Louis XIV remains, without a glimpse of a doubt, one of the greatest French kings. His reign was a synonym of cultural, intellectual and military achievements which left an undeniable footprint in French history. Unfortunately, historians have not always been complaisant in their historical assessments. For a long time, his reign was heavily criticized for its absolutism, religious intolerances, famine, endless wars, and the disastrous economic situation towards the end. Historiography has drastically changed in the last decades, offering a more positive perspective on the reign. Louis XIV is undoubtedly a complex and ambiguous historical figure that needs to be understood. His reign is extremely long and almost impossible to cover entirely. Therefore, this series of articles will offer a brief overview of some key aspects of the Sun King.
Louis XIV's Mémoires for the Instructions of the Dauphin is a fundamental text of his early reign. Unfortunately, it is not possible to expose the values and limitations of this source in a single article. Therefore, this week's article will only study the authenticity of the Mémoires, leaving the exploration of the values of such document to next week.
The Early Reign of Louis XIV series is divided into six chapters:
The Early Reign of Louis XIV 101: The Sun King's Mémoires (I).
My son, many excellent reasons have prompted me to go to a considerable effort in the midst of my greatest occupations in order to leave you these memoirs of my reign and of my principal actions. (Louis XIV, 1).
These few lines open Louis XIV's Mémoires for the Instruction of the Dauphin, a vast project that has aroused multiple editions and debates in recent centuries. In 1806, Phillipe-Antoine Grouvelle and Louis Laurent Joseph Gain-Montagnac were the first to publish them in two multi-volume editions among a variety of texts, written or directed by the Sun King himself. It was, however, only in 1860, with Charles Dreyss, that the Mémoires earned their first critical edition and notorious name: Mémoires for the instruction of the Dauphin. Not only correcting and completing previous versions, this new edition specifically regrouped documents dedicated to the education of Louis de France, heir to the French throne. Extracted from manuscripts, notes and journals, the Mémoires narrated the years 1661, 1662, 1666, 1667 and 1668 and were filled with essential teachings drawn from the king’s experiences (Bjornstad, 783). Although the Mémoires were neither finished, not fulfilled their original purpose, as the Dauphin died in 1711, they nevertheless became an inestimable historiographical source. As Dreyss noted: 'the Mémoires (…) highlight Louis XIV's ideas, (…) demonstrate how his thoughts emerged, developed and changed' (Dreyss, x). Unfortunately, these texts have been overwhelmingly marginalized in historiography. Compared to other Mémoires of the Grand Siècle such as the ones of Cardinal de Retz, Louis XIV’s texts have not fostered as much interest and enthusiasm as expected. Explanations are diverse but mostly focus on the existence of limitations in content and composition. This article offers an investigation behind the authenticity of the Mémoires to determine some of their values and limitations.
Above all, one must be conscious about the dating problems around the composition of the Mémoires. In 1859, Dreyss examined Louis XIV’s journal and a range of documents found in the French National Library. From this study, the historian assumed that the first notes were made in 1666 and that the redaction of the Mémoires truly began after the treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle, in 1668 (Thireau, 13-14). Unsurprisingly, these revelations raised several concerns on the documents narrating the events between 1661-1665. For Dreyss, there were no doubts that any texts prior to the ones of 1666-1668 had been written after 1668 (Thireau, 13-14). Dreyss concluded that the years 1661-1662 should be considered as an introduction and were, thus, not worth much attention (Thireau, 13-14).
Dating issues were also combined with serious authorship questions. It was no secret that the Mémoires were not written by the hand of the monarch himself. Like many of his contemporaries, the king had relied on more competent people to write them. In 1859, François-Leopold Marcou determined that Paul Pellisson-Fontanier was to be credited for writing the years 1661-1662 (Petitfils, 7). A few months later, Dreyss corrected that Pellisson had been put in charge in 1670 and had only reviewed the years 1661-1662 (Thireau, 14-15). More importantly, his thesis revealed that any texts between 1662 and 1668 had been written by Octave de Perigny and that the origins of the Mémoires were to be attributed to Jean-Baptiste Colbert (Thireau, 14-15). Coupled with the dating problems, such revelations inevitably undermined the authenticity and value of the texts themselves. Both these resulted in a general defiance towards the Mémoires, which eventually reached its paroxysm with Edmon Esmonin in 1927 (Thireau, 14-15). Whereas Dreyss and Marcou remained reluctant towards denying Louis XIV’s paternity to the texts, Esmonin affirmed that : 'We cannot, in any case, argue that these texts contain the exact thoughts or even Louis XIV's style (…) and it is a grave mistake to give these documents the simple title of: Mémoires de Louis XIV.' (Esmonin, 541). This statement was undoubtedly excessive, but it reflected the inherent scepticism within the historical community.
Authorship and dating issues were not the only causes behind the marginalization of the Mémoires. In 2004, Stanis Perez criticized the Mémoires for being a scattered narration of military actions and thoughts that have been put together in a chronological order (Perez, 28). As mentioned earlier, the Mémoires gathered a series of documents covering the years 1661, 1662, 1666, 1667 and 1668. Unfortunately, there is almost no continuity in the narration because many texts are either incomplete or missing (Bjornstad, 783). Already in 1860, Dreyss reported the loss of the years 1663, 1664 and 1665 and pointed that only the year 1661 could be considered as intact (Dreyss, clxviii). Each editor desperately attempted to find the missing documents but in vain, as even the most recent publications continue to present this problem. For many, the Mémoires are unlikely to ever be completed. Even though Louis had valued these texts in the early years of his personal rule, his attitude and mentality progressively changed in the course of his long reign to the point that in 1714, he decided to burn them (Petitfils, 11). The survival of these texts was only to be credited to the Duke of Noailles, one of the king’s confidents, who convinced him in extremis to save them (Bjronstad, 782). However, other documents were burnt in August 1715. No one knows exactly what was lost, but many speculate that some parts of the Mémoires might have ended in ashes (Bjronstad, 782). Not only disparate and incomplete, the Mémoires only offered the narration of the first five years of Louis XIV’s personal reign. Thus, reading them does not confer a global perspective on the king’s mentality or personality. Louis XIV went through countless events and experiences for the rest of his reign that are not mentioned in his texts. His desire to burn these documents in his final years indicates how much the monarch had changed since the 1660s. Overall, one must be aware of the incompleteness of this edition and in the fact that it only delivers an insight to the king’s early years.
Despite these unfortunate limitations, the Mémoires also display strong qualities. It is, above all, essential to note the historiographical evolution around the authorship and dating issues. In the 1960s, Paul Sonnino corrected that the project was not initiated in 1668 but rather around 1665 (Sonnino, 1964, 308). He also demonstrated the impossibility to confirm the narration of the years 1661-1662 after 1668 (Sonnino, 1964, 308). In his opinio, these texts had been written many years earlier and had been reviewed in 1671 by Pellisson. Sonnino’s conclusions entirely rehabilitated the years 1661-1662 as an integrant and valuable part of the Mémoires and not simply an introduction (Thoreau, 18-19). Concerning authorship, Sonnino assured that the king must have controlled his collaborators 'much more closely than the manuscripts suggested' (Sonnino, 1964, 337). Louis XIV regularly wrote brief notes, or feuilles, on current events or thoughts. These documents were then transmitted to Perigny who combined them with his registre, a workbook which contained both his notes and reflections, to write the Mémoires. If Perigny’s registre was the principal source in drafting short segments of texts, Sonnino asserted that the resulting texts were carefully reviewed by the king himself (Sonnino, 1969, 347). The historian notably used the London diplomatic dispute to illustrate this scrutinization. In 1661, the French Ambassador got into a street battle against his Spanish counterpart, the Barron de Vatterville. From this incident, Louis forced the Spanish to recall Vatterville and to declare that Spanish ambassadors would no longer contest precedence with the French (Sonnino, 1970, 8). Recorded in the notes of Colbert, the description of the events were later related by Perigny who greatly embellished Louis’ highly personal and self-congratulatory reflections on the affair. For Sonnino, there were no doubts that 'if Perigny was the author of these reflections on the affair, he managed to grasp the King’s policies better than any of his contemporaries' (Sonnino, 1970, 8). Sonnino recognized the impossibility of presuming the King’s involvement in the composition of every statement but he pointed that there were still too many questions and possibilities that should be explored before stripping Louis XIV’s paternity from these texts (Sonnino, 1970, 8). These explanations were widely accepted in the historical community and entirely restored the Sun King’s authorship.
Perhaps the strongest quality of these Mémoire is to be found in the targeted audience. In 1860, Dreyss accused the king to have written these Mémoires exclusively to glorify his reign (Dreyss, viii). Some modern historians concurred, to some extent, Dreyss’ observation as they pointed that the king was potentially addressing a wider public than simply the Dauphin. In 1984, Richard D. Lockwood identified three different audiences: himself, the Dauphin and historians (Lockwood, 554-555). Basing his assumptions on the writing style and notably the use of the ‘I’, Lockwood determined that Louis was in reality addressing: 'an audience composed of his historians and (…) for the public that is to be mesmerized by the machinery of his glory as it will be presented in later histories' (Lockwood, 555). Other elements seemed to corroborate this vision. Among them, there was notably Pellisson’s panegyric allocution to the Académie in 1671, which publicly announced the redaction of the Mémoires. Moreover, historians affirmed that the Mémoires were not originally meant to be addressed to the Dauphin. Indeed, the recurrent interpellations of the king to his sons in the texts were only added by Pellisson in 1671 (Goubert, 11). Nevertheless, no concrete proof exists to confirm that the Mémoires were to be read by someone else than the Dauphin. One must not forget that the content of these documents remained confidential for decades and almost ended up in ashes in 1714. Recent editors such as Joel Cornette and Jean-Christian Petitfils sustained that the Dauphin was to be the only reader, excluding any potential wider audiences and leaving Lockwood and Dreyss’ arguments as interpretations and suppositions. Thus, the Mémoires fulfil their role in the record of historical events, but no one can confirm whether they were written to defend Louis XIV’s honour and reputation or if they were expected to be read by a wider audience.
Overall, the Mémoires for the Instruction of the Dauphin is an imperfect source, but full of promises. One could argue that too many documents are missing and that it only confers an idea of the early reign. However, these documents have the merit of having been written for the Dauphin, not for a wider audience, offering therefore its reader a unique perspective and insight onto Louis XIV's intimate thoughts. As the next article will explore, these Mémoires' values go beyond simply being personal accounts and advice, but help to understand the personality of the Sun King and the ideas that guided his early reign.
Bjornstad, H. (2012). The Marginalization of the Mémoires of Louis XIV. The European Legacy, 17(6), pp. 779-789.
Dreyss, C. (1860). Introduction. In C. Dreyss (Ed.), Mémoires de Louis XIV pour l’Instruction du Dauphin (pp. I-CCLI.). Didier.
Esmonin, E. (1927). Les mémoires de Louis XIV. Revue d'histoire moderne, 2(12), pp. 449-454.
Goubert, P. (1992). Introduction. In P. Goubert (Ed.), Mémoires pour l'instruction du dauphin (pp. 7-39). Imprimerie nationale.
Lockwood, R. D. (1987). The 'I' of History in the Mémoires of Louis XIV. Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, 14(27), pp. 551-554.
Louis XIV (1970). Memoirs for the instruction of the Dauphin. Introd., translation & notes by Paul Sonnino (P. Sonnino, Trans.). New York Free Press.
Perez, S. (2004). Les Brouillons de l’absolutisme : les « Mémoires de Louis XIV » en question. Dix-Septième Siècle, 222(1), pp. pp. 25-50.
Petitfils, J-C. (2012). Présentation. In J-C. Petitfils (Ed.), Le métier de roi, Mémoires et écrits politiques (pp. 7-32). Perrin.
Sonnino, P. (1964). The Dating and Authorship of Louis XIV's Memoires. French Historical Studies, 3(3), pp. 303-337.
Sonnino, P. (1969). The Sun King’s “Anti-Machiavel”. In J. C. Rule (Ed.), Louis XIV and the Craft of Kingship (pp. 345-361). Ohio State University Press.
Thireau, J-L. (1973). Les idées politiques de Louis XIV. Presses Universitaires de France.
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Testelin, H. (1667). Louis XIV protecteur de l'Académie. [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from: https://bit.ly/35F0W8Z