History Books

Ian Dunlop's Louis XIV

There are two great figures in modern French history, and Napoleon isn't one of them. I don't know where he figures - in the history of totalitarianism? - but for France at least he was Not Great. My nominees are Louis XIV and Charles de Gaulle. They taught their countrymen to be proud of being French, and I believe that they did so in ways that were benign as regards other countries. This theory has a real problem: Louis XIV was hardly benign to other countries.

But I want to talk about the Louis XIV who marketed France. Who branded it, as it were, even though no one knew about branding then, or knew about it as well as we do. Notwithstanding his disastrous wars, most of which served no known commonsense purpose, Louis made France into The Model, the place everybody else had to imitate. Do you really think that Schönnbrünn or Hampton Court, Peterhof or even the United States Capitol would have happened without him? No, of course you don't.

Louis XIV brings the Roman god Janus to mind. On the one hand, he was forward-looking about centralization and common-sense administration. On the other, however, his social thought was hardly more advanced than that of an ostentatious Burgundian duke. This makes him very hard to judge. He was preoccupied by glory - gloire. He expected himself to do glorious things. Unfortunately, "glorious" didn't involve furthering the public welfare. On the contrary, it meant something Homeric, something that ought to have been ridiculous in Louis's day: the proficiency of the armed and mounted soldier. Such proficiency was made unnecessary as armies grew to be masses of mercenaries who did the actual fighting. In the last twenty-five years of his reign, France was exhausted and nearly bankrupted by warfare. Concerns of honor and dynastic legitimacy were the king's principal motivations. Less than a century later, his people would rise up to exterminate his dynasty.

The same concerns also prompted Louis to pursue visible grandeur on an unprecedented scale. There have been palaces since prehistory, but none comes close to Versailles as the embodiment of monarchical power. In tandem were the many luxury trades that the king and his minister, Colbert, promoted - trades that France still dominates. Most important, however, there was the grandeur of the man himself. He was tall and, according to ideals of the time, very handsome. His bearing was magnificent - and magnificently at ease. He had the wit to conduct his court as a salon. He lived most of his life in public, but he broke down only once, and then at a time when everyone else was miserable as well. He was always and everywhere a king. He was never despotic, but he unwaveringly insisted upon being obeyed. A lot of this was hard work, but it was also the result of amazing good fortune. Coming to the throne at the age of five, he was brought up to be king. He was naturally bigger and stronger than his brother. He was good-tempered. He genuinely possessed the stoic virtues, and thrived in his masculinity at a time when when great refinement was not taken as a sign of the effete.

Louis XIV was the prince who had everything, and as with all such fairy tales, there was one apparent advantage that turned out to be something else. This was longevity. It is breathtaking to think how different the world might be today if Louis had died in 1682, at the age of forty-four. (His father, Louis XIII, died at forty-two). It was in that year that Louis moved the seat of government to Versailles. We can see that it made sense for him, but it set the regime in a cul de sac, increasingly out of touch with the world. Only somebody of Louis's force of character could govern Paris from eighteen miles out of town. In the following year, Queen Marie-Thérèse (Louis's first cousin as well as his wife) died, and he married, with utter secrecy but with the blessings of the church, Madame de Maintenon. Whether this lady was instrumental in driving Louis to revoke the Edict of Nantes, with which his grandfather Henri IV had guaranteed religious freedom of conscience, there is no doubt that the climate of smart piety that attended her made the perfect atmosphere for bringing the king round. He certainly had the support of the mass of his subjects (which is probably reason enough for him to have resisted). With the eviction of the Calvinists, Louis ruptured the possibilities of gradual modernization in France. Louis, dying four days short of his seventy-seventh birthday, was too much of a good thing. His vastly less forceful and capable son would have given France a respite.

Proposing an early death for Louis is of course a manner of judging him. It implies that Louis was a good king at least until 1682. He was certainly thought to be one by his subjects. As a young and brilliant ruler, Louis represented a new chapter of French history, one undisturbed by civil disturbances and blessed with world renown. He put himself forward as the undisputed center of France, and even fostered an Apollo cult as le roi soleil - a term without adjectives. He wasn't so much the best at anything as the most impressively multifaceted. He could sing, he could dance, he could plan military campaigns. He could hunt; he could make love. His want of introspective habits was totally suitable to his altogether outward life. He dazzled his subjects - particularly his grander subjects - into confusing him with France itself. This was the source of his extraordinary power. Of course it went to his head eventually. He inevitably came to see Protestants and Dutchmen with conflicting agendas as wayward sinners in need of his discipline.

Ian Dunlop's Louis XIV is not new; it was published in 1999. But it is one of the best books that I've read about the Sun King, and for a reason that I have hitherto regarded as anything but. Mr Dunlop tells his story in the terms of contemporary sources, drawing from letters and memoirs. At the very least, this lets us in on the collective delusion that prevailed in France during Louis's prime. The author certainly seems to be dazzled. At first, I considered this a weakness; Mr Dunlop admires Louis even more than Nancy Mitford did. By degrees, however, I accepted the idea that Louis cannot be approached dispassionately. You can hate him, as his enemies did, but you can't be indifferent. Either you're impressed by his achievements, you're revolted by his failures, or you're both at once. Mr Dunlop's method allows us to estimate the king in the middle of doing things, and with much the same values. It puts us in a position to judge the king by his own lights. We end up forswearing judgment, in favor of simply trying to grasp what makes the grand siècle different from ours.

Although Mr Dunlop discusses Louis's wars, and does a fine job of putting them in international context, his book is not a political study, and I sense that this is for the simple reason that a "political study" of Louis XIV would be anachronistic. The "political," as we understand it today, after liberalizing revolutions and massive extensions of the franchise, didn't exist in the seventeenth century. There was only faction, and faction was thought to be a bad thing, a fruit of Man's Fall. Louis strove for concord, at least within France; that's why he threw out the Huguenots - with, as I say, overwhelming public support. He never had a prime minister, but played his men off against one another without ever permitting their disagreements to boil over. In any case, we don't see France as the modern country that came about quite literally over Louis's dead body. We see it as the center of attention that it was, largely thanks to Louis's tireless effort.

Louis was the last great medieval ruler; he built the first modern state. His appreciation of the rising middle class was oblique and haphazard; he exploited it where it was useful to do so and tried to ignore it the rest of the time. He reinforced the prestige of the aristocracy even in the act of neutering it. He left an idea of what France might become while condemning it to a century of decline. Such are the paradoxes that any figure on Louis XIV's scale is going to generate. In responding to the past, we create attractions to the future.

Rather like every book about Louis that I've ever read, Louis XIV is afflicted by an impalpable caesura. Somewhere in the middle of the book, the tone changes: Louis is no longer young, and many of the illustrious figures of his youth have died. The feeling of approach is suddenly replaced by one of departure; we don't spend much time at the gloriously completed château, possibly because the anticipated halcyon days never came forth. Where we ought to be feeling that Louis is at his zenith, we're instead subjected to the unpleasant smell of the putrid water gushing from the fountains of Versailles. Indeed, Mr Dunlop's discussion of the always inadequate water supply at Versailles is one of the most interesting things that I've read about the place. Writing of the "Machine de Marly," a collection of waterwheels and pumps that raised water from the Seine to a height of 165 meters above the river, Mr Dunlop goes on,

The machine produced an average of 3,200 cubic metres of water every twenty-four hours. This figure needs to be compared with Nicholas Blondel's estimate for the consumption of water at Versailles. For the fountains to play à l'ordinaire, from eight in the morning until eight in the evening, 12,960 cubic metres were required. But many of the jets were only at half pressure. For the the full glory of Les Grandes Eaux - a spectactle only laid on for an ambassador or other very important person - the fountains consumed 9,458 cubic metres in two and a half hours.

This shortfall led Louis to direct Vauban to build an aqueduct. It was begun in 1684, but work came to a stop a few years later, when the latest war obliged the redeployment of the soldiers who did the scut work. It was never resumed, and the fountains continued to play with with water made putrid "whether from stagnation or from the ordures thrown into the Étang de Clagny."

One failing that bemuses Mr Dunlop is Louis's inability to raise capable children and grandchildren. He attributes this partly to a fear of the example of Gaston d'Orléans, the brother of Louis XIII who was nothing but trouble to Cardinal Richelieu and his nascent project of centralization. It was as if to teach a son to rule were tantamount to breeding a rebel. Mr Dunlop presents gloomy portraits of the king's grandsons, the dukes of Anjou and Berry. Anjou went off to become Philip V of Spain, and took a long time to look like a competent ruler; in fact, he was dominated by both of his wives. Louis XIV's successor, Louis XV, also came to the throne at the age of five, and was also actually brought up to be a king. Introverted and easily bored, this Louis was about as far from his august ancestor as it was possible to be while remaining a gentleman. Both men were very lucky, but only Louis XIV made much of his advantages.

I will always be in debt to Mr Dunlop for passing on the surmise that the famous group portrait of Louis and his descendants, now hanging in the Wallace Collection but not definitively attributed to any painter, was probably commissioned by the duchesse de Ventadour or her sister. The Duchess figures quite prominently in the picture even though she is not related to anybody in it; hasty viewers probably assume that she's Madame de Maintenon. The picture had begun to nag me; would Louis allow his great-grandson's nurse to intrude upon such a dynastic spectacle? He very well may never have done so; the painting is probably posthumous, at least as regards everyone save the Duchess and her charge.

Ian Dunlop's Louis XIV is a quietly impressive book that, I'm sure without the author's meaning it to do so, has quite upset my ideas of what history is and how it ought to be presented. More intensely than ever before, I feel the difficulty - the impossibility, perhaps - of reaching a final evaluation of the past. Does this mean that I'll welcome sympathetic accounts of Hitler's misrule? Hardly. But it has become much more difficult to dismiss Louis's expensive reign as foolish or wrongheaded. (April 2006)

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