A Method to the Madness

In the heady days of youth, many a man in my position (i.e., newly engaged, etc.) allowed themselves to watch a whole host of Jane Austen movies with their literarily inclined fiance.  Depending on our taste and level of courage, some of us liked the movies, while others pretended to like them to one degree or another.  But as watched them I recall having a thought (one that I most definitely did not voice at the time) I think most people have when exposed to Austen’s world: “What exactly did these women do all day?”

Enter Norbert Elias to answer this, and other perplexing questions about European aristocratic life in the age of Louis XIV and beyond.  His book The Court Society sets out to give the European aristocracy a context in which they lived.  They had reasons for their actions, reasons that made at least some sense in their world.  And like any other system, the seeds of its destruction embedded themselves right within the virtues the aristocracy practiced.

By early on in the book one realizes that, yes, the aristocracy did have “jobs.”  Of course menial/”blue collar” labor remained beneath them, but each member of an aristocratic household had charge of the family name, and advancing that family name.  Americans have little concept of this, but once we understand this idea, most everything else about the aristocracy falls into place.

While Elias did not deal with Austen’s period, I couldn’t help but reference her work when thinking of what Elias described.  In the Austen movies the women spend a great deal of time visiting one another, and Elias points out how this practice allowed for a display of rank and honor.  Thus, these meetings between aristocracy rarely had a “purely social” character to them.  Some may recall the surprise visit of Elizabeth to Darcy’s estate in Pride and Prejudice.  Darcy quickly puts on his “Sunday best” to receive visitors.  Of course it is polite in any society not to receive visitors in the equivalent of pajamas, but it is important to Darcy as well to reflect the dignity of his house to others.  Of course this may be why his house (like other aristocratic houses) remained open to the public, which seems quite strange to modern Americans.  How can one just show up uninvited?  But the aristocracy generally welcomed such visits, as an actor welcomes a chance to perform.  Proper dress and decorum went beyond mere politeness — it served as a means of displaying and advancing status.  Being a good host/guest was “work” for the aristocracy.  Advancing the family name meant advancing the family fortunes.  One might even imagine the members of the family often “on campaign” to advance or defend the family honor, as this note from the Duchess of Orleans to the Duchess of Hanover makes clear:

I must really tell you how just the King is. The Duchesse de Bourgogne’s ladies, who are called Ladies of the Palace, tried to arrogate the rank and take the place of my ladies everywhere. Such a thing was never done either in the time of the Queen or of the Dauphiness. They got the King’s Guards to keep their places and push back the chairs belonging to my ladies. I complained first of all to the Duc de Noailles, who replied that it was the King’s order. Then I went immediately to the King and said to him, “May I ask your Majesty if it is by your orders that my ladies have now no place or rank as they used to have? If it is your desire, I have nothing more to say, because I only wish to obey you, but your Majesty knows that formerly when the Queen and the Dauphiness were alive the Ladies of the Palace had no rank, and my Maids of Honour, Gentlemen of Honour, and Ladies of the Robe had their places like those of the Queen and the Dauphiness. I do not know why the Ladies of the Palace should pretend to anything else.” The King became quite red, and replied, “I have given no such order, who said that I had?” “The Maréchal de Noailles,” I replied. The King asked him why he had said such a thing, and he denied it entirely. “I am willing to believe, since you say so,” l replied, “that my lackey misunderstood you, but as the King has given no such orders, see that your Guards don’t keep places for those ladies and hinder my servants from carrying chairs for my service,” as we say here. Although these ladies are high in favour, the King, nevertheless, sent the majordomo to find out how things should be done. I told him, and it will not happen again. These women are becoming far too insolent now that they are in favour, and they imagined that I would not have the courage to report the matter to the King. But I shall not lose my rank nor prerogatives on account of the favour they enjoy. The King is too just for that.

The greatness of the “House” depended on the greatness of the family, which explains why Darcy would have hesitated to be in their company.  A man of Darcy’s status would naturally hesitate to confer “honor” to Elizabeth’s family by visiting, or especially dancing, which would have conferred an extra measure of approval for their “low status” behavior.  And with Elizabeth’s family’s status teetering on the brink, one can then see how potentially damaging Lydia’s behavior would be later in the book.

Elias points out that the aristocracy needed to visit others not only to forge connections and give and receive honor, but also to understand their place in the social hierarchy.  Take fashion, for example.  One should always dress appropriate to one’s station, never above it or below.  But the appropriate dress might shift over time depending on how others dressed and what approval they received from those above them.  A lord “goes for broke” and wears a cravat a bit frillier than he might normally while visiting a duke.  The duke gives his tacit approval by wearing an even more outlandish cravat, and now everyone must level jump on their cravat’s.  Suddenly, the “normal” cravat another lord wears is out of fashion — he now dresses as a bore.  If he had been invited to more places and been busier with his “job” he would have known this.  His family’s status declines.  Hence the near obsession with the aristocracy with visiting and being visited.  It was the only way to have “information,” to use a phrase Austen’s Emma frequently uttered.

Family status often had little to do with money.  No aristocrat worth his salt would stoop to such vulgar behavior as to actually care about money.  I believe Saint-Simon relates a story of one baron who gave his son some money to spend on the town.  When the son returned with money leftover he received harsh criticism from his father, who then threw the remaining money out of the window.  In returning with money the son showed not prudence, but foolishness.  Anyone who looked like they counted their money might look like they cared about money, and that stigma would hurt their reputation severely.

Americans often get accused, and rightly so, of focusing way too much on money, which proves our essential boorishness as a nation.  We have to see this malady in some ways as a by-product of equality.  Americans for the most part have no built in social framework for support, no “society” (to use another term from Emma) where we can claim membership.  Money, therefore, more so than family or connections, becomes our primary, if not our only tool, to keep us afloat.  The charge against is just, but the charge is easier to avoid in aristocratic societies.

Many aristocrats got their names inscribed in stone by risking vast sums on throws of dice and turns of cards.  One might go broke with such games, but even an incredible loss had glory in it and at least proved one’s cavalier approach to money.  Far better a spendthrift than a miser, but this half-virtue ruined many families.  For of course, they did need money just as anyone else did.  Tradition mitigated against them developing a trade, speculating, or becoming a merchant.  They hoped for an appointment to high ranking government or military posts which traditionally went to high ranking aristocrats.  The only way to prove oneself worthy of this honor was not only to have impeccable taste and sense within the pecking order, but also to demonstrate that they never needed to ask the price of anything.  They played a dangerous game, one that Louis XIV must have been only too delighted to see them play.  As long as the fortunes of the aristocracy ebbed and flowed unpredictably, the greater his power.

So a method did exist.  And we see that, yes, they did work of a kind and had many constraints on their existence.  They were not free in the sense we might imagine.

Perhaps one might think the life of the king free from constraint, but not so.  Louis XIV put before himself a tremendous task, to become the state.  While apparently he did not utter the phrase, “L ‘etat c’est moi,” he did say

 “The interests of the state come first. When one gives these priority, one labours for one’s own good. These advantage to the state redounds to one’s glory.”

So, while Louis did get to set the rules of fashion (being the top aristocrat all matters of taste and decorum flowed down from him), he had to organize methodically his use of power.  In order to effectively display the glory of France/himself and set the rules, he had to be “on call” all the time.  This lends more sympathy perhaps to the comical and bizarre rituals of various select noblemen watching Louis dress, undress, and eat.  I had always focused on the prison the nobles had allowed themselves to enter, but to keep the nobles beholden to himself, Louis had to keep himself beholden to them.  He too faced severe constraints on his behavior.

This element of control had to be extended at Versailles to nature itself.


With Louis XIV one has a possible glimpse of the final apogee of the Medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being, where happiness consisted in knowing who you were by knowing your place in the universe, and how that related to redemption of all things.  But in what could be called its culmination, the egg goes bad instead of hatching.  No wonder so many aristocrats supported the French Revolution, and even supported abolishing feudal titles.  One must always take caution when using one’s own culture and experience to judge the past, but perhaps the aristocracy simply got tired of playing a game no one had any real chance of winning.  One can make a good argument for the real usefulness of the aristocracy during the medieval period, but that time had long past, and one wonders if the French nobility somehow, deep down, knew that to be true.