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Gallo: What’s Still Grand about the Grand Siècle: The Age of Louis XIV and the Education of the Heart

Article Citation: 
Cahiers du dix-septième: An Interdisciplinary Journal XI, 1 (2006) 161–170
Fr. David M. Gallo
Article Text: 

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As an earnest new professor, idealistically searching for the best and highest meaning of what it meant to be a historian and educator, I came across a series of remarks from those with long experience teaching, collected for people in my shoes. One set of comments, by an elderly Benedictine monk, spoke a different language. Unlike most others, he wrote neither about critical reading, writing or thinking, nor about jobs and careers. His goal in teaching was “to prepare my students for death.” Despite finding his take on education slightly creepy and even more, off-puttingly morbid, I think he meant teaching in such a way as to reach and form their active center. One writer, Michel Meslin, understands this active center as the heart, “where ideas and impressions received are transformed into deeds… the seat of the individual's creative power in the form of consciousness.” Teaching the Grand Siècle in the liberal arts tradition can shape their active center by immersing students into the complexity of lives lived in a different time and place, and, should it work, bring them a better understanding of their own. Rather than a preparation for death, I would call this kind of teaching “the education of the heart.”

With guidance and work inside as well as outside the classroom, students discover and engage in details of the historically concrete situations and actions of real people. Through research, discussion, and imaginative reconstruction, they stand in the shoes of long-gone yet compellingly real persons and look around at a very different world through those eyes. They must acquire a new set of mental furniture, and, ideally, get to know these persons at a particular moment from as many different angles as possible. This approach helps them train their eye, their mind, and try a way of thinking that can affect their lives even after a particular course is over.

The best “hook” in teaching courses on the Grand Siècle is Louis XIV himself. Known in intimate detail from many sources, students find him to be a particularly compelling person. They are drawn to the life and the style of this greatest actor on the stage of the Grand Siècle - the man in the largest (and highest-heeled) shoes, whose eyes seemed half-open but gave the impression of truly seeing everything. In reading and research, forming the basis for class discussion and written assignments, students are led to think things through with him, imagining as many questions and gathering as many of the facts as he could have done in a particular situation. For many, this is just the beginning of insight into the complex world of Louis XIV’s ideas and impressions as they were about to be transformed into deeds.

Given the fact that many if not most students in history courses are unable to read original documents, biographies and primary source texts in translation1 as well as good historical fiction can make a compelling historical turning-point come alive. Françoise Chandernagor’s masterful reconstruction of Madame de Maintenon’s memoirs, “The King’s Way,” brings to life one moment, when history presented Louis XIV with a momentous choice. It was evening on Tuesday, November 9th, 1700, in Madame de Maintenon’s apartments at Fontainebleau, where the king, his son the dauphin and his ministers were struggling over the refusal or acceptance of Carlos II’s will, which, in defiance of the earlier Partition Treaties, left all of Spain to Louis’ grandson, Philippe d’Anjou. At the conclusion of the meeting, Louis approached his morganatic wife, and “at last, the moment I had been dreading arrived: when he was the only one left in my room, the king asked me what I thought about all this.” (409) Evasive and unable to offer him any advice, Madame de Maintenon pitied the king:

He looked troubled and uncertain. ‘I’m sure many people will condemn me whatever I decide, ´ he sighed. It was after 10 o’clock and he could not make up his mind to go to supper. He had always hated taking risks and only liked betting on certainties. It was torture to him that this time fate was forcing him to wager. He walked round and round the room, opening and closing the windows, gazing at the stars. I felt a great pity for him and his solitude. (409)

Students are invited to enter Madame de Maintenon’s room to stand with the king confronting one of the greatest decisions of his reign. Only he can make it, yet his decision will have life-and-death consequences for people throughout Europe, beyond it, far into the future.

Based on the primary sources at their disposal, students compile as detailed a list of things of historical facts as they can. Louis XIV and his ministers considered either accepting the will of Carlos II or sticking by the Second Partition Treaty reached with William III a mere 8 months before, on March 13 of that year.2 The king knew that he risked war were he to accept Carlos II’s will and the entire Spanish empire for his grandson rather than stand by the Second Partition Treaty. A new coalition against him, hard on the heels of the sufferings of France in the Nine Year’s War, would have serious social, political and economic consequences.3 Students can, and should, trace bloodlines, read treaties, examine frontiers, judge alliances, much as the king and his ministers did. Without knowledge of how those events have played out over the past three centuries, they begin to grasp what was going on in Louis’ mind, as king at that moment in 1700, and then in different assignments flesh out4 the scene Chandernagor set, as Madame de Maintenon struggled to answer the king’s query in her room very late that November evening in 1700.

Students soon appreciate that they stand next to a king whose mind is furnished not just with the universally-accepted facts, but which in fundamental respects differs greatly from ours. His ideas, assumptions and beliefs, natural to him, may be far from modern ones.5 Students see that factors which they think significant may be far less so to him. While we know, for example, that a war of significant casualties resulted in 1702 from Louis XIV’s rejection of the will, the king himself did not benefit from hindsight. How would he weigh something they consider very important, the cost to France in blood and treasure? Factors they see as accidental or meaningless he would see as providential and divinely ordained. For example, he, not we, would look at dynastic factors—the chain of births, marriages and deaths that led to this moment—as the directly willed plan of the God who made and sustained him king, of a God who acted on behalf of France throughout her history. Louis, not we, would be convinced that these factors were strong evidence of God pointing a finger toward acceptance of the will in favor of his grandson Philippe, rather than to the provisions of the Second Partition Treaty with Protestant powers. After all, when introducing the new king of Spain to the Court, Louis XIV did say, “It is the command of Heaven.” Speaking of commands—how much weight would command of the late king of Spain, Carlos II, have had on the king? Carlos too was a divinely anointed, God-guided king, having drawn up his will on October 2nd, a mere month before dying. For Louis, might this be even stronger and clearer evidence that through his grandson’s succession God destined the Bourbons to rule over Spain? Students stand next to a man who agonized not only over high politics and diplomacy, but a man grappling with obedience to God, the Catholic faith and deeply-held beliefs about how this God worked in the world. Here was a man who believed he would someday have to give a full accounting before the God whose divine shoes he himself filled here-below.

Concerning Louis’ final reckoning, students find that they are not just standing next to the king of France, but also next to Louis, a mortal man. At 62 years of age, the king is a very old mortal man by 17th-century standards. They learn about his health and its possible implications in the time around those cold November days as he opened and closed the windows in Madame de Maintenon’s apartments.6Although blessed with a strong constitution, Louis was toothless and suffered numerous chronic ailments—gout, tapeworm, and enteritis, among others. We know that he was purged at least once a month, and from whom, on just one day in April 1701, his physicians drained five bowls full of blood (simply as a precaution, of course). Thinking about the effect of the medical establishment on his health at this time adds yet another whole area of the past for students to explore.

Other lines of questioning deepen the context of his decision. Based on their document reading, students research information about Louis’ finances at that moment, the state of his troops, the annual harvest, and recent weather. Also, they consider the possible ways the king might weigh the remarks of the different members of his council of ministers, or even that of his own son, Monseigneur, who demanded “his inheritance” as a son and grandson of Spanish Infantas. The list goes on, limited only by student interest and creativity.7 They can investigate areas that would further round out this moment, not only adding to their knowledge of this 17th-century turning-point, and of this period generally, but, in this case, giving them insight into the human complexity of decision-making itself.

In the end, whether or not students feel the “great pity” for the king Madame de Maintenon felt that November evening, they have begun to work through Louis’ dilemma in their minds, grappling with the challenge of integrating all the historical facts they have learned from this one event. This approach engages their “active center,” their heart—and, living through that time with him, tried to understand his.

Particularly compelling in the life of Louis XIV is the way he left it, those days preceding his death in the late summer of 1715. Students are invited to enter the king’s Bedchamber at Versailles during the last week of August 1715, as the king lay slowly dying in his great four-poster. I ask students to “populate” the room—first, to find out what it looked like at this time, and what members of the king’s Household and the Court are there.8 They describe what medical personnel are in attendance, their diagnosis of the king’s illness, what they have done so far and how the king himself viewed his illness.9 Having fleshed out these historical details, students consider “the art of dying” of a 17th-century person and what the prospect of imminent death brings out in the king. We are told he received the last sacraments, gave orders for the funeral arrangements to be made after his death, and said his final farewells. Which surviving members of his family did he call to his bedside, and what does he say to them? Did his mind, as his body failed him, reach back into his own past and the difficulties of his minority as he addressed solemn words to yet another child-king, the five-year old boy who would succeed him as Louis XV? Did Louis take advantage of death’s slow pace in his regard simply to tie all loose ends in a neat package? Can we glimpse something of the king’s real thoughts about his life and reign? Whatever students believe, Louis himself believed he was about to face his judge, One who would demand an ultimate accounting from him. Standing at his deathbed, students face the finality of that moment, the universal experience of death each of us must face. They take the measure of the man and the moment as he precedes them on the walk into eternity.10

In addition to Louis XIV, members of his well-documented family and their very public lives can engage students in thinking about different social and moral aspects of the Grand Siècle. A useful figure to consider is the king’s brother, Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, known at court as Monsieur, who married twice, fathered seven children yet was sexually involved with men. Bejewelled, violently scented, a pot-bellied man in heels so high he seemed to be on stilts, Philippe can become more than just comic relief to students.11 Their fascination with his life, especially from the voluminous correspondence of his wife, the second Madame, Elisabeth-Charlotte, opens up avenues of fruitful learning and discussion.

In the strange world of 17th-century royal child-rearing, 12Philippe’s particular case stands out. His mother, Anne of Austria and her close confidant Cardinal Mazarin raised the two boys, Louis and Philippe, in a consciously different way, significantly altering Philippe’s experience.13 Complex questions of the origins and direction of his emerging sexuality are a catalyst for student interest in the concrete situations in this prince’s very different royal life, taking discussion in less obvious directions.14 One such moment, captured by historian John Wolf, shows Philippe’s reaction to his profoundly mismatched second wife, Elisabeth-Charlotte, Princess Palatine.

...she was not a beauty; she was a big-boned, broad-faced, buxom, outspoken lady—married to Monsieur who used rouge, wore ribbons and lace, and loved jewelry. He walked in mincing steps; she prescribed a two-league walk in case of illness. When Philippe first saw her, his question was the obvious one, “How can I sleep with her?” (313)

This scene leads them from theoretical discussion about the political and dynastic factors involved in 17th-century royal marriages to standing with this prince as he meets his new wife, the result of one such coupling. Add to the picture the history and conduct of his first marriage, as well as his retinue of male favorites and lovers, and what emerges is a life where social strictures and publicly expected morality conflict with private behavior and desires. Those students who themselves struggle with complex moral issues in their own lives resonate with the dissonance they find in the life of Monsieur when they peel back its multiple layers. Joined with research about 17th-century attitudes toward homosexual behavior in both Church and in noble circles,15 students journey from caricature to compassionate understanding. In the end, Philippe’s remark at the end of this court anecdote becomes much more than just a punch-line.16

In sum, there is much that is still “grand” to teaching the Grand Siècle, an exceptionally rich tapestry of detailed and carefully chronicled personalities, whose compelling stories, larger-than-life and historically significant, are tailor-made to intrigue and engage students. Their initial attraction to great people and events from this rich century can be guided towards a multifaceted understanding of the period, and, I think, of human life in all its complexity. I think teaching this way can be an invitation to reflection, engagement, and compassionate appreciation of the particular set challenges life poses to each human heart. At best, students can form a bond, a kind of friendship when human beings meet across centuries and generations. I hope the old Benedictine monk might look kindly on this effort to translate his “preparation for death” as the “education of the heart.” For, if he’s right, we are helping shape the only thing we take with us at our end, when, as it was for Louis XIV early on the morning of September 1st, 1715, it is our turn to walk into eternity.

College of Mount Saint Vincent


1Relevant chapters of recent biographies of Louis XIV, such as François Bluche’s Louis XIV, as well as Andrew Lossky’s Louis XIV and the French Monarchy provide the necessary background.

2David L. Smith’s Louis XIV on foreign policy (chapter 5) provides translations of key portions of the First and Second Partition Treaties, eyewitness reports, and commentary by the author. A beautifully crafted and historically convincing look into Louis XIV’s mind in the five years leading up to these events can be found especially in chapter 3 of Janet Nelson’s novel The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron. As omniscient narrator, she details the king’s thoughts, feelings and concerns on his own and France’s state in 1695.

3Smith’s chapter 2 on the king’s economic policies is especially useful, with hard data on France’s financial position in the second half of the century: expenditure and budget reports, letters and other contemporary documentation.

4This can be done in a variety of ways. As a written assignment, it can serve as the basis for class discussion. With a particularly creative group, students can re-enact this scene in class, with one student taking the part of Madame de Maintenon and answering the king, and another offering Louis XIV’s thoughts and considerations in return. Whether or not they change the course of history, they begin the process of entering the strange place that is the past.

5David Smith’s introduction and chapter 1 are a concise summary of Louis XIV’s education, background and thought-world.

6 François Bluche summarizes Louis XIV’s health and his relationships with his physicians in chapter 24, “Portrait of the King.” Helpful here, but requiring translation, are portions of Michelle Caroly’s Le Corps du Roi-Soleil.

7 And unfortunately by the documentation, which remains thin in English translation.

8Students can consult the many available works on Versailles. William Beik’s Louis XIV and Absolutism: A Brief Study with Documents, chapter 2, “The King and His Family” is an excellent introduction to Louis XIV’s family and the major personages at Court through the eyes of a number of memorialists.

9Readily available editions in English of the memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon, as well as those of Louis XIV’s sister-in-law Madame, Elisabeth-Charlotte d’Orléans (footnote following) can set the stage for this momentous event. I also provide translated passages from the 1880 French edition of the Journal des Anthoines. La Mort de Louis XIV.

10Looking backwards from 1715, students evaluate Louis XIV’s life by making a list with two columns. On one side, what they think he should be most concerned about as he faces death, and on the other, their explanation of what they think would likely concern Louis himself. Working through the latter column is a good way to demonstrate for them the difference between the moral world of the pre-modern and the modern conscience.

11Elborg Forster’s A Woman’s Life in the Court of the Sun King translates significant letters from the voluminous correspondence of Philippe’s second wife, Liselotte von der Pfalz. Saint-Simon also offers concise vignettes featuring Monsieur. Nancy Nichols Barker’s 1989 monograph Brother to the Sun King: Philippe, Duke of Orléans remains one of the few full treatments of Monsieur in English and is an essential resource for this section of the paper.

12Translations from Madeleine Foisil’s 2 volume 1989 edition of Journal de Jean Héroard provide some idea of this in the atypical (but royal) childhood of Louis XIII.

13John Wolf’s Louis XIV treats this briefly in the first chapter, Louis le Dieudonné. Chapter 14 of Ruth Kleinman’s Anne of Austria, Queen of France provides further details about Philippe’s upbringing, in contrast to that given to his elder brother Louis.

14These discussions might include Philippe’s ambiguous relationship with his older brother, including his thwarted military career, the numerous complications in his first marriage to Charles II’s sister Henrietta, the stormy influence and personalities of his male lovers—all these can place students in the midst of a what, at the very least, was a challenging life.

15 Easily available English translations of Saint-Simon, Madame and Primi Visconti (among others) provide contemporary attitudes and beliefs; in most respects, Catholic moral teaching remains the same (if not the punishment of the amende honorable).

16One interesting assignment is to ask students to make a list of various layers of meaning they can sense behind Philippe’s “How can I sleep with her?”

Works Cited

Chandernagor, Françoise. The King’s Way. Trans. Barbara Bray. San Diego & New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1984.

Meslin, Michel. “Heart.” The Encyclopedia of Religion. 16 vols. 1987.

Wolf, John. Louis XIV. New York: WW Norton & Co., 1968.

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