Rollin’s argument seemed to be borne out by the class differences in morality. The peasants, who clung to their religion, lived a relatively moral life; this, however, may have been due to the fact that the family was the unit of agricultural production, the father was also the employer, and family discipline was rooted in an economic discipline enforced by the sequence of the seasons and the demands of the soil. In the middle classes too religion actively survived, and supported parental authority as the basis of social order. The conception of the nation as an association of families through generations of time gave the strength of solidarity and tradition to middle-class morality. The bourgeois wife was a model of industry, piety, and motherhood. She took childbearing in her stride, and was soon at her work again. She was content with her home and her neighborly associations, and rarely touched that gilded world in which fidelity was smiled at as passé; we seldom hear of adultery in the middle-class wife. Father and mother alike set an example of steady habits, religious observance, and mutual affection. This was the life that Chardin lovingly commemorated in such pictures as Le Bénédicité.
All classes practiced charity and hospitality. The Church collected and distributed alms. The antireligious philosophes preached bienfaisance, which they based on love of humanity rather than of God; modern humanitarian-ism was the child of both religion and philosophy. Monasteries handed out food to the hungry, and nuns tended the sick; hospitals, almshouses, orphanages, and homes of refuge were maintained by state, ecclesiastical, or guild funds. Some bishops were worldly wastrels, but some, like the bishops of Auxerre, Mirepoix, Boulogne, and Marseilles, gave their wealth and their lives to charity. State officials were not mere place seekers and sinecure parasites; the provosts of Paris distributed food, firewood, and money to the poor, and at Reims a municipal councilor gave 500,000 livres to charity. Louis XV had strains of sympathy and timid tenderness. When 600,000 livres were allotted for fireworks to celebrate the birth of the new Duke of Burgundy (1751), he canceled the display and ordered the sum to be divided as dowries for the six hundred poorest girls of Paris; and other cities followed his example. The Queen lived frugally, and spent most of her income on good works. The Duc d’Orléans, son of the riotous Regent, gave most of his fortune to charity. The seamier side of the story appears in the corruption and negligence that marred the management of charitable institutions. There were several cases in which hospital directors pocketed money sent them for the care of the sick or the poor.
Social morality reflected the nature of man—selfish and generous, brutal and kind, mingling etiquette and carnage on the battlefield. In the lower and upper classes men and women gambled irresponsibly, sometimes losing the fortunes of their families; and cheating was frequent.8 In France, as in England, the government profited from this gambling propensity by establishing a national lottery. The most immoral feature of French life was the heartless extravagance of the court aristocracy living on revenues from peasant poverty. The bedsheets of the Duchesse de La Ferté, lavish with lace, cost 40,000 crowns; the pearls of Mme. d’Egmont were worth 400,000.9 Dishonesty in office was normal. Offices continued to be sold, and were used by the purchasers for illegal reimbursement. A large part of the money collected in taxes never reached the treasury. Amid this corruption patriotism flourished; the Frenchman never ceased to love France, the Parisian could not long live outside Paris. And almost every Frenchman was brave. At the siege of Mahón, to stop drunkenness among his troops, the Maréchal de Richelieu decreed: “Anyone among you who in future is found drunk will not have the honor of taking part in the assault”; drinking almost stopped.10 Dueling persisted despite all prohibitions. “In France,” said Lord Chesterfield, “a man is dishonored by not resenting an affront, and utterly ruined by resenting it.”11
Homosexual acts were punishable with burning at the stake, but this law was enforced only among the poor, as upon a muleherd in 1724. The Abbé Desfontaines, who had taught in a Jesuit college for fifteen years, was arrested on such a charge in 1725. He appealed to Voltaire for help; Voltaire rose from a sickbed, rode to Fontainebleau, and persuaded Fleury and Mme. de Prie to secure a pardon;12 for the next twenty years Desfontaines was one of Voltaire’s most active enemies. Some of the King’s pages were deviates; one of them, La Trémouille, appears to have made the sixteen-year-old ruler his Ganymede.13
Prostitution was popular among the poor and the rich. In the towns employers paid their female help less than the cost of necessaries, and allowed them to supplement their daily labor with nocturnal solicitation.14 A contemporary scribe reckoned the prostitutes in Paris at forty thousand; another estimate said sixty thousand.15 Public opinion, except in the middle classes, was lenient to such women; it knew that many nobles, clerics, and other pillars of society helped to create the demand that generated this supply; and it had the decency to condemn the poor vendor less than the affluent purchaser. The police looked the other way except when some private or public complaint was made against the filles; then a wholesale arrest would be made to clear the skirts of the government; the women would be herded before some judge, who would condemn them to jail or hospital; they would be shaved and disciplined, and soon released, and their hair would grow again. If they gave too much trouble, or offended a man of power, they could be sent to Louisiana. Insolent courtesans displayed their carriages and jewels on the Cours-la-Reine in Paris or on the promenade at Longchamp.16 If they secured membership, even as supernumeraries, in the Comédie-Française or the Opéra, they were usually immune toarrest for selling their charms. Some of them rose to be artists’ models or the kept women of nobles or financiers. Some captured husbands, titles, fortunes; one became the Baronne de Saint-Chamond.
Love marriages, without parental consent, were increasing in number and in literature, and they were recognized as legal if sworn to before a notary. But in the great majority of cases, even in the peasantry, marriages were still arranged by the parents as a union of properties and families rather than as a union of persons. The family, not the individual, was the unit of society; hence the continuity of the family and its property was held more important than the passing pleasures or tender sentiments of precipitate youth. Moreover, said a peasant to his daughter, “chance is less blind than love.”17
The legal age of marriage was fourteen for boys, thirteen for girls, but they might be legally betrothed from the age of seven, which medieval philosophy had fixed as beginning the “age of reason.” The hounds of desire were so hot in the chase that parents married off their daughters as soon as practicable to avoid untimely deflowering; so the Marquise de Sauve-boeuf was a widow at thirteen. Girls in the middle and upper classes were kept in convents until their mates had been chosen; then they were hurried from nunnery to matrimony, and had to be well guarded on the way. In this immoral regime nearly all women were virgins at marriage.
Since the French aristocracy disdained commerce and industry, and feudal revenues seldom paid for court residence and display, the nobility resigned itself to mating its land-rich, money-poor sons with land-poor, money-rich daughters of the upper bourgeoisie. When the son of the Duchesse de Chaulnes objected to marrying the richly dowered daughter of the merchant Bonnier, the mother explained to him that “to marry advantageously beneath oneself is merely taking dung to manure one’s acres.”18 Usually, in such unions, the titled son, while using his wife’s livres, periodically reminded her of her lowly origin, and soon took a mistress to certify his scorn. This too was remembered when the middle classes aided the Revolution.
No social stigma, in the aristocracy, was attached to adultery; it was accepted as a pleasant substitute for the divorce that the national religion forbade. A husband serving in the army or the provinces might take a mistress without giving his wife an acceptable reason for complaint. He or she might be separated by attendance at court or duties on the manor; again he might take a mistress. Since marriage was contracted with no pretense that sentiment could override property, many noble couples lived much of their lives apart, mutually licensing each other’s sins, provided these were gracefully veiled and, in the woman’s case, confined to one man at a time. Montesquieu made his Persian traveler report that in Paris “a husband who would wish to have sole possession of his wife would be regarded as a disturber of public happiness, and as a fool who should wish to enjoy the light of the sun to the exclusion of other men.”19 The Duc de Lauzun, who for ten years had not seen his wife, was asked what he would say if his wife sent him word that she was pregnant; he answered like an eighteenth-century gentleman: “I would write and tell her that I was delighted that Heaven had blessed our union; be careful of your health; I will call and pay my respects this evening.”20 Jealousy was bad form.
The champion adulterer and model of fashion in this age was Louis François Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu, grandnephew of the austere Cardinal. A dozen titled ladies fell in turn into his bed, drawn by his rank, his wealth, and his reputation. When his ten-year-old son was rebuked for slow progress in Latin, he retorted, “My father never knew Latin, and yet he had the fairest women in France.”21 This did not prevent the Duke’s election to the French Academy twenty-three years before his friend and creditor Voltaire, who was two years his senior. Public opinion frowned, however, when he served as procurer of concubines for the King. Mme. Geoffrin barred him from her circle as an “épluchure [select assemblage] des grands vices.”22 He lived to the age of ninety-two, escaping the Revolution by one year.
Such being the relations of spouses, we can imagine the fate of their children. In the nobility they were frankly treated as impediments. They were dismissed at birth to wet nurses; they were brought up by governesses and tutors; they only intermittently saw their parents. Talleyrand said he had never slept under the same roof as his father and mother. Parents thought it wise to maintain a respectful distance between themselves and their progeny; intimacy was exceptional, familiarity was unheard of. The son always addressed his father as “monsieur”; the daughter kissed her mother’s hand. When the children grew up they were sent off to the army, to the Church, or to a nunnery. As in England, nearly all the property went to the eldest son.
This way of life continued in the court nobility till the accession of Louis XVI in 1774. It revealed in another aspect the loss of religious belief in the upper classes; the Christian conception of marriage, like the medieval ideal of chivalry, was quite abandoned; the pursuit of pleasure was more nakedly “pagan” than at any time since Imperial and decadent Rome. Many works on morality were published in eighteenth-century France, but books of deliberate indecency abounded, and circulated widely, though clandestinely. “The French,” wrote Frederick the Great, “and above all the inhabitants of Paris, were now sybarites enervated by pleasure and ease.”23 The Marquis d’Argenson, about 1749, saw in the decline of moral sensibility another omen of national disaster:
The heart is a faculty of which we despoil ourselves every day by giving it no exercise, while the mind is continually sharpened and refined. We become more and more intellectual.… I predict that this realm will perish from the extinction of the faculties that derive from the heart. We have no more friends; we no longer love our mistresses; how shall we love our country? … Men lose daily some part of that fine quality which we call sensibility. Love, and the need to love, disappear.… Calculations of interest absorb us continually; everything is a commerce of intrigue.… The interior fire goes out for lack of nourishment; a paralysis creeps over the heart.24
It is the voice of Pascal speaking for Port-Royal, the voice of Rousseau a generation before Jean Jacques, the voice of sensitive spirits in any age of intellectual ferment and liberation. We shall hear it again.