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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