France was now enjoying the prosperity engendered by a bountiful soil, a skillful and thrifty people, and a beneficent reign. The population was some 16,000,000, compared with 3,000,000 in England and 7,000,000 in Spain. Paris, with 300,000, was the largest city in Europe after Constantinople. The social structure was semi-feudal: nearly all the peasants owned the land they tilled, but usually they held it in fief—and owed dues or services—to seigneurs and chevaliers whose function was to organize agriculture and provide military protection to their locality and the nation. Inflation, caused by the repeated debasement of coinages and the mining or import of precious metals, eased the traditional money dues, and enabled peasants to buy land cheaply from the land-rich, money-poor nobility; hence a rural prosperity that kept the French peasant merry and Catholic while the German Bauer was making economic and religious revolution. Stimulated by ownership, French energy drew from the soil the best corn and wine in Europe; cattle grew fat and multiplied; milk, butter, and cheese were on every table; chickens or other fowl were in almost every yard; and the peasant accepted the odor of his pigsty as one of the blessed fragrances of life.
The town worker—still chiefly a craftsman in his own shop—did not share proportionately in this prosperity. Inflation raised prices faster than wages, and protective tariffs and royal monopolies, as of salt, helped to keep the cost of living high. Discontented workers went on strike, but were nearly always defeated; and the law forbade workingmen to unite for economic purposes. Commerce moved leisurely along the bountiful rivers, but painfully along the poor roads, paying each lord a toll to pass through his domain Lyons, where the trade of the Mediterranean, ascending the Rhone, met the flow of goods from Switzerland and Germany, was second only to Paris in French industry, and only to Antwerp as a bourse or center of investment and finance. From Marseilles French commerce roamed the Mediterranean, and profited from the friendly relations that Francis dared to maintain with Suleiman and the Turks.
From this economy Francis, after the fashion of governments, drew revenues to the limit of tolerance. The taille (cut) fell as a personal or property tax upon all but nobles and clergy; the clergy paid the King ecclesiastical tithes and grants, the nobles supplied and equipped the cavalry that was still the flamboyant mainstay of French arms. Taking a lesson from the popes, Francis sold—and created to sell—noble titles and political offices; in this way the nouveaux riches slowly formed (as in England) a new aristocracy, and the lawyers, buying offices, established a powerful bureaucracy that—sometimes over the head of the King—administered the government of France.
The King’s pleasures did not allow him much time for government. He delegated its tasks, even the formation of its policies, to men like Admiral Bonnivet, Anne de Montmorency, Cardinals Duprat and de Tournon, and the Vicomte de Lautrec. Three councils aided and advised these men and the King: a Privy Council of Nobles, a more intimate Council of Affairs, and a Grand Council that handled appeals to the King. Except for this, the Parlement of Paris, composed of some 200 secular or ecclesiastical members appointed for life by the King, served as a supreme court. It had the right to remonstrate with him when it thought that his edicts contravened the fundamental institutions of France; and his decrees lacked the full prestige of law until “registered”—in effect ratified—by this ancient corps. Dominated by lawyers and old men, the Parlement of Paris became the national political organ of the middle classes, and—next to the Sorbonne—the most conservative organization in France. Local parlements, and governors appointed by the King, administered the provinces. The States-General was for the time being ignored; the collection of taxes replaced grants-in-aid, and the role of the nobility in government declined.
The function of the nobles was twofold: to organize the army, and to serve the King at court. The court, consisting of the administrative heads, the leading nobles, their wives, and the family and favorites of the King, now became the head and front of France, the mirror of fashion, the mobile perpetual festival of royalty. At the summit of this whirl was the Master of the King’s Household, who organized the whole and patrolled the protocol; then the Chamberlain, who had charge of the royal bedchamber; then four Gentlemen of the Bedchamber or First Lords in Waiting, who were always at the King’s elbow to wait on his desires; these men were changed every three months, to give other notables a turn at this exhilarating intimacy; lest anyone be overlooked, there were twenty to fifty-four Lords of the Bedchamber to serve the highest four; add twelve Pages of the Bedchamber a id four Ushers of the Bedchamber, and the King’s sleeping quarters were adequately cared for. Twenty lords served as stewards of the King’s cuisine, managing a staff of forty-five men and twenty-five cupbearers. Some thirty enfants d’honneur—boys of awesome pedigree—functioned as royal pages, shining in silvered livery; and a host of secretaries multiplied the hand and memory of the King. A cardinal was Grand Chaplain of the royal chapel; a bishop was Master of the Oratory or prayer service; and fifty diocesan bishops were allowed to grace the court and so augment their fame. Honorary positions as “grooms of the chamber,” with pensions of 240 livres, were awarded for divers accomplishments, as to scholars like Budé and poets like Marot. We must not forget seven physicians, seven surgeons four barbers, seven choristers, eight craftsmen, eight clerks of the kitchen, eight ushers for the audience chamber. Each of the King’s sons had his own attendants—stewards, chancellors, tutors, pages, and servants. Each of the two queens at court—Claude and Marguerite—had her retinue of fifteen or ten ladies in waiting, sixteen or eight maids of honor—filles demoiselles. It was the most characteristic distinction of Francis that he raised women to high place at his court, winked expertly at their liaisons, encouraged and enjoyed their parade of finery and soft charms. “A court without ladies,” he said, “is a garden without flowers”;11 and probably it was the women—dowered with the ageless beauty of art—who gave the court of Francis I a graceful splendor and gay stimulus unequaled even in the palaces of Imperial Rome. All the potentates of Europe taxed their peoples to provide some minor mirroring of this Parisian fantasy.
Beneath the polished surface was an immense base of servantry: four chefs, six assistant chefs, cooks specializing in soups or sauces or pastries or roasts, and a countless personnel to supply and serve the King’s table, the cuisine commune of the court, and the needs and comforts of ladies and gentlemen. There were court musicians, led by the most notable singers, composers, and instrumentalists in Europe outside of Rome. A Master of the Horse, twenty-five noble equerries, and a swarm of coachmen and grooms attended the royal stables. There were Masters of the Hunt, a hundred dogs, and 300 falcons—trained and cared for by a hundred falconers under a Grand Falconer. Four hundred archers formed the King’s bodyguard, and brightened the court with their colorful costumes.
For court banquets, balls, marriages, and diplomatic receptions no one building in Paris sufficed. The Louvre was then a gloomy fortress; Francis abandoned it for the assorted palaces known as Les Tournelles (The Little Towers) near the Bastille, or for the spacious palace where the Parlement had been wont to sit; better still, loving to hunt, he moved out to Fontainebleau, or down to his châteaux along the Loire at Blois, Chambord, Amboise, or Tours—dragging half the court and wealth of France with him. Cellini, with his wonted hyperbole, described his royal patron as traveling with a retinue of 18,000 persons and 12,000 horses.12 Foreign ambassadors protested the cost and weariness of catching or keeping up with the King; and when they found him he was, as like as not, in bed till noon, recovering from the pleasures of the night before, or busy preparing a hunt or a tournament. The cost of all this perambulating glory was enormous. The treasury was always near bankruptcy, taxes were forever mounting, the bankers of Lyons were dragooned into risky royal loans. In 1523, perceiving that his expenditures were losing sight of his revenues, the King promised to put a limit on his personal indulgences, “not including, however, the ordinary run of our little necessities and pleasures.” 13 He excused his extravagance as needed to impress envoys, overwhelm ambitious nobles, and please the populace; the Parisians, he thought, hungered for spectacles, and admired rather than resented the splendor of their King.
Now the government of France became bisexual. Francis ruled in apparent omnipotence, but he was so fond of women that he readily yielded to his mother, his sister, his mistress, even his wife. He must have loved Claude somewhat, to keep her so constantly pregnant. He had married her for reasons of state; he felt entitled to appreciate other women more artistically designed. The court followed the lead of the King in making a mannerly art of adultery. The clergy adjusted themselves after making the requisite objections. The people made no objections, but gratefully imitated the easy code of the court—except one girl, who, we are told, deliberately marred her beauty to deflect the royal lechery (1524).14
The most influential woman at the court was the King’s mother. “Address yourself to me,” said Louise of Savoy to a papal legate; “and we shall go our way. If the King complains we’ll just let him talk.”15 Very often her advice was good, and when she served as his regent the country fared better than at his own lax hands. But her covetousness drove the Duke of Bourbon to treason, and let a French army starve in Italy. Her son forgave her everything, grateful that she had made him a god.