursion for more than five years, because he was aware that it would be attended with infinite trouble, and told the prince that he ought to have had but two tables, and not have been at the expense of so many, and declared he would never suffer him to do so again; but all this was too late for poor Vatel.
The Original Letter
A Paris, dimanche 26 avril 1671.Il est dimanche 26 avril; cette lettre ne partira que mercredi; mais ce n’est pas une lettre, c’est une relation que Moreuil vient de me faire, à votre intention, de ce qui s’est passé à Chantilly touchant Vatel. Je vous écrivis vendredi qu’il s’était poignardé; voici l’affaire en détail: Le roi arriva le jeudi au soir; la promenade, la collation dans un lieu tapissé de jonquilles, tout cela fut à souhait. On soupa, il y eut quelques tables où le rôti manqua, à cause de plusieurs dîners à quoi l’on ne s’était point attendu; cela saisit Vatel, il dit plusieurs fois: Je suis perdu d’honneur; voici un affront que je ne supporterai pas. Il dit à Gourville: La tête me tourne, il y a douze nuits que je n’ai dormi; aidez-moi à donner 121 des ordres. Gourville le soulagea en ce qu’il put. Le rôti qui avait manqué, non pas à la table du roi, mais aux vingt-cinquièmes, lui revenait toujours à l’esprit. Gourville le dit à M. le Prince. M. le Prince alla jusque dans la chambre de Vatel, et lui dit: «Vatel, tout va bien; rien n’était si beau que le souper du roi.» Il répondit: «Monseigneur, votre bonté m’achève; je sais que le rôti a manqué à deux tables.» «Point du tout, dit M. le Prince; ne vous fâchez point: tout va bien.» Minuit vint, le feu d’artifice ne réussit pas, il fut couvert d’un nuage; il coûtait seize mille francs. A quatre heures du matin, Vatel s’en va partout, il trouve tout endormi, il rencontre un petit pourvoyeur qui lui apportait seulement deux charges de marée; il lui demande: Est-ce là tout? Oui, monsieur. Il ne savait pas que Vatel avait envoyé à tous les ports de mer. Vatel attend quelque temps; les autres pourvoyeurs ne vinrent point; sa tête s’échauffait, il crut qu’il n’aurait point d’autre marée; il trouva Gourville, il lui dit: Monsieur, je ne survivrai point à cet affront-ci. Gourville se moqua de lui. Vatel monte à sa chambre, met son épée contre la porte, et se la passe au travers du cœur; mais ce ne fut qu’au troisième coup, car il s’en donna deux qui n’étaient point mortels; il tombe mort. La marée cependant arrive de tous côtés: on cherche Vatel pour la distribuer, on va à sa chambre, on heurte, on enfonce la porte, on le trouve noyé dans son sang; on court à M. le Prince, qui fut au désespoir. M. le Duc pleura; c’était sur Vatel que tournait tout son voyage de Bourgogne. M. le Prince le dit au roi fort tristement: on dit que c’était à force d’avoir de l’honneur à sa manière; on le loua fort, on loua et l’on blâma son courage. Le roi dit qu’il y avait cinq ans qu’il retardait de venir à Chantilly, parce qu’il comprenait l’excès de cet embarras. Il dit à M. le Prince qu’il ne devait avoir que deux tables, et ne point se charger de tout; il jura qu’il ne souffrirait plus que M. le Prince en usât ainsi; mais c’était trop tard pour le pauvre Vatel. Cependant Gourville tâcha de réparer la perte de Vatel; elle fut réparée: on dîna très-bien, on fit collation, on soupa, on se promena, on joua, on fut à la chasse; tout était parfumé de jonquilles, tout était enchanté. Hier, qui était samedi, on fit encore de même; et le soir, le roi alla à Liancourt, où il avait commandé media noche; il y doit 122 demeurer aujourd’hui. Voilà ce que Moreuil m’a dit, espérant que je vous le manderais. Je jette mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins, et je ne sais rien du reste. M. d’Hacqueville, qui était à tout cela, vous fera des relations sans doute; mais comme son écriture n’est pas si lisible que la mienne, j’écris toujours; et si je vous mande cette infinité de détails, c’est que je les aimerais en pareille occasion.
In an earlier post on the “The Oak and the Reed,” I commented on this line, the moral of the “The Oak and Reed:” ‘Je plie, et ne romps pas.’(‘I bend, and do not break.’) This line illustrates La Fontaine’s uncanny ability to tell what he is not telling (dire-sans-dire). In fact, it was long believed that this fable expounded the importance of humility and little else:
“Written in the autocratic time of Louis XIV of France, this was so successfully achieved that it appeared to teach the value of humility at the same time as suggesting that rulers may not be as powerful as they think themselves.” (“The Oak and the Reed” [I.22], Wikipedia)
La Fontaine as a Protégé of Nicolas Fouquet
La Fontaine had been a protégé of Nicolas Fouquet/Foucquet (January 27, 1615 – March 23, 1680), the Superintendant of Finances, from 1653 until 1661, the year Louis XIV became King of France. After 17 August 1661, the day Louis XIV attended a fête at Vaux-le-Vicomte, Fouquet’s magnificent castle, Louis XIV accused Fouquet of embezzlement. Fouquet was convicted and condemned to banishment, a sentence Louis XIV himself, then aged 22, commuted to life imprisonment, at Pignerol (now Pinerolo, Italy), a sadder fate than banishment. La Fontaine had written his “Élégieaux Nymphes de Vaux,” in the vain hope of obtaining a degree of clemency towards his former patron, Nicolas Fouquet. He also wrote “Le Songe de Vaux.”
As a university teacher, I often taught La Fontaine’s “Chêne et Roseau” and would ask my students to provide a moral for La Fontaine’s fable. What did “Je plie, et ne romps pas” (I bend, and do not break) mean?
At first, they saw a fable about “the value of humility.”
They also said that it was about the mighty. They could break.
Third, they commented on the underlying structure of fables and farcical comic texts, the formulaic “deceiver deceived” (“le trompeurtrompé”). People who allow themselves to boast, even moderately, are punished.
However, they did not see that “The Oak and the Reed” was about human behaviour and, in particular, about the importance of flexibility. He who bends does not break. The meaning of La Fontaine’s fables does not jump off the page.
“Je plie, et ne romps pas.” (I bend, and do not break)
Earlier in the history of this fable, this moral, “I bend but do not break,” was expressed more explicitly. According to Wikipedia, such was the moral of Avianus‘ (400 CE) telling of this fable, and the moral of earlier Greek retellings. It is the moral expressed in Geoffrey Chaucer‘s (c. 1343 – 25 October 1400) Troilus and Criseyde, (II.1387-9) [EBook #257].
A reed before the wind lives on, while mighty oaks do fall.
In footnote 28 of Gutenberg’s version of La Fontaine’s Fables, classified as [EBook #7241], American translator Elizur Wright and J. W. M. Gibbs, editor, state that “[t]he groundwork of this fable is in Æsop, and also in the Fables of Avianus.” Flavius Avianus lived in the 5th century CE (the 400s) and translated 42 Æsopic fables. Famous translator and printer William Caxton (ca. 1415~1422 – ca. March 1492), translated “The Fables of Avian” into “Englyshe.”[i]
Two Traditions: Phædrus and Babrius
Phædrus (Latin) and Babrius (Greek)
Yet, it should be pointed out that, although Flavius Avianus‘ translation was in Latin verse, his main source had been Babrius who translated Æsop’s Fables into Greek. It could be, therefore, that Babrius’ moral was more explicit. European sources of Æsopic fables were either the Latin translation by Phædrus‘ (c. 15 BCE – c. 50 CE) or Babrius‘ Æsop’s Fables. In fact, Avianus became a source to fable writers as did Névelet, whose Latin translation of Æsopic fables La Fontaine used, the Mythologia Æsopica Isaaci Nicolai Neveleti, Frankfurt, 1610. (See lafontaine.net.)
According to Wikipedia’s entry on “The Oak and the Reed,” flexibility was the teaching of the RabbinicTalmud and the moral of earlier versions of “The Oak and the Reed,” all of which are rooted in “Near Eastern dispute poems.” The Talmud‘s “Be pliable like a reed, not rigid like a cedar” is attributed to Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar. The same moral is expressed in a Chinese proverb “A tree that is unbending is easily broken,” and the saying goes back to the Tao Te Ching. (See The Oak and the Reed, Wikipedia.)
In France, l’honnête homme is the perfect gentleman and courtier and he is, furthermore, as he seems. There is very little, if any, sprezzatura, a form of studied carelessness, about “l’honnête homme.” “Honnêteté,” in its literal sense, that of “honesty,” militates against the idea of a mere façade. I should think there were exceptions, but, in theory, l’honnête homme was well-educated (but not pedantic), had fine manners, dressed well, spoke well, never boasted and avoided all extremes, favouring modération.[ii]
Bernard Salomon‘s woodcut of “The olive tree and the reed” from a French collection of Æsop’s Fables in rhyme (Lyon 1547)
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Oak, the Cedar and the Olive tree
Trees have been rigid for a very long time, but they have not been oak trees consistently. The Talmud features a cedar and fabulists Gilles Corrozet (1547), Gabriele Faerno (1564) Giovanni Maria Verdizotti used an olive tree. As for Swabian translator Heinrich Steinhöwel, he also used an olive tree. His 1480 translation of Æsopic fables is rooted in Avianus, Babrius (Greek) and Romulus (a 5th-century Latin-language fabulist). Romulus may be a legendary figure, which may also be the case with respect to Æsop himself.
I must close, but the above illustrates the depth of “The Oak and the Reed,” its age, not to mention its universality. It is not only about the doomed pride of the mighty, but also about the flexibility humans require to function in society, under Louis XIV especially. As for the ambiguity of its moral, it illustrates La Fontaine’s mute eloquence and may point to the Latin source of this fable. However talkative animals, trees and willows can be in literature, they do not speak. La Fontaine himself gave everyone the impression he was absent-minded and he was often referred to as a “bonhomme.” After Vaux-le-Vicomte, the fall of Nicolas Fouquet, he let animals, trees, willows and, at times, humans retell a fable that had been told for centuries and, perhaps, millennia.
28. The groundwork of this fable is in Æsop, and also in the Fables of Avianus. Flavius Avianus lived in the 5th century. His Æsopic Fables were written in Latin verse. Caxton printed “The Fables of Avian, translated into Englyshe” at the end of his edition of Æsop.
29. This fable and “The Animals Sick of the Plague” [I.7] are generally deemed La Fontaine’s two best fables. “The Oak and the Reed” is held to be the perfection of classical fable, while “The Animals Sick of the Plague” is esteemed for its fine poetic feeling conjoined with its excellent moral teaching. [EBook #7241]
[ii] If you can read French, you may wish to visit Larousse’s site: honnête homme.
Patrick Dandrey, (2nd edition) La Fabrique des Fables (FR) (Paris: Klincksieck, 1992).Marc Fumaroli, Le Poète et le Roi. Jean de La Fontaine en son siècle (FR) (Paris: Le Fallois, 1997).
Jürgen Grimm (various articles)
Nicolas Fouquet, by Sébastien Bourdon (Musée national du château de Versailles) (Photo credit: Larousse)
The story of the “City Rat and the Country Rat,” or “Town Mouse and Country Mouse” is not insignificant. Our country mouse is as poor as the peasants who paid the astronomical bill Louis XIV ran up building Versailles. But Louis had seen Vaux-le-Vicomte, the castle Nicolas Fouquet, the “Superintendent of Finances,” had built for himself and Louis XIV was not about to be housed in humbler dwellings than the magnificent château owned by his “surintendant des Finances,” a patron of Jean de La Fontaine, and various authors and artists.
Nicolas Fouquet,[i] marquis de Belle-Île, vicomte de Melun et Vaux (27 January 1615 – 23 March 1680) was “Superintendent of Finances” in France between 1653 and 1661. A lawyer by training, he had risen to prominence rapidly and had been named “Superintendant of Finances,” a position Italian-born Cardinal Jules Mazarin (14 July 1602 – 9 March 1661), who ruled France, could not deny him. Fouquet knew that Mazarin was using his own position as “Prime Minister” to amass wealth, while the “country mice” of France lived in abject poverty.
Nicolas Fouquet’s château, Vaux-le-Vicomte,[ii] had been built by the future architect of Versailles: Louis Le Vau, and was decorated by Versailles’ future painter Charles Le Brun, who owed his training as an artist to a powerful individual, le chancelier Séguier.[iii] As for the grounds, they were designed by landscape artist André Le Nôtre. Fouquet had therefore assembled the team that would later build Louis XIV’s castle at Versailles, a community where his father, King Louis XIII, a composer, had a hunting lodge he used as his main residence. Fouquet also owned Belle-Île-sur-Mer, a fortified island where he could live if ever he needed a safe haven. As well, Fouquet had bought several private properties in Paris, “hôtels” or “hôtels particuliers,” and, in 1651, a widower, Fouquet married a very wealthy Spanish woman, Marie de Castille.
In 1661, shortly after Louis XIV ascended the throne, Fouquet hosted a fête that could not be rivalled and that convinced Louis XIV, first, that Fouquet was using public funds for private purposes and, second, that he, the King, needed a castle that would be more beautiful than the castle of a mere “subject,” at any cost.
Moreover, on 17 August 1661, dramatist Molière premièred Les Fâcheux, a comedy and a ballet, at Vaux-le-Vicomte. The king loved to dance and had discovered a composer who could provide the appropriate music, Italian-born Giovanni Battista Lulli, renamed Jean-Baptiste Lully (28 November 1632 – 22 March 1687). Molière was one of Fouquet’s protégés, but he was also a friend of Louis XIV.
Louis quickly suspected embezzlement (malversation de fonds publics) on the part of Nicolas Fouquet, abolished the position of Superintendant of Finances, arranged for Fouquet to accompany him to Nantes where D’Artagnan, whose full name was Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore, Comte d’Artagnan (c. 1611 – 25 June 1673), one of his Musketeers (les mousquetaires de la maison militaire du roi de France), took the very wealthy Fouquet into custody. Famed and prolific novelist Alexandre Dumas, père(24 July 1802 – 5 December 1870) used D’Artagnan as the leading figure in his Trois Mousquetaires (1844).
This festive event sealed Fouquet’s fate.Whether or not justice was served, we may never know, but in December 1664, after a three-year trial, Nicolas Fouquet was found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to banishment, a sentence commuted to life imprisonment. (See Fouquet, Wikipedia.) Fouquet died at Pignerol (now Pinerolo), in 1680. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who coveted a place as a member of the Conseil du Roi, assembled the material that would serve to destroy Fouquet, a possible rival. Unlike Louis XIII, who let France be governed by prime ministers: Cardinal Richelieu, replaced, in 1642, by Cardinal Jules Mazarin, Louis XIV did not want a prime minister.
Interestingly, Fouquet served his sentence in the same prison as the man with the iron mask(l’homme au masque de fer), whose identity has yet to be determined, but who was Fouquet’s man-servant for a short period. Rumour has it that the man in the iron mask may have been Louis XIV’s father. Louis XIII is unlikely to have fathered a son. As noted above, he preferred to live with friends in his hunting lodge at Versailles, where Louis XIV, would have his castle built.
Fouquet as patron of the Arts: Jean de La Fontaine
Vaux-le-Vicomte had been a lesson to La Fontaine who set about writing fables that he called “a comedy immense,” cultivating a discreet form of congeniality with his peers and hosts. I believe he was the rustic rather than the city rat. Between the lines of his fables, he painted a fresco of his era. However, he did so using anthropomorphism. His animals, the elements, the trees, all were humans in disguise and stereotypes, which protected the fabulist. The Lion may be king, but the King is not a lion and would not want to be. Imagine the ridicule Louis XIV would have brought unto himself, if he had allowed anyone to think that he was an animal, La Fontaine’s lion. La Fontaine therefore wrote
Une ample comédie à cent actes divers
Et dont la scène est l’univers.
Le Bûcheron et Mercure (V.i; V.1)
Thus swells my work—a comedy immense
Its acts unnumbered and diverse,
Its scene the boundless universe.
The Woodman and Mercury (V.i; V.1)
Fouquet’s story is well-known. Absolutism would not allow transgressions. Not only was Fouquet jailed for the remainder of his life, but the possessions he cherished were seized. Under Louis XIV, the only person who could keep a king humble was Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, whose sermons are famous and who emphasized that all of us are mere mortals: memento mori.
Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu et de Fronsac (9 September 1585 – 4 December 1642) is probably the best example of an éminence grise, the name given persons who stand behind the official ruler, and ensure his or her success. Richelieu was a clergyman, a noble and a statesman. He became a public figure when he was elected one of the representatives of the clergy of Poitou to the States General of 1614.[i] He became Secretary of State in 1616, six years after Henri IV was assassinated by François Ravaillac.
In 1610, when her husband Henri IV was assassinated, Marie de Médicis or Marie de’ Medici (26 April 1575 – 4 July 1642), a potentially powerful widow, could have ruled France. The future Louis XIII (27 September 1601 – 14 May 1643) was only nine when his father was killed. But the French did not like Marie. She was not very intelligent and there was something vulgar about her: “[t]he queen feuded with Henri’s mistresses in language that shocked French courtiers.” (Wikipedia)
Marie’s main mistake was to befriend the corrupt Concini family, nipping in the bud her chances to govern and leaving room for the then bishop and brilliant Richelieu to enter into the service of Louis XIII and become the chief architect of absolutism.
Cardinal de Richelieu, by Philippe de Champaigne (c.1640)
As for Richelieu, he would centralize France and establish absolutism as firmly as he could. Put in a nutshell, absolutism required the people of France to have one king, to speak one language, and to practice the same religion. Between 1624 until his death in 1642, Armand Jean du Plessis did achieve the three goals he had set as his objective.
In theory, Richelieu was nothing more than King Louis XIII‘s chief minister but, in reality, he was king regent and extremely powerful. Louis de Bourbon was a reluctant and unlikely king and therefore needed Richelieu, which goes a long way in explaining the authority afforded Richelieu. The relationship between the king and his chief minister was well nigh symbiotic. In other words, Marie’s intellectual deficiencies and Louis’s inability to rule were ideal circumstances for a bright young Bishop to become a ruler.
Louis XIII was not cut out to be an absolute ruler. Louis liked to go hunting and he and his minions gathered in his hunting lodge at Versailles. He was a homosexual and, as I recently discovered, he was also a composer, as was Frederick the Great.
On the Day of the Dupes (November 10, 1630), when the rumour circulated that Richelieu had been killed, Louis XIII took his chief minister to his hunting lodge in Versailles. According to Britannica, “[a]fter initially agreeing to the cardinal’s dismissal, the king recovered and chose to support Richelieu against the wishes of his mother, his wife, and his confessor.”[ii] Marie was sent to Blois and Richelieu started to rule unopposed, as did his successor Jules Mazarin, the chief minister from December 5, 1642 until March 9, 1661.
The Fronde, a revolt which began in 1635, at the time of the Franco-Spanish War, was the acid test that confirmed absolutism as exercised by Richelieu/Louis XIII. The Fronde opposed, on the one hand, the people (les parlements) and the king, and, on the other hand, the nobility and the king, or his chief minister. Frondeurs actually entered Louis XIV’s bedroom at the Louvre when he was a child. As a result, Louis XIV’s advisors were “bourgeois” who lived upstairs at Versailles which, as I have mentioned recently, fully explains their being called, le conseil d’en haut. Here “en haut” meant upstairs.
We have named the three conditions demanded by absolutism: one king, one language and one religion. I will write about these goals, but not in the order I just used. We will begin with the linguistic condition. All of France had to speack and spoke French.
Well, in this regard, we owe the creation of the Académie-Française (1635) to Richelieu. Very early in the century, Catherine de Vivonne or Madame de Rambouillet, born in Rome, opened her salon. The people who gathered in her chambre bleue, including aristocrats and Richelieu himself, were by an large honnêtes hommes, a termwhich as I have written in an earlier blog does not mean honest men. Honest men would be called hommes honnêtes. Not only would l’honnête homme speak French, but he would speak it well.
L‘honnête homme is the perfect gentleman. He has Italian roots in that he embodies Baldassare Castiglione‘s courtier. Castiglione is the author of Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier), published in 1528. During his stay at the Court of Urbino, in what is now Italy, Castiglione observed an “art,” the art of being a courtier, an “honnête homme,” but not necessarily an aristocratic honnête homme. Aristocrats had to learn honnêteté.
In the salons, one spoke well, hence the creation of the above-mentioned Académie-Française whose mission it would be to regulate the French language. The French court and courtiers would have to be as civilized as persons attending salons, but the court could not be “précieuse.”The movement known asLa Préciosité was an instance of what Jean Cocteau described as “not knowing just how far one can go too far.” Chairs are chairs and an armchair, an armchair or fauteuil (fautei). Neither are “les commodités de la conversation.”
Ironically, Jean Cocteau’s famous phrase about audacity summarizes l’honnêteté. An honnête homme knew how far he could go too far. “Avoir du tact, c’est savoir jusqu’où on peut aller trop loin.” or “Being tactful in audacity is knowing how far one can go to far.” (Jean Cocteau [5 July 1889 – 11 October 1963]). What a quotation!
The Edict of Nantes, 1598
Under Richelieu, being a protestant was a major disadvantage. One could pay a price. So despite the Edict of Nantes, promulgated under Henri IV, in 1598, and dictating tolerance towards Huguenots, Richelieu, our éminencegrise, but rouge, given his red garments, brought Louis XIII to La Rochelle when it was besieged, in 1627-1628. That year, some twenty-two thousand Huguenots were starved to death. Out of a population of twenty-seven thousand Huguenots, five thousand survived.
“[Richelieu] believed that their [the Huguenots] right under the Edict of Nantes to maintain armed fortresses weakened the king’s position at home and abroad. Protestant rebellions in 1625 and 1627 persuaded the cardinal of the need for a direct confrontation.”[iii]The British tried to rescue the starving Huguenots, but were defeated.
So the Edict of Nantes was revoked long before its official revocation by Louis XIV, on 18 October 1685.
The centralization of France, absolute monarchy in this case, also demanded that France have but one king. This takes us to La Fronde. Various grands seigneurs, dukes who had owned large portions of France, resented being disempowered, which was a requirement of absolutism as designed by Richelieu and put into pratice by his chosen successor, Jules Mazarin (1602–1661), born Giulio Raimondo Mazzarino.
La Fronde des nobles was severely repressed. No one was drawn and quartered by four horses racing respectively east, west, north and south, which had been Ravaillac’s fate, Henri IV’s assassin. But the story of Cinq-Mars (pronounced: Mar), whose father was a friend of Richelieu, illustrates how ruthlessly Richelieu made everyone in France march to the beat of one drummer.
Henri Coiffier de Ruzé, Marquis de Cinq-Mars (1620 – September 12, 1642) became Louis XIII’s lover and told Louis XIII that Richelieu should be executed. Cinq-Mars had a powerful supporter in Gaston de France, Henri IV’s and Marie de Médicis’s son and Louis XIII’s brother. The conspiracy failed and it would appear that Cinq-Mars’s family did not believe Richelieu would have young Cinq-Mars beheaded. At any rate, they did not hire a good executioner and the head took forever to fall. This type of torture led to the invention of the guillotine.
Not only was Richelieu pitiless, but he insisted on being transported to Lyons where the executions took place, lying on his death-bed. He wanted to be a witness to 22 year-old Cinq-Mars’s execution. François-Auguste de Thou(Paris c. 1607 – Lyon 12 septembre 1642), not a conspirator, but one who knew about the conspiracy and did not tell, was also executed on that day. As for Gaston de France, or Gaston d’Orléans, he lost his claim to the throne of France.
So, to conclude, Richelieu
was the main architect of French absolute monarchy: one language, one religion and one king;
he was or seemed an éminence grise, the man behind Louis XIII;
he ruled France as though he was the king, which makes him look like an impostor, yet he wasn’t.
In other words, Richelieu ruled, but if he did rule, it was because he could not be king. He had no claim to the throne of France, nor did his successor, Mazarin. Both were chief ministers, except that Richelieu was, if not a crowned king, the ruler of France. And if he was, though unofficially, king of France, it is because circumstances created a breech in an otherwise impenetrable world. As mentioned above, his relationship with Louis XIII was all but symbiotic. They were two in one.
There have been several éminences grises. Wikipedia gives a long list of éminences grises. But Richelieu was no ordinary éminence grise. There is always more to tell…
* Henri Motte (1846-1922), peintre historique (Siège de La Rochelle)
(please click on the picture to enarge it and on the titles to hear the music)
Under the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715), the Sun-King, Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695) published twelve books of fables. The first book was published in 1668; the second, in 1678; and a collection, in the 1690s, shortly before La Fontaine’s death.
Fables, as you know, date back to Antiquity. Let us mention, first, Vishnu Sharma‘s Sanskrit Panchatantra (Pañcatantra [Five Principles]), 3rd century BCE or much earlier times: 1200 BCE. Its Arabic version, entitled Kalīla wa Dimnah (750 CE), was written by Persian scholarIbn al-Muqaffa. For most most of us, however, fables are Æsop’s Fables (c. 620-564 BCE) and they belong to an oral tradition. Æsop, if there ever lived an Æsop, was probably a freed slave from Samos, Greece.
Fables are usually looked upon as children’s literature because most feature animal protagonists. Some fables may be intended for children, but others encompass the wordly-wisdom a prince should acquire. Moreover, fables may feature plants or human beings speaking with animals. The latter are called libystic fables.
When reading “Le Chêne et le Roseau,” one may be reminded of Virgil’s Georgics (1st century BCE), but this fable is mostly a La Fontaine fable. As mentioned above, it was published in 1668 and is the last fable (number XXII) of La Fontaine’s first book of Fables. La Fontaine published a second book of Fables in 1678-1679, and a third book, in 1694 or somewhat earlier.
In “Le Chêne et le Roseau,” the Oak tree boasts to the Reed that he is strong and could protect the humble Reed from powerful winds. The Reed’s response is that “he bends” in the wind, “and does not break:” “Je plie, et ne romps pas.” As the two, the Oak tree and the Reed, are conversing, a devastating wind fells the Oak tree. As for the Reed, he is whipped back and forth by this ferocious wind, but survives.
Fables are lessons presented in Horatian (Horace, 1st century BCE) fashion:“Prodesse et delectareˮ (To Delight and to Instruct, or plaire et instruire). So, a lesson or lessons can be drawn from “The Oak and the Reed,” (La Fontaine [I.22])lessons for the prince.
Usually, my students would respond that the oak tree is punished for boasting, which is a correct answer. Destiny being fickle and life, fragile, one should not boast.
I would then remind them of the Roseau ’s statement: “Je plie, et ne romps pas.ˮ Not all of them could grasp readily that La Fontaine’s fable contained another lesson, one that could be useful for the prince or the man at court.
The lesson is simple. If one is flexible, chances are one might survive and perhaps blossom in the ruthless halls of the power.[i]It could be that nothing has changed, that one must still accept compromises or otherwise be totally ineffective and unhappy in any office to which he or she is elected, or has chosen.
Ideally, the prince acts according to a set of principles. He knows, for instance, that he must serve his people, so he listens. He also knows how to serve his people. But, rigidity is an extreme that precludes listening and militates against both reasoned and reasonable leadership.