Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Splendid Century: Life in the France of Louis XIV by W. H. Lewis


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Anyone who has read the Narnia Chronicles or watched the movies know about C.S. Lewis.  What many people don't know is that Lewis had a brother, Warren Hamilton Lewis who was also a writer, and a good one at that.

Warren Lewis did not write fiction like his brother and he did not produce much, unfortunately for us, because what he did write is delightful reading, told with a good sense of humor and wit.

This Splendid Century is a charming account of life in France under the reign of King Louis XIV.  Lewis starts with the King himself and all his idiosyncrasies.  How he was raised- he became king at age four- and lived under the tyranny of Cardinal Mazarin until the despot finally died.  We learn of his eating and sleeping habits, his many mistresses-each a colorful personality- how all the court was expected to imitate the culture he created inside his palace.  Much of it is ridiculous and could hardly be believable except that absolute rulers can act like spoiled, idiot children because of no accountability. This section of the book reads much like a supplement or corroboration of Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask (except there is no twin brother to the king).

From the King's personal habits, which were as particular as they were bizarre (he always slept with the sheets folded half down, winter or summer and you have to read for your self the table he kept and the eating habits he practiced and expected everyone in the palace to practice) to the people he was surrounded by in his court, in town and in the country, we are able to gather much of society's habits and caste system (one knocks on the doors of neighbors in town but in the palace one must grow the nail of one finger in order to "scratch"). If one wanted any financial support from the king, one stayed at court and let his land go to waste and ruin, otherwise it was assumed the king's patronage wasn't needed and Louis would withdraw needed funds to support the farmer and his family.  I'm not sure how this system lasted but it offers a lot of insight as to why there was a bloody revolution soon after.

Corruption was rampant.  Everyone was taxed mercilessly and consequently there was a lot of lying about property ownership and wealth.  There was also a significant lack of motivation to further one's prosperity since it was understood that no one got to enjoy the fruit of their labors.  Some of the tricks land owners used were rather humorous.  For instance there were those that would "sell" their land and move into a boat on the Seine and stay there until the tax man left, then "buy" it back again until next time.

The army wasn't any better.  The average French soldier was little more than a criminal ragamuffin snatched from the streets.  The Captains were commissioned with certain sums to draft soldiers but always drafted less than they were paid for and pocketed the rest of the money.  If an inspection occurred they borrowed soldiers from the next regiment and returned the favor when that regiment came up for inspection.  Another tactic was to grab local beggars and ruffians and stick them in line.  They were able to get away with a lot because there were no uniforms.  The way these "armies" treated the civilians where they were stationed isn't worth describing except to state that they acted like the criminals they were.  If it weren't for the King's Musketeers I frankly don't know how order could have been kept.

My favorite chapter was on the medical profession.  The Paris Medical school was jealous and made sure practically no one qualified for entry into their school and refused to acknowledge any other school.  In this way they accomplished the dubious distinction of keeping France short of doctors.  

Interestingly, surgeons were not considered doctors.  When looking at their origins, one doesn't wonder.  Surgery started in the barbershop and was little more than bloodletting and carving off of diseased limbs.  However, this eventually developed into the surgical operations we know today.  This didn't stop traveling "surgeons" to practice their skill on the countryside.  These itinerant surgeons worked on humans and animals alike and when they first started were "little more than assassins".  Still, practice does make perfect, so as the years advanced these men, and sometimes women, became as competent as the "trained" surgeons in town.

The Medical profession despised surgeons and refused to admit they were doctors.  A surgical school was founded outside of Paris and was invaded by irate Medical students and doctors.  A horrible fight ensued between the surgeons and the doctors, leaving several on each side knocked out and injured.  Really, someone needs to make a movie about that. 

In fact, either side was pretty appalling in their medical practices, which consisted largely of bloodletting.  Children as young as eight weeks old were bled, sometimes to death, to get rid of whatever diseases ailed them.

Another chapter describes the education of women.  King Louis' one time mistress and mother of several of his children, Mdme de Maintenon, started a school for girls, drafted some barely literate nuns as teachers and presided over the education of the daughters of the court and gentry.  An amusing description of their less than perfect education but perfection of manners is related.

The Church in all its goodness and not so goodness comes to light as does the plight of galley slaves.

The book finishes off with the great writers of the time and provides several pages of bibliography and suggested further reading.

Reading the book is a delightful trip through the courts of 18th century France and I enjoyed it as much if not more than the best movie ever made of The Three Musketeers.

There is a sequel called The Sunset of the Splendid Century which I intend to buy.  Stayed tuned for future reviews.

 

10 comments:

  1. I loved your commentary on this book lately I have been more and more interested in French history. I initially became interested in the French Revolution and my curiosity has spanned outward from there.

    I also think that my wife would like this book as she is even more interested in France then I am. I will recommend it to her.

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    1. Hi Brian! It's a great book and also out of print. You should be able to find it on Amazon however.

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  2. Wow! This sounds like a cultural history that I really must read. Thanks for your fine review/posting. You've hooked me, and I'll be searching nearby libraries for a copy. Postscript: Histories like this one can make us really appreciate our own lives, even if the world around us is less than perfect. Again, thanks!

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    1. Hi R.T. You would enjoy this book. I am looking forward to reading his sequels. Good luck finding copies in libraries. Most of his work is out of print. They are some copies on Amazon for reasonable prices.

      I know what you mean about appreciating living today rather than then. I imagine I'd be lucky if I made it to adulthood, rather than being bled to death for a childhood ailment.

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  3. Well, that explains a lot!!! No wonder folks desperately wanted out of that country.
    I remember reading something of C.S. Lewis's childhood, (I think in his book "Surprised by Joy")as he described playing with his brother. As I recall,They had their own little world of make-believe, and happy times growing up. They had the same interests and both of them were avid readers. I wonder if William Lewis had to write a book for one of his college classes, and if this was the result. Anyway...thank you for the review, Sharon!

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    1. Hi Phyllis! Warren Lewis wrote several books on history. Probably because they are non fiction is why they have not been as globally popular as his brother's work. Also, he did not write anything on apologetics with timeless truths.

      In addition to that. Warren never got over WWI, which he served in. He died an alcoholic and is probably why his writing output is slim

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  4. That's great that you were able to get ahold of this book and it's encouraging to know that it's worth reading.

    I'm presently reading through C.S. Lewis' letters: Warren wasn't nearly the excellent student Lewis was. He had some troubles in school and it seems like he had difficulties deciding on a profession when he left it. It will be interesting to learn a little bit more of his life.

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    1. What little I know about Warren's life comes from Douglas Gresham, Lewis' stepson. He wrote a book about his mother, Joy and her relationship with C.S. Lewis. He mentions, Warren as well because they all lived together. Warren's life is much sadder than his brother. He never got over WWI and suffered from alcoholism all his life.

      None of that is apparent in his books, however. This book is written in cheerful tones.

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  5. It is not a good idea to tax the commoners mercilessly while the royal family enjoys extravagance..... I think heads are going to start to roll soon.....

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    1. Hi Chris! I would call you a prophet except this all happened a couple of hundred years ago. :)
      I hope things have changed a little in France, now.

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I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.