French Mistresses with Dr.s Christine and Tracy Adams

The French History Podcast
French Mistresses with Dr.s Christine and Tracy Adams

Intro: Today’s special episode is an interview with Dr.s Christine and Tracy Adams. Christine Adams is a professor of history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland whose works include A Taste for Comfort and Status: A Bourgeois Family in Eighteenth-Century France and Poverty, Charity and Motherhood: Maternal Societies in Nineteenth-Century France. Tracy Adams is a professor of French literature at the University of Auckland, whose works include Violent passions: Managing love in the Old French verse romance, The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria, and Christine de Pizan and the fight for France. Today we are discussing a book these two sister scholars wrote together: The Creation of the French Royal Mistress: From Agnès Sorel to Madame DuBarry. In the book, Christine and Tracy detail the role of the royal French mistress. The mistress was not just a sexual or romantic partnership for the king, it was also an important political position and mistresses wielded incredible power and influence over the kingdom.

Gary: Thank you very much for joining me, Professor Christine and Tracy Adams, the two of you are sisters with Dr. Christine Adams being a historian, and Dr. Tracy Adams, a literature professor. Can you explain your methodology in working together to produce this book and how you brought together literary aspects with a historical narrative?

Dr. Christine Adams: I’ll just I’ll start here by saying that Tracy and I had wanted to do a joint book project for a long time, since our areas of expertise are actually closely related. And about 10 years ago, we were both finishing up projects. We decided we were interested in working on beauty and history and especially how women use beauty as social and political capital. And so we organized an interdisciplinary colloquium on female beauty systems throughout the centuries that was held in the Netherlands, where Tracy had been a fellow a few years earlier. And it was while we were working on the edited volume that came out of that colloquium that we realized that our focus on beauty as political capital had taken us in the direction of royal mistresses and that our complementary areas of expertise, Tracy’s of medieval, early, modern scholar, whereas my expertise is the 17th through 19th centuries, that that would allow us to write a survey that spans over three hundred years together. You’re right that we come at it from slightly different perspectives and Tracy can expand on that a bit.

Tracy: Yeah, I’m just to say a couple of words about how a historian would approach something differently from a literary historian. So just imagine that you’ve got a historian, literary historian. You’re going to study the same woman and say woman of the upper nobility from them, I don’t know, say, the early 15th century. The historian will be interested in amassing all of the, the physical traces of that person, so her accounts, so we know how much money she had and how she spent it and her entourage, so we know what her networks were, maybe where she lived, what her education was, what kind of books she had…And the literary historian will be interested in all of those things. But first and foremost, I think the literary historian will be interested in the narratives and the constructed nature of the past, very conscious of this construct, the nature of the past that that she’s trying to recreate. And so I guess that a historian wouldn’t be uninterested in those things, especially over the past 30 years, historians have really learned how to read text critically. But I think that that’s the major difference. And then in a concrete sense, I think you see the difference when you read historical accounts of women that really take for granted as truth contemporary documents, as opposed to the literary historian who will always be questioning who the who the documents come from and what their purpose in creating them in the first place or what that purpose was. So I don’t know, Chris, do you want to add anything to that? Does that sound-

Christine: I mean, I think that historians are always very, very much aware of the past is constructed and are always very suspicious of documents and in a similar way. So, you know, the Venn diagram overlap is pretty big. And what the two of us would be doing, I guess, is as historian and literary scholar and your work has always been very, very historically based as well. And I read texts. And so I think they come together,

Tracy: I think for this period especially, that there’s not much distinction between historians and literary historians because you’re always dealing with texts. Right. And you’re reading manuscripts and chronicles and that kind of thing. And that’s that that’s your first job, I guess.

Gary: And I assume the two of you got along during the whole process and there wasn’t any conflict between the two?

Tracy: No, we got along very well and

Christine: there really wasn’t any conflict because I think we both fit into that Venn diagram space. Right. Sort of. And neither extreme neither of us is. Chris isn’t terribly interested in the empirical side. I mean, only the empirical side. And I’m not a post-modernist. So so we do come together right there in the middle.

Tracy: Right. And we get along so well.

Christine: And so we listen to each other. We respect each other. Yes.

Gary: All right. Well, I just ask because I don’t think I could write a book with my brother. So in any case, when people think of a mistress, they think of a woman outside of a married couples relationship that one person has an affair with you to make the argument in your book that the royal French mistress was not this at all. Can you explain what role the royal French mistress played?

Christine: So the position of the powerful French royal mistress really is unique in Europe as this recognized extra conjugal social position that has its own defining features and most notably that the French mistress had a very important political role at court. Now, we all know, of course, that kings in other countries had mistresses. I mean, basically all kings had mistresses. But in France, it really becomes a tradition. It becomes this open secret, as we call it, that was that was made possible by the theatrical nature of court like that, that allowed courtiers to sort of act in different roles in different spaces at court. And this was especially the case since the majority of royal mistresses were noble women. They had other reasons to be in court. And so even though everybody knew who the royal mistress was, everybody could sort of behave as if all was honorable, which are the words that Catherine de Medici used when she talked about the end to end. So people could just sort of ignore the fact that this was going on in a sense, even though everybody knew about it. I think historians have been reluctant to recognize the political influence of mistresses and of female courtiers more generally, and probably because they’ve been to influence and accepted into straightforward a fashion. Louis, the XIV’s insistence that he would never allow a woman to influence his policies. He always claimed that he never let women have influence. Whereas you look you look at the documents and you see very clearly they had they had influence. The other thing that I think has kept historians from recognizing just how important these women were is the very narrow definition of the political that has dominated our understanding of politics for four. So long, and I think it’s important to understand that at the early modern court, because there wasn’t really a strict distinction between formal and informal power and because women operated within the framework of family and court networks that valued women as mediators and brokers. This meant that women really could exercise significant political power. And in some cases, they even held influential positions in the in the queen’s household. They could acquire significant social capital through these official positions. They help now. Now, that said, we can’t ignore the erotic element of the relationship between kings and mistresses. I mean, this is a society where kings marry for dynastic and diplomatic reasons, that they’re going to look for romance in other relationships. So there is that that whiff of romance and scandal that’s attached to the position of the royal mistress, even if she was generally accepted and even if she does have these other important roles. And one final thing I think that’s important is that the kings couldn’t entirely trust their wives. I mean, their wives were foreigners and their wives were often from the families of their competitors. And so mistresses were French. They were dependent on the king for favor. They were completely devoted to the king’s interests. So the king felt that he could trust them. So that’s sort of the backdrop of what her position was. The position of the royal mistresses that emerges in France, though, is due to the confluence of a number of factors. And one of those that we talk about is a particular idea of gender that that while women were legally inferior to men, politically, they’re just as capable. And that meant that they could be particularly valuable as advisers. And this is something that that Tracy talks about in the early phases of the book.

Tracy: So maybe I’ll say just one other thing there about why we think of this as a tradition, an actual tradition, as opposed to just a sort of discrete series of mistresses. And for that, I think you need to look at the 19th century, which we don’t actually do in our book, because it’s a short survey. We had a word limit number of a number of words that we were allowed to to use. But just to show why it’s a tradition in the 19th century, you start to get popular histories about the French royal mistress, where this narrative is sort of woven with [Agnès] Sorel as the good mistress. And she is distinguished from the bad, greedy mistresses. So French historians, certainly popular historians are themselves very interested in themselves as well as a kingdom or a republic, even that that has this this long and venerable tradition of the royal mistress.

Gary: I think that’s a very important and very interesting thing that I hadn’t thought of is that the mistress was inherently French and loyal to the nation, whereas the wife was often from a rival kingdom. So thank you for pointing that out. Now, let’s move on into the core of the book. What were the precursors to the mistress that allowed women to take up this role?

Christine: Well, our argument is that it wasn’t other royal mistresses. I mean, there were royal mistresses from probably from the Pepin, the shores. I mean, on there have always been royal mistresses. But this but this position, I think, is more closely related to the rise of the mingons or the court favorite. And you start to see those emerge under Charles VIIth. So ruling in the middle of the 15th century. And that’s the same time that you see Agnès Sorel become so, so popular in the sense that everyone knows who she is and the chroniclers are fascinated with her. So Agnès arises at the same time as the favorites. And I think that’s the context that we need to consider her in. So the favorites are young people who have no great loyalty to any other aristocrat except the King himself. So this sort of direct line to the king, very much disliked by the courts, either see their influence usurped. So I think that this sort of small coterie of favorites at Charles VIIth’s Court is the beginning of the possibility of the French royal mistress that she develops.

Tracy: And there’s also, of course, the fact that women had traditionally had an important role potentially at court as regent. That women were excluded from rule by Salic law, which they kind of invented in the 14th century as an excuse to justify women’s exclusion from the throne. But there’s a lot of emphasis on the particular type of power that can be wielded by women semi-overtly, but not officially as female regent. And we see those regions of emerge at a fairly early time. And they play an important role in that sort of it sets the stage for the fact that women can be important political players.

Christine: Right. And you’re just going to need a structure, which I think you don’t see until the court of Francis I. So early 16th century to mid-16th century, you’ll see structures at his court that make it possible for the royal mistress to wield power earlier on as hard because there just isn’t a space that people can recognize as a political royal mistress. I mean, she’s a prostitute or a newspaper of the queen, but there’s just really no possibility at Charles VIIth’s court as seeing her as anything like a positive political figure. So we’ll talk about how she becomes how she sort of creates that space in the 16th century. But we’re going through chronologically. If you wanted to talk a bit more about Agnès, we won’t talk about that yet. Just to say that Agnès doesn’t have her own quarters at court mean you don’t see them. In any case. I mean, some of the chroniclers complain that she’s got a lifestyle in a state that rivals the Queen’s. But when you look at the plans of the royal residences, there is no space for her quarters. So she had her own her own places that she lived, but she did not live next to the queen.

Gary: Moving on from on. Yes. To the Duchess d’Étampes. How did your second mistress and become France’s first true mistress, as you call her?

Christine: OK, that’s a complicated question. And first of all, we just have to acknowledge that Agnès’ reputation continued after her death. So she she died by poison in 1450. And there were a number of icons created of her. The most famous is the Melun Diptych, the Virgin lactating with the little with the little Christ in front of her. And you’ve probably seen that that image. And no one knows for sure if it was actually meant to represent her. We’d have to go into a long discussion about the degree to which artists actually reproduced actual features of the face or signs to show who people were. But I’m convinced that this is meant to gesture towards Agnès Sorel, and that’s the reason that her image continued so positive after her death. So Agnès Sorel continues to be a figure that everyone knows she makes it to the court of Francis I we know because France, the first mother, Louise of Savoie, collected an album of sketches, portraits, sketches of all of his favorite courtiers when he was being held captive by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. She created this album and Agnès’ picture appears there along with these other contemporary curators. And so what was she doing there? Well, possibly justifying the position of Francis I as his own mistress. Not quite sure what she’s doing there, but in any case, she still has a reputation then at the court of Francis I. But it’s in this environment that she’s able to flourish. And so we see other icons of her produced at the same time that these portraits of her become very popular. So we’re in an atmosphere where the royal mistress is accepted, maybe not as a political figure yet, because Francis I is very dependent on his mother and his sister as political advisers, so he personally has no problem with taking direction, taking advice from women, so he’s already predisposed to like women, to respect them, to take advice from them. And after his mother dies, then he eventually turns to his favorite mistress, who has been his favorite mistress since 1526. By the end of the 1530s, he is openly soliciting her advice on political matters. And in turn, diplomats from other countries come to the court and they solicit her advice because it’s known that she’s the only way you can actually get through to the king. So she gains this sort of central position among the ambassadors and the ambassadors we think are absolutely essential to the position of the French mistress, as a political figure…under Francis I you start to have resident ambassadors. So you’ve got this whole audience of support now of people who are there representing their own lords and trying to get information from the various courtiers about what the king is up to, and they’re looking at things that they never quite understand because, of course, the courtiers aren’t going to give them the information they want. But the royal mistress in this in this environment is a central figure because she’s got direct access to the king. And she’s someone that you can actually talk to. So the rise of the residents and the resident ambassador we think is essential to the creation of this of this role.

Gary: An interesting part of your book is about the conflict between one mistress Anne [de Pisseleu d’Heilly] and the future Mistress Diane de Poitiers. What spurred their conflict and how did it impact the King Court and France?

Tracy: That conflict, I think, was entirely political. I mean, I suppose that you can always have personal problems with them, with the people you’re involved with, politically speaking, but they come from two different factions. So, Anne, or the Duchess d’Étampes, if you want to call it that, is the king’s mistress and Diane de Poitiers’ is the Dauphin’s mistress and the king and the Dauphin disagree on almost everything for all kinds of good reasons. They’re also divided by religion. The Duchess of a Top is allied with Marguerite of Navarre the sister of Francis I, the first who is an evangelical. So that’s sort of the French version of sort of shifting towards Protestantism, whereas Diane de Poitiers is very much Catholic. So they have these factional differences that aren’t personal. The that’s then turned into a personal conflict by court observers who just love to turn any kind of conflict between two women into a sort of catfight. And that’s already happening during their lifetime. Some court observers are writing back to their to their lords that these these two women hate each other and that the court factions have formed around them. But in fact, the court factions don’t form around them. They happen to be part of court factions. But it’s not as if this is a personal fight between these two women created the factionalism at court. That’s just one of those sort of long narratives that that is especially tenacious. So let’s just say that it was political differences because because the Duchess of Étampes is the king’s biggest champion and an Diane de Poitiers is the Dauphin’s biggest champion.

Gary: You called Diane the epitome of the French royal mistress. What made her the perfect mistress?

Tracy: She had something that a top lacked and that was she had a persona. She had she had a look that was carefully cultivated. We don’t really know what Duchess d’Étampes looked like. There are a couple of portraits that may be her, but it’s hard to see what she looked like. She didn’t associate herself in particular with any mythological figure. She doesn’t have anything that we can kind of grasp onto that makes her vague, makes her a celebrity. There’s nothing, nothing in the way of icons that have subsisted as opposed to, say, Agnes, who has to have that beautiful, beautiful diptych with her where she is the lactating virgin and then Diane de Poitiers, there are dozens of icons of Diane de Poitiers, although of course most of them aren’t art tested. But I think there’s three images that that actually were created of her during her lifetime. But we all have an idea that Diane is the Huntress, she associates herself with Diana the Huntress. So it’s because she has both political influence and the sort of brilliant self representation. This woman who is absolutely ageless, who’s 20 years older than the king, but she is nonetheless beautiful until the day she dies. So she’s got that sort of persona and that’s something that the future royal mistresses will all have. We all we know what they look like because there are there are there are representations of them. But also during their own lifetime, people commented on the way they dress themselves and represented themselves. I talk just doesn’t have anything like that. We don’t have any idea of what she looked like.

Gary: The next mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées, was incredibly important, but also nearly ended the tradition of the mistress when she almost became queen. Can you please explain the life and influence of Gabrielle d’Estrées?

Christine: It looks as if your question is about the conflict between the mistress and the queen, the mistress being unable to become the queen because these are two positions that are just opposed to each other. You can’t really be both of them. You could never possibly be both. And something that I think is important to stress is that Gabrielle did not actually almost become queen. It’s true that Henri the fourth wanted to marry her, or at least he said that he wanted to marry her. And she certainly thought that he did. And his courtiers were absolutely terrified that he was going to marry her, but he didn’t do it. And I don’t think that he ever really came close to doing it because he was he was countered by his courtiers who made that absolutely impossible. Let’s see, what else do we want to say about that?

Tracy: He was he was negotiating right behind her back with Marie de Medici’s supporters to marry her-

Christine: at the very, very. The last months of Gabrielle’s life, Henri and his advisers had begun to negotiate with the Duke of Tuscany to marry Catherine de Medici and Gabrielle apparently didn’t know the details of those negotiations, but she had a feeling that there was something going on. So so I don’t think that he ever actually got close to marrying her. He wanted to marry her because he needed he needed heirs. His actual queen known to history as La Reine Margot, the daughter of Henri II and Catherine de Medici, to whom he’d been married as a as a way of healing the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants, that marriage wasn’t successful in any case, but it also produced no. Er and so he was looking around to find a woman who would produce that heir. And Gabrielle did do that, she had already had three children before, before she died giving birth to the fourth. But that would have caused unimaginable conflicts had she become the queen because those children born illegitimate, would not have been accepted by the majority of the French as the heir to the throne in any case. So marrying her would have just caused all kinds of political problems for him. And that’s why I think that he saw that he just didn’t want to give her up. And he was he seems to have been a real coward in his personal relationships. He seemed to be unable to confront her and say, for political reasons, I’ve got to marry someone else and let her go on thinking that he was going to marry her. But one interesting comment from Henri IV is that he told her he told me that he couldn’t marry a particular woman because she would be too likely to to cleave to her family as opposed to him. So kings were very much interested in marrying someone or having a mistress, having a very close woman who is very close to them for moral support, who was loyal only to him and would have been that. But politically speaking, it was impossible for him to marry her.

Gary: I stand corrected. So let’s to sum up the first four mistresses that you look at on. Yes. And Dan and Gabriel all became important figures during wars, respectively, the hundred years war, the Italian wars and the French wars of religion for the latter two. What is the relation between mistresses and war? And do you think it’s a strange thing that such a masculine arena as war would create spaces for feminine power, as in the case of the mistress?

Tracy: I’ll let Chris answer the second half to that. Then maybe I’ll just say to the first part that there is no time when there isn’t a war going on in Europe. So. So the mistress will just by the very nature of European life during the during that period, will be around during a war. But as for a relationship between the mistress and the war, I would say that the kings who are often at war with the family of the queen, so the mistress in that case would be a person who he could count on as an absolutely loyal to him as opposed to his queen. I mean, if you think of Francis I’s second wife, Eleanor, the sister of the Holy Roman Emperor, and you can imagine how awkward that situation must have been.

Christine: Yeah, well, as you say, I mean, there’s always a war going on. But since the mistress has become political advisers and since their intermediaries with ambassadors, their political figures, so necessarily they’re going to be important in times of war as well, because they are diplomats. And, you know, I guess if we want to bring some gender analysis in here a bit, we could see in some cases, you know, the sort of trope of mistresses goading their royal lover to greater prowess. Agnes for example, supposedly question the masculinity of Charles because he wanted to spend time with her rather than get out and fight the English king or the imperial envoy to the Estates General reported on Louis the XIV’s intercepted letters in which he was writing these sort of love letters to Montespan while he was also bragging about the siege of Maastricht and this story. And historian Carl Ekberg suggests that he was probably trying to demonstrate his virility to Montespan. But I do think just in terms of the mistress’s role in times of war, like I said, the fact that they are political figures so that they sort of serve as intermediaries and diplomats does make them important in times of war as well. We see this in particular in the case of Pompadour coming up. There’s people who suggest that she was responsible for France’s reversal of alliances in 1756 and ditching Prussia for Austria, which then brought France into the disastrous Seven Years’ War, but she was acting as a diplomat, in some cases almost as a minister of state, so.

Gary: So moving on just a little bit to Louis XIV; Louis XIV had three notable mistresses, La Vallière, Montespan and Maintenon. How did the role of the mistress change during this period?

Christine: In part, the role of the mistress changes because by this, at this point, the court has transformed quite a bit. The royal court, by the time of Louis XIV, has increasingly become the site of a really elaborate spectacle and performance. During his youth in particular, there were ballets, festivals and other kinds of productions that were extremely popular. These also to reach an apogee under Louis the XIV and will continue in his successors and the ambassadors and the other court observers. They very clearly see the court as theater and they see the courtiers as performers. So it’s against this backdrop that the prominence of the position of the royal mistress really increases. And to make the most of this position, it’s important to have a mistress who is skilled in self presentation. And I would argue that in very different ways, Montespan to Maintenon were the most skilled at this, the royal mistress, by the time of Louis XIV, is really by now an expected and recognized presence as we sort of set out. There’s this this geneology that it’s become a tradition. And at the court of Louis XIV, you see women really competing to hold this position because of the status and the benefits it brings. La Vallière first recognized mistress. She’s a member of the minor nobility. She’s the mistress of his youth when the Queen Mother and of Austria is still alive. And Louis, his mother, was a formidable woman. She had served as regent and her presence at the court really left very little space for a powerful royal mistress. And luckily for for Louis, La Vallière was willing to remain in the shadows. She was not, it appears, a particularly adept political player. That’s what all of the court observers have to say. In his youth, Louis seemed to like a woman who was self-effacing and docile, but he got bored with that over time. And by the time the Queen Mother died in 1666 Louis, the tension was clearly already turning elsewhere. And the person who drew his attention was the Marquise de Montespan. Montespan was from one of the oldest and most important noble families in France, probably a an older and more esteemed family in some ways than Louis’ Bourbon family. She was known for her beauty. She was known for her wit, and she was known for her magnificence. And historians have noted the fact that her reign at court really corresponds with the most glorious and the most successful period of Louis’ reign. She brings this this enormous panache and brilliance to the role. And Montespan is also a very skilled political player. Courtiers, in fact, even the queen, Marie-Thérèse on occasion would turn to want to spend for favors. They would ask for positions at court. So, Montespan is very clearly a very important patron and broker at the court. She’s brought pensions for gifts of various kinds, for emoluments for offices, military ranks, commissions. And in fact, in his memoirs, the Maquis de [?] complains about her influence in diplomatic and military affairs, too. He sort of lumps together the the ministers and the mistresses who are who are running things. The other thing that Montespan does is she very firmly establishes the position of the royal mistress as an important patron of the arts. She sponsors painters, writers, architects. And by the time of Montespan, it’s clear that part of the job of the royal mistress is to to display the glories of France, not just her own charms. She also, with money to spend, becomes a fashion trendsetter. And this is important because this is at a time, of course, when the French are becoming increasingly known as a center of fashion. So the royal mistress also become this this tastemaker in a sense. Now, despite the fact that I think one could argue that Montespan made the most of the position of royal mistress, that she had these great successes and that Louis was obviously very attached to her and had a lot of respect for her. It’s pretty clear from the sources, too, that their relationship was pretty combative and complicated. One of the complications was that she was married and so they were committing public double adultery and her husband was not necessarily quiet about that. And so actually, Montespan and Louis separated for a time at the urging of Bishop Bossuet, who didn’t like the public scandal, but they both think they get back together. Louis does continue to have other mistresses while Montespan is the official mistress. And I think that that’s important to note as well, that that you have this sort of recognized position that there’s a mistress who is clearly in this important political position. But that doesn’t mean that the king’s not sleeping with other women. So, Montespan is Louis’ mistress, throughout the 1670s, they have seven children together by the late 60s and 70s, it’s pretty clear that his needs were changing once again. And it’s at that point, as he’s hitting 40, that he turns to the Maquise de Maintenon, ironically, Montespan was actually the person who brought Maintenon to Louie’s attention. Maintenon has many children with Louis and Maintenon sort of presents herself as friend and religious confidant to Louis and tries to encourage him to be more to behave in a more more religious fashion. She encourages them to spend more time with this neglected wife, Marie-Therese. When the queen dies in 1683, Louis actually secretly marries Maintenon. No one’s quite sure of the date, although in a recent book, a recent biography of Maintenon, Mark Bryant that makes a good case for sometime 1683. So not long after the Queen’s death. Now the thing about Maintenon is that even more so than previous mistresses, she acts as a political adviser and really sort of an unofficial prime minister. But her position as wife to Louis XIC puts her in a rather different position than the other mistresses, I think.

Tracy: Maybe we could say one more thing about theatricality, because the court, as theater reaches its apogee under Louis XIV, and this is a question that we’ve been asked a lot. What does that mean exactly? That that theatricality is essential, that it makes possible the royal that the role of royal mistress. And so just like to say that that all courts had ritual, sometimes spectacular ritual. But the people involved in the ritual were participants in the ritual prior to the court of Francis I and possibly slightly earlier than that. But but as of the time of Francis I you had all kinds of spectators at court were not part of the kingly rituals. They were just watching the ritual. So you literally have a sort of theater. And what that makes possible is different sets of audiences who will be seeing different things. So the royal mistress in one audience is going to be the governor’s to the royal children or a lady in waiting to the queen in front of another much more restricted audience. She’s going to be the that the partner, the sort of shadow wife of the king. So in his personal world, with his own his own favorites around him and then in another front of another audience. So diplomats from other countries, she will be a political adviser. The court is theatre makes possible the position of a person who plays different roles at different times without being without being ostracized for some of those roles.

Christine: And you very clearly see this with Montespon, who eventually becomes the superintendent of the queen’s household. And so she’s both this aristocratic woman who has every reason to be at court. She’s performing in ballet. She’s one of the ladies in waiting. And then she becomes the king’s mistress in another space. And then she also becomes a member of the queen’s household.

Tracy: Yeah, and it even seems possible that the different audiences don’t all speak to each other, so it was perfectly possible that you’ve got someone writing in one space that that this woman is not really the mistress of the king or just referring to her as a governess or something like that. And then and then you’ve got the diplomats writing to each other, are writing to back to their lords, describing this person as as a central political figure.

Gary: So things went down after Louis XIV in many ways, but in particular during the role of the mistress under Louis XV, Madames Pompadour and Dubarry seriously weakened the tradition of the mistress. Who were these women and what did they do that so undermined this institution?

Christine: So one of the things that we noted earlier was that the royal mistress was able to flourish at the early modern French court because her position was an open secret, right. That they had these other roles at court. They were aristocratic women who already had a reason to be at court. And so you could sort of pretend that they were not just the king’s lover. This is not the case with Pompadour and Dubarry. Pompadour’s father was a weaver who had made a fortune in finance and then Pompadour herself married into the financial bourgeoisie. Her mother had a rather scandalous background. She’d had a number of lovers. There were questions actually about Pompadour’s paternity. There was also great merriment among the courtiers about her given name, Jean-Antoinette Poisson, which means fish. So she was seen as somebody coming from lower status than your usual courtiers. Now, Madame Dubarry’s origins are even more suspect. Her mother was a seamstress and later a cook from Laurent. Her father was thought to be a monk, and DuBarry actually got her own start as a domestic servant and then later working for a fashion boutique where she met and became the lover of a provincial nobleman who then introduced her to other men who could help her maintain the lavish lifestyle that she that she grew to like before she became Louis XV’s mistress. So so neither of these two women had a reason to actually be at court other than as the mistress of the king and Louis XV provides them both with noble title, he provides them with an introduction at court. But the widespread knowledge of their social class really undermines the open secret that had sheltered the previous mistresses. Now, that said, Pompadour is able to draw or draw on existing scripts to justify her position at court. But another sort of blow to the open secret is that Pompadour becomes Louis’ chief political adviser, in a much more overt fashion than previous mistresses had. She, at her morning toilette, received quartier, she received ambassadors to hear their petitions. So in this very open fashion, she serves as gatekeeper to the king, in part because Louis the fifteenth hated of the normal duties of kingship. So this was a service that she provided for him. Pompadour also gets very much involved in diplomacy, as I mentioned earlier, and that open political role makes her a target for popular hatred, especially when you couple that with the disasters of his reign, the Seven Years’ War, the quarrels with the parlements of France over Jansenism and then the infighting among the various court factions. Now, DuBarry was probably less interested in the details of politics than Pompadour was, but she also got involved in factional politics because by this point, courtiers basically went out and courted the attention and tried to get the mistress on their side. But in addition to her involvement in politics, she came to court with this sordid reputation. And Louis’ popularity was already declining at this point. And that made them both the target of what are called libelle, these these scurrilous pamphlets and other kinds of literature about their sexual activities and about political corruption. And so so she really becomes a target of hatred. So so under Louie XV, you have these increasingly visible, increasingly powerful favourites that then become a focal point for discontent with the monarchy in a much more visible way than had ever been the case with previous kings.

Gary: So now we’re finally getting to the character that isn’t quite a mistress, although this is complicated, but it’s someone that everybody knows, which is Marie Antoinette, who you argue was both queen and mistress, which undermined both because the two roles were separate and could be contradictory. How did Marie Antoinette actions anger the French public and help turn people against the monarchy?

Christine: So we’re definitely not the first historians to notice that Marie Antoinette sort of functionally serves as both queen and mistress, both Caroline Harris and Chantelle Thomas have written books that make that point to Thomas, sort of encapsulate this when she wrote a Marie Antoinette that she combined the faults of the first rule of queen, the arrogance, the arbitrariness of absolute sovereignty with those of the second role of mistress, which are duplicity and obsession with appearances. Marie Antoinette was very much perceived as a greedy spendthrift. And so that’s one of the charges that have been leveled at Madame DuBarry…Marie Antoinette very much embraces the role of queen of fashion, which was unusual in a queen. As we’ve mentioned, it was usually the king’s mistress who became the fashion icon. But Marie Antoinette also involved herself in politics in the way that mistresses had. But the problem with Marie Antoinette is that she’s perceived as supporting the interests of her family of origin, the Hapsburg rulers of Austria, rather than the interests of the French kingdoms. So the fact that Louis the XVI doesn’t have a mistress means that not only did the xenophobia that often affected French attitudes towards Queens focus on Marie Antoinette, but that that combines them with the hatred for mistresses who meddle in politics and who exhaust government coffers by spending all this money on luxury items for themselves. So what that meant was that Marie Antoinette was very vulnerable when the revolution broke out. And of course, she goes to the guillotine in October of 1793. Interestingly, Madame DuBarry, the last mistress of the 15th, also goes to the guillotine less than two months later. And she is, of course, a symbol of the corruption of the old regime at this point.

Gary: Did the tradition of the mistress have long term effects on French society after the regime fell?

Christine: There’s two ways of sort of thinking about that. The first is that the politics of the modern age, based on with the French Revolution, you have the the onset of male suffrage and imperfect efforts to eliminate the politics of personal connections. And that means that there’s not really a space for women to occupy in the way that royal mistresses did under the old regime. And that’s true even after the restoration of the monarchy in 1815, after the French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon come to an end. Now, there are some efforts to sort of recreate a position like that. My current research project is on a group of women who are called the men. They use the marvelous ones. And this was a group of these stylish and politically connected young Parisian women who become very prominent in the French cultural and political scene in the second half of the seventeen nineties. So after the reign of terror comes to an end, but before Napoleon comes to power and what I have found suggest that elite women were sort of trying to carve out a role for themselves that was very similar to that of female courtiers and mistresses under the old regime. But that effort really comes to an end once Napoleon comes to power. Now, that said, I mean, there’s no no position like the royal mistress. On the other hand, many French women and men especially continue to celebrate the ability of women to exercise influence as an open secret under the sort of cover of charm and beauty. And and that’s the French gallantry that the Tracy’s actually worked on quite a bit, going back to the Middle Ages and Courtly Society.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email