Death at Versailles

The Palace of Versailles is mounting a magnificent exhibition entitled ‘Le Roi est mort’ to mark the tercentenary of the death of Louis XIV. The exhibits, artefacts, texts, and background music document the king’s last days, how his body was treated after his death on 1 September 1715, and the rituals of mourning imposed during the long period which followed until his funeral in St Denis on 23 October.

Marche et Convoy funèbre de Louis le Grand, Roy de France (BnF).

Marche et Convoy funèbre de Louis le Grand, Roy de France (BnF).

If you want to know how French kings were embalmed, how their bodies were divided up between different final repositories, and how mourning dress differed between ‘grand’, ‘demi’ and petit’ categories, this is the place to go. There are excellent descriptions too of the great funeral procession from Versailles to St Denis on 9 September, which had 2,500 designated mourners, led by 400 paupers in black cloaks and hoods, carrying torches, and marching through the night.

The high point of the exhibition, however, comes in its first room. It is a reconstruction of the chapelle ardente created within St Denis to house the king’s coffin, which temporarily turned a Gothic interior into a wholly baroque setting, with skeletons and weepers around a high catafalque under a huge crown. The contrast between that and the tiny stone vault in the crypt where the king’s body was placed after the funeral, on an iron trestle next to that of his father, could scarcely be greater. Only then, however, could the traditional formula – ‘the king is dead; long live the king’ – have meaning and be proclaimed.

In its essentials this ritual was common to most monarchies in western Europe; and one of the great strengths of this exhibition, curated with exemplary skill and imagination, is its demonstration of how the ceremony evolved over time, drawing evidence chiefly from France, but occasionally from elsewhere. By 1715, for example, the wax effigies which had generally taken the place of the royal body in funeral processions since 1500 were falling out of use. Louis XIII had condemned the practice as a pagan relic, and in England James I was the last king to have his effigy carried at his funeral in 1625. Waxwork images were made of later English monarchs but chiefly used to show where they were buried in Westminster Abbey (and perhaps what they had looked like).

Ordre du Cortege pour la Translation des Manes de Voltaire le lu

Ordre du Cortège pour la Translation des Manes de Voltaire le lundi 11 Juillet 1791 (unknown artist, 1791). / Image BnF.

The royal funeral was losing something of its special mystery in other words, and it lost much more after 1715 as it was gradually adapted and redesigned to cover secular state funerals, beginning with Newton’s in 1727 in England, and in France with the transfer of the remains of Voltaire to the Panthéon in 1791 (the exhibition contains a painting of the procession.)

The funeral of Louis XIV therefore marked the apogee of the royal funeral. When preaching on that occasion Bishop Massillon, whose sermons Voltaire admired, famously insisted that ‘Dieu seul est grand’, and not the king himself. Whatever one might think of the king, however, his was undoubtedly a great funeral, and this is a great exhibition, wholly worthy of its subject and its setting. It closes on 21 February.

– Paul Slack

See also: Le Roi est mort.

French-bashing, French style

In a much-discussed article published last year in Le Monde (13 December 2013), French historian Mona Ozouf argued in favour of honouring the memory of three figures of the French resistance movement by transferring their remains to the Paris Panthéon, explaining that the story of ‘the resistants’ fight against the Nazi occupier is the last great tale of heroism in French history capable of uniting […], in a feeling of shared national pride, all the French people, who are usually so prone to belittling their own country’ (my emphasis).

Statue of Voltaire at the Panthéon (by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1781)

Statue of Voltaire at the Panthéon (by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1781)

Indeed, observers of contemporary France will not have failed to notice that, far from being the preserve of the Anglo-Saxon media, French-bashing is also very commonly self-inflicted. Indeed, it is so widespread that the word has now entered the French lexicon alongside ‘le jogging’ and ‘le camping’.

For some, it has become a full-time occupation: France’s alleged decadence has become the bread and butter of many ‘déclinistes’, those journalists and economists who have carved careers out of preaching doom and gloom for their own country, while others never miss an opportunity to remind their fellow citizens of their country’s unfinest hours, most notably its colonial past and its collaborationist government during the Vichy years. However, it is worth noting that this type of national self-flagellation is not a recent phenomenon: ironically, one of its most eloquent erstwhile practitioners also happens to be one of the most famous and revered of all the residents of Le Panthéon, Voltaire himself.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more scathing piece of French-bashing than Le Discours aux Welches, a text first published in 1764 in a best-selling collection entitled Contes de Guillaume Vadé (which, in addition to the largely uncontroversial ‘contes’ themselves, also contained a number of polemical texts). The Discours is a systematic demolition of any claim to ‘grandeur’ that the French people – ‘les Welches’ – may have entertained throughout their history: the French, Voltaire informs his readers, are a mongrel nation, the product of multiple invasions never successfully repelled, their language is barbaric, vulgar and inadequate, they are arrogant, frivolous and backwards, they lack entrepreneurial spirit and they fear change, progress and innovation.

Most of the basic ingredients of modern French-bashing can be found in this piece, which, unsurprisingly, was not very favourably received in France. So much so that Voltaire felt compelled rapidly to append a Supplément to his Discours aux Welches, where, in an attempt to tone things down and avoid alienating his friends and allies, he offered, by way of conclusion, a broad taxonomy of the French nation as follows: ‘on [doit] donner le nom de Francs aux pillards, le nom de Welches aux pillés et aux sots, et celui de Français à tous les gens aimables’ [1].

Voltaire’s rage against France was fuelled partly by a feeling of frustrated patriotism [2] (in the Discours he mentions the recent loss of French trading posts in India to the English [3] – which dealt a blow to his investments in the Compagnie des Indes) and also by his homesickness for Paris, where he was persona non grata due to the antipathy of Louis XV. It would be grossly unfair and simplistic to portray him as an out-and-out Francophobe [4], but his tortured ambivalence towards France at the time is strangely reminiscent of the kind of conflicted relationship that so many of his fellow countrymen appear to have with their homeland today, as observed by professor Mona Ozouf.

– Georges Pilard

[1] ‘We must call the pillagers by the name of Franks, the pillaged and the foolish by the name of Welches, and all worthy people by the name of French.’

[2] ‘His favourite theme in all humours was “Je ne suis pas français”, except when his vanity prompted him to read us the accounts which he regularly received of real or imaginary victories gained by his countrymen’, recounts Richard Phelps, who had visited Voltaire in Ferney in 1757 (see Memoirs and correspondence of George, Lord Lyttelton, 2 vol., London, 1845, vol.2, p.560). See also Haydn T. Mason, ‘Voltaire, la guerre et le patriotisme’, in L’Armée au XVIIIe siècle (1715-1789) (Aix-en-Provence, 1999).

[3] Interestingly, Britain’s overwhelming success in the Seven years war was ascribed primarily to the country’s very keen sense of patriotism by the French commentariat of the time (see Edmond Dziembowski, Un Nouveau Patriotisme français, 1750-1770, Oxford, 1998).

[4] He offers a spirited defence of French theatre against English competition in Du théâtre anglais, also in the Contes de Guillaume Vadé, previously published in 1761 under the title Appel à toutes les nations de l’Europe (see blog post of 20 September 2013, The world’s a revolving stage).

Happy birthday Denis Diderot! A letter from Marian Hobson

Cher Denis Diderot, happy 300th birthday!

birthdaydiderotWherever you are – for you were a non-believer all your life, and the afterlife you looked forward to was one of infinitely recyclable molecules living on in ever new combinations. A process possibly without end, spinning out like the cosmos itself, but one that was sufficiently complex to leave room for human intervention.

So for 20 years of your life and against the odds you edited the Encyclopédie, aiming to consolidate what was known about agriculture, art, theology, trade – a raft of subjects that probably no other European would have dared bring together – in order that intervention might improve, and wrongs in human systems and thought be at least discussed, and if possible righted.

However, that changing of opinions and recycling of molecules requires energy – that you also knew. In deliciously underhanded ways you developed yours by writing: for instance, dialogues of speculative science prefiguring cloning (Le Rêve de D’Alembert); a hilarious novel (Jacques le fataliste), anticipating le nouveau roman of the 1950s and 1960s, one presenting a net of random co-occurrences out of which events develop in a way that mimics freedom. Your novel forms a net which thus appears as the paradoxical opposite of a linear, causal determinism, and from it we see that these apparent opposites take in each other’s philosophical washing: What is it to be free? Not to be determined. To be determined? Not to be free.

Notably kind, you yet had a talent for comedy and satire which you hid in unpublished work, the satire in the form of a novel-cum-dialogue (Le Neveu de Rameau). Unlike your friend-enemy Rousseau, you are not in the Panthéon; your work doesn’t appear as a set philosophical text in that summum of your country’s education ladder, the written exam of the agrégation en philosophie.DiderotJacquesFatalist01

Your accolades are less of the Establishment, are more wayward and in the future – you will be translated by Goethe, be used as a springboard towards the dialectic by Hegel, and Freud will be glad to find in you a past confirmation of his Oedipus complex. Your work ghosting for others (the atheist d’Holbach), commenting on and round them (Helvétius and the believer Hemsterhuis) and collaborating namelessly on a history of colonialisms (L’histoire des Deux-Indes) has gently rocked beliefs without inculcating dogma or doctrine. We can’t turn you into a memorial, not yet anyway, there is too much to do. You make us keep on thinking. Thank you for all this, cher Denis Diderot!

-Marian Hobson

To find out more about Diderot, please visit our dedicated page.