Fanny Burney and Her Mastectomy

280px-Frances_d'Arblay_('Fanny_Burney')_by_Edward_Francisco_Burney-wiki

Fanny Burney

In 1811, before anesthesia was invented, Frances Burney d’Arblay had a mastectomy aided by nothing more than a wine cordial. She wrote such a gripping narrative about her illness and operation afterwards readers today still find it riveting and informative.

Fanny came from a large family and was the third child of six. From an early age, she began composing letters and stories, and she became a phenomenal diarist, novelist, and playwright in adulthood. Certainly, her skillful writing was a primary reason her mastectomy narrative had such appeal.

In her narrative, Fanny provides “psychological and anatomical consequences of cancer … [and] while its wealth of detail makes it a significant document in the history of surgical techniques, its intimate confessions and elaborately fictive staging, persona-building, and framing make it likewise a powerful and courageous work of literature in which the imagination confronts and translates the body.” Prior to her surgery, she had written similar works about “physical and mental pain to satirize the cruelty of social behavioral strictures, especially for women.”

Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_Reynolds-wikipedia

Dr. Samuel Johnson

Fanny grew up in England and had been embraced by the best of London society. She had served in George III and Queen Charlotte’s court as Second Keeper of the Royal Robes. Moreover, she was admired by such literary figures as Hester Thrale, David Garrick, and Edmund Burke. Fanny also befriended Dr. Samuel Johnson, the English writer who made significant contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. In fact, some of Fanny’s best revelations are about Johnson, how he teased her, and the fondness that he held for her.

In 1793, Fanny married Louis XVI Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard d’Arblay and became Madame d’Arblay. D’Arblay was an artillery officer who served as adjutant-general to the famous hero of the American Revolution, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. D’Arblay had fled France for England during the Revolution just as had many other Frenchmen. However, in 1801, d’Arblay was offered a position in Napoleon Bonaparte’s government. He and Fanny relocated to France in 1802 and moved to Passy (the same spot where Benjamin Franklin and the princesse de Lamballe had lived), and they remained in France for about ten years.

Larrey and Dubois-x300

Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey (left) and Antoine Dubois (right)

While living in France, Fanny suffered breast inflammation in her right breast in 1804 and 1806. She initially dismissed the problem but then in 1811 the pain became severe enough that it affected her ability to use her right arm. Her husband became concerned and arranged for her to visit Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey, First Surgeon to the Imperial Guard, as well as the leading French obstetrician, surgeon, and anatomist, Antoine Dubois.

The French doctors treated Fanny palliatively but as there was no response to the treatment, it was determined surgery was necessary. Fanny’s surgery occurred on 11 September 1811. At the time, surgery was still in its infancy and anesthesia unavailable. Cocaine was later isolated, determined to be an effective local anesthetic, and used for the first time in 1859 by Karl Koller. So, it must have been horrific for Fanny to experience the pain of a mastectomy with nothing more than a wine cordial that may have contained some laudanum. Fanny was traumatized by the surgery and it took months before she wrote about the surgery details to her sister Esther exclaiming:

“I knew not, positively, then, the immediate danger, but every thing convinced me danger was hovering about me, & that this experiment could alone save from its jaws. I mounted, therefore, unbidden, the Bed stead – & M. Dubois placed upon the Mattress, & spread a cambric handkerchief upon my face. It was transparent, however, & I saw through it, that the Bed stead was instantly surrounded by the 7 men & my nurse. I refused to be held; but when, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel – I closed my Eyes. I would not trust to convulsive fear the sight of the terrible incision. A silence the most profound ensued, which lasted for some minutes, during which, I imagine, they took their orders by signs, & made their examination – Oh what a horrible suspension! … The pause, at length, was broken by Dr. Larry [sic], who in a voice of solemn melancholy, said ‘Qui me tiendra ce sein?”

Fanny went on to describe “torturing pain” and her inability to restrain her cries as the doctors cut “though veins – arteries – flesh – nerves.” Moreover, she noted:

“I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound. … I attempted no more to open my Eyes, – they felt as if hermetically shut, and so firmly closed, that the Eyelids seemed indented into my Cheeks. The instrument this second time withdrawn, I concluded the operation over – Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed – and worse than ever … I then felt the Knife rackling against the breast bone – scraping it! – This performed, while I yet remained in utterly speechless torture. “

Despite the excruciating pain, Fanny lived through the operation, and her surgery was deemed a success. Larrey produced a medical report about his brave patient stating that he removed her right breast at 3:45pm and that Fanny showed “un Grand courage.” Courageous as she was, there was no way for doctors to determine if Fanny’s tumor was malignant or if she suffered from mastopathy.

Burney_tombstone-x300

Fanny’s Commemorate Plaque. Courtesy of Bath-heritage.co.uk

Fanny’s healing took a long time, and while still recuperating, she and husband returned to England in 1812. Six years later, in 1818, her husband died from cancer, and she died twenty-two years later, at the age of eighty-seven, on 6 January 1840 in Lower Grosvenor-street in London. As Fanny had requested, a private funeral was held in Bath, England, and attended by a few relatives and some close friends. She was laid to rest in Walcot Cemetery, next to her beloved husband and her only son Alexander, who had died three years earlier. Their bodies were then moved during redevelopment of the Walcot Cemetery to the Haycombe Cemetery in Bath and are buried beneath the Rockery Garden.

References

DeMaria, Jr., Robert, British Literature 1640-1789, 2016
“Died,” in Northampton Mercury, 18 January 1840
Epstein, Julia L., “Writing the Unspeakable: Fanny Burney’s Mastectomy and the Fictive Body,” in Representations, No. 16 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 131-166
Madame D’Arblay, in Evening Mail, 20 January 1840
Madame D’Arblay’s Diary, in Evening Mail, 18 May 1842
“The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (Madame D’Arblay), Volume VI, France 1803-1812,” in Cambridge Journals 

61yLoQ9ugKL._SX345_BO1204203200_-347x381Geri Walton has long been interested in history and fascinated by the stories of people from the 1700 and 1800s. This led her to get a degree in History and resulted in her website, geriwalton.com which offers unique history stories from the 1700 and 1800s. Her first book, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante: The Rise and Fall of the Princesse de Lamballe, discusses the French Revolution and looks at the relationship between Marie Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe.
FacebookTwitter | Google+ | Instagram | Pinterest

Advertisements

The Storming of the Bastille and the Beginning of a Revolution

Prise_de_la_Bastille

The Storming of The Bastille. Jean-Pierre Houel, 1789.

“The great are only great because we are on our knees. Let us rise.” – Camille Desmoulins

When the French Revolution features in art and literature, the bias tends to favor the royalty over the common people; the specter of Madame Guillotine casts a shadow that can still be seen today, and in our sympathy for the tragic figures who lost their lives, the grievances and casualties of the public are routinely overlooked. It was not a misunderstanding about cake that led to the French Revolution. When the Bastille was stormed on July 14th, 1789, it was a long time coming.

Death and Taxes

The social classes were divided into three estates: the First Estate was the Roman Catholic clergy, the Second Estate was the King and the nobility, and the Third Estate represented everyone else. Class was determined entirely by birth, and Louis XVI was an absolute monarch with no real limits to his power.

By 1789, there were thirty million people living in France. France was still a feudal society, so the eighty percent of the population living off of the land in rural areas were obliged to rent it from the nobility. They were taxed heavily and most of them lived below subsistence and had for generations.

W.H. Lewis explains: “If the Devil himself had been given a free hand to plan the ruin of France, he could not have invented any scheme more likely to achieve that object than the system of taxation in vogue, a system which would seem to have been designed with the sole object of ensuring a minimum return to the King at a maximum price to his subjects, with the heaviest share falling on the poorest section of the population.”

The nobility, the clergy, and government officials were entirely tax exempt. More than a century earlier in 1664, Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, wrote that there were 46,000 people working in the departments of finance and justice alone, of which 40,000 were largely redundant, having purchased sinecures for the sole purpose of avoiding paying taxes.

Only the Third Estate paid taxes, so the poorest ninety-seven percent of the country supported the top three percent. The taxes the peasants paid were not used for their benefit, and the fees could change arbitrarily from year to year. Peasants seen to be existing above subsistence level habitually had their taxes doubled. As Lewis assures us, the fees were as high as the government thought they could be without inspiring open revolt.

The money collected from the peasants was kept by the nobility with the exception of the salt tax, which was given to the King. In perhaps the most obvious example of the failure of trickle-down economics, the nobility frittered away fortunes in Versailles while the peasants who made this extravagance possible were dying in the fields outside.

Strapped for cash after assisting in the American War of Independence, Louis attempted to compel his nobility to relinquish more of the taxes they collected to the government. They refused. On June 7th, 1788, parliament also refused the King’s request for a loan to cover the deficit and they were all fired. The parliamentarians of Grenoble, where this took place, protested this action by rejecting the King’s dismissal. The soldiers sent to break up the crowd were met with hostility and projectiles, and the parliamentarians doubled down by refusing to pay taxes to the King and calling on the other regions to do likewise.

Jacquesnecker

Jacques Necker, Minister of Finance beloved by the Third Estate

Out of options, the King called the Estates General Meeting, a gathering of representatives from the three estates at Versailles. Although the Third Estate represented ninety-seven percent of the country, the balance of power was weighted against them and they could easily be outvoted on any issue by the First and Second. Taking this into consideration, they asked for twice the representation and this request was granted by Necker, the King’s finance minister, adding to the popularity he had gained by supporting the parliamentarians at Grenoble.

The Third Estate’s hopes of a fair hearing for their grievances was dashed when they discovered that their extra representation would count for nothing; although they had twice the representation as promised, the Third Estate would still receive only one vote. The gesture was an empty one. When Necker made the ridiculous suggestion that the clergy and nobility should also pay taxes, the nobility turned against the King.

The Third Estate was represented at this meeting by Robespierre, a young lawyer devoted to helping the millions of poor. Having lost faith with the political process, Robespierre and prominent members of the Third Estate established themselves as the National Assembly, and called on representatives from the other two estates to join them for a meeting of their own. They did, and together they decided to write a constitution for the people of France.

The King was not invited.

800px-Lallemand_-_Arrestation_du_gouverneur_de_la_Bastille_-_1790

Arrest of de Launay. Jean-Baptiste Lallemand, 1790. Notice the smoking cannon aimed at the crowd.

The Storming of the Bastille

The National Assembly became the National Constituent Assembly on July 9th, 1789. Three days later, the King fired Necker.

The King had not only replaced Necker with the militaristic Baron de Breteuil, but he had also sent twenty thousand troops to march on Paris to deal with the protesters. The news was delivered first hand by reporter Camille Desmoulins who had rushed back to Paris from Versailles to address the crowds at the Palais-Royal.

Unfortunately for Louis, Necker was very popular among the Third Estate. He had listened to them when no one else of his class would, and he had been the one to propose taxing the wealthy. Even the Paris troops demanded his reinstatement, and refused to fire on the protesters.

Tensions were high. Desmoulins stood on a table outside a café and rallied the crowd:

“Citizens, Necker has been driven out. After such an act they will dare anything, and may be preparing a massacre of patriots this very night. To arms! To arms! The famous police are here; well, let them look at me. I call on my brothers to take liberty.”

Camille Desmoulins, journalist fond of artfully placed semicolons and giving impassioned speeches on cafe tables.

Camille Desmoulins, journalist fond of “artfully placed semicolons” and giving impassioned speeches on cafe tables.

Desmoulins’ words had some effect; crowds marched on the Abbaye prison to free several guardsmen who had been jailed for refusing to fire on the protesters. Theater performances were cancelled out of respect for the uprising. A people’s militia was formed and had more than thirteen thousand volunteers just to start, and its numbers swelled to perhaps fifty thousand before long.

As terrifying as fifty thousand angry people must have been, they wouldn’t have much of a chance against the King’s army without weapons. We take for granted the availability of weapons today, but they were much harder to come by in eighteenth century France. In need of means of defense, crowds marched on the Hotel des Invalides and took thirty thousand muskets. Desperate, they even took items from the museum in the Place Louis XV, including a crossbow that had previously belonged to Henri IV.

The Bastille mainly held political prisoners at the pleasure of the King and without benefit of trial, so it had come to be seen as a symbol of the tyranny of the Bourbon monarchs in the heart of the poor district of St-Antoine. It was a natural target.

It also held a truly spectacular amount of gunpowder.

The Bastille was seen as impenetrable, and hundreds of barrels of gunpowder had recently been moved behind the drawbridge for safe keeping. Early in the morning of July 14th, a crowd of perhaps one thousand tradesmen approached the gates and demanded the gunpowder.

De Launay, the prison Governor, invited a group of them inside for breakfast to kill time while reports of approaching royalist troops spread throughout the city. The breakfast went on for three hours while the rest of the crowd waited outside until one man managed to climb onto the drawbridge from the roof of a neighboring shop and cut its chains, allowing the protesters to cross into the outer courtyard.

Breakfast negotiations were cut short and before long, de Launay had cannon fired into the crowd.

Violence is never an appropriate way to respond to protest, and firing cannonballs into a crowd of demonstrators drew the wrong kind of attention. Many French Guards rushed to the Bastille to defend the protesters, and a Swiss Guard inside handed a set of keys to a rebel through a hole in the wall. They passed through the second drawbridge, but were forced to use a plank to cross the moat on the other side.

Nevertheless, they made it through. Only six Bastille guards were killed to the protesters’ staggering ninety-four, and de Launay’s head was cut off by an unemployed cook. All seven prisoners of the Bastille were freed. The Marquis de Sade would have been one of them, but he had been moved to another location the week before.

Upon hearing of the event, Governor Morris wrote from Versailles:

“A person came in and announced the taking of the Bastille, the governor of which is beheaded, and a crowd carries his head in triumph through the city. Yesterday it was the fashion in Versailles not to believe that there were any disturbances in Paris. I presume that this day’s transactions will induce a conviction that all is not perfectly quiet.”

Aftermath

Following the events of July 14th, the King reinstated Necker and formally recognized the National Assembly. Lafayette was appointed head of the newly formed National Guard consisting of the police and army, and the Paris Commune was formed.

The Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen) was issued August 26th, the medieval system of feudalism was abolished August 4th, and the Bastille was demolished by February 1790. The abolition of the monarchy followed in 1792, and Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were executed for treason in 1793.

Score Card:
Third Estate Casualties: 94
Other Casualties: 6
Prisoners freed: 18
Weapons Stolen: 30,000+, hundreds of barrels of gunpowder, one famous crossbow
Bastille: -1

Jessica Cale

Sources

Lewis, W.H. The Splendid Century: Life in the France of Louis XIV. William Morrow & Co, 1953.
Steel, Mark. Vive La Revolution. Haymarket Books, 2003.

Magic and Sacrilege in the Court of Louis XIV

 

Nicolas_Régnier_-_Cardsharps_and_Fortune_Teller_-_WGA19040

Nicolas Regnier, Card Sharps and Fortune Teller (1620)

The belief in magic plays a large part in The Long Way Home. Many of the strangest things that happen to the characters are based on fact. Although the book takes place at the dawn of the Enlightenment, superstition and belief in magic was still common and in some cases, all-consuming. Let’s take a closer look.

In spite of the devout Catholicism of Louis XIV’s court, many courtiers not only believed in but attempted to practice magic, often with the intent of harming others, and usually with the assistance of a sorceress or renegade priest. While the courtiers attending the king were expected to attend mass every day without fail, business in spells, poisons, and magic charms was booming.

The Affair of the Poisons uncovered a thriving underworld of sorceresses and magicians trading in everything from cosmetics, love charms, and divination to demon conjuration, poisons, and even human sacrifice. The more potent the charm, the higher the price, and there were a number of ordained priests who were willing to assist with the most dangerous and powerful tasks: the conjuring of demons.

Schongauer_Anthony

Conjuring Demons: Sure, you *might* bend them to your will…or this could happen. Martin Schongauer, The Temptation of St. Anthony (c. 1470)

At best, magic could be dismissed as superstition, or worse, the serious crime of sacrilege. Admittedly, demon conjuration, murder, and human sacrifice don’t sound particularly Christian to the modern reader. So why involve priests?

As Mollenauer explains in Strange Revelations:

“Paris’ magical underworld exploited the practices, imagery, and sacramental of the Catholic Church to increase the efficacy of their magic. The composition of their spells and charms illustrates that the distinction between superstition and orthodox Christian belief was still very blurred in seventeenth-century France. The simple spells known as oraisons found in La Voison’s grimoires, for example, were made up of a linguistic hodge-podge of Christian imagery, ‘debased’ holy languages (Latin, Greek, or Hebrew), and simply alliterative nonsense.”

By involving priests and Christian rituals and imagery, they attempted to harness the power of the Catholic mass to serve their own ends. It was the idea of the priest as an intercessory between God and laymen which gave Catholic priests their power and their elevated status. The superstition could not be denied without also denying the priest’s divine power, or that of the devil on the other hand.

One way to guarantee the efficacy of a potion or charm would be to have a priest say a mass over it. Although the Council of Trent had advised against superstition and divination in 1566, there were some priests who were willing to accept to the freelance work as compensation for a life of poverty. It was believed to be a sin not only to have one’s fortune told, but to even believe that such a thing was possible.

Still, magic flourished. Along with cosmetics, fortune tellers and some midwives sold cures for ailments from headaches to leprosy, charms for love, luck, or impossibly long lives.

Gambling was very popular, and charms to bring luck at the gaming tables were prohibitively expensive and difficult to come by. With the huge sums of money won and lost often over single hands, many thought the spiritual and legal risks were worth it.

The list of charms is not for the squeamish, however. The preserved cauls of infants were popular charms, as were tiny miscarried or stillborn fetuses. Many sorceresses worked as or with midwives, so these could always be obtained for a price. The most expensive of the money charms was the main de gloire, which involved sacrificing a particular kind of mare, skinning it, and preparing its hide in an elaborate fashion for several days, after which point it was said to transform into a live snake that could double almost any amount of money put into its box…as long as you slept with the box.

Love magic was more popular than money magic, and many spells and charms were sold to inspire love in others, or to help one to gain the approval of troublesome relatives. If these didn’t work to remove impediments to love, there was always poison.

Poison was sold by sorceresses, magicians, fortune tellers, and sometimes even midwives. It was alarmingly easy to obtain and more common than one would think. The sale of arsenic had not yet been limited to those professions requiring it, so anyone without fear or moral compass could mix “inheritance powder”. Although arsenic is strong enough to cause death or serious damage on its own, it was believed that magic gave it its lethal power, and so renegade priests were often involved directly or indirectly in its sale.

The Affair of the Poisons exposed the activities of Paris’ criminal underworld and resulted in the arrest, imprisonment, exile, or execution of hundreds of people from all levels of society, including some within the king’s inner circle. As a result, the sale of arsenic was restricted and superstition was forbidden by law, but fear of death by poison remained a serious concern throughout the Age of Enlightenment.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Lynn Wood Mollenauer. Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV’s France.

Anne Somerset. The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV.

The Affair of the Poisons

The Long Way Home is set in the court of Louis XIV at the beginning of the murder scandal that would become known as the Affair of the Poisons. Although this has become an overlooked corner of history, the revelations that arose from this scandal once caused terror throughout France and had serious consequences for hundreds of citizens from all walks of life. So what was it?

The Affair of the Poisons

The Affair of the Poisons was a major scandal that took place during the reign of Louis XIV in France between 1675 and 1682. Hundreds of people were accused of murder, conspiracy, and witchcraft, resulting in the imprisonment, torture, exile, or execution of more nearly three hundred people, many of them prominent members of society.

Brinvilliers

Madame de Brinvilliers

Madame de Brinvilliers

The Affair of the Poisons is generally considered to begin with the trial and subsequent execution of Madame de Brinvilliers in 1675-6. A wealthy and respectable woman, Brinvilliers was convicted of conspiring to poison her father and two brothers with hopes of inheriting their estates. This was no crime of passion, but a coldly calculated maneuver executed very slowly over the course of years. She went to trouble of installing her own servants in the homes of her father and brothers, and successfully poisoned all three relatives. She had also poisoned her husband and daughter, but gave them both antidotes in a fit of conscience.

This trial called attention to other mysterious deaths and raised fears across the kingdom. When an anonymous note detailing a plot to murder the king was found in a confession box in 1677, paranoia hit fever pitch.

The fears were well-founded. When Madame de La Grange was arrested in 1677 on murder charges, she appealed with information of other serious crimes, leading to the discovery of a vast network of people involved in poison, murder, witchcraft, infanticide, and even Satanism right under the King’s nose.

Investigation

Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, the chief of Paris police, followed the accusations to a number of fortune tellers, alchemists, and even renegade priests. If you’re thinking all this was over a little palm reading, think again. Fortune tellers and others were found to be selling poisons and other “remedies” door-to-door or even in shops along with cosmetics and household tonics (think evil Avon lady).

Catherine_Deshayes_(Monvoisin,_dite_«La_Voisin»)_1680

La Voisin

The most infamous of these was midwife Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin, also known as La Voisin, who was arrested in 1679. Following her arrest, La Voisin implicated many of her clients who were prominent members of the aristocracy, including one of the king’s mistresses, Madame de Montespan, the Comtesse de Soissons, the Duchesse de Bouillon, and the Duke of Luxembourg.

Poison and Witchcraft

Although the poisons they were using were potent enough to do away with rivals without any help, it was believed that magic gave the poison its power. We’re not talking about a few little spells, here, either. The magic was believed to come from priests, and a number of unscrupulous priests accepted this kind of work on the side to supplement their clerical livings. For a fee, they would say mass over magic charms and even poison to infuse them with power, regardless of their intended use. If poison of charms made from holy oil or menstrual blood did not prove to be potent enough to achieve the person’s aims, there was also something called an Amatory Mass. What was that, exactly? You probably don’t want to know. If you’re at all squeamish, maybe skip the next paragraph.

black mass 1895

A depiction of La Voisin and the Etienne Guibourg performing a black mass for Madame de Montespan, 1895

At the height of the Affair of the Poisons, there were accusations that certain prominent members of the court, most notably the King’s longest-serving mistress and mother to seven of his children, Madame de Montespan, had employed corrupt priests to perform a ritual called an Amatory mass. While it was superficially similar to common Christian mass, it differed with a few key details. Said over the body of a naked woman (usually the person requesting the magic), it culminated in the sacrifice of a human infant. While the existence of these has not been conclusively proven, testimony of priests thought to be involved is eerily similar.

Aftermath

Marquise_de_Brinvilliers

The interrogation of Madame de Brinvilliers

The investigations into the Affair of the Poisons resulted in the imprisonment, torture, and interrogation of many people, as well as the execution of a further thirty-six. Following the execution of La Voisin in 1680, the king’s minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert helped to sweep things under the rug on the king’s instruction. His Chambre Ardente, a court established to judge cases of poisonings and witchcraft, was closed in 1682 on the king’s instruction because so many courtiers and those connected to them had been questioned and found guilty that he could not abide the scandal.

Some measures were taken to limit the availability of poisons after the scandal. In 1682, an edict proclaimed that anyone convicted of supplying poison, whether or not that supply resulted in death, would be sentenced to death. Alchemists found themselves under greater scrutiny because of the involvement of a small number of them in the formulation of the poisons, most notably Brinvilliers’ alchemist lover. The same edict restricted alchemy to that conducted with the protection of a permit. Further limits were placed on the sale of arsenic and mercury sublimate, so that they were no longer available to the general public, but only to professions that were deemed to require them.

The Long Way Home takes place in Versailles in 1677, just as the Affair of the Poisons is beginning in earnest. The court is plagued with mysterious deaths, the king fears for his life, and Alice quickly discovers that court is not as virtuous as it appears.

Sources
Lynn Wood Mollenauer. Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV’s France.
Anne Somerset. The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV.

Dining in the Court of Louis XIV

 

The court of Louis XIV was a vibrant and opulent place. The menus and dining habits of the King and court offer insight into the excesses that saw six of every ten francs collected in taxes spent at the enormous chateau of Versailles and its ten thousand inhabitants. The population of France at this time was approximately twenty million.

Versailles was more than a seat of government. As W.H. Lewis explains, “To the man or woman of ambition it was a lottery in which the prizes were dazzling, and in which few could resist the temptation to take a ticket.” Conducting oneself well and securing the King’s favor could result offices, property, influence, and connections. Though it could be prohibitively expensive to put on appearances as a courtier, many people thought it was worth the risk, and in any case, life at court was unlike anything else in the world.

Let’s take a look at the food:

Dinner

For most courtiers, dinner was eaten at eleven or twelve before attending the King’s dinner at one. In spite of appearances, many courtiers hoping to obtain the King’s favor were relatively poor, and were referred to in the slang of the time as cherchemidis, or seekers of free dinners. If they were not able to eat in town or at their patron’s table, they could dine with the five-hundred others reliant on the King’s generosity at the cuisine de commun, a special kitchen kept to feed them in Versailles.

At one, the King would eat au petit couvert, au grand couvert, or au public. Watching Louis dine au public was a popular pastime, and any well-dressed person could be admitted. They were not allowed to stare at the King, however, and were led through one door and out another, moving past the King’s table in an orderly queue. Louis rarely dined in public, and prefered to eat au petit couvert in the privacy of his rooms. Even in private, the ceremony was considerable. After they were tasted by the maitre d’hotel and the Equerry of the Kitchen, thirty or forty dishes were carried from the kitchen in the rue de la Surintendance across the street and through the palace to the King’s rooms with a formal entourage of more than a dozen people known as the cortege de la viande de Sa Majeste.

The King ate at a square table in his bedroom facing the window, and the food was kept warm over dishes filled with red embers. Never left alone, he might be joined by his brother, the Dauphin, bishops, or Princes of the Blood, but he was the only person allowed to sit.

Supper

The supper hour was ten o’clock, but the King usually ate much later. Supper was his favorite part of the day, and the court was awed by the amount of food he could eat. An average supper for the King might include four plates of soup, a pheasant, a partridge, ham, mutton, salad, pastry, fruit, and hard-boiled eggs. Although he retired to bed soon after supper, he would be met there with en cas de nuit, a snack meant to sustain him until morning. This would include two bottles of wine, water, three loaves of bread, and perhaps three cold dishes.

If you’re wondering how he managed it, it is worth noting that Louis never ate between meals. Unsurprisingly, his post mortem revealed his stomach was twice the size of an average man’s.

Supper for the privileged was no less grand. Whether dining at Versailles or in Paris, suppers consisted of three or four courses eaten with trenchers. Forks existed, but had not caught on yet, and their use depended upon breeding and company. They were commonly used in Paris, but shunned by the King, who preferred to eat with his fingers.

A sample supper menu from 1662:

1st Service
Centre Plate: Oille [a stew of spiced duck, partridges, pigeons, etc.]
Entrees: Partridge in cabbage: fillet of duck: galantine of chicken: fillet of beef with cucumber.
Hors d’oeuvre: Chickens cooked on hot embers.

2nd Service
Centre Plate: Quarter of veal.
Roasts: Two hens and four rabbits.
Hors d’oeurve: Two salads.

3rd Service
Centre Plate: Partridge pie.
Plats Moyens: Vegetables and fruits.
Hors d’oeuvre: Fried sheep’s testicles: slices of roast beef spread with kidneys, onions, and cheese.

Dessert
Pastry: strawberries and cream: hard-boiled eggs

Drinks might include red wine or liqueurs served after dessert. Rossolis was a liqueur made from brandy and spices, and Hippocras was a distillation of white wine, sugar, and spices scented with musk. Champagne was in development, but did not exist in its current form until the 1690s. Cider was common, but it was “thought by right-minded men to be God’s judgment on the Normans for their rascality.”

Oysters, salmon, and sardines were popular. One of the most popular dishes was potage. Typically a large dish of meat boiled with vegetables, potage was so loved that there were more than one hundred and fifty recipes for it at the time. In The Long Way Home, Alice and Jack are treated to a supper of Potage a la Jacobine, a thick stew of partridges and chickens served in almond sauce over a layer of cheese.

One of the most coveted foods at court was one we would least expect. When Alice arrives at Versailles, she is perplexed to find that everyone is obsessed with peas.

Tokarski_Still_life_with_peaAs Madame Maintenon writes from Marly in 1696:

“We are still on the chapter of peas. Impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the anticipation of eating them again… Some women having supped, and supped well, at the King’s table, have peas waiting for them in their rooms to eat before going to bed.”

Green peas were an expensive luxury beloved by the court. In 1660, Louis XIV had a huge quantity brought to him from Italy, packed in roses to keep them fresh.

From coffee and pastry to peas and potage, you can read more about the food, dining habits, and etiquette of Louis’ court in The Long Way Home.