Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Madame de Maintenon and the Education of Women

Madame de Maintenon was the morganatic, second wife of Louis XIV. As queen in all but name, she devoted a great deal of energy to establishing a free school for girls called Saint Cyr, founded in 1685. Saint Cyr was for impoverished daughters of the nobility, providing them with a solid formation in the faith as well as a thorough education. It was intended that the girls would emerge from the school as marriageable young ladies (they were each provided with a dowry), ready to make a salutary contribution to the Church and the world.

Madame de Maintenon had surely experienced during the course of her tumultuous life how dangerous it is for women to be ignorant, especially when they are the ones who will be shaping society. Children suffer, and the world suffers at large, when mothers and wives have empty minds, filled only by gossip and nit-picking. The king's wife saw how vital it is to instill culture, solid faith versus religiosity, and the ability to reason, into those who would become either nuns or the wives of important men. Their education also included musical and artistic developments, as well as homemaking skills and crafts, such as the making of fine lace.

Madame de Maintenon, born Françoise d'Aubigné, came to Versailles as the governess of Louis XIV's children by Madame de Montespan. A convert to Catholicism, Françoise was also the widow of the poet Scarron, who had left her destitute. When one of the king's children died, Françoise wept for the baby as if he had been her own; such genuine grief over another woman's child impressed Louis, who was himself saddened by the little one's death. Françoise won the king's heart, and eventually his hand in marriage, by refusing to compromise her values. She declined to become the royal mistress, unlike many other women. When Louis' wife died, he married Françoise; he could not have her any other way. Her wit, intelligence and piety, as well as her beauty and warmth, captivated his respect and admiration. She was a second mother to his children and grandchildren and insisted upon high moral standards at the court. After the king died, Madame de Maintenon retired to Saint Cyr, where she lived a life of prayer and charitable works. Share