Gossip or Chronicler? Versailles and Saint-Simon

Michel Petheram assesses the importance and reliability of a courtier whose 'memoires' offer graphic vignettes of the last days of Louis XIV.

Was Louis XIV a great king? This question, which has exercised many historians of the past and present, will not be answered in this article. But when the reign and character of the Sun King are discussed, sooner rather than later will crop up the name of Saint-Simon.

More precisely, this is the Duc de Saint-Simon, not to be confused with the Comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), who was an early socialist thinker. The duke was born in 1675 and came to the Court of Versailles in 1691. He retired from court life in 1723 at the end of the Regency of Philippe d'Orleans and in his remaining years wrote voluminously, although nothing was published in his lifetime. After his death in 1755, it became known that he had written 'interesting' memoirs and these started to reach the public, at first in truncated and badly prepared editions, from 1780 onwards. In the early nineteenth century they were as popular in France as the novels of Walter Scott, which is saying a great deal. Since then they have come to be recognised as the greatest memoirs in the French language, which has perhaps the richest tradition in the genre.

For the historian their interest lies in their coverage of the last years of Louis XIV's reign and the Regency at the beginning of Louis XV's. They are, quite simply, the most vivid primary source available for this period of French history. There is hardly a book on the period that does not use stories and anecdotes from his writings. Michelet fell under his spell; Macaulay, when relating Marlborough's wars, draws on him page after page.

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