Posts Tagged ‘French history’

Charles the Simple and Eugene the Pedantic

Posted in General, On This Day on September 17th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

First, this is the anniversary of FinermanWorks.  And you’d thought that I would run out of history by now.

When I began, my musings were frequently more contemporary–with the emphasis on contempt.  Of late, as you have noticed,  I have become an antiquarian.  This is not a symptom of short-term memory loss but rather a belated case of prudence.  Maintaining a middle-class standard of living requires a certain amount of corporate work, and I must not frighten the Human Resources with any incriminating Democratic views.  Let’s face it, the HR departments are unnerved by any hint of humor or even correct grammar; why risk being a complete pariah.  So I am trying to avoid anything since 1914.

But those Byzantines, Hapsburgs and the rest still allow me to draw inferences.  And HR types never catch those….

We now resume our regularly scheduled pedantics.

September 17, 879:  The French Prince of Belle Heir

No one in 9th century France was literate enough to write a birth announcement, but if you were in proximity to a town crier you would have heard of the birth of a heir to the throne. History would remember the birthday boy as Charles the Simple. Of course, a town crier–the medieval version of a press secretary–would have insisted that the epithet of “Simple” referred to Charles’ straight-forward manner.

However, then that town crier would have to explain the rest of the family’s nicknames. Charles’ father was “Louis the Stammerer”, his uncle “Charles the Fat, and his grandfather “Charles the Bald.” In fact, the Carolingian dynasty was plagued by its epithets. The royal line began with Pepin the Short and ended with Louis the Sluggard. Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was the happy exception among the miserable monikers. Even Charlemagne’s son had the nickname curse. He was known as Louis the Pious, which suggests that he was better at prayers than statecraft. (And his prayers couldn’t have been very efficient because they did not protect France from either his feuding sons or the Vikings.)

At least, Charles the Simple solved the Viking attacks. He simply surrendered. In 911 he ceded northwest France to the Norsemen. The region is still known as Normandy.  The Viking leader Hrolf the Gangly (the Norse nicknames weren’t flattering either) was obliged to go demonstrate his fealty to the French king.  According to court etiquette, Hrolf had to kiss the foot of Charles.  Hrolf approached the throne but rather than bend down to the royal toes, the Norseman grabbed the foot and lifted it to his lips.  Unfortunately, Charles’ body followed his foot and he slipped off the throne.

And Charles would spend the rest of his life (879-929) trying to stay on the throne.  The Counts of Paris had no respect for Charles or the Carolingian claims to the throne.  Until 987, French history would be the tale of  those two vying families.  If those ambitious Counts had succeeded, Paris would have become the capital of France.

But wait, have I given away the ending?

On This Day in 1796

Posted in On This Day on May 14th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

How should we celebrate the anniversary of Edward Jenner’s introduction of cow pox vaccine against small pox?  A cake covered with buttercream pustules?  (You know me: any excuse for frosting.)   

It is a tribute to English tolerance that Edward Jenner was merely vilified for his dangerous notion about vaccination…and not hanged or exiled to Australia.  The English were not just intimidated by medical innovation; they had developed a sentimental attachment to small pox.  The disease had proved extremely helpful in clearing North America of its natives.  (The Spanish were just as grateful for the same reason.)

However, the French–ever contrary–did not seem to like small pox.  Of course, they would prefer the great pox–and even earned the honor of having syphilis renamed the French Disease.  And small pox did not behave itself in France. 

It is the reason that Louis XIV was succeeded by his great-grandson.  So, what happened to Louis XIV’s dauphin and grand-dauphin? In 1711-1712, there was an outbreak of smallpox at Versailles. The mortality among the Bourbons would have made a Jacobin jealous. The future Louis XV was the third son of the Duc of Burgundy. By the time the epidemic had ended, he had lost both his parents, his two older brothers and his grandfather. The two-year-old had been fifth in line to the throne; he now was the heir.

Indeed his survival was due to the diligence of his nurse; she quarantined herself and the child–isolating themselves from any other contact. But for her zeal, the succession might have passed to the Orleanist branch of the royal family; and who would want intelligent, progressive kings of France?

A Patron of the Arts

Posted in On This Day on April 26th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

April 26

Today is the birthday of the great French painter Eugene Delacroix.  His “Liberty Leading the People” was a long-time favorite of teenage boys in sophomore history; they had an aesthetic appreciation of France as a topless woman.  If only our Statue of Liberty lacked such inhibitions….

And in honor of Delacroix’s birthday, let’s discuss Talleyrand.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord (1754-1838) was a brilliant statesman and a shameless rogue: no wonder Alexander Hamilton admired him. Talleyrand was born with every advantage, but he continually reinvented himself: a liberal bishop, a revolutionary politician, a suave diplomat, a royalist conspirator. His politics were just as flexible: revolutionary, Bonapartist, and royalist (for competing dynasties.)

His remarkable life was shaped–actually misshaped–by a childhood accident that left him lame. Rather than have their line represented by a cripple, his parents dispossessed him of his rights as the eldest son. He was relegated to a career in the clergy. Of course, it was a luxurious version of the clerical life–lush sinecures, no clothes drives or bingo nights for him. He had been an excellent student at the seminary/college except that he was reading distinctly unclerical works: Montaigne, Montesquieu, Voltaire. Young Bishop Talleyrand was a radical.

Although an aristocrat and a cleric, Talleyrand supported the French Revolution. In the Estate Generals of 1789, he persuaded the more sensible aristocrats and clerics to join with the Bourgeoisie in their demands for reforms. In 1791, he was one of the leaders of the National Assembly’s drive to extend full civil liberties to Protestants and Jews in France.

The same year he began his career in the foreign service. The suave aristocrat first represented revolutionary France in Britain and then in the United States. (It was at that time that Hamilton would have met the Frenchman.) During the Reign of Terror, when aristocrats and bishops–no matter how liberal–were executed for their pedigrees, Talleyrand was safely abroad. Eventually, France sickened of the Terror and turned on the Radicals; they had their turn with the guillotine. Then France was governed by a moderate oligarchy called the Directory; Talleyrand became the Foreign Minister. However, he sensed that the dull, corrupt Directory would not last long, and in 1797 Talleyrand started cultivating the friendship of an ambitious, stellar young general named Bonaparte.

In two years, Bonaparte was the Dictator of France. In six years, he crowned himself Emperor. And guess who remained Foreign Minister. In that position, Talleyrand was implicated in the XYZ Affair: he was the one whom the American diplomats were expected to bribe. Surprisingly, Talleyrand was not instrumental in the Louisiana Purchase; in fact, he opposed it but Napoleon disregarded his advice. Napoleon frequently disregarded the the more moderate and less martial recommendations of Talleyrand.  So the French Minister began conducting his own Foreign Policy: first with the Austrians, then with the Russians and finally with the exiled Royal Family, the Bourbons.

With the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, Talleyrand manipulated the Restoration of the Bourbons. Louis XVIII made Talleyrand his Foreign Minister. In that role, Talleyrand represented France at the Congress of Vienna and managed to get the victorious allies to agree to lenient peace terms and support the Bourbons. Once Talleyrand accomplished that miracle, he found himself pensioned off. It was a nice pension (100,000 Francs a year and honorary positions of the royal council) but it was the equivalent of professional exile. Noting that the Bourbons were governing as if 1789 had never occurred, Talleyrand quipped, “They have forgotten nothing and learned nothing.”

Ousting the Bourbons would be the elderly Talleyrand’s last political effort; in 1830 he personally corresponded with the Duke of Orleans, encouraging the liberal aristocrat to replace the reactionary on the throne.

But what has Talleyrand got to do with Eugene Delacroix?  Well…the Bishop was rather lax regarding celibacy. In 1797, he was on especially good terms with a Madame Delacroix, keeping her company while Monsieur Delacroix was on diplomatic missions.  Madame Delacroix had a son the following year. (Monsieur Delacroix’s reaction was tactful and quite French.  His wife’s first four children seemed to be his; so why quibble over the fifth?)  Madame Delacroix had a son the following year. Eugene Delacroix was to be a great painter but he didn’t have the usual struggles of a young artist. Talleyrand showed remarkable interest in him and saw that he had ample and lucrative patronage.

And what is the Latin root of “patronage”?

Your RDA of Scandal

Posted in General on April 21st, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Let’s play Jeopardy! This is a question from last Thursday’s game.

BALLET $2000: The first ballet, “Ballet Comique de la Reine”, was commissioned by this French queen for her sister’s wedding in 1581.

Even if you don’t collect 16th century ticket stubs, you can still deduce the answer. It is a matter of logic. The answer cannot be obscure; Jeopardy is not College Bowl, so the show never attempts to amaze you with the arcane. The queen has to be someone whom the contestants and the audience would know. So who would be the most famous or infamous woman in France at that time? Who but Catherine de Medici.

That logical answer was worth $2000 to one contestant.

Unfortunately, the answer is wrong because the question is. In 1581, Catherine was not the Queen of France but rather the Queen Mother. (The reigning queen would have been her son Henri III; the very nominal queen would have his consort Louise de Lorraine.)

However, that is a minor point compared to this: Catherine de Medici never had a sister. In fact, she was an only child. (To hush up a scandal, her father did help raise the illegitimate son of his cousin–Cardinal Giuliano. Those Medici stick together.) Furthermore, in 1581 Catherine was 62; so any sibling (real or theoretical) would hardly have been nubile.

However, one facet of the question is correct. The Queen of France did commission a ballet for her sister’s wedding. But the Queen was Louise, who apparently wanted her sister to be just as miserable as she was. The groom was the Duc de Joyeuse, an actual title and just as incriminating as it sounds. The Duc was the King’s “favorite.” Tres cozy, n’est pas?

No wonder the ballet was comique. And now you know more about French history and morals than the Jeopardy research staff.

Happy Birthday to Diane de Poitiers

Posted in General, On This Day on September 3rd, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Henri II deserves to be more popular. The French king (1519-1559) may have been stupid (he never demonstrated any evidence to the contrary) and he certainly was bigoted (ask any Huguenot who survived him), but his form of adultery should earn him considerable admiration. Henri left his wife for an older woman!

And I do mean older. His mistress Diane de Poitiers was 20 years his senior. Freud might have had something to say about that, although it would have only incited Henri to start persecuting Jews. Diane (1499-1566) was a woman of great charm and beauty; that could not be said about Henri’s wife: Catherine de Medici. (Catherine was quite intelligent, but Henri would have resented that.) Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm for Diane, Henri was continually affronting his wife. Guess who received court precedence or the pick of the best chateaux? Henri must have thought that his wife was good-natured. Did I mention that he was stupid?

In 1559, Henri apparently confused jousting with soccer, and attempted to catch a lance with his eye. It was not good for his health, or for Diane’s career. The new king of France was 15 years old and not in the market for a 60 year-old mistress. Besides, the real ruler of France–the Queen Mother–had a definite grudge against Diane. The unemployed courtesan did survive, but it was not a pleasant retirement. From a deluxe suite at the Louvre and a Loire estate at Chenonceau, Diane now found herself in the equivalent of a studio apartment frigidly far from anywhere of interest. She did seem to die of natural causes. Either Catherine did not live up to her murderous reputation or for once really got away with a crime.

Finally, by the standards of the 16th century, Diane had a very eccentric habit. She bathed daily. Of course, we now surmise that was the basis of her allure.