by Felicia Londré
Book Review: "In telling their remarkable story, Professor Backer reveals why these very ladies who sighed over shallow literature, spoke in contrived metaphors, and ultimately became the target of Moliere's satire, were nevertheless the first women anywhere to band together in consciousness of their womanly plight."
Scarcely a generation before Molière, Paris theatre was not at all geared to polite ladies. The plays performed in converted indoor tennis courts were full of rough-and-tumble action, fight scenes, and even indelicate language. Those tragi-comedies might have evolved into something like the barbaric works of Shakespeare if it had not been for a woman whose influence helped change the course of French drama and pave the way for Molière's genius.
Cathérine de Vivonne (1588-1665) was married at age twelve to a man nearly twice her age, Charles d'Angennes (1577-1652), who later acceded to the title of Marquis de Rambouillet. Appalled at the vulgarity of swaggering male aristocrats even at the court of Henri IV, she renounced going out in society. After dutifully bearing a few children, she acquired a convenient illness that kept her bed-ridden and free from becoming further inconvenienced by pregnancy. She remodeled the Rambouillet mansion to feature a suite of rooms leading to her chambre bleue (blue room), where she could recline on her bed to receive friends and literary celebrities who met her standards of polite manners and good conversation.
From the 1610s on, the Marquise de Rambouillet led a quiet revolution in taste. Regulars at her salon often adopted pastoral names; hers was Arthénice, an anagram of her name Cathérine. Admission to Arthénice's chambre bleue Tuesdays became so prestigious that a widening circle actively upgraded the norms of civilized social interaction. The theatrical turning point came in 1636 when Pierre Corneille wrote Le Cid, still inevitably bearing some traces of the old tragi-comic swashbuckle, but ultimately winning the day for the disciplined restraint of neoclassicism.
By the 1650s, under Louis XIV, many women were imitating Arthénice, each woman attracting her own coterie of poets or philosophers or clever pretenders to intellect. Notable among these was Madeleine de Scudéry (1608-1701), whose Saturdays are best remembered for having produced the Carte du Tendre (Map of Tenderness), a map of the human heart with such locations as the Lake of Indifference, the Dangerous Sea, the Town of Lukewarmness, and the Inclination River flowing through the center. This was a great resource for conversation on subjects like the four varieties of love, the twenty kinds of esteem, or the forty types of smiles.
Clearly the second generation of salons was fostering a more preening, self-conscious atmosphere of high-toned artifice. Fashions in dress evolved alongside flowery euphemisms in speech; men and women alike sported ribbons, ruffles, laces, and flounces. Disdaining to pronounce lowly words like "chair" or "teeth," they found substitutes like "apparatus for conversation" or "furniture of the mouth." The women began to be called précieuses and took pride in it. The "preciousness" of the 1650s-60s might be defined as excessive display of virtue and refinement. It was such excess that gave rise to Molière's 1659 one-act Les Précieuses ridicules (The Laughably Precious Young Ladies) and his 1672 five-act comedy Les Femmes savantes (The Learned Ladies).
It is one of the many paradoxes of France's Grand Siècle (Great Century, the 17th), like its accommodation of both the Baroque and the neoclassical, that Molière flourished as a playwright for a theatre scene that had become polite enough for women, yet he went on to find fun in portraying women who practiced too much politesse.
Pictured: Les Femmes Savantes (The Learned Ladies) is a comedy by Molière in five acts, written in verse. A satire on academic pretension, female education, and préciosité (French for preciousness), it was one of his most popular comedies. It premiered at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal on 11 March 1672.
By Rebecca Smith
This will sound familiar: “a very serious contagious infectious disease caused by a virus. It takes 10 - 12 days after exposure for the symptoms to show and then 7 – 10 days for the whole thing to vanish – if one survives it.” One who almost didn't survive it was Louis XIV in 1663.
We are speaking of “la rougeole”, which sounds and looks like it could refer to a gourmet dish, a flower or a famous aria but is actually the measles (which, on second thought, makes sense with the “rouge” as the word’s base). And it was deadly in France in the 17th century.
Louis’ brother, Philippe, first came down with the illness, and was in very critical condition. The queen mother took Louis away to Fontainebleau to safeguard him. By the time they returned, Philippe had survived but barely and was unrecognizably thin and pale.
The queen, Marie-Therese d’Autriche was infected next and it was from her that Louis caught the disease. On Monday May 28 he was beset with a terrible headache, fever and sweating, exhaustion and an inability to sleep. The king’s doctor of over 10 years, the premier médecin du Roi, Antoine Vallot, immediately feared la rougeole and began treatment.
From the Journal de La Santé du Roi we have a record of the medical crisis. The primary elements of the “cure” were those, common in the time, of bloodletting and enemas, or, “clysters”. A daily cycle of the two was begun.
Louis pushed through with his plan to relocate, with the queen, to Versailles, against the doctor’s wishes. The first day there Louis seemed improved and walked through the gardens but by night was once more tormented by symptoms and this time they were even more serious. The next few days the king was in grave danger and Vallon wasn’t sure he would survive. He reported, “All these worrying symptoms, with a fiery fever, relentless sweating, continual vomiting, a belly full of seros-matter, convulsive movements, inattentiveness and drowsiness, alarmed the whole court.” And Louis himself was panicked; Vallon claims to have had to calm down the king’s requests for a confessor and assure him he would live. Which, of course, he did. Friday morning Louis announced he felt much better and by Saturday morning felt back to his normal strength. On Sunday he received official visitors. He and the queen returned to Paris on June 9. They had conquered the illness.
Le Rougeole, however, was not finished with the royal family. In December of 1697, Louis XIV celebrated the marriage of his eldest grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne, 15, in line for the throne, and Marie-Adélaïde, daughter of the Duke of Savoy, 12. The couple eventually bore three sons. The first died in 1707. In 1712 the Duke and Duchess and their second son all died of measles. Only their youngest son, born in 1710, lived. He became King Louis XV at age 5. He died of smallpox in 1774. It is often considered that the weak leadership of Louis XV paved the way for the French Revolution in 1789.
Intellectual History Review 27, 2017
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