Symposia and Study Days

Call for papers: “The Myth of Versailles and European Courts, 18th and 19th centuries”

Château de Versailles, end 2020 (2½ days)

As part of the research programme “Court Identities and the Myth of Versailles in Europe: perception, adherence and rejection (18th and 19th centuries)”, the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles is organising an international symposium. This symposium, planned for the end of 2020, will take place over two and a half days and will be held in the auditorium of the Palace of Versailles.

As they emerged from the Feudal Age, the princely courts were a European political, social and cultural phenomenon: monopolisation of power for the benefit of one person, assembling a group of nobles, courtiers, in the service of the prince and his family, habitus of residence, developing a code of sociability and a specific and discriminating lifestyle, together with the practices of encomiastic appreciation and symbolic communication. In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, the princely courts in Europe did not confine themselves to one single paradigm. There were as many courts as there were princely houses, as many “national” types, even if some, like the Burgundian court in the 15th century and the courts in northern and central Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries, proposed models and exercised influence from one end of Europe to the other, while accommodating indigenous influences. What was new was that in 18th and 19th century Europe the princely courts referred to a model that would become the archetype: Versailles. The court of Louis XIV was held up as an absolute paradigm, against which all the others were measured. This paradigm took the form of a myth, a fantasy construction, retaining some elements, transforming them and reassembling them into an inspirational fantasy. This myth shaped the European monarchies until their collapse in the early 20th century, even though the political configurations changed and forms of power sharing emerged, with monarchies having to deal with assemblies, even though at times the monarchies no longer existed, as with Republican France after 1870.

The aim of the research programme is to analyse the modus operandi of the myth of Versailles in the monarchical Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries. Three fundamental questions should be asked: perception, adherence rejection. Through what means did this myth develop? History books, memoirs, travel journals, letters, historical novels, images, engravings, albums, paintings, genre scenes, etc. Who promoted this development? For which aspects, as these could fluctuate significantly? How was this myth interpreted in regard to the exercise of power, residential practices, palace architecture, the distribution and use of locations in daily life, display or seclusion, public life, sociability, customs, etc. Conversely, and one can pick up each of the above points, what were the methods of refusal, for what reasons, which concurrent models came up against the paradigm of Versailles in the competition for power that was then being played out in Europe? We must assess not only the part played by the fantasy of Versailles in the construction of court identities but also in their fossilisation: could the mythification of Versailles have been the way in which, during the twilight of the monarchies, the Ancien Régime was mourned?

Three themes

The research should result in a symposium organised along the three themes that comprise the major elements of the myth of Versailles.

  • 1. Politics as theatre. An anthropology of power

The myth of Versailles is above all the myth of the exercise of power: politics as spectacle, since it is true that at Versailles spectacle was the essence of politics: the pre-eminence of the prince, the first principle of monarchical power, was manifested at Versailles by turning the prince’s person into a show, making his ostentation public and ritualising his daily life. Its sequences were the rising/retiring rituals, meals in public, mass, hunting, walking, dancing, entertainments, etc. The person of the prince could be extended, and could include members of his family, depending on the closeness of the blood ties. Those who implemented this cult were organised according to very precise functions, responsibilities and offices, statutory and codified, carried out by personnel of various social ranks, grouped into hierarchical administrations, religious institutions, civil and military residences, differentiated by clothing, livery or specific attributes. The sites of this cult were also determined and divided into private and public areas, both interior and exterior; of these, the bedchamber was pre-eminent.
The research must consider how the way of life at Versailles influenced the European courts, by what methods this was disseminated, what was adopted or refuted, across a broad sweep of Europe, particularly in central and eastern Europe, where new monarchies emerged in the 19th century, and not forgetting France with the imperial courts of Napoleon l and Napoleon lll, and even the presidents of the Third Republic.

  • 2. The palace. A space of power, power and space

Versailles was where the prince was located, but it was also a spatial organisation for politics. The seat of royal power ceased moving from place to place, and became fixed. It had its own site, separate and beyond the bounds of the capital city. It had moved away from the nation and its bodies. It forced the nobles to break away from their geographical seats: abandoning their own residences, they became the prince’s satellites. He grouped around him government personnel, men and administrations. All spatial autonomy, a measure of political autonomy, was suppressed. Versailles established the duality of the concept of a capital. This splendid isolation of the prince, of politics, fascinated European monarchs. But the paradigm met with resistance. Domestication, in the political and spatial sense, could be refused by the nobles. The rapid development of towns demanded the presence of the monarch, a symbolic presence with statues in the royal squares, so effective in Italian regia or Germanic residenz towns. The headquarters of administrations and assemblies, the parliaments of the 19th century, maintained a spatial and political duality with the palace. Finally, the relationship between the political geography of the prince and the religious geography of the great holy centres must be taken into account.
The investigation must examine the compatibility of the Versailles model with these diverse configurations, the expression of the specific characteristics of a multiple Europe.

  • 3. Sociability. Court Society

Moralists have a word for the court: ce pays-là, a world apart, with its own codes, its own customs, its own originality. Court civilisation did not make its first appearance at Versailles, but it was at Versailles that it acquired its most sophisticated forms. We can list the elements. Since Norbert Elias, we know the role of manners, the presentation of one’s body, of mastering affectation, the intellectualisation of power relationships. Court life was an individual and collective habitus, a social lifestyle, the pre-eminence of appearance, the brilliance of conversation, the affectation of intelligence, of subtlety, but also dissimulation and ferocity. It was a sociability that gave women a prominent yet still fragile place. This communal life was based around skills: conversation played a crucial part, as did music, plays, masquerades, gambling, walking, hunting, etc. Court society was regulated by the principle of rank, that is, the place given to each person according to his or her birth. This rigid principle did not preclude social mobility: transgressing or defending one’s rank was the force behind court society.
In Europe this model prompted as much emulation as it did reserve and even reticence. The philosophies of nature, Anglomania, Rousseauism, all went against the formalism of Louis XIV. We expect research into cases presenting trends that were antagonistic to the work, reflecting again that there were as many “national” characters as there were political situations.

To participate

Proposals for papers (5,000 characters maximum with a small bibliography) must be sent before the end of 2019 to Mathieu da Vinha. They will be examined by the Steering Committee:

Project’s director: Gérard Sabatier, Professor Emeritus of Modern History at the Université Pierre Mendès-France – Grenoble II, President of the Scientific Committee.

>  Antonio Alvarez-Ossorio, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid,
>  Maciej Forycki, Uniwersytet Adam Mickiewicz, Poznań,
>  Mark Hengerer, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich,
>  Jean-Marie Le Gall, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne,
>  Francine-Dominique Liechtenhan, Centre national de la recherche scientifique,
>  Philip Mansel, The Society for Court Studies, Londres,
>  Andrea Merlotti, Centro Studi La Venaria Reale, Turin,
>  Nicolas Morales, Casa de Velázquez, Madrid,
>  Thierry Sarmant, Service historique de la Défense du château de Vincennes,
>  Jonathan Spangler, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester.

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