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. While last week article exposed the dating and authorship limits of this precious source, this short article seeks to illustrate its values and worthiness.
The Early Reign of Louis XIV series is divided into six chapters:
The Early Reign of Louis XIV 101: The Sun King's Mémoires (II)
Long neglected because of authorship and dating issues, Louis XIV's Mémoires pour l'instruction du Dauphin have been, in the last decades, rehabilitated to their rightful value. Consisting in a gathering of numerous documents written under the direction of the monarch in the first decade of his personal rule, the Memoires offer an insightful narration of events but also, more importantly, an introspection of the king's thoughts and approach to his royal responsibilities. From them, one can not only try to comprehend the complex personality of the Sun King, but also have a sense of the values and mentalities of the seventeenth century. This article seeks to illustrate how the Mémoires stand out as a unique source and what one can learn from them.
In the first place, Louis XIV's Mémoires invites its reader to explore the genre of the Memoires in the Grand Siècle. As their name suggest, the Memoires were born in France and consisted in a nonfictional narration, 'written from a personal, biographical point of view, an autobiography with historical content given special emphasis' (Lockwood, 553). Marc Fumaroli, a historian, reported this genre was, in the seventeenth century, one of the few ways to keep account of historical events. Historians were rare and not particularly appreciated in the highest spheres of society. Fumaroli exposed that nobles held a deep resentment and disdain for historians, reproaching them to not have 'the impartiality and majesty of the Classic times' (Fumaroli, 8-9, 20). In reality, aristocrats wanted to oversee the writing of their own history. Mémoires were a tool at the elite’s disposal to defend their honour and reputation (Lockwood, 553). Louis XIV was not just any noble, and his Mémoires slightly differed from any other contemporary works. If the Mémoires presented an undeniable historiographical purpose as they narrated the multiple events that the king went through from an autobiographical point of view, the posterity dimension remains subject to debates and interpretations. Many intellectuals noticed that some passages testified of a desire to defend Louis’ political decisions, and reputation.
Louis was not the only monarch to leave behind educational Memoires to his successor, Charles V of Spain and James I of England also did. However, the Sun King’s Mémoires remained unique in its genre. In the Iberic peninsula, Charles V refused to share any confidences nor introspective reflections (Halevi, 461). His texts strictly focused on matrimonial matters, and his narration was almost purely factual. On the other side of the Channel, the Basilicon Doron reflected the political thoughts and meditations that James I went through in his accession to the throne. Considered as one of the most important literary works of the end of the sixteenth century, the Basilicon was even recommended to Louis XIV himself. Despite earning large renown and sharing similarities with Louis XIV’s Mémoires, intellectuals argued that the Basilicon was more of a political treatise than a Mémoire (Halevi, 461). In addition, recent research also suggested that James purposely let his work leave the private sphere, whereas Louis never did. In the end, Louis XIV’s Mémoires stand as an exceptional and unique piece of work for its time.
Reading the Mémoires conveys an overview of some iconic political and philosophical notions of the Grand Siècle. Unsurprisingly, Louis XIV sought to teach his successor the inherent values of his epoch, such as neo-stoicism or absolutism. However, many scholars questioned their significance. Among them, Perez reproached to Louis XIV to be minimalistic and not bringing any intellectual contribution (Perez, 34). According to the scholar, the Mémoires could be defined as a series of generic maxims which could be applied as much to a king than to a peasant (Perez, 34). In 2012, Hall Bjornstad retorted that such reproaches were 'completely irrelevant' and explained that these texts should not be judged on the basis of their philosophical originality, but on their rhetorical efficacy (Bjornstad, 785). Memoires were not necessarily meant to be theoretical or political texts, but rather a pragmatic one (Bjornstad, 785). In addition, Louis never pretended to be a philosopher-king nor a gifted writer and his principal interest was not to write a political treatise, but to transmit essential values to his Dauphin for the day he would succeed him, regardless of originality. Even in terms of intellectual contribution, Louis XIV’s texts were far from being pointless. In 2000, Ran Halevi erected it as one of the main political texts of its time. He reminded that 'the longest reign of the Ancien Régime has not be very productive in the field of political thought' (Halevi, 451). To illustrate his argument, Halevi compared Louis XIV’s Mémoires to Bossuet’s Politique tirée des propres paroles de l’Ecriture Sainte. According to him, both texts found their roots in the chaotic times of the Frondes, echoed to Bodin’s Republique, and, on a broader scale, illustrated the climax of absolute monarchy before the dawn of the Enlightenment (Halevi, 451). Halevi recognized that countless elements differentiated the two works, but he nonetheless strongly defended that the Mémoires were not to be underestimated.
Along with reflecting iconic ideas of the Grand Siècle, the Mémoires also granted historians a wider understanding of the Sun King. An example remains the distinction between Niccolò Machiavelli and Louis XIV. Like many before him, the Sun King was attributed a Machiavellian reputation for his contentious foreign policies and initiatives (Halevi, 451). Such ideas even seemed to find confirmation in Perigny’s registre which indicated references to The Prince or the Discourse on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy. However, the close study of the Mémoires refuted any potential influence. In the 1960s, Sonnino claimed that if the registre suggested that Louis XIV may have sought to find a new authority in the judgement of history by consulting the works of Machiavelli, the Mémoires rather testified of a misunderstanding of the Florentine’s thought (Sonnino, 5). Indeed, the king missed Machiavelli’s point several times, as 'might be expected of an inexperienced reader with strong preconceptions' (Sonnino, 5). For Soninno, Louis inadvertently or deliberately distorted this inveterate republican and the religious utilitarian in order to exalt absolute monarchy and the true faith (Sonnino, 5). Many extracts even underlined a natural hostility towards Machiavelli’s ideas as, for instance, the inherent impossibility for the king to conceive a form of government without any divine rights and limitations (Halevi, 453). Reading the Mémoires therefore allows any reader to dissociate Louis XIV’s controversial decisions in his early reign from the influence of the Florentine thinker.
On a broader scale, Louis XIV’s political teachings and narration also contributed to ongoing historiographical debates. Indeed, the Mémoires were involved in the notorious debates around absolute monarchy in the 1960s. For a long time, absolutism was reduced to an expression of despotism and tyranny. However, Louis XIV’s narration never seemed to share an abusive vision of absolute power (Bjornstad, 785). The texts rather conferred the overwhelmingly positive image of a conscious monarch, exercising his power in the name of his subject’s welfare and the glory of France (Barber, 205). Perez noted that absolute monarchy in the Mémoires was : 'less an integral control over the realm (…) than a set of tools allowing the complete autonomy of the monarch in the respect of his rights and of the indivisibility of his power' (Perez, 36). In 1974, Jean-Louis Thireau emphasized the value of this definition (Thireau, 57). He reminded that before the 1960s, most studies had heavily relied on the writings of Louis XIV’s subjects such as Bossuet or Saint Simon (Thireau, 57). Thireau argued that learning the Sun King’s perspective was primordial to understand absolutism because, after all, 'who could define better absolutism than Louis XIV himself' (Thireau, 57). Unsurprisingly, new interpretations and reconsiderations emerged from the studies of Louis XIV’s texts. One could name the works of Andrew Lossky, Ragnhild Hatton or Sonnino who wrote several essays and articles in which the Mémoires recurrently figured (Lossky, 1-15). Even recently, Bjornstad vividly recommended the reading of Louis XIV’s texts to understand the notion of absolute power and to have insights in its rise and downfall (Bjornstad, 785). Although not many intellectuals exploited the extent of their content, the Mémoires remain filled with interesting and compelling point of view and thoughts that are essential to understand Louis XIV and to interact with his historiography.
Despite its numerous editions, modifications and historiographical evolution, Louis XIV’s Mémoires remain a document with limitations, notably due to its incompleteness, but which also possess inestimable qualities. Exploring them offers more than a simple narration of historical events, they convey a wide depiction of the French seventeenth century and an introspection of the political and philosophical reflections of the Sun King, a protagonist of European History, in the first decade of his personal rule. Thus, they are indispensable to understand Louis XIV’s decisions and mindset in his early years. One must be conscious and aware of the many limitations affecting these texts, but also realize their potential and qualities behind them.
Bjornstad, H. (2012). The Marginalization of the Mémoires of Louis XIV. TheEuropean 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.
Fumaroli, M. (1971). Les Mémoires du XVIIe siècle: Au carrefour des genres en prose. Dix-Septième Siècle, 94(1), pp. 7-37.
Goubert, P. (1992). Introduction. In P. Goubert (Ed.), Mémoires pour l'instructiondu dauphin (pp. 7-39). Imprimerie nationale.
Halevi, R. (2000). Savoir politique et «mystères de l'État». Le sens caché des Mémoires de Louis XIV. Histoire, Économie et Société, 19(4), pp. 451-468.
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.
Lossky, A. (1984). The Absolutism of Louis XIV: Myth or Reality?. Canadian Journal of History, 19(1), pp. 1-15.
Perez, S. (2004). Les Brouillons de l’absolutisme : les « Mémoires de Louis XIV » enquestion. Dix-Septième Siècle, 222(1), 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.
Sevin de La Penaye, C. (c.1702-1733). Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from: https://bit.ly/3jCXeQH
Unknown author. (c.1673). Louis XIV en Alexandre ou empereur romain [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from: https://bit.ly/3viLCrn
Unknown author. (c.1672). Louis XIV tenant le Sceau, 1672 [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from: https://bit.ly/3jZuKkl