Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lent at Versailles


Versailles is not usually associated with Lenten penance, but fasting and abstinence, as well as some mortifications, were observed there by many during the old regime. For one thing, there would be no plays or operas performed; all the public theaters were closed in France during Lent. The daughters of Louis XV were known for their scrupulous observance of fasting and abstinence, although Madame Victoire found such penance especially trying. According to Madame Campan:
Without quitting Versailles, without sacrificing her easy chair, she [Madame Victoire] fulfilled the duties of religion with punctuality, gave to the poor all she possessed, and strictly observed Lent and the fasts. The table of Mesdames acquired a reputation for dishes of abstinence....Madame Victoire was not indifferent to good living, but she had the most religious scruples respecting dishes of which it was allowable to partake at penitential times....The abstinence which so much occupied the attention of Madame Victoire was so disagreeable to her, that she listened with impatience for the midnight hour of Holy Saturday; and then she was immediately supplied with a good dish of fowl and rice, and sundry other succulent viands.
Their nephew Louis XVI was also known for his fastidious observance of Lent, as recorded once again by the faithful Madame Campan:
Austere and rigid with regard to himself alone, the King observed the laws of the Church with scrupulous exactness. He fasted and abstained throughout the whole of Lent. He thought it right that the queen should not observe these customs with the same strictness. Though sincerely pious, the spirit of the age had disposed his mind to toleration.
Some of the King's tolerant behavior included the permitting of certain games at court during Lent. During the Lent of 1780, the Austrian ambassador Count Mercy-Argenteau was shocked to discover Louis XVI playing blind man's bluff with Marie-Antoinette and some members of the Court. Count Mercy described the scandalous scene to the Empress Maria Theresa:
Amusements have been introduced of such noisy and puerile character that they are little suited to Lenten meditations, and still less to the dignity of the august personages who take part in them. They are games resembling blind man's bluff, that first lead to the giving of forfeits, and then to their redemption by some bizarre penance ; the commotion is kept up sometimes until late into the night. The number of persons who take part in these games, both of the Court and the town, makes them still more unsuitable ; every one is surprised to see that the King plays them with great zest, and that he can give himself up wholly to such frivolities in such a serious condition of State affairs as obtains at present.
Given the long hours that Louis XVI devoted to affairs of state and the fact that people often complained that he was too serious and reserved, it seems that Mercy should have been pleased to see the King come out of his shell a little and take some recreation. But then, Mercy often tried to cast Louis in an unfavorable light. As far as the Empress was concerned, however, Lent was not the time for any games. Louis' devotion was sincere all the same; he was constant in prayer and good works, observing the fasts of the Church for Lent and the Ember days even throughout his imprisonment.

The King's sister, Madame Elisabeth, also steadfastly kept the discipline of Lent in both good times and bad. In the Temple prison, the jailers mocked the princess' attempts to keep Lent as best she could. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette's daughter, Madame Royale, who shared her aunt's imprisonment, recorded it thus:
Having no fish, she asked for eggs or other dishes on fast-days. They refused them, saying that in equality there was no difference of days; there were no weeks, only decades. They brought us a new almanac, but we did not look at it. Another time, when my aunt again asked for fast-day food they answered: "Why, citoyenne, don't you know what has taken place? none but fools believe all that." She made no further requests.
As for Marie-Antoinette herself, she did not fast and abstain through every day of Lent as Louis did; her health did not permit it. However, after baby Madame Sophie died in 1787, it was noted that the Queen became more fervent in her devotions, especially during Lent. Jean Chalon in Chère Marie-Antoinette (p.235) notes that in 1788 she gave orders that her table strictly comply with all the regulations of the Church. Even the Swedish ambassador remarked: "The queen seems to have turned devout."

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4 comments:

Matterhorn said...

Thank you for all this very interesting and enlightening information!

elena maria vidal said...

You're welcome!

Catherine Delors said...

I wanted to post on Madame Victoire and Lent! I will still do so, and link to this excellent post.

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks so much, Catherine!