A classic study of the life of the nobility at the royal court of France, especially under Louis XIV, by Norbert Elias, showed how courtiers - and finally even the king himself - were entrapped in a web of etiquette and ceremony, how their expenses, even down to details of their houses and household, were dictated by their rank rather than their income.
|Courtiers depicted standing behind Kirsten Dunst's "Marie Antoinette" in the movie of the same name. Polite eating habits are very important to the French: Eating with one's mouth shut; finishing one's plate; hands on the table (but not one's elbows); not making slurping sounds when drinking; etc...|
As life at court would often blur the distinction between the political and the social spheres of government, life for a courtier could be very difficult. This was especially true of the court at the most famous of all royal courts in European history– The court of the Palace of Versailles and of King Louis XIV.
During his reign, Louis XIV was driven to become an absolute monarch, wanting to attain complete control over all political, economic, religious, and social facets of French life, and he was much more successful than his predecessors in centralizing the state and phasing out the remnants of feudalism. Feudalism was the preceding system, which had endowed the uppermost of the noble class with a significant amount of power and influence.
The King built the Palace of Versailles outside of Paris to compel the members of his court to spend part of the year living there. They would be in relative isolation from other parts of society. By isolating them, Louis XIV was able to diminish the strength of the nobility by requiring their very presence at his court in Versailles.
|The court at Versailles ranged from 3,000 to 10,000 people, all of whom were expected to abide by a complex set of somewhat odd etiquette, rules and customs that he personally established.|
In addition to the complex and often fluctuating rules of etiquette that noble courtiers, in particular, were expected to follow, Louis controlled the behavior of the aristocracy by continually changing or adding accessories to the royal wardrobe. In order to maintain their rank at court, the courtiers were required to observe the latest trends in fashion. In return for their service and loyalty, the king’s courtiers were awarded royal pensions and received access to some of the state’s most privileged ceremonies and celebratory events.
The Profile of a Courtier
Because of the enormous size of Versailles, there were thousands of courtiers living and working there at any given time. Among the courtiers there was a rigid social hierarchy that dictated their daily routine and schedule. Some courtiers were not even members of the aristocracy.
Approximately 5,000 personal servants and 9,000 soldiers for Louis XIV, resided at Versailles, along with the regular services of a wide array of middlemen and agents for the king, including soldiers, clerks, secretaries, and clergymen.
Courtiers at every level, naturally sought to obtain valuable information as a way to impress the King and gain admiration from him. Access to privileged and valuable information, was one of the most desired commodities a courtier could hope to obtain.
At any class level, many courtiers tried to use their service at court as a means of social mobility. After all, it was considered a great honor and privilege to serve as a member of a royal court. It could potentially lead to an elevation in the courtier's social status, if an ambitious soldier or member of the court administration, was able to attract the king’s attention, gaining his favor.
|Etiquette also applied to a courtier’s style of dress, and courtiers were always trying to acquire the latest styles of clothing.|
Noble courtiers were given access to some of the most privileged positions at court. High-ranking members of the aristocracy who enjoyed a specific role or position at court we considered to be “established” at Versailles. The services that established courtiers were expected to perform were traditionally linked to a specific function or office, and were usually inherited or purchased. Unlike members of court who worked in more menial services, such as barbers, valets and even dog groomers, noble courtiers, like the secretaries of state, desperately sought Louis’s direct approval.
For courtiers, securing living quarters at the Palace of Versailles was an important aspect of life at court. This ensured a secure place for them to reside during their time at court. At any given time, there were approximately 1,000 nobles and their 4,000 servants living at Versailles. Members of the royal family received apartments in the most desirable areas of the palace, such as the apartments with views of the gardens. The established courtiers typically resided in some of the palace’s outbuildings, such as the Grand Lodgings or the Stables. Not only did private accommodations signify social status and rank, they also prevented courtiers from the need to travel back and forth between Versailles and their primary residences.
Etiquette at the Court of Louis XIV
Relocating the court to Versailles and demanding a lengthy attendance at court were merely two of the ways that Louis wielded control over the nobility. In addition to these requirements Louis established an elaborate and strict set of rules and procedures that courtiers were forced to follow.
Following the proper conduct, or etiquette, at court was an extremely important part of life as a courtier under Louis XIV. Many courtiers spent the majority of their time at Versailles seeking the approbation of the king. They were obligated to regularly visit the royal residences and were expected to always be available for the king. A courtier’s absence from court was considered a punishable offense.
The rules of etiquette at Versailles guided and shaped the social interactions and structure of the court. They also determined and reflected a courtier’s prestige. For example, the rules dictated who was able to approach a high-ranking member of court, and where and when it was appropriate. These rules applied to nearly all areas of a courtier’s behavior, including when and how to sit down and how to address different members of court.
Etiquette also applied to a courtier’s style of dress, and courtiers were always trying to acquire the latest styles of clothing. There was also a complex and ever-changing set of rules for dancing, and courtiers would spend countless hours preoccupied with learning the latest dance steps.
People who wanted to speak to the king could not knock on his door. Instead, using the left pinkie finger, they had to gently scratch on the door, until they were granted permission to enter.
A lady never held hands or linked arms with a gentleman. Instead, she was toplace her hand on top of the gentleman’s bent arm as they strolled through thegardens and chambers of Versailles.
When a gentleman sat down, he slid his left foot in front of the other, placed his hands on the sides of the chair and gently lowered himself into the chair.
Women and men were not allowed to cross their legs in public.
When a gentleman passed an acquaintance on the street, he was to raise his hat high off his head until the other person passed.
A gentleman was to do no work except writing letters, giving speeches, practicing fencing, or dancing. For pleasure, however, gentlemen were permitted to engage in hawking, archery, hunting and indoor tennis.
Napoleon was one of the rudest monarchs in history
Napoleon Bonaparte on the other hand, outdid Louis XIV when it came to etiquette edicts, while ruling France. According to author Dr. Philip Mansel:
"Napoleon was one of the rudest monarchs in history: he attacked in conversation as well as on the battlefield. He insulted foreign ambassadors, taunted Marshal Berthier, his grand huntsman, and General Caulaincourt, his grand equerry, with their wives’ alleged infidelities, and called Talleyrand, his grand chamberlain (who was also foreign minister), “a lump of shit in a silk stocking”. It was said that Napoleon had a “green laugh”.
Among those who knew him well, Napoleon inspired little personal loyalty: almost all his courtiers turned against him after his defeats in 1814 and 1815, and in both years they forced him to abdicate. Almost all those who followed him to Saint Helena were trying to obtain financial rewards, or material for a book of memoirs, rather than acting out of loyalty. Napoleon maintained court etiquette on the island, keeping courtiers standing in his presence and insisting on being treated as an emperor.
Napoleon’s court also shows him to have been more obsessed with status than other monarchs of the day. He wanted more palaces and more formal etiquette, and was more autocratic than the Bourbons. He had more than 100 chamberlains, and a total of around 3,000 men in his household, whereas Louis XVI had had only four first gentlemen of the chamber, and around 2,000 in his household. In January 1814, when speakers in the chamber of representatives demanded peace, he was infuriated. At a reception in the Tuileries palace, he declared: “Everything resides in the throne. I alone represent the people”. He believed that France needed him more than he needed France.
In June 1815, Napoleon alienated opinion by preferring to wear the elaborate embroidered ‘Petit Costume de l’Empereur’ rather than the uniform of the Paris National Guard. He insisted on sending messages to the chamber of representatives through his chamberlains rather than through a responsible minister. After Waterloo, it voted his deposition."
Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Moderator and Editor for Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia