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Paris from Louis XIV to Louis XVI. What Caused the Parisians to Revolt.


Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kim, Young-won
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2007



Table of Contents


I. Introduction : The Great Cat Massacre
II. Paris under Louis XIV (1643-1715)
II.1 The War of the Fronde (1648-1653)
II.2 Absolutism
II.3 Mercantilism
II.4 The Situation in Paris
III. Paris under Louis XIV. (1715-1774)
III.1 Le Bien Aime (The Beloved)
III.2 The Rise of the Press and the Libels toward the King
III.3 The Great Cat Massacre
IV. Paris under Louis XVI. (1774-1789)
IV.1 A King Who Liked to Make Locks
IV.2 The Diamond Necklace
IV.3 The Revolution
V. Conclusion
VI. Notes
VII. Bibliography



I. Introduction : The Great Cat Massacre
            Nicolas Contat (1), a worker at a printing shop in Paris during the late 1730s, depicts "the Great Cat Massacre" as the "funniest thing that ever happened in the printing shop of Jacques Vincent." It took place at a printing house on the Rue Saint-Severin in the 1730s. There were two apprentices, Jerome (2) and Leveille, at the printing house. They were abused all day by the journeymen, and were given left-over food at the end of the day. However, the cook made the matters even worse by selling the left-over food and giving cat food to the apprentices. What is more, the apprentices could not sleep at night because of cats howling on the roof. The master's wife kept a cat, called la grise, as it was a common hobby among the bourgeois to keep cats. The laborers had to deal with the large number of cats, which sang on the ceilings of their bedrooms at night and disturbed their sleep. One day Jerome and Leveille decided to solve the matter. Leveille, who was very talented at mimicking sounds, crawled up to the roof of the master's bedroom and meowed very realistically. The master and his wife could not sleep, and ordered the apprentices to get rid of all the cats, but to avoid frightening la grise. The two apprentices start with la grise, however, in their great massacre of cats. They chased all the cats and beat them near to death. With all the people from the printing house gathered, they held a mock trial sentencing the cats to death penalty. The master's wife saw this and screamed, terrified that her cat must be among the pile of cats. The master saw this and became angry that all work was stopped, while his wife tried to explain that the problem was more serious than that. When the couple left the site into their house, the rest of people were crazy with delight, laughter, and disorder. Later on, when the workers had brief resting times they revived the memory in pantomime, as an entertainment (3). Such a behavior may not be understandable by present-day people; however, this was not a simple case of animal abuse. The massacre of cats was an expression of the laborers' hatred towards their master and furthermore, the bourgeois and the nobles.
            While the nobles were partying at Versailles and the bourgeois were living comfortably with their wealth, the laborers, the peasants, the overall commoners in Paris were suffering with barely enough food to survive. Fraud, violence, and other crimes were common, even a way of making their living to some people. When their miserable living and complaints toward the nobles culminated to the limit, people finally stood up and fought for their own rights, which triggered the French Revolution.


II. Paris under Louis XVI. (1643-1715)

II.1 The War of the Fronde (1648-1653)
            When Louis XIV inherited the throne in 1643, he was only five years old. Till he came of age and started ruling by himself in 1661, his mother ruled as regent, with the Prime Minister Cardinal Mazarin in actual power. The War of the Fronde broke out in revolt against Mazarin and the policies of his predecessor, Richelieu, which increased taxation and encroached on the feudal liberties (not individual liberties) of the privileged towns or incorporations. The main participants in the war were nobles and members of the parliament, which two campaigns formed a group of Paris mob. They used "frondes" ("slings" in French) to break the windows of the supporters of Mazarin, thus the name the "War of the Fronde." This war provided an incentive for Louis XIV in establishing absolutism, as the disorders discredited the feudal system, and Louis XIV himself felt threatened by the nobles.

II.2 Absolutism

            France saw the culmination of absolute monarchy during Louis XIV's reign. French Kingdom had started out dependent on the church and the nobles. The church was a significant power strong enough to interfere with the state's affairs. Nobles increased their power on their own lands, and the king's power did not match up to that of the nobles; thus the state's affairs were also greatly influenced by the nobles. Then the 100 Years' War (1337-1453) provided a turning point for the French monarchy as it strengthened the position of the king in relation to the nobles (4). A huge number of men had been recruited as soldiers during the long war, after which they had nowhere to go to. This problem led to the establishment of a small standing army, endowing the king with military authority. Then, the church lost influence during Reformation and Counterreformation, freeing the king from the church's interference. Thus the king could now assume rule alone and absolute, if only one more factor were satisfied - a strong financial power.

II.3 Mercantilism

            Louis XIV's financial strength lay in the policies of his Superintendent of the Finances, Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683). Before Colbert, there was a limit to the king's authority, because his financial capacity was limited to the taxes gathered from the people. If the monarch needed a large amount of money, he had to ask for the parliament's consent to the extraordinary increase in taxes (bede); therefore, the king was not financially independent.
            Colbert adopted various policies to create more revenue for the monarch. He reorganized the list of people exempt from paying tax, regained the significant portions of tax that had been intercepted, and reduced much of corruption in the economy. Import tariffs were used to protect and encourage domestic production, and colonies were used to produce products that could not be produced in France, such as sugar and coffee. Roads and other transportation routes were built or improved, while cultivating lands were extended. Immigrant craftsmen or entrepreneurs were given special privileges that spurred further developments in technology and economy.

II.4 The Situation in Paris

            To distract the nobles with court life, operas, and parties, Louis XIV built Chateau de Versailles, where most of the nobility gathered and lived. Thus the center of politics and culture was moved from Paris to Versailles, but Paris still reflected the splendors of the thriving monarchy. Work on the Louvre was ended in 1674, the Tuileries Palace was luxuriously redecorated, and the avenues of the Champs-Elysees were laid out (1667). Paris expanded evermore, with the population increasing to 600,000. (5)
            Nonetheless, the flourishing city did not reflect the actual life of her common citizens. The infant mortality rate was still high, and some parents even chose to abandon their children because they could not make the living for the whole family. (This was prevalent throughout France, and is the main theme of the story of "Le Petit Poucet," the French version of "Hänsel und Gretel." (6)) The maintenance of Chateau de Versailles took up 4% of France's state revenue, and as Louis XIV went out to wars in the later years of his reign, the mercantilist policies and the increase in the state's total revenue did not improve commoners' lifestyle.

III. Paris under Louis XV. (1715-1774)

III.1 Le Bien Aime (The Beloved)

            Louis XV inherited the reign at age 5. The great-grandson of Louis XIV, Louis XV was not capable of maintaining the absolute monarchy. He did not like the politics and formal processes, but was prodigal and licentious. Thus he left the state's affairs to his old tutor, Cardinal Fleury (1723-1743), under whose policies France saw a period of relative peace and prosperity. However, after Fleury's death in 1743, Louis XV gradually became unpopular as he led on a scandalous life full of mistresses, and failed in international relationships. Of his mistresses, Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry are as well-known as the king himself. Especially Madame de Pompadour (c.1750-1764) exercised a remarkable degree of influence on Louis XV. With a great taste in art, she became a powerful patron for the contemporary artists. The reign of Louis XV is till nowadays considered the peak of French architecture and interior design. She also had a liberal mind and defended the Encyclopedie against the church's attacks. She tried to turn the king's attention to the new ideas of the Enlightenment, but failed.
            In the end Louis XV died from smallpox as one of the most hated kings in French history.

III.2 Enlightened Philosophers and the Libels Toward the King

            While the French society went on with the polarized social hierarchy with the nobles and the clergy on top and the commoners at the bottom, there existed a group of people who were as wealthy and educated as nobles, but belonged to the commoners - the Third Estate. They were people in jobs such as banking, medicine, law, or trade, who worked for the nobles and accumulated a lot of money. While they served the needs of the nobles, they were respected by other common people for their knowledge. In the feudal society these people used to live inside the lord's castle contrary to other commoners, so they got the name "bourgeois." (7) They had complaints because there was a limit to their social status as commoners, though they were exceptionally wealthy or educated. These people became the major group of readers of Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau, the philosophers of the Enlightenment who asserted that the commoners and the nobles were the same and equal. Montesquieu proposed a constitutional monarchy, while Diderot published l¡¯Encyclopedie and Rousseau wrote the Social Contract. These ideas and works planted the seeds of revolution in the minds of the bourgeois.
            The Enlightenment philosophers were not free from censorship, however. The police kept lists of authors and their works that attacked France or the king (8). The Social Contract and l¡¯Encyclopedie were of course in the lists, graded as the most dangerous among other works. The lists also included authors of much less significance than Rousseau or Diderot, such as a commoner who was singing a popular song that joked on the Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. Quite a lot of people went to the Bastille or other prisons because of their works. In fact Voltaire was sent to Bastille twice, 11 months for writing satirical verses on the aristocracy, and 2 weeks for quarreling with chevalier de Rohan (9). The police's strict censorship and treatment of authors such as Diderot as the most dangerous criminals, implies that by that time the intellectuals in the French society had grown to be a considerable power. (10)

III.3 The Great Cat Massacre of Rue Saint-Severin

            While the bourgeois and the intellectuals gained strength, the laborers of Paris continued to suffer in an inhumane working environment. The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Severin is an example of an outburst of the stress accumulated in the laborers. Though called "apprentice" or "journeyman" the workers at the printing house (or any other businesses) were no longer granted steady employment as they were in the age of the guilds. While the number of workers showed no significant changes, the number of masters in Paris decreased over the years, which brought an overload of the working force (11). Thus more apprentices and journeymen were gathered at one printing house, making the rise to the master from a journeyman practically impossible and increasing the gap between the master and the laborers. The masters fired and hired the laborers according to the amount of work they had, so the laborers could not stay steadily at one job. Moreover, the laborers were considered as objects to the masters, as shown in the letter from a printing company to an agency: "Two were in very bad condition so we had to post them back." (12)
            To these laborers, massacre of cats was a way to make fun of the masters, and the bourgeois with out directly showing their real intentions. The accumulation of hatred and discontent in their hearts would burst out later on, when the revolution breaks out.

IV. Paris under Louis XVI. (1774-1789)

IV.1 A King Who Liked to Make Locks

            If Louis XV was incapable of successfully ruling France because of his love affairs, his grandson Louis XVI failed because of his inability to control his wife. Louis XVI inherited the throne at age 19. He had kind and gentle personality, and liked to go hunting or make locks in the forge. Before becoming the king, he was engaged to Marie Antoinette, a princess from the Habsburg Dynasty in Austria, in a marriage arranged to ensure peace between France and Austria. When the dauphin became the king, Marie Antoinette led an extravagant life, buying a countless number of dresses and accessories. Later, she realized her wrongdoing and changed to simple and frugal lifestyle, but it was already too late: the state's treasury was nearly empty and the people's hearts were already turned against the royal family. French treasury was facing bankruptcy as France sent troops to aid the Americans in the American War of Independence. To solve the financial crisis, Louis XVI tried to reform the tax policies by imposing tax on the nobles and the clergy, but his attempt was overpowered by the opposition of the nobles and the clergy. He tried to deal with the situation by holding the Estates General in May, 1789, but it brought more conflict between the third estate and the privileged classes, and ultimately led on to the French Revolution.

IV.2 The Diamond Necklace Affairs

            One of the many scandalous rumors that surrounded Marie Antoinette was the Diamond Necklace affair. When Louis XV died, the jewelers Boehmer and Bassenge from Paris were left with an extremely expensive diamond necklace, which was originally made as a gift to Madame du Barry, Louis XV's mistress. The jewelers wished it to present the necklace to Marie Antoinette, but the queen refused. (13)
            Countess de LaMotte (Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois), a con artist, tricked Louis Rene Edouard, cardinal de Rohan (14) into providing her the money to buy the diamond necklace. She lied that she had the queen's favor, and forged letters from the queen. She also used a prostitute called Nicole Leguay, who resembled the queen a little, when the cardinal pleaded for an interview with the queen. The cardinal met the prostitute in a garden at Versailles, and offered her a rose. The fake queen promised him that she would forget their past conflicts. The countess borrowed large sums of money from the cardinal, claiming they were to be used in the queen's works of charity. With the money she gained an honorable place in society, and people came to believe her relations with Marie Antoinette. The jewelers Boehmer and Bassenge also believed her to be a close friend of the queen and decided to use her to sell the necklace to the queen. The countess announced that the queen agreed to buy the necklace but did not want to buy such an expensive article openly. Cardinal de Rohan discussed with the jewelers to pay for the necklace in installments, and brought the necklace to the countess' house. The necklace was immediately taken by Count de LaMotte to London, where it was broken up and sold in pieces.
            The queen learned of the fraudulence when the jewelers came to ask for the rest of the payments for the necklace, promised to be given in installments. When Cardinal de Rohan presented the forged letters signed "Marie Antoinette de France," the king denied them to be the queen's, as no royal would sign "de France." A sensational trial was held, with the parliament of Paris as judges, and Countess de LaMotte was sentenced to be whipped, branded, and jailed in the prostitutes' prison. However, the whipping and branding were not executed and the countess ran away from the prison in the following year's June. Taking refuge in London, she published the Memoires, in which she accused Marie Antoinette. While Louis XVI became closer to his queen through this incident, Countess de LaMotte's Memoires were popularly read among the public, and Marie Antoinette had to bear till her death the accusation that she was the actual wirepuller of the multi-million livre fraud. The affair discredited the French monarchy hugely, serving as an important incentive of the Revolution.

IV.3 The Revolution

            When the assembly of the Estates General was held on May 5th 1789, the Third Estate demanded that to vote by individuals, not by estates. Their demand rejected, the Third Estate named itself the National Assembly. Forced out of the assembly hall, the National Assembly gathered at a tennis court, where they swore that they will establish a constitutional parliament, signing the Tennis Court Oath. The king gathered troops from the borders to Versailles, creating fear and unrest among the people. When the king dismissed Jacques Necker, the reform-oriented prime minister responsible for the assembly of the Estates General, Paris fell in confusion; people set up barricades on the streets and stayed alert against any potential attacks.
            Finally, on July 14th 1789, the people of Paris stormed the Bastille. The Bastille was poorly guarded and held only 7 prisoners. The Storm of the Bastille ended easily with the common people¡¯s victory, and it brought similar revolts in many other cities and regions of the country. The National Assembly seized power and the royal family was moved from the Versailles to the Tuileries, a royal residence inside Paris. The royal family tried to run away to a different country, but unfortunately they were discovered at Varennes, near the eastern border of France. At the end the king and the queen ended their lives on the guillotine, on January 21st and October 16th in the year 1793. Paris would not find peace for another decade, after which the rule of Bonaparte Napoleon began.

V. Conclusion


            From the absolutism of Louis XIV to the French Revolution under Louis XVI, France saw great turbulences in history from 1643 to 1789. However, the common people¡¯s lives did not change as significantly. They were exploited severely by the nobility and the bourgeois, and the accumulation of hatred and aversion inside the commoners¡¯ hearts exploded in historical event of the French Revolution. However, the commoners were never freed from the exploitation of the privileged class. The reign of the Bourbon Dynasty was succeeded by that of Napoleon, after which came the dominance of the capitalists. Though we now live in a society where our basic human rights are protected relatively better than before, we must not forget that there always exists the class of people who are cast out from society, living in unimaginable misery and mistreatments from others. As long as there are these neglected people in the world, the revolution must not cease.


VI. Notes

(1)      Wrote about the Great Cat Massacre in Anecdotes typographiques ou l'on voit la description des coutumes, moeurs et usages singuliers des compagnons imprimeurs (1762)
(2)      Jerome is a fictionalized version of Contat himself.
(3)      Darnton, pp.112~115
(4)      Rhie, pp.64-65
(5)      Article Paris, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, p.447
(6)      Darnton, p.53
(7)      French word meaning "people living inside the castle"
(8)      Darnton, p.210?
(9)      Article Voltaire, from History of Western Philosophy from 1492 to 1776.
(10)      Darnton, pp.262-263
(11)      ibid., p. 118.
(12)      ibid., p.121
(13)      There are various stories about why she refused the necklace : (1) she refused it, saying the money would be better spent in warship (2) she didn't want a necklace that was originally designed for another woman, especially Madame du Barry, whom she despised.
(14)      A former ambassador to Vienna, cardinal de Rohan had incurred the queen's displeasure by telling some of her secrets to Maria Theresia, the de-facto empress and the mother of Marie Antoinette, which brought maternal reprimands. He also angered the queen by writing lightly of Maria Theresia in one of his letters, in a way that it offended Marie Antoinette.

VII. Bibliography

Note : websites listed below were visited in November 2007.
1.      Mokhtefi, Elaine. Paris, an Illustrated History. Hippocrene Books, 2002.
2.      Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: the Journey. New York : Doubleday, 2001.
3.      Sturdy, David J. Louis XIV. New York : St.Martin's Press, 1998.
4.      Darnton, Robert, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. trsl. by Cho, Han-wook. Seoul : Moonji, 1996.
5.      Rhie, Won-Bok. New Countries Far and Close. Vol.2. Seoul : Gimm-Young, 1998.
6.      Ganse, Alexander. "WHKMLA : Narratives - Absolutism.", http://www.zum.de/whkmla/apeur/narratives/narrabs.html,. Last updated 13 Sep. 2006.
7.      Ganse, Alexander. "WHKMLA : Narrative - Mercantilism.", http://www.zum.de/whkmla/apeur/narratives/narrmerc.html. Last updated 13 Sep. 2006
8.      Ganse, Alexander. "WHKMLA : Narratives - European History, Enlightenment.", http://www.zum.de/whkmla/apeur/narratives/narrenl.html. Last updated 13 Sep. 2006.
9.      Article "Louis XV," in Doosan Encyber Encyclopedia,. . Accessed on 4 Nov. 2007.
10.      Article "Paris," in Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th ed. Macropedia vol. 25 p.447-448.
11.      Article "Louis XV of France," in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_XV. Last updated 31 Oct. 2007.
12.      Article "Affair of the Diamond Necklace," in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_diamond_necklace_affair. Last updated 24 Oct. 2007.
13.      Mallery, Richard and Prock, Susan. "Voltaire." History of Western Philosophy from 1492 to 1776. http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/philosophers/voltaire.html. Last updated Sep. 2003.

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