A Study of French Court Life Under Louis Xiv

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The English word etiquette actually originates from a French word for ticket. A courtier of Louis XIV, Madame de Maintenon, is recognized as being the first to write using the word étiquette in reference to the formalities and ceremonies required at court in 1719. The French word did not begin to apply to polite behavior in general until 1778. This shows that the association was actually first made in England. How the word changed so much in its definition is not entirely known although there are many theories (Arditi 1-3). Currently, etiquette is used to describe very prim and proper conduct, to be considered polite one must follow the rules of society. Many people nowadays consider these rules overbearing and outdated, indeed these guidelines change with the generations, but even now living a refined life is miles easier then it would have been in France under Louis XIV when the royal court was “the paradigm of elegance and civil behavior, emulated by the other courts of Europe” (“Blakeley Manor”).

Traumatized by the Fronde rebellion during his youth, when he was required to flee the palace for his own safety, Louis was the poster king of absolutism summing up his rule in his famous statement, “L'Etat est moi” (I am the State). So as to better control the nobles and aristocrats of the royal court he built the magnificent palace Versailles and required the nobles to spend most of their time there with the threat of punishment. Louis, in his craftiness, made the courtiers compete for his favors which could come in the land, titles, and expensive gifts. Instead of scheming and waging wars the nobles were vying for the honors. “[They] were so busy mastering appropriate court etiquette, and competing for the prestige it gave, that they had no time to plot rebellions” ("Splendors of Versailles"). Life in the court of Louis XIV, like life everywhere, focused on the sun, or in this case, the sun king. He compared himself constantly to the sun and called his throne room the “Salon of Apollo”. To survive in the royal court the nobles had to be on top of every trend and be ready to change at the King’s whim and fancy. “Louis XIV realized that fashion was a way to occupy his entourage” (Gramont 383). He held control over the courtiers by constantly changing the fashion styles, in fact many nobles went bankrupt from living in the court of Versailles, when this occurred the King would lend them money, gaining an even tighter hold over them. Court life would have been a vicious battle to gain the King’s attention, Duke de Saint- Simon wrote in his memoirs: “He availed himself of the frequent festivities at Versailles, and his excursions to other places, as a means of making the courtiers assiduous in their attendance and anxious to please him, for he nominated beforehand those who were to take part in them, and could thus gratify some and inflict a snub on others. He was conscious that the substantial favours he had to bestow were not nearly sufficient to produce a continual effect, he had therefore to invent imaginary ones, and no one was so clever in devising petty distinctions and preferences which aroused jealousy and emulation.” (Steingrad)

Clearly Louis was aware of his affect and power of the nobles and they would have lived in constant anxiety over who would receive honors. These could be shown in any recognition by the king during his day.

Every single day in the court began with the king’s Lever, an elaborate process in which he awoke and prepared for the day at court. There were actually two Levers, the petit Lever and the grand Lever, and while most of the court could come to the grand Lever the petit Lever was reserved for the special and important people. At quarter to eight the assistant who sleeps in the King’s room puts away his cot, when it was cold the porte-bushon du roi would light the fire in the room, followed by the watchmaker to wind up the grand clock. The royal wigmaker would bring in the King’s...
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