By all accounts, including his own, the Duke of Saint-Simon (1675-1755) was a sensitive, self-obsessed, ill-tempered man. A courtier and a singular chronicler of court life under Louis XIV, he produced the prodigious Memoirs, running to thousands of pages, in which the intrigues, personalities, activities and gossip – a lot of gossip – of life at Versailles are recounted in acidic detail.

The distinguished French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie wrote a few years back a splendid history “Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV,” which has since been admirably translated by Arthur Goldhammer and is now published this fall by the University of Chicago Press.

The Duke comes across as a perfectly dreadful fellow, egotistic and snobbish beyond belief, but he had a keen and very observant eye for all that went on in the court. He had his prejudices, of course. He absolutely could not bear the thought of the king’s royal bastards – and there were quite a few – having any role to play at the court.

Try working through the ranks of the royal family in Louis XIV’s time. At the head of the royal family was, of course, the king. Then came the “sons” or “Children of France,” including “le Grand Dauphin,” also known as “Monseigneur,” son of Louis XIV, and the king’s brother, “Monsieur,” son of Louis XIII.

I’ll spare you the “grandsons of France” and the cousins several times removed from the king known as “princes of blood,” which brings us to the bastards, the Sun King’s illegitimate sons by Madame de Montespan and by Mademoiselle de la Valliere. This little group, with its own hierarchy, was of course situated above plebian dukes and peers, and it infuriated Saint Simon to no end to see himself and others of his rank preceded by royal bastards.

There were other details involved with rank and privilege: whether or not one was allowed to eat with the king; how much time one was allowed to spend with him; whether or not one was permitted to be served by certain of one’s officers in the king’s presence; whether or not one was allowed to ride in the king’s carriage and so on.

How one sat was also a matter of special protocol. From Madame, wife to Monsieur, brother to Louis XV, we learn that at the court, her son, the Duke of Chartres and future Duke d’Orleans, a “grandson of France,” had the distinction of sitting in the presence of the queen of France and to ride in her carriage. These seemingly anodyne actions were strictly off limits to mere princes of the blood, a Conde or Conti. As distant cousins of the king, they were already somewhat removed from the royal line and were therefore denied the privileges granted to a grandson of France, such as the Duke of Chartres. Once, however, Louis XIV invited a Conde to sit on the rear seat of the royal barouche, a privilege normally reserved for his dogs. This special honor was, however, never to be repeated.

Royal households were constituted in a regularized fashion, although the king could make special dispensations. When the king’s brother died, Louis generously granted his young nephew Philippe enormous material and financial advantages by way of compensation for his having married a royal bastard.

Until the end of the 17th century, certain fabrics could be worn only by certain classes. Until then, velvet was found only in the jackets and cloaks of the high aristocracy, not in the costumes worn by the nobility of the robe (lawyers, judges and such). Little by little, this custom infiltrated the lower orders of society. A certain Caumartin, a state councilor and intendant of finance, was the first man of the robe to venture on the street in velvet jacket and cloak. This happened toward the end of the reign of Louis XIV, and caused quite a stir. For a long time, no one dared imitate him.

Le Roy Ladurie does a splendid job analyzing the times and mores of many years of the long reign of Louis XIV. Another 74 years and the French Revolution was upon the land. This richly fascinating study of a time long past may give you a clue as to why the Bastille fell and all that.

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