Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Versailles Etiquette

The point about Versailles was that there was no escape: the courtiers had to "make it" where they were. The stage was Louis's, and the roles that could be played were designed by him. It was up to each courtier to fit himself – or herself – into one of the slots provided.  The leaders of all the other towns and villages of France were made, largely through the use of etiquette, and more specifically through rudeness and judicious slighting by the tax-collecting intendants, to feel their subordination, the distance from the court.  Once, the nobility had relied on strength, swagger, and vigor, even violence, personally to make their mark and uphold their honour; at Versailles, the way to success became discretion, observation, cunning, and the dissembling of one's aims and passions. 
"During the 17th century, in France, manners became a political issue. King Louis XIV and his predecessors, in collecting together the nobility of France to live with the sovereign at Versailles, instituted a sort of school of manners. At the palace, the courtiers lived under the despotic surveillance of the king, and upon their good behavior, their deference, and their observance of etiquette their whole careers depended.  If you displeased a Louis, he would simply "not see you" the following day; his gaze would pass over you as he surveyed the people before him. And not being "seen" by the king was tantamount to ceasing to count, at Versailles.  A whole timetable of ceremonies was followed, much of it revolving around the King's own person. Intimacy with Louis meant power, and power was symbolically expressed in attending to certain of the king's most private and physical needs: handing him his stockings to put on in the morning, being present as he used to chaise percée, rushing when the signal sounded to be present as he got ready for bed. It mattered desperately what closeness the king allowed you - whether he spoke to you, in front of whom, and for how long. 

The point about Versailles was that there was no escape: the courtiers had to "make it" where they were. The stage was Louis's, and the roles that could be played were designed by him. It was up to each courtier to fit himself – or herself – into one of the slots provided.  The leaders of all the other towns and villages of France were made, largely through the use of etiquette, and more specifically through rudeness and judicious slighting by the tax-collecting intendants, to feel their subordination, the distance from the court.  Once, the nobility had relied on strength, swagger, and vigor, even violence, personally to make their mark and uphold their honour; at Versailles, the way to success became discretion, observation, cunning, and the dissembling of one's aims and passions.  At Versailles, and at the courts all over Europe which imitated it -  everything was done to make it very clear who was superior to whom; and of course, each time anyone was polite, he or she was simultaneously acknowledging rank and demonstrating who stood where.
 
The new manners - both the formal rules of protocol and precedence and the unspoken, more profoundly enculturated rules like table manners -  were seen increasingly, according to Elias, as ways in which one did not offend other people. You were controlling yourself, so as to prevent other people from being disgusted or "shocked." People lived very closely together at Versailles; everyone was watched by everyone else, and actual physical proximity helped raise some of the new sensitivity to other people's real or imagined susceptibilities.  

Men were expected on the whole to give up physical force as a means of getting their way, and - as always when "the graces" are preferred over brute strength - women begin to count for more. Within the aristocratic court circle, people became, in spite of the obsession with rank, far more equal.  Secure in the knowledge that just being at court was the pinnacle of prestige, from which most of society was shut out, courtiers could permit themselves to respect each other.
 
As the bourgeois became richer and more indispensable even at court, they demanded - and were given, by self appointed experts who wrote manuals for them - instruction in how to behave as people did in "the best circles." In 1672, Antoine de Courtin produced "Nouveau trait' de la civilité' qui se pratique en France parmi les honnestes gens" or The "New Treatise of the Civility Which is Practiced in France Among Honest People." ("Honest" -hônnete- kept its original association with honour and the opposite-but-supporting motion, shame.)  De Courtin writes about manners for both hosts and guests, and invite advises his bourgeois readers on how they should address the nobility. The church in France also produced handbooks of manners and talk to precept in schools. Gradually gentility spread down from the court to the bourgeois, and finally trickled further down to the rest of the population.
 
The bourgeois were even stricter about standards of civility than were the nobility were; having no ever-present King do enforce the rules, they imposed restraints on themselves. Being more anxious to rise, they had more to lose by making slips and gaffes; so their self-inhibiting mechanisms had to be deeper rooted, less obviously the donning of an external personna than the nobility could permit themselves. The policing of emotions became internal, and finally invisible even to themselves: they were able to think that they acted, not in obedience to power and self-interest but for purely moral reasons." Margaret Visser, in "The Rituals of Dinner"



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