Mary Beard recently posted on this blog advocating a greater place for the specialist historian in writing and presenting historical documentaries. Nowhere is her point more pronounced than in relation to under-represented periods of history. My own area of specialism, Old Regime France, barely receives any airtime next to the seemingly constant stream of programmes devoted to the Tudors or the Nazis. This is despite the fact that Louis XIV is still the longest-reigning monarch in European history. A man of singular ambition and presence, the “Sun King” had a profound impact on European politics for over half a century and cast a long shadow over his successors, right down to the French Revolution.
The problem, however, lies not only in the neglect of this period. When it does receive attention on television, it is often misrepresented because the presenter lacks sufficient expert knowledge of the topic. Take David Starkey’s recent documentary on the Churchills, for example. In it, Starkey compared Louis XIV to Adolf Hitler, and in the publicity for the documentary Louis is presented as “an earlier would-be dictator of Europe”. This is, from my point of view, inaccurate and misleading, but because Starkey is an instantly recognisable figure on television (and a former academic), most viewers would not think to question this.
In fact, Louis XIV neither wanted to be a dictator, nor was his foreign policy driven by a desire for control of Europe. These ideas perpetuate old myths that were born out of virulent anti-French propaganda from the period. Louis’ enemies frequently accused him of wishing to establish a “universal monarchy” through his supposedly ruthless and insatiable expansionism. As I argue in my new book, however, the French monarchy’s frontier policy was driven primarily by a defensive impulse. The neighbouring territories of Lorraine and Savoy, for instance, were both conquered by French armies during Louis’ reign, but this was to protect the weak and exposed eastern flanks of the kingdom during major conflicts, and both of these territories were subsequently returned to their legitimate rulers.
Ideas about Louis XIV being a “would-be dictator” or “totalitarian ruler” are certainly not helpful to people wishing to understand more about seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Europe. No historian nowadays would seriously argue that “absolutism” is in any way comparable to twentieth-century dictatorships. For decades now, historians have been in broad agreement that “Absolute Monarchy” was actually far from absolute; rulers in this period (Louis included) tended to govern through a degree of compromise with pre-existing political structures and frameworks. And as I show in my book, this was even the norm in conquered and occupied frontier provinces.
Louis certainly divided the opinions of contemporaries, becoming the object of widespread emulation in parts of Europe, and of vehement hatred in others. Part of my book deals with reactions to Louis XIV in territories which were most exposed to French military activity. In these places, people demonstrated their hostility to France through a variety of methods: at the fall of Luxembourg to the French army in 1684, for instance, a man named Henri Wavrell refused to shave as long as the French army remained there (he would shave his beard off publically on their eventual withdrawal in 1698); while during the French occupation of the Franche-Comté in the 1670s, innkeepers took down their signs so that they would not have to serve French soldiers. Francophobia was particularly strong in the duchy of Lorraine, which was subject to French military occupation for much of Louis’ reign: there, in 1705, a Benedictine monk publicly tore the arms of Louis XIV from the town walls of Bar-le-Duc and threw them to the ground, stating that hoped God would one day exterminate all French people.
As we approach the 300th anniversary of Louis’ death in 2015, much of this hostility has been forgotten (though in parts of Germany left devastated by Louis’ armies, people still purportedly name their dogs after one of his generals). In France, Louis’ legacy is now most visible through his monumental home, the Palace of Versailles (itself a huge propaganda exercise, which glorifies Louis and his accomplishments out of all proportion). Beyond these extremes, very little is known about the man behind the myth(s), which makes Louis XIV an excellent subject for a historical documentary. As long as it’s accurate.
Phil McCluskey is Lecturer in the History of Early Modern Europe at the University of Sheffield. His new book Absolute Monarchy on the Frontiers: Louis XIV’s Military Occupations of Lorraine and Savoy is out now with Manchester University Press.
Header image: The marriage of Louis XIV by Laumosnier [Wikicommons]
Insert image: Statue of Louis XIV ©Phil McCluskey