La noblesse - the legendary nobility of France - conjures up the epitome of lavish aristocratic lifestyles. The heyday of the infamous court of 17th century Versailles is perhaps the ultimate example of the wealth, decadence, drama and refinement that the aristocrats and nobles of the ages have come to be associated with.
The Court of Versailles was the preeminent collection of nobles and their families who followed their monarch, King Louis XIV, away from the Parisian city centre sites that had previously been the hub of governance and social life, out to the vast new Versailles palace about 20 kilometres. The countryside complex in the Île-de-France region would become a veritable world of royalty and aristocracy within itself - a royal residence that would raise the bar on royal opulence and influence the arts, architecture and the very definition of refinement the world over for centuries to follow.
For the aristocrats invited to attend, the move to Versailles may have seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime, and in many ways, the lifestyles and social events within the new palace were the stuff of legends and fairy tales. Versailles became a byword for ornate beauty and splendour beyond the imagination, a legend of lavish living that would have been the fondest dreams for much of the population of France.
Yet, despite the unprecedented heights of comfort, excitement and luxury surrounding them, life was not always blissful and easy for the nobles of Versailles. The social and political rules of the royal court - both the official decrees and the unspoken yet equally powerful conventions - meant that life at Versailles could be a precarious existence.
The Life of La Noblesse
While la noblesse were regarded as the higher ranks of the social orders of France - a world away from the peasants toiling in the rural provinces, and unfathomable leagues away from the poor on the streets of the nation's capital - their position in society and within Versailles was surprisingly prohibitive.
There were laws within the system of aristocracy about what occupations nobles were permitted to undertake. For example, manual labour was largely forbidden, a restriction that, if broken, could even result in the loss of noble standing, title income and rights. The aristocracy were often granted lucrative privileges or income streams that would support the lavish lifestyles required at court, but as with any social class, there was a range of levels within the aristocracy.
Some nobles did undoubtedly enjoy lives of astonishing wealth, luxury, and leisure, particularly those holding the most powerful political positions, or those most favoured by the reigning monarchs of the time. However, some of the French noble classes were required to live much more lavishly than their incomes would permit.
In a refined and sophisticated social ecosystem such as the court of Versailles, appearances were everything. It was crucial to be seen wearing the right clothing, which would usually mean the latest fashions or the most expensive materials. The ladies would feel pressure to outdo one another with their exquisite gowns and their glittering collection of jewels. There was also considerable competition in terms of lavish hairdos, which evolved to incorporate expensive trimmings such as feathers, pearls and the latest must-have accessory. The men of Versailles were also renowned for their lavish hairstyles, many of which would have to invest in large expensive wigs to compete with the fashions for voluminous curled locks.
Many of the aristocrats required to be present at court would also own grand estates and family houses within the French countryside or within Paris and its environs. These properties would usually provide some kind of income, whether from the peasants farming the estates, or from hunting, shooting and fishing rights etc.. Yet these mansions, chateaux and palaces would require considerable expense for their upkeep and management, even though the noble family might spend very little time there, since their ongoing presence was an essential aspect of the Versailles social order. Maintaining ancient family seats and large estates was even more important for those nobles who were expected to host grand balls and lavish parties for their fellow aristocrats. In the 17th century, this was deemed to be an essential duty within the aristocracy, especially for any nobleman or family who had visions of social advancement or courting royal favour.
The maintenance of the typical lavish lifestyles of French aristocrats would undoubtedly require substantial budgets. Yet, it would also be expected that the members of the nobility would be generous with their money. Giving to worthy causes was seen as a core aspect of belonging to the noble classes - the French term noblesse oblige is based on the idea that with great privilege comes great responsibility. In the highly ambitious and precarious social structure of Versailles, it's easy to imagine that the appearance of generosity and donating to worthy causes could well take on a competitive edge, requiring nobles to give increasing portions of their wealth away.
Jean-Léon Gérôme, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The most prominent nobles of medieval and Renaissance France would also be called upon to assist their King with his various endeavours. Sometimes this would be to support a military operation, but other times the King would turn to his nobles when the royal purse had been overstretched and more funding was required for the latest project, such as the astonishing expense of creating and operating the vast and opulent Versailles complex.
While life for the nobles of Versailles may have allowed them an experience of lavishness and refinement that would come to be the envy of the world, it has also been likened to a gilded cage. For some, the expense required to fund their lifestyles and positions at court would subject them to indebtedness, sometimes for generations to follow.
It's also arguable that their freedom was significantly compromised. In the royal court of King Louis XIV, nobles of any standing simply had to be at Versailles. Any that refused, preferring their rural retreats or Paris lifestyles, would be excluded from the powerful advancements, royal gifts or favour that secured the future of a noble family.
So, while the enviably lavish lifestyles of these fortunate French aristocrats may seem to have been a dream come true, the reality for these noble classes was a mixed blessing. Yet the increasing demand for larger premises within the Versailles complex suggests that the price of membership at the most legendary royal court in the world was one that many nobles deemed worth paying.
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