Lately I’ve been feeding my innate fondness for French culture and history with more and more knowledge, in an effort to broaden my cultural understanding, especially with regard to European culture.
Lately I have been glued to a film entitled “The Rise and Fall of Versailles”, which is a three part documentary that covers the details of the history of the French monarchy beginning with the reign of King Louis XIV. The documentary empahsizes life within the community at The Palace of Versailles, which is where all of the royals abode when France was a monarchy.
While on the surface it seems extremely one-sided to dive deep into the lives of the royals with what seems like a retrospective magnifying glass, it is important to consider to what extent life at Versailles influenced all of France and much of Europe during this time period. Versailles was not only the government of France, but it’s very identity and a fountain of hope for the French up until the French revolution. By that time the bourgeoisie (middle-class) had realized that Versailles was full of hedonistic self-serving individuals, with their own interests at heart, and the interests of the general public, only in theory.
By 1789, France was ripe for revolution. Truthfully, angst had been festering long prior, and had been fueled by mistrust, and anger toward a lavishly adorned aristocracy, who was notorious for tyranny, and imposing taxes on a starving middle class while the nobility paid none, but feasted instead. The first sign of rebellion was noted in constant propaganda about Marie Antoinette’s sexuality, which infiltrated France throughout the majority of her reign. It may have been a bad idea on part of the royals to select an Austrian woman to become Queen of France, knowing that Austria and France were rivals at the time. She was in every way concerned with maintaining her status and both life and death as a Queen. To France she was a whore and a gluten, but paid no attention to life among lay citizens in France and so lived the majority of her life in oblivion to the hatred that swept through France for she and her husband King Louis XI.
In a monarchy in which a king reigns with the amount of power that the Kings Louis 14th through the 16th reigned with, a relatively strict social class system existed. The class system I have learned, consisted for centuries of the nobility (royals and aristocrats), the bourgeoiosie (the middle class which was itself divided into three castes) and the peasantry. The government was established among the nobility, which consisted of a King, and parliament. In reality, the kings did not rely as heavily on parliament as did they on their wives or other advisers in the courts (courtiers) perhaps a matter of admiration for the demonstrating power. In 1766 Louis XV actually eradicated parliament, asserting that he alone had power. It is no surprise he did this, as his predecessor Louis XIV and his courtiers referred to him as Apollo (the Greek sun God), suggesting that the whole world revolved around him. This was a blood line who loved power from the beginning.
The Rise and Fall of Versailles is a tragic film which depicts the god-obsessed, and power- consumed nature of the nobility in France. It is a nation with a history of frequent bloodshed, domestic oppression, love for art, intellect, and the aristocratic way of life. It is a beautiful history, and thankfully The Palace of Versailles still stands to bring it to life.