Mathieu Da Vinha
Born in 1976, Mathieu da Vinha obtained a doctorate in modern history from the University of Paris IV – Sorbonne in 2003. His thesis was subsequently published as Les valets de chambre de Louis XIV (Perrin, 2004). He is a research associate at the University of Versailles – Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, where he teaches two courses each year.
He is currently overseeing research and training at the Centre de Recherche du Château de Versailles, a multidisciplinary center for comparative research into European court society in the 17th and 18th centuries, with particular responsibility for the coordination of research programs and links with universities, the establishment of national and international partnerships, and the planning and organization of specialist conferences and symposia. His current research focuses on the mechanics and structures of court life under Louis XIV; his master's thesis explored the love-life of Louis XIV in the light of public opinion, and the organization and working conditions of the construction site at the Palace of Versailles, as part of the background research for Frédéric Tiberghien's book Versailles: le chantier de Louis XIV 1662-1715 (Perrin, 2002).
The author of a number of studies and articles, he is currently working on the customs and manners of the French court (the King's household, royal and aristocratic domestic life), and the daily functioning of the Palace of Versailles under the Ancien Régime – the subject of a new book to be published in 2008. He is also preparing for a public appointment to the postition of research director, specializing in the services and staffs of the Grand Chamberlain and Grand Master of the Wardrobe in the 17th century. He was a founder of the Court Studies Forum in London, in July 2007, and is a member of the international editorial board of the journal The Court Historian. He is also a board member of the Société d’étude du XVIIe siècle (and as editor of the society's bulletin) and the Société Saint-Simon (for whom he compiles an annual commented bibliography of historical publications covering the 17th and 18th centuries), and a member of the research center états, Société, Religion en Europe Moyen Âge – Temps Moderne (UFR d’Histoire de l’Université de Versailles – Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines).
The King's men: Louis XIV's Valets of the Bedchamber
The emblematic public figure of Louis XIV has naturally focused the attention of historians first and foremost on his grand political and military actions. The century that is forever associated with his name remains one of the most brilliant periods in French history. The sovereign brought a sense of grandeur to his kingdom, through heroic deeds and pharaonic building projects, not the least of which was the Palace of Versailles. But the France of Louis XIV was also the creation of the men who worked to establish a courtly system and a household that were copied throughout Europe. The French court was not a seventeenth-century invention, but the Sun King knew exactly how to exploit and perfect the legacy of his predecessors. The King's Household – an eclectic group of domestic attendants who formed the royal entourage – orchestrated the mechanics of the court. As part of this institution, the valets of the King's bedchamber were far more than mere bearers of the royal chamber pot!
As companions of the royal table and officers of the King's household, they rose to unprecedented heights of social status under Louis XIV. Essentially the King's creations – molded by the monarch in his own image – they performed official functions that brought them into close contact with their master. This privileged relationship led them to occupy the highest offices in the service of the King. By turns confidants, go-betweens, and links between the King and his subjects, the valets of the bedchamber – living in the shadow of the Sun King – occupied a privileged, envied position at the French court.
The love-life of Louis XIV
As a worthy successor to his grandfather Henri IV, Louis XIV had an impressive number of mistresses. Whether the ladies in question were mere passing fancies – as apparently suggested by the Marquis de Saint-Maurice in his Letters, where he states that the King 'used them like post-horses: mounted once and never seen again' – or whether there were acknowledged favorites, the King never forsook the services of his mistresses throughout the early years of his reign. Yet the monarch was, of course, a married man – since 1660, when he married Marie-Thérèse of Austria at the age of 22. This loose attitude may seem surprising, especially on the part of the ruler of the kingdom of France, which was often regarded as the 'eldest daughter of the Catholic Church'. But with hindsight, Louis's actions are perfectly understandable in the context of the Ancien Régime. By agreeing to marry Marie-Thérèse, the Spanish Infanta (and his own first cousin twice over) in order to put an end to the long war between France and Spain, Louis XIV put aside his private preferences to serve the needs of the State. Hence his subjects, and even the Church (albeit with more difficulty) turned a blind eye to the monarch's extra-marital adventures: the mistresses were acknowledged as the compensation for his sacrifice. In this context, it is worth taking a closer look at the Sun King's amorous career, from his youth to his twilight years, to see how his favorites and liaisons influenced (or were influenced by) the conduct and dealings of the former French monarchy.
Hygiene at the Palace of Versailles
Visitors entering the Palace of Versailles today are quickly overwhelmed by the majesty of the setting. The immense gardens, the scale of the architecture, and the dazzling decor transport us to the very heart of the splendors of France's Ancien Régime. But behind the gold paintwork, paneling and decor of the sumptuous apartments, lies an altogether darker image of the royal palace, whose filth was often a subject of comment, and where – in the apparent absence of sanitation – courtiers were rumored to foul the corridors as a matter of routine.
In fact, Versailles suffered from the preconceptions of the French hygienists of the 'romantic' nineteenth century, for whom anything pertaining to the Ancien Régime was to be vigorously shunned and denounced. The palace was, in reality, always at the forefront of modernity. Louis XIV invariably demanded the very best for his residence. Paralleling the development of modern-day Paris and above all the 'birth of intimacy' (in the words of Annik Pardailhé-Galabrun, in her book La naissance de l’intime. 3 000 foyers parisiens, XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles, Paris, 1988), the royal residence – as a thoroughly modern building – was quickly fitted with every essential convenience. But like so many 'banal' artifacts of everyday life, very little remains today to testify to what was a very real concern for sanitation and hygiene. The notion of cleanliness in the seventeenth century was certainly not what it is today, but as we shall see, careful attention was paid to the comforts and well-being of the courtiers living at the royal palace.
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