Monday, August 29, 2005

The Splendid Century

We know both too much and too little about Louis XIV ever to succeed in capturing the whole man. In externals, in the mere business of eating, drinking, and dressing, in the outward routine of what he loved to call the métier du roi, no historical character, not even Johnson or Pepys, is better known to us; we can even, with the aid of his own writings, penetrate a little of the majestic façade which is Le Grand Roi. But when we have done so, we see as in a glass darkly. Hence the extraordinary number and variety of judgments which have been passed upon him; to one school, he is incomparably the ablest ruler in modern European history; to another, a mediocre blunderer, pompous, led by the nose by a succession of generals and civil servants; whilst to a third, he is no great king, but still the finest actor of royalty the world has ever seen. Courtesy, reticence, and an almost inhuman tranquillity of demeanour, are the qualities in Louis which strike us at the first glance: the latter so constant that when on a certain day he speaks roughly to his coachman, "usually a prime favorite," his entourage correctly deduces from this fact that a serious crisis has arisen. We never catch him off his guard or surprise his secrets: whether we meet the taciturn, faintly bored Louis of the private apartments, or the Sun-King whose "terrifying majesty" made so deep an impression on so many observers.

Thus begins The Splendid Century, first published in 1957, on some aspects of French life in the reign of Louis XIV. When it came out, it received excellent reviews from historians as a well-researched non-specialist introduction to the era. I can't speak for all of it, naturally, but the chapter on the Church holds up very well -- it does a good job showing just how messed up the Catholic Church in France was in the 17th century, given the disputes raging at the time (over Jansenism, Gallicanism, and Quietism). The book is by Warren Hamilton Lewis, who is usually overshadowed by his younger brother.

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