It was an age of strict manners and loose morals. Dress was the sacrament of status. In the middle classes clothing was almost puritanically simple—a black coat modestly covering shirt and trousers and legs. But in the elite it was magnificent, and more so in men than in women. Hats were large and soft, with a broad brim trimmed with gold braid, tilted up on one or three sides, and sporting a plume of feathers caught in a metal clasp. When Louis came to the throne he—and soon the court—discarded the perukes that had come into style with his bald father, for the young King’s waves of chestnut hair were too splendid to be concealed; but when, after 1670, his hair began to thin, he took to wigs; and presently every head of any pretensions, in France, England, or Germany, was crowned with borrowed and powdered curls falling to the shoulders or lower, and making all men look alike except to their bedfellows. Beards were shaved, mustaches were cherished. Gloves were gauntleted and adorned, and both sexes carried muffs on cold days. The high ruff was now replaced by the silk cravat, loosely tied around the neck. The doublet was giving way to a long and ornamented vest; the thighs were graced with culottes—trousers ending at the knees, and buckled or ribboned there; and these garments were covered, except in front, by a swirling coat whose sleeves ended in large cuffs trimmed with lace. By law only nobles were permitted to deck their raiment with gold embroidery or precious stones, but moneyed men of any class overrode the law. Stockings were usually of silk. Male feet were shod in boots, even for a dance.
The dress of courtly women was free and flowing to accord with their morals. Their bodices were laced, but in front, as Panurge had urged in Rabelais, and swelling bosoms leaped to the roving eye. Farthingales and puffed sleeves went out with Richelieu. Robes were richly embroidered and gaily colored; entrancing high-heeled shoes covered tired feet; and hair was daintily beribboned, bejeweled, perfumed, and curled. The first fashion magazine appeared in 1672.
Manners were stately, though under the flourish of the saluting hat and trailing skirt many crudities remained. Men spat on floors, and urinated on the stairways of the Louvre. 73 Humor could be brutal or obscene. But conversation was elegant and polite, even when dealing with physiology and sex. Men were learning from women the graces of conduct and speech; they spoke clearly and correctly, avoided sententiousness and pedantry, and touched all topics, however profound, with a light gaiety of spirit and phrase. To dispute earnestly was bad form. Table manners were improving. The King ate with his fingers to the end of his life, but by that time forks were in general use. About 1660 napkins came into vogue, and guests were no longer expected to wipe their fingers on the tablecloth.
Social morality was not outstanding in this age of etiquette and protocol. Charity declined as the wealth of the upper classes grew. Morals were soundest in the lower middle class, where good behavior was made possible by security, and stimulated by the desire to rise. In all classes the ideal was l’honnête homme—not the honest man, but the honorable man, who added good breeding and manners to good conduct. Honesty was hardly expected. Despite Colbert’s regulations and royal espionage, venality in office was widespread, and it was encouraged by the sale of governmental appointments as a source of public revenue. Crime sprouted from the greed of the rich, the need of the poor, and the passionate outbreaks of all classes. So some highborn dames enjoyed the services of Catherine Monvoisin or the Marquise de Brinvilliers, both skilled in concocting poisons of lingering subtlety; poisoning was so popular that special courts were set up to deal with it. 74 Catherine Montvoisin practiced medicine, midwifery, and witchcraft; she assisted a renegade priest in celebrating the “Black Mass,” soliciting the aid of Satan; she procured abortion and sold poisons and love potions. Among her clients were Olympe Mancini, niece of Mazarin, the Comtesse de Gramont, and Mme. de Montespan, mistress of the King. In 1679 a commission investigated the activities of “La Voisin,” and found evidence involving so many members high at the court that Louis ordered suppression of the record. 75 La Voisin was burned alive (1680).
Private morals included the usual aberrations. In law homosexuality was punishable with death; a nation preparing for war and paying for babies could not let the sexual instincts be diverted from reproduction; but it was difficult to pursue such deviates when the King’s own brother was a noted invert, beneath contempt but above the law. Love between the sexes was accepted as a romantic relief from marriage, but not as a reason for marriage; the acquisition, protection, or transmission of property was judged more important in marriage than the attempt to fix for a lifetime the passions of a day. As most marriages in the aristocracy were arrangements of property, French society condoned concubinage; nearly every man who could afford it had a mistress; men plumed themselves on their liaisons almost as much as on their battles; a woman felt desolate if no man but her husband pursued her; and some faithless husbands winked at their wives’ infidelities. “Is there in all the world,” asks a character in Molière, “another town where the husbands are as patient as here?” 76 It was in this cynical atmosphere that La Rochefoucauld’s maxims grew. Prostitution was despised if it had no manners, but a woman like Ninon de Lenclos, who gilded it with literature and wit, could become almost as famous as the King.
Her father was a nobleman, freethinker and duelist. Her mother was a woman of strict morals but (if we may believe her daughter) “with no sensory feelings . . . She procreated three children, scarcely noticing it.” 77 Without formal education, Ninon picked up considerable knowledge; she learned to speak Italian and Spanish, perhaps as aids in international commerce; she read Montaigne, Charron, even Descartes, and followed her father into skepticism. Later her discussions of religion made Mme. de Sévigné shudder. 78“If a man needs a religion to conduct himself properly in this world,” said Ninon, “it is a sign that he has either a limited mind or a corrupt heart.” 79 She might thence have concluded to the almost universal necessity of religion; instead she slipped into prostitution at the age of fifteen (1635). “Love,” she said recklessly, “is a passion involving no moral obligation.” 80 When Ninon allowed her promiscuity to be too prominent, Anne of Austria ordered her confinement in a convent; there, we are told, she charmed the nuns by her wit and vivacity, and enjoyed her imprisonment as a restful vacation. In 1657 she was released by order of the King.
There was so much more in her than the courtesan that she soon enlisted among her devotees many of the most distinguished men in France, including several members of the court, 81 ranging from the composer Lully to the Great Condé himself. She played the harpsichord well, and sang; Lully came to her to try out his new airs. Three generations of Sévignés were on her list—the husband, then the son, then the grandson, of the amiable letter writer. 82 Men came from foreign lands to court her. Her lovers, she said, “never quarreled over me; they had confidence in my inconsistency; each awaited his turn.” 83
In 1657 she opened a salon; she invited men of letters, music, art, politics, or war, and sometimes their wives; and she astonished Paris by showing an intelligence equal to that of any woman, and most men, of her time; behind the face of Venus they found the mind of Minerva. Says a severe judge, Saint-Simon:
It was useful to be received by her, on account of the connections thus formed. There was never any gambling there, nor loud laughing, nor disputes, nor talk about religion or politics, but much elegant wit . . . [and] news of gallantries, yet without scandal. All was delicate, light, measured; and she herself maintained the conversation by her wit and her great knowledge. 84
At last the King himself became curious about her; he asked Mme. de Maintenon to invite her to the palace; from behind a curtain he listened to her; charmed, he revealed and introduced himself. But by this time (1677?) she had become quasi-respectable. Her simple honesty and many kindnesses gave her a brighter renown; men left large sums with her for safekeeping, and could always rely on regaining them at will; and Paris had noted how, when the poet Scarron was incapacitated by paralysis, Ninon visited him almost daily, bringing him the delicacies that he could not afford.
She outlived nearly all her friends, even the nonagenarian Saint-Évremond, whose letters from England were the consolation of her old age. “Sometimes,” she wrote to him, “I am tired of always doing the same things, and I admire the Swiss who throw themselves into the river for that very reason.” 85 She resented wrinkles. “If God had to give a woman wrinkles, He might at least have put them on the soles of her feet.” 86 As she neared death, in her eighty-fifth year, the Jesuits competed with the Jansenists for the honor of converting her; she yielded to them graciously, and died in the arms of the Church (1705). 87 In her will she left only ten écus for her funeral, “so that it might be as simple as possible”; but “I humbly request M. Arouet”—her attorney—“to allow me to leave his son, who is at the Jesuits, one thousand francs for books.” 88 The son bought books, read them, and became Voltaire.
It was the crowning charm of French society that the sexual stimulus extended to the mind, that the women were roused to add intelligence to beauty, and that the men were tamed by the women to courteous conduct, good taste, and polished speech; in this regard the century from 1660 to 1760 in France marks the zenith of civilization. In that society intelligent women were numerous beyond any precedent; and if they were also attractive in face or figure, or in the solicitude of kindliness, they became a pervasive civilizing force. The salons were training men to be sensitive to feminine refinement, and women to be responsive to masculine intellect. In those gatherings the art of conversation was developed to an excellence never known before or since—the art of exchanging ideas without exaggeration or animosity, but with courtesy, tolerance, clarity, vivacity, and grace. Perhaps the art was more nearly perfect under Louis XIV than in the days of Voltaire—not so brilliant and witty, but more substantial and friendly. “After dinner,” wrote Mme. de Sévigné to her daughter, “we went to talk in the most agreeable woods in the world; we were there till six o’clock, engaged in various sorts of conversation so kind, so tender, so amiable, so obliging . . . that I am touched to the heart by it.” 89 Many men ascribed nine tenths of their education to such converse and social intercourse. 90
In the Blue Room at the Hôtel de Rambouillet the first of the salons was in its final glory. Condé came there, though he did not shine; Corneille came, La Rochefoucauld, Mmes. de La Fayette and de Sévigné, the Duchesse de Longueville, and La Grande Mademoiselle. There les femmes précieuses laid down the laws of nice conduct and polished speech. The Fronde interrupted these gatherings; Mme. de Rambouillet moved to the country; and though her hôtel later reopened its doors to the genius of France, the première of Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules (1659) was a mortal blow. The first famous salon ended with the death of its founder in 1665.
Other salons continued the tradition, in the homes of Mmes. de La Sablière, de Lambert, and de Scudéry—the last the most famous novelist of the reign, the first a woman who attracted men by beauty despite her love of physics, astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. In such salons flourished the femmes savantes who provoked Molière’s laughter in 1672. But every satire is a half-truth; in his philosophical moments Molière might have recognized the right of women to share in the intellectual life of their times. It is the women of France, even more than her writers and artists, who are the crown of her civilization, and the special glory of her history.